Surrounded by family and fellow law enforcement officers, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Solano lay motionless inside the hospital where he once stood guard over prisoners needing medical care.
The 50-year-old had been in grave condition since Monday night, when a Utah man shot him in the head at an Alhambra fast-food restaurant for no apparent reason, investigators said.
The brutal and seemingly random attack left Solano on life support, unable to breathe on his own.
Though his family had hoped for a miracle, Solano succumbed to his injuries Wednesday afternoon, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said at a news conference outside L.A. County-USC Medical Center.
“He confronted a threat not knowing what it was, and in a split second, he lost his life, and that’s what it is in law enforcement,” said Villanueva, at times on the verge of tears. “On a good day, we can do heroic things, and save lives, and avoid death. And other times something as innocent as going to a fast-food restaurant can be end of the watch for our hero, Deputy Solano.”
News of Solano’s death came as a troubling portrait emerged of the man accused of killing him. Weeks before authorities say he opened fire on Solano, 30-year-old Rhett McKenzie Nelson drove away from his family’s home in southern Utah with a firearm and a grim-sounding mission statement.
“He had somehow communicated to them the message that he wanted to make it on his own or die,” Capt. Mike Giles of the St. George Police Department in Utah said Wednesday.
Nelson may have been struggling with addiction and mental health issues, and police are investigating whether he is responsible for a fatal shooting in downtown Los Angeles and a series of armed robberies in San Diego since he arrived in Southern California in early June.
Neither police nor Nelson’s family believed he was a danger to himself or others when he was reported missing May 28, Giles said.
But two weeks later, police say, Nelson opened fire on a downtown Los Angeles street and again inside the Alhambra fast-food restaurant in the span of one hour, leaving one man dead and Solano, who was off-duty and in civilian clothing, gravely injured.
The Los Angeles Police Department did not provide additional information Wednesday about the downtown L.A. slaying, and the coroner’s office said it could not release the victim’s identity pending notification of his family.
Nelson was arrested Tuesday in Long Beach, investigators said, after he called his father and admitted to “committing murder in Southern California.”
Nelson drove off from his family’s home in St. George on May 25, according to a statement from his father. He traveled in a 2012 Kia Sorrento — the same type of vehicle he was arrested in Tuesday — and carried a firearm, Giles said.
Giles did not know what kind of gun Nelson had or whether he legally owned it. Police said they recovered a revolver from Nelson’s vehicle when they arrested him.
Residents of Utah are not required to obtain a permit to own a firearm, said Giles, who did not comment on whether Nelson’s prior arrests for drug offenses would have barred him from owning a gun under state law.
Giles said Nelson’s loved ones did not interpret his remarks as ominous.
“The family indicated to officers that they did not believe he was a danger to himself or others,” Giles said. “They did not believe that statement was a suicidal comment, more a comment he wanted to make it on his own.”
Giles said Nelson’s family told police he had previously suffered with substance abuse issues, and they were worried he “may have relapsed recently.”
Court records show Nelson was arrested twice on suspicion of drug offenses and driving while intoxicated in Salt Lake City in 2014. Giles said St. George police had arrested Nelson on suspicion of minor drug offenses in either 2011 or 2012.
But there was no inkling Nelson might hurt someone, Giles said. His family “indicated he’d never been violent” and believed he was carrying a firearm only “for protection,” according to Giles.
Nelson called home again June 4, Giles said. He was staying in Rancho Santa Margarita in Orange County. Investigators said Tuesday that Nelson had traveled to Southern California in the first week of June.
A person close to the family, who asked not to be identified, said Nelson grew up in California and moved with his family to Utah about 14 years ago. Public records indicate his family once lived in Orange County.
Nelson’s relatives discussed their concerns about his mental health with police after the June 4 phone call, though they said he had not been previously diagnosed with a mental illness, Giles said.
In two separate Facebook accounts — which were visible until they were blocked from public view late Wednesday morning — Nelson seemed obsessed with conspiracy theories. He shared anti-vaccine content and promoted the idea that so-called directed-energy weapons had been used to spark wildfires in California. He also posted at least two videos with instructions about modifying firearms to become fully automatic.
Giles said investigators and Nelson’s relatives discussed law enforcement intervention under Utah’s civil commitment law just after he went missing, but at that point Nelson was far outside their jurisdiction.
With no evidence that Nelson posed a threat to himself or others, St. George police closed their missing persons investigation June 5, Giles said.
Five days later, in the 1900 block of East 7th Place in downtown Los Angeles, Nelson had a “brief exchange” with a 30-year-old man that ended in gunfire, LAPD Chief Michel Moore said. The victim died of at least one gunshot wound at the scene.
At 5:45 p.m. the same day, police say, Nelson walked into a Jack in the Box restaurant in Alhambra and shot Solano, the sheriff’s deputy, once in the head.
Police are also investigating whether Nelson was involved in five armed robberies in the San Diego area from June 7 through June 9. In each case, the suspect displayed a handgun to a convenience store clerk at night. The gunman made off with an undisclosed amount of cash in four of the incidents, according to the San Diego Police Department.
Nelson has yet to be charged and is being held without bail at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles, records show.
Police have not offered a motive in either shooting. Solano was not robbed, and he was not wearing anything at the time of the attack that would signify he was a law enforcement officer.
In a statement Wednesday, Bradley Nelson, the suspect’s father, expressed the family’s anguish over the turn of events.
“Our family is devastated beyond words to hear of the shooting of Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Solano, and to learn that Rhett was responsible for this horrifying and senseless attack.… We believe we made every effort to help Rhett and bring him home safely without harm to himself or others, but despite our best efforts we were unable to locate him before this horrific act,” the statement read.
Solano, a 13-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department, worked in the agency’s Access to Care Bureau, which involves supervising and transporting inmates who need medical treatment at L.A. County-USC Medical Center. A fan of USC football, he was a native of the Los Angeles area and had earlier worked for the Alhambra Fire Department.
Late Wednesday, his body was taken by procession to the county coroner’s office.
Solano — who left behind a son and a longtime girlfriend and was the sole provider for his mother — was described by family members as a caring soul who was getting an oil change for his mother’s car when he stopped at the Jack in the Box.
Villanueva said the deputy was alerted in the restaurant that someone was following him, prompting Solano to confront the gunman just before the shot was fired.
The deputy’s stepdaughter, Jessica, said at the news conference that Solano, who had been in her life for more than 11 years, was her father figure and best friend.
“All I ask is just don’t forget about him,” she said. “He was a hardworking man, and was loved by many, and he would want us to continue his legacy.”