‘The best of us’: Hundreds gather to honor slain El Monte officers

Carmen Estrada with twin sons Sonnie and Dominic Estrada attend a candlelight vigil.
Carmen Estrada, center, and twin 11-year-old sons Sonnie, left, and Dominic Estrada of El Monte attend a candlelight vigil Saturday for two El Monte police officers killed in a motel shootout.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Joseph Santana wanted to be an El Monte police officer, just like his stepfather.

It was a long journey. He worked in the city’s maintenance department for six years, then became a sheriff’s deputy in San Bernardino County.

Finally, he donned a dark blue uniform and a badge in his hometown.


He had been on the job less than a year when he was killed, along with a fellow officer, Cpl. Michael Paredes, in a shootout at a motel on Tuesday.

“He was a great son, brother, father and a great husband,” Santana’s mother, Olga Garcia, said at a vigil Saturday. “My life will never be the same without my son and his beautiful smile.”

The mourners at the vigil, who numbered in the hundreds, held candles, which shone brightly as night began to fall outside the police department where Santana, 31, and Paredes both proudly served.

The crowd spilled into the street behind the station. Many wore black T-shirts with the officers’ names across the back and the words “Fallen but not forgotten.”

Behind them, a replica of the Statue of Liberty lifted her torch, surrounded by candles at her base.

A nearby memorial to the two officers has grown since their deaths, with piles of flowers, American flags and candles surrounding their framed photos.


“Even down to the last moments of their lives, Mike and Joseph proved they were men of character,” Ben Lowry, acting El Monte police chief, said at the vigil. “They were the best of us. They were the greatest of us. I’m a better man having known each of them.”

Like Santana, Paredes was an El Monte native. His roots in the city’s Police Department were deep — he served as a cadet before becoming a full-time officer in 2000.

His sister Melissa Valencia told those at the vigil that her brother dearly loved his wife, daughter, son and community.

“Michael had a huge heart, big hugs for everyone and that perfect smile that he was known for,” Valencia said. “And he had a spirit to match it.”

She said her brother would not want to be remembered as a victim. She hoped that his children, and all those he mentored through the years, would continue his legacy of public service.

“Let your pain fuel your fire,” Valencia said. “Choose your path in life, choose leadership and choose to be the change this community needs, just like Michael did.”

Paredes, 42, was Santana’s training officer.

Olga Garcia, mother of fallen Officer Joseph Santana, looks to the sky at a candlelight vigil.
Olga Garcia, second from left, mother of fallen El Monte Police Officer Joseph Santana, looks to the sky at a candlelight vigil for her son and another officer, Michael Paredes.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

On Tuesday afternoon, the pair, along with an unidentified sergeant, responded to a domestic violence call in a room at the Siesta Inn.

Santana entered first, followed by Paredes, according to sources who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Inside, Justin Flores, 35, backed himself into the bathroom, sources told The Times.

Melissa Valencia stands before a microphone at a lectern in an outdoor setting
Melissa Valencia, sister of El Monte Police Cpl. Michael Paredes, addresses guests at the vigil.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Within about 12 seconds, one source said, Flores ambushed the officers with gunfire. Coroner’s officials said each officer died of a gunshot wound to the head.

After Paredes and Santana went down, the sources said, Flores took a gun off one of the fallen officers and left the room, firing at the sergeant and other officers in the parking lot, where a shootout ensued.

Flores fell to the ground but continued to fire at the officers, then shot himself as officers moved in, sources said. A gun was found next to his body.

The gunman shot both officers seconds after they entered his motel room, a source said, then took one of their guns and fired at other officers.

June 18, 2022

Flores had been prohibited from having a gun since he was convicted of first-degree burglary in 2011.

In 2020, he was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and methamphetamine.

The prosecutor assigned to that case wrote in a report that he had to revoke the “strike” from the burglary conviction, which could have led to a longer sentence, because of a policy by Dist. Atty. George Gascón.

Three women and two men, some holding candles, at the vigil
El Monte police officers, from left, Nicole Lona, Dennis Chiu, Maribel Rojas, Raul Vega and Arlen Castillo at the vigil for their slain colleagues.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Mark Jimenez, the brother of Santana’s wife, read a letter at the vigil on her behalf, addressed to her late husband.

“You were the best family man, the best person,” the letter said. “I don’t know how I’m going to live the rest of my life without you, but you left me with so many beautiful memories that I can share with our babies. ... You didn’t deserve to be taken so early.”

Santana is survived by his wife, daughter and twin boys.

A girl in a face mask cries as she sits between two women among the crowd
Jayde Santana, 9, center, daughter of Officer Joseph Santana, is comforted by her great-grandmother Sara Pinedo, left, and grandmother Lupe Pinedo at the vigil.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Retired Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Martin Ramirez was among many in the crowd who came to pay respects to the officers.

“I’m here to support my brothers in blue,” said Ramirez, who retired in October. “It’s good to see people coming together and communities coming together to support what we do for our communities.”

Some in the crowd held signs calling for voters to oust Gascón and were collecting signatures for his recall.

Celina Lugo, who wore a “Recall Gascón” hat, said she came from the San Gabriel Valley to support the families. But she said she also wanted people to understand the effects of Gascón’s policies.

The man who shot and killed two El Monte police officers this week could have faced additional time in prison, but may have received a lighter sentence as a result of one of Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascon’s policies regarding ‘prior strike’ convictions. A judge later deemed the policy illegal.

June 16, 2022

Many of those who spoke at the vigil reminded the crowd to continue supporting the bereaved families, and law enforcement in general, beyond the evening’s gathering.

El Monte City Councilmember Victoria Martinez Muela said her city is “so strong, we are so beautiful.”

“We are El Monte,” she said. “Michael Paredes is El Monte, Joseph Santana is El Monte. … We will not be broken.”