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Suspect in LA deputy's shooting wanted to 'make it on his own or die,' Utah police say

James Queally and Maya Lau, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

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.

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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."

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