Man who killed three family members and SWAT officer had history of mental illness

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

The troubled young man who killed his father and two brothers before fatally shooting a celebrated Los Angeles police officer this week had a history of mental illness and brushes with the law, police said Friday.

Edwin Rivera, 20, first developed signs of “significant mental health problems” shortly after the death of his mother about a decade ago, Deputy Chief Gary J. Brennan said at a news conference attended by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and top police officials. The signs of trouble, which Brennan did not detail, grew worse over the years, culminating in the killing spree that unfolded early Thursday morning and ended when Rivera was shot dead by an LAPD sniper.

Rivera had a juvenile criminal record that included three convictions. The most serious came in 2004, when he was found guilty of assault with a firearm and sentenced to probation for pointing an unloaded gun at people during an argument, according to police.

Police on Friday identified the family members killed in the standoff as Edwin’s father, Gerardo Rivera, 54, and brothers, Edgar Rivera, 21, and Endi Rivera, 25. Two of the three were found with gunshot wounds to their heads. The third body was too badly burned when the house caught fire to confirm the cause of death, police said.

The blaze was presumably started by tear-gas canisters fired to flush Edwin Rivera out.

Police gave a chilling account of how Rivera shot and killed Officer Randal Simmons, 51, a member of LAPD’s elite SWAT unit, and wounded another SWAT officer, James Veenstra.

Holed up with a handgun and shotgun in his family’s house in Winnetka, a quiet community in the west San Fernando Valley, Rivera spoke nine times to emergency service dispatchers between about nine and 11:30 Wednesday night, admitting that he had already killed his father and two brothers, Brennan said.

Patrol officers responded about 9:15 p.m., calling quickly for backup. Fearing there could be other people inside, a team of officers was preparing to storm the house near midnight, Brennan said, when a SWAT team, which specializes in hostage situations, arrived and took control.

About 15 minutes after they got there, eight SWAT members entered the house. Simmons was fourth through the door. In front of him was Veenstra. They would make it only about 15 feet.

With other officers firing their weapons outside a window to create a distraction, the team detonated a “flash-bang” grenade, meant to stun Rivera. But Rivera, who had been crouching in a far corner of the living room, sprang up and opened fire from about 10 feet away.

Veenstra, 51, was struck in the jaw, while Simmons was hit in the neck.

Another officer, outside the window, was nearly shot when a stray bullet hit his gun.

Patrol officers rushed into the house to help SWAT members carry out the wounded officers and one of the family victims, who SWAT members thought might be alive. Paramedics rushed the two officers to a hospital, where Veenstra, who is expected to recover, underwent several hours of surgery. Simmons was pronounced dead.

“There has been great concentration of attention to our SWAT officers, and that is appropriate given the sacrifice made. But there are many others who also behaved in a very valiant manner,” police Chief William J. Bratton said. “There were a lot of heroes yesterday. There were a lot of heroic actions.”

Reflecting the raw emotions throughout the LAPD, Bratton grew visibly angry when a reporter questioned whether the SWAT team was properly prepared to enter the house so soon after its arrival.

“The actions of those officers were appropriate, and they’re not to be criticized in any way,” Bratton said.

“They went into that house [because] they believed there were people in that house in need of their services. They put their lives at risk.”

Villaraigosa ordered flags at city buildings to fly at half-staff for Simmons, the first SWAT officer to die in the line of duty since the Special Weapons and Tactics unit was created in the late 1960s and formalized in 1971.

Bratton said thousands of police officers from around the country are expected to attend Simmons’ funeral this coming Friday at the Crenshaw Christian Faith Dome.

SWAT officers escorted Simmons’ body from the coroner’s office to the funeral home Friday. On Friday night, about 200 congregants came to the weekly prayer service at Simmons’ church, Glory Christian Fellowship International in Carson, to mourn the officer.

“His prayer was powerful,” recalled Melissa Franklin, a church spokeswoman, who spoke outside the private service. “There were times he was so moved as he led the congregation in prayer that tears streamed down his face.”

A group of officers also attended the service, with black bands across their badges.

Times Staff Writer Paloma Esquivel contributed to this report.