Federal prosecutors charged four people Thursday in the fatal shooting of an off-duty Los Angeles police officer, alleging they are members and an associate of a street gang who killed the officer while trying to rob him.
Jesse Contreras, 34; Ernesto Cisneros, 22; Luis Alfredo de la Rosa Rios, 27, and Haylee Marie Grisham, 18, are charged with murdering Officer Fernando Arroyos as a violent crime in aid of racketeering for the Florencia 13 gang. Prosecutors allege that all three men are members of the gang and that Grisham, Rios' girlfriend, is an associate.
The charges come just three days after Arroyos, 27, and his girlfriend were attacked while parked in an alley in the unincorporated Florence-Firestone neighborhood near Watts. The couple were house hunting and had stopped to take pictures of a place that was for sale when two of the men pulled up in a pickup and approached them, authorities said.
According to a sworn affidavit from an FBI agent, surveillance video of the attack shows Rios and Cisneros pointing guns at the couple and taking a chain off the officer's neck and a black walking stick from his girlfriend.
After an exchange of gunfire between the two suspects and the officer, Arroyos ran toward the alley and collapsed, according to an affidavit by FBI Special Agent Seamus Kane. Arroyos' girlfriend returned to the car and tried to pull him inside, calling 911, police said.
The assailants fled. When Los Angeles County sheriff deputies arrived, they raced the wounded officer in their patrol car to a hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.
Rios in an interview told Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators the group were driving around looking to "make money" - a term for robberies - when they came upon the couple. He admitted to firing a handgun during the robbery and believed Cisneros discharged a weapon too. Waiving his rights, he told investigators that he searched the girlfriend, taking her walking stick, and that Cisneros had removed Arroyos' wallet from his pants pocket.
Contreras told investigators it was chains around Arroyos' neck that led them to rob the couple, but he did not admit to the shooting, according to the affidavit.
The investigators, according to the affidavit, placed someone working with law enforcement in cells with the suspects to extract information about their crimes and gang connections.
In the hours after the killing, sheriff's homicide detectives, with assistance from their counterparts in the LAPD, questioned several men and women they believed had information about the killing, sources said. On Wednesday morning, Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced four men had been arrested in connection to the killing, but he declined to name them or provide more details.
Arroyos, a talented student who attended Crenshaw High School and went on to graduate from UC Berkeley, had been saving for a home during his three years as an LAPD officers, his mother said after his killing.
He died in a neighborhood that has experienced a sharp rise in violent crime over the past two years that is part of a broader spike in killings and shootings throughout the city and county. Florence-Firestone has been among the neighborhoods hardest hit by the surge in killings. According to county coroner data, there were 24 homicides in the neighborhood in the first 11 months of 2021, compared to nine during the same period in 2020 and 12 in 2019. Last year's killings were the highest in a decade.
Sheriff's officials have tied much of the bloodshed in the area to the Florencia 13 gang. .
In 2019, federal prosecutors indicted 36 alleged members and associates of the gang, charging them with of engaging in a criminal enterprise, drug trafficking, illegal gambling, attempted murder and assault.
Typically, police would take a case such as this to prosecutors in the district attorney's office, who would file charges in county Superior Court. But Villanueva, an outspoken critic of Dist. Atty. George Gascón's decision to no longer pursue sentencing enhancements in gang cases, directed detectives to take the case the investigation to the U.S. attorney's office, several sources said. Those enhancements in a murder case can mean the difference between life term with the prospect of release and never again coming out from behind bars.
Murder in California generally is punishable by 25 years to life in prison. However, with a special circumstance - such as gang membership or murder in the commission of another crime - a defendant can be sentenced to life without parole.
Arroyos had been with the LAPD for three years and was assigned to the Olympic Division.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti eulogized the officer Thursday.
"My heart is broken. Our city's heart is broken. And certainly our LAPD family's hearts all grieve," Garcetti said.
LAPD Lt. Rex Ingram, who supervised Arroyos and spoke with him often at Olympic Division, said Arroyos had two dreams in life: to be first in his family to go to college and to be an LAPD officer, and that he more than achieved that.
"The first time I read one of his reports I knew his writing skills were far superior to his peers and, frankly, some ways above the ability of his superiors," Ingram said. "So, I asked him where he went to school, and he, being humble, says 'LAUSD.' And I reply, 'Which college?' and he says, 'Cal Berkeley.'"
Arroyos was a devout Christian who grew up in a household with his mother, grandmother and stepfather, attended 42nd Street Elementary School and Audubon Middle School before graduating from Crenshaw High and heading to Berkeley, where he earned a degree in legal studies, Ingram said.
"He could have gone to law school or FBI like his peers with that education, but he wanted to serve his community and give back," Ingram said. "He loved his community…. He was very close to his family."
Ingram said Arroyos met his girlfriend at a dry cleaning business in southwest L.A. about two years ago.
"They were looking to get a home in the area," Ingram said. "This was the humblest and happiest guy I know on the job. This couldn't happen to a nicer person."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.