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A desperate father’s call led to arrest of son in shooting of deputy at Jack in the Box

A desperate father’s call led to arrest of son in shooting of deputy at Jack in the Box
Surveillance camera images of the man believed to have shot an off-duty sheriff's deputy and the car he was driving. (Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department)

A man suspected of shooting an off-duty Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy in the head after killing a person a few miles away Monday was arrested Tuesday after investigators received a tip from his father, authorities say.

But there are still many unanswered questions about the seemingly random shooting of Deputy Joseph Solano inside a Jack in the Box in Alhambra.

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Here is what we know from Times reporting:

How was the suspect captured?

Rhett McKenzie Nelson, 30, of St. George, Utah, was arrested by Long Beach police after he called his father in Utah and told him about “committing murder in Southern California,” according to Sheriff’s Department homicide Capt. Kent Wegener. Sheriff Alex Villanueva said there is evidence that Nelson indicated he had killed two people during the phone call.

Nelson’s father then called Long Beach police, who traced the son’s phone using the number his father provided. Officers spotted his vehicle, matching the description of the Kia Sorrento linked to the attack on the deputy the night before, driving away from a church, authorities said.

The SUV came to a stop in a driveway in the 2400 block of Granada Avenue and Nelson was taken into custody without incident, police said.

What do we know about Nelson?

His father, Bradley Nelson, said in a statement that his family had reported him missing in late May.

“My wife Jean and I, along with our family, are saddened beyond words to hear of the shooting of Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Solano, and to learn that our son Rhett is being held in connection with this horrifying and senseless attack,” Nelson said.

“Rhett has been missing since May 26, 2019, leading us to file a missing person’s report with authorities. We have spent much time and effort in an attempt to help Rhett and bring him home safely, and we have been distraught and worried since his disappearance. We are cooperating fully with authorities and will provide them with all information they request concerning Rhett and his struggles. We ask that people please pray for Deputy Solano and his family.”

In a Facebook post, Bradley Nelson said his son left home without any extra clothing or his laptop computer.

“We’ve had no contact with him, his phone is dead or off since then,” the post read. “He has a history of opiate abuse and has been clean for about 6 months, but we know what a terrible struggle that is.”

Nelson came to Southern California around the first week of June, Wegener said. It was not clear why he chose to travel to Los Angeles.

Investigators could not immediately say how Nelson may have obtained a weapon or if it was legally owned.

What is the condition of Deputy Solano?

Solano, a 13-year Sheriff’s Department veteran, was listed in grave condition and remained on life support at L.A. County-USC Medical Center on Tuesday afternoon, Villanueva said.

Solano, 50, was off-duty and waiting for his meal at the fast-food restaurant on Valley Boulevard about 5:45 p.m. Monday when Nelson allegedly walked in and shot him once in the head.

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Solano was wearing plain clothes with no holster, badge or anything to signify he was a law enforcement officer at the time of the attack, investigators said.

Villanueva said Solano had driven his mother’s car to a nearby Jiffy Lube for maintenance just moments before the shooting.

“He definitely was a kindhearted, generous, person … we’re all rooting for him to make a recovery,” the sheriff said.

A motive for the shooting remains unknown. Nelson did not attempt to rob the deputy or anyone else in the restaurant, said Lt. Derrick Alfred, who is supervising the team of homicide detectives investigating the shooting.

“He kind of lingered in the restaurant for a little while before deciding to go up and shoot the deputy,” Alfred said.

What about the other shooting?

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said Tuesday that detectives are also trying to determine whether Nelson was involved in a fatal shooting that took place downtown at 4:50 p.m. Monday, less than an hour before the attack on Solano.

Moore said a man was standing in the 1900 block of East 7th Place when he had a “brief exchange” with a person in a car. The victim, who was identified only as a 30-year-old man, was shot at least once and died at the scene, Moore said.

After a description of Solano’s assailant became public, Moore said detectives began to explore possible links between the shootings and noted that the assailant’s clothing and vehicle were similarly described in both incidents. Moore said he could not confirm whether the gun used in that shooting matched the revolver found in Nelson’s vehicle.

Times staff writers Maya Lau, James Queally and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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