LOS ANGELES — The Utah man suspected in the seemingly random shooting of a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy earlier this week left his family’s home three weeks ago with a gun and a grim-sounding mission statement, police said.
“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.
Neither police nor the family of 30-year-old Rhett McKenzie Nelson believed he was a danger to himself or others when he went missing on May 27, Giles said.
But three weeks later, police say, Nelson opened fire on a downtown Los Angeles street and again inside an Alhambra fast food restaurant in the span of one hour, leaving one man dead and a sheriff’s deputy gravely injured in a pair of shootings.
A troubling portrait of Nelson — who was arrested Tuesday in Long Beach after investigators said he called his father and admitted to “committing murder in Southern California” — began to emerge Wednesday after interviews with police and a review of his social media accounts.
Nelson left St. George on May 27, driving off from his family’s home for “no particular reason,” Giles said. He traveled in a 2012 Kia Sorrento — the same type of vehicle he was arrested in Tuesday — and carried a firearm, according to Giles.
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, according to 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.
Nelson was formally reported missing on May 28, according to Giles, who 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 for alleged drug offenses and driving while intoxicated in Salt Lake City in 2014. Giles said St. George police had arrested Nelson on minor drug charges 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 only carrying a firearm “for protection,” according to Giles.
Nelson called home again on June 4, according to Giles. 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. The person said Nelson may have been drawn to the area because that’s where he spent his childhood. Public records indicate his family once lived in Orange County.
Nelson’s relatives discussed their concerns about his mental health with police following the June 4 phone call, though they said he had not been previously diagnosed with a mental illness, according to Giles.
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 content promoting the idea that so-called directed-energy weapons had been used to spark wildfires in California, and 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, but at that point he 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 on June 5, Giles said.
Five days later, on East Seventh Place in downtown Los Angeles, Nelson had a “brief exchange” with a 30-year-old man that ended in gunfire, according to LAPD Chief Michel Moore. The man, who was not identified, died at the scene.
At 5:45 p.m. the same day, Nelson walked into a Jack in the Box restaurant in Alhambra and shot 50-year-old sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Solano in the head. Solano remains in grave condition on life support at L.A. County-USC Medical Center, according to Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
The sheriff’s department indicated that Nelson may have been involved in other crimes since coming to Southern California — including at least five robberies in the San Diego area, according to one source — and has asked for the public’s help in gathering information.
Nelson has yet to be criminally charged, and is being held without bail at the Twin Towers Correctional facility in downtown Los Angeles, records show.
(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)
Police have not offered a motive in either shooting. Solano was not robbed and he was not wearing anything that would signify he was a peace officer at the time of the attack.
In a statement Tuesday night, Bradley Nelson, the suspect’s father, expressed the family’s anguish over the turn of events.
“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,” the statement read.
©2019 Los Angeles Times
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): LA-DEPUTYSHOT