LOS ANGELES – Accusing Los Angeles County’s newly elected District Attorney George Gascon of watering down the case by dropping sentence-enhancing allegations, San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan has asked to take over prosecution of an alleged cop killer for a series of armed robberies he’s accused of committing in San Diego County.
The move is the latest criticism leveled at Gascon, who was elected on a platform of reforming the prosecution system and quickly issued directives to eliminate sentencing enhancements and other allegations that can lead to higher prison terms for defendants.
In a letter dated Monday, Stephan said she wants her office to take over the prosecution of Rhett Nelson, 31, for five armed robberies he’s accused of committing locally in the days before he allegedly gunned two men down in Los Angeles County.
In LA County, Nelson is charged with two counts of murder for allegedly shooting off-duty Los Angeles County sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Gilbert Solano, 50, in Alhambra and 31-year-old Dmitry Alekseyevich Koltsov in downtown Los Angeles. The shootings occurred hours apart from each other on June 10, 2019.
Nelson — a former St. George, Utah, resident — is also charged with attempted murder and robbery for separate incidents in L.A. County.
In Stephan’s letter, she wrote that her office agreed early last year to let the L.A. County district attorney prosecute Nelson for the San Diego County robberies with the understanding that he would face a maximum possible sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole if convicted. But Stephan claims that Los Angeles County prosecutors, acting under instructions from Gascon, who was elected in November and sworn in on Dec. 7, plan to dismiss special circumstance and firearm allegations against Nelson, a move she said would make Nelson eligible for parole as early as age 50.
A Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office spokesman confirmed that prosecutors will seek to dismiss the allegations at a Monday hearing. A motion to move the robbery charges to San Diego County’s jurisdiction will also be heard Monday before a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge.
“I need to return my cases to San Diego,” Stephan told City News Service. “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.”
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, the Los Angeles 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 D.A. Stephan, the defendant now faces 50 years to life in state prison on his L.A. 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. She also 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,” Stephan 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.”
Should Nelson’s robbery charges be moved to San Diego County, local prosecutors can pursue charges that could net him 32 years and four months in state prison. If the robbery counts remain in L.A. County jurisdiction, the robberies will only add 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. Solano died two days later at County-USC Medical Center. Nelson allegedly shot Koltsov 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.
Nelson 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.”
Details regarding the attempted murder count were not disclosed.
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.