LA sheriff’s deputy dies after being shot at restaurant while off-duty

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ALHAMBRA, Calif. -- A sheriff's deputy who was shot in the head in an apparently unprovoked attack at an Alhambra fast-food restaurant died at a hospital Wednesday, while a Utah man remained jailed for allegedly shooting the lawman and possibly killing another man in downtown Los Angeles.

Deputy Joseph Gilbert Solano, 50, who had been on life support in grave condition at County-USC Medical Center after being shot around 5:45 p.m. Monday at a Jack in the Box restaurant at 2531 W. Valley Blvd., was pronounced dead Wednesday afternoon, Sheriff's Alex Villanueva announced at somber news conference at the hospital.

The suspected shooter, Rhett Nelson, 30, of St. George, Utah, was taken into custody around 10:40 a.m. Tuesday by Long Beach police in the 2400 block of Granada Avenue and later turned over to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department investigators, who arrested him.

Nelson is suspected of shooting Solano, who was at the counter of the restaurant when he was shot in the back of the head in what sheriff's officials believe was a random attack. Villanueva said Wednesday there's still no indication the shooter knew that Solano -- who was off-duty and not in uniform - - was a sheriff's deputy.

"The deputy was alerted in the restaurant that someone was following him, and that's when he turned to confront (the person), and that's when the shooting happened," Villanueva said. "That much we do know. But the motive, the rationale from the suspect -- that's the million-dollar question."

Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore said Nelson is also suspected in a fatal shooting that occurred about an hour earlier in the 1900 block of East Seventh Place, between Santa Fe Avenue and Alameda Street, in the downtown area. That shooting, apparently done from inside a vehicle, left an unidentified 30-year-old man dead.

After Villanueva announced Solano's death, the deputy's grief-stricken son Matthew thanked people for their prayers.

"Thank you to everyone that has had my dad in their prayers. Unfortunately, we have lost him," he said, fighting back tears. "He was a really good dad, so I just want to thank all the law enforcement agencies that have been a part of this. Continue to pray for him and my family please. Thank you."

Solano's long-time girlfriend Juliana expressed her appreciation for the support shown to the deputy's loved ones.

"We would like to thank everyone that supported us during this senseless tragedy ... every participating law enforcement agency for the outpouring of support, every doctor, nurse, paramedic, first responders, the gentleman at Jack in the Box in Alhambra who called 911 when he saw this senseless act occur.

"... Although the outcome was not what we wished it to be, we have solace knowing he is in a better place now."

Solano's stepdaughter Jessica said Solano had been in her life for more than 11 years and was not only a father figure but her best friend.

"All I ask is just don't forget about him," she said. "He was a hard-working man and was loved by many. He would want us to continue his legacy and never forget him."

Villanueva, who took over as sheriff in December, said losing a deputy was an eventuality he dreaded and it happened sooner than he expected.

Solano "confronted a threat not knowing what it was, and in a split second, he lost his life," the sheriff said.

"And that's what it is in law enforcement. 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," Villanueva said.

The sheriff's department on Wednesday released a booking photo of Nelson.

"Investigators believe there is a possibility suspect Rhett Nelson may have been involved in additional criminal incidents since entering California," according to the department. "With the public's interest in mind, the booking photo is being released in an effort to seek any possible additional victims."

Anyone with information was urged to call the Sheriff's Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500, or Crime Stoppers at 800-222-TIPS.

Police in San Diego said Nelson is being investigated as a possible suspect in four armed robberies -- and one attempted armed robbery -- at convenience stores in San Diego County between Friday and Sunday. Three of the crimes were in San Diego and the others were in Lemon Grove and Carlsbad.

Three different San Diego-area law enforcement agencies are investigating those crimes, and all have been in contact with Los Angeles County sheriff's officials to help determine if Nelson was involved, police said.

Los Angeles County sheriff's Capt. Kent Wegener told reporters Tuesday that Nelson walked into a Long Beach church around 10 a.m. that day, called his father in Utah and talked about carrying out a pair of shootings.

"During that call he referred to committing murder in Southern California, obviously concerning his father," Wegener said. "The father called (the) Long Beach Police Department to report what his son had told him. Long Beach did a reverse directory on the phone number provided by the father and responded to that church."

Pastor Brad Paradee said when Nelson arrived at First Nazarene Church at 2280 Clark Ave., he considered him homeless.

"I was with him for one to two hours," Paradee told the Daily News. "I gave him food and coffee, let him use my phone to call home and take a shower. He had the gun with him the whole time."

A short time later, Nelson was seen driving away from the church, and police took him into custody him without incident after he pulled into the driveway of a home on Granada Avenue, Wegener said.

The hat and maroon shirt the gunman wore during the Jack in the Box shooting "were clearly visible in the rear seat of his car," he said. The suspect and the vehicle -- a Kia Sorento SUV -- also matched the description of those involved in the shooting, according to the captain. A revolver "matching the gun used in the assault" was found inside the vehicle when a search warrant was served, Wegener said.

Nelson's father, Bradley, issued a statement Tuesday regarding his son's arrest.

"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," Bradley Nelson said. "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."

Solano, a 13-year sheriff's department veteran, had dropped off his mother's vehicle to be serviced at a Jiffy Lube near the Jack in the Box restaurant where he was shot, Villanueva said.

"That's what it is in law enforcement. On a good day we can do heroic things and save lives and avoid death, and other times something as innocent as going into a fast food restaurant can be the end of the watch for our hero, Deputy Solano," Villanueva said.

He noted that Solano's father had recently died, and the deputy was the sole provider for his mother.

Nelson's relatives in Utah had reported him missing in late May. Nelson's father posted a photo of his son on Facebook on May 30 asking for help finding him, noting he had last been seen in southern Utah in his white 2012 Kia Sorento and that he had a history of "opiate abuse." Family members also indicated he suffered from mental instability.

Police in Utah told the Los Angeles Times Nelson had told family members that he was going to try to make it on his own or die, but relatives did not believe he posed a threat to himself or others.

Moore said detectives developed a connection between the "senseless attack" on the deputy and the fatal shooting in downtown Los Angeles that occurred around 4:50 p.m. Monday.

In that case, a 30-year-old man was standing in the 1900 block of East Seventh Place "when a vehicle arrived and, according to other witnesses, an individual inside the vehicle had a brief exchange with our victim, gunfire erupted and our victim sustained at least one gunshot wound and died at the scene," Moore said.

"We are led to believe that he (Nelson) is potentially responsible. We are led to that belief on the basis of the suspect Mr. Nelson's physical appearance, including some of his clothing, as well as the vehicle description," Moore said.

Nelson was being held without bail, according to sheriff's inmate records.

Nelson had a misdemeanor drug conviction in Salt Lake City in December 2014, but no other criminal history.

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