Rhett Nelson, the man accused of killing a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy and linked to armed robberies of 7-Eleven stores in San Diego. Courtesy LASD

A judge agreed Monday to let San Diego County prosecutors reclaim jurisdiction to try an alleged cop killer for five armed robberies he’s accused of committing locally prior to gunning down two men in Los Angeles County, including an off-duty sheriff’s deputy.

Rhett Nelson, 31, is accused of holding up five San Diego-area convenience stores at gunpoint in the days leading up to the June 10, 2019, shootings of Los Angeles County sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Gilbert Solano in Alhambra and Dmitry Alekseyevich Koltsov in downtown Los Angeles, which occurred hours apart.

The Los Angeles County Superior Court judge also denied a request by LA County prosecutors to dismiss allegations and enhancements that could send Nelson to prison for life without the possibility of parole if he’s convicted of the murders.

Nelson, a former St. George, Utah, resident, had an outburst after the judge’s ruling, according to the Los Angeles Times, which reported he stood up and tried to apologize to Solano’s family and shouted that he would accept the maximum sentence. Solano’s girlfriend, children and sister all appeared in court to speak out against the requested dismissals.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, in a Twitter post on Monday night, said Solano “was a hero, and part of our #LASD family … I thank the judge for his decision today to maintain the special allegations charges in this matter. Meeting with his family today was emotional and reaffirming to me why standing with victims is so important.”

Nelson is charged with two counts of murder as well as attempted murder and multiple robbery counts. Details regarding the attempted murder count were not disclosed.

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan agreed early last year to let the Los Angeles County District’s Attorney’s Office prosecute Nelson for the San Diego crimes with the understanding that he would face a maximum possible sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole if convicted, according to a letter the San Diego DA sent Jan. 4.

Once LA County’s newly elected top prosecutor, George Gascon, moved to drop sentence-enhancing allegations, Stephan asked for the opportunity to try the robberies locally.

Stephan wrote that the moves to dismiss the sentence enhancements would make Nelson eligible for parole as early as age 50.

“I need to return my cases to San Diego,” Stephan told City News Service on Friday. “I can no longer trust that this DA’s policies will abide by the law. I have a responsibility to my victims and the community.”

In a statement following Monday’s hearing, Stephan underscored her point.

“It’s not only a win in this specific case, but also an affirmation of our own independent model in San Diego of implementing balanced and responsible criminal justice reform that addresses inequities in the system, but at the same time safeguards the rights of victims and protects the public from dangerous and violent criminals,” Stephan said. “Unfortunately, the L.A. D.A.’s recent legal directives are essentially giving murderers and other violent offenders unlawful favors and are creating a looming public safety disaster for Los Angeles County that tramples on the dignity and safety of vulnerable crime victims.”

Her comments represent some of the latest criticism leveled at Gascon, who was elected on a platform of reforming the prosecution system and upon taking office last month quickly issued directives to eliminate sentencing enhancements and other allegations that can lead to higher prison terms for defendants.

Stephan said her office has taken aims to reduce incarceration and recidivism by offering diversion and other options when appropriate, including for nonviolent offenders and defendants suffering from drug addiction, mental health issues or severe poverty. However, she said her office has always done so “while following the law and while still upholding victims’ rights” and said Gascon’s efforts regarding the Nelson case were “not responsible criminal justice reform.”

In a statement released Friday, the LA County District Attorney’s Office said Stephan’s decision would unnecessarily subject the victims’ families to two trials, and said it was highly unlikely Nelson would ever be granted parole.

“The defendant in this case is 31 years old and was facing nearly 70 years to life in state prison. As a result of this move by DA Stephan, the defendant now faces 50 years to life in state prison on his LA case, and possibly more if found guilty in his San Diego case,” the statement reads. “We question the wisdom of dragging these families through two separate cases, and with the parole board only granting release in about 15% of cases it hears, the suggestion that this individual would get out, let alone reoffend, (strains) credulity. What’s guaranteed is that two cases will cost taxpayers more than one.”

Stephan told CNS that an additional directive from Gascon to preclude his prosecutors from attending parole hearings to possibly contest an inmate’s release means there is no assurance Nelson would not be paroled.

In response to a question from City News Service about whether Gascon believes Nelson, if convicted, should spend his life in prison, a spokesman reiterated the maximum sentence of 68 years to life and said, “District Attorney Gascon’s policy of eliminating life without the possibility of parole enables future generations to determine whether it is in the public’s interest to continue to incarcerate older individuals at extraordinary taxpayer expense who do not pose a threat to public safety.”

The San Diego County D.A. alleged the victims’ families — both in LA and San Diego — were not consulted on Gascon’s decision.

“From everything I studied regarding this case, I did not see that the families of the two innocent human beings who were shot in the head and received instant death sentences had been given any opportunity to weigh-in on your decisions as the Constitution requires,” she wrote. “And certainly none of the innocent store clerks who were robbed at gunpoint in San Diego County were allowed to provide input on whether 20 years in prison served the interests of justice or public safety.”

San Diego County prosecutors can pursue charges that could net him 32 years and four months in state prison. If the robbery counts had remained in LA County jurisdiction, the robberies would have only added an additional five years to his sentence, Stephan said.

Nelson, whose family in Utah reported him missing in May 2019 and noted he had a history of opiate abuse, allegedly shot Solano twice in the head at a Jack in the Box restaurant at 2531 W. Valley Blvd. in Alhambra. The 50-year-old deputy died two days later at County-USC Medical Center.

Nelson allegedly shot Koltsov, 31, hours earlier in the 1900 block of East Seventh Place, between Santa Fe Avenue and Alameda Street, in downtown Los Angeles. Koltsov was among a group of skateboarders who Nelson allegedly shot at from a moving vehicle.

The defendant was arrested in Long Beach the following day.

A motive for the killings remains unclear.

One day after his arrest, San Diego police announced Nelson was being investigated for four armed robberies and one attempted armed robbery that occurred at convenience stores in San Diego, Lemon Grove and Carlsbad between June 7-9, 2019.

The suspect allegedly made off with cash in four of the holdups and was armed with a handgun in each heist. The robberies  occurred at 7-Eleven stores in Ocean Beach, the Midway District, City Heights, and Lemon Grove, as well as a Circle-K store in Carlsbad, according to court documents.

Nelson was also charged with robbery for heists allegedly carried out at a 7-Eleven store and a Shell gas station, both in Long Beach, the same day as the fatal shootings. According to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office court filing, Nelson allegedly told the 7-Eleven clerk, “I just killed two people right now, don’t act stupid.”

Gascon has faced criticism from some groups — most notably law- enforcement agencies and even the union representing deputy district attorneys – – over his directives to eliminate sentencing enhancements and allegations, including special-circumstance allegations that could lead to life-without- parole sentences.

Gascon has stood by his directives, although in the face of opposition he agreed to allow some sentencing enhancements in cases involving the most vulnerable victims and in “extraordinary” circumstances, including hate crimes and crimes against children and the elderly.

Updated at 6:27 p.m. Jan. 11, 2021

— City News Service

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.