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 in 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 complaint alleges the four defendants committed the robbery and murder “to increase and maintain position” within the multigenerational street gang.
If convicted of the federal charges — unusual for a local homicide case — the defendants would be subject to the death penalty because they are accused of murder in the commission of a robbery, the U.S. attorney's office said in a statement. They are expected to be transferred to federal custody Friday morning and appear in court later in the day.
"I am grateful for the federal involvement in this case," L.A. Police Chief Michel Moore said at a Thursday night news conference about the arrests. "It is appropriate. I am thankful for the U.S. attorney stepping in and bringing the full weight of the government against this gang, against these individuals."
The charges come 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, Rios told L.A. County sheriff's investigators in an interview that all four of them were in the truck the night of the robbery: He was driving, Grisham was in the passenger seat, and Cisneros and Contreras were behind them, when they spotted Arroyos and his girlfriend.
Surveillance video of the attack shows Rios and Cisneros pointing guns at the couple, according to the affidavit, which also says they took 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 the affidavit by FBI Special Agent Seamus Kane. It does not say who fired first.
Arroyos' girlfriend returned to the car and tried to pull him inside, calling 911, police said.
The assailants fled. When Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies arrived, they raced the wounded officer in their patrol car to a hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.
A second video suggests that Cisneros was injured by Arroyos' gunfire. Surveillance video from Junction Street shows Contreras lifting Cisneros, who appears to be injured, out of the black pickup and removing items of clothing from him. Contreras appears to hide the clothing at the side of a house, according to the affidavit.
Rios told L.A. County sheriff's investigators in an interview that the group was driving around looking to "make money" — a term for robberies — when they came upon the couple, according to the affidavit.
He told investigators that his moniker is "Lil J" and that he is a member of F13, as Florencia 13 is known, and he showed deputies a Florencia 13 tattoo on his chest and a tattoo on his arm with his clique, "Tiny Locos," according to the affidavit. Similarly, Cisneros said his moniker is "Gonzo" and displayed several tattoos for the gang, as did Contreras, who said he had not been active since having children.
Rios 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.
Rios admitted he discarded a white hoodie after it became bloody when a bullet grazed his left rib cage, according to the affidavit. He also said that Cisneros handed him Arroyos' wallet and that he threw it away in the aftermath after taking $100.
Contreras told investigators that chains Arroyos was wearing around his neck led them to rob the couple, but he did not admit to the shooting, according to the affidavit.
Grisham allegedly told investigators that Rios said, "He has a nice chain, let's get it." She said that she saw Cisneros point a gun at the man and tell him, "Give him his chains," and that she saw Rios, who was armed, search the woman. She then heard several shots, according to the affidavit, and when Cisneros got back in the truck he had an injury and said "he had a broken leg."
Sheriff's Capt. Joe Mendoza of the department's Homicide Bureau said the suspects stole two silver chains, one with a sword pendant, and a black, bifold wallet.
About 10 minutes after the shooting, deputies at the Century station got a call reporting a shooting victim near Junction Street and East 60th Street, Mendoza said. That person was later identified as Cisneros.
An address nearby was tied to one of the suspects, the captain said, adding that the four are believed to be responsible for other robberies in the area.
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.
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.
Arroyos was a talented student who attended Crenshaw High School and went on to graduate from UC Berkeley, and he had been saving for a home during his three years as an LAPD officer, his mother said after his killing.
He died in a neighborhood that has experienced a sharp rise in violent crime over the last two years, part of a broader increase in killings and shootings throughout the city and county. Florence-Firestone has been among the neighborhoods hit hardest. According to county coroner data, there were 24 homicides in the neighborhood in the first 11 months of 2021, compared with 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 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 to the U.S. attorney's office, several sources said. Those enhancements in a murder case can mean the difference between a life term with the prospect of release and never again coming out from behind bars.
Asked at the Thursday night news conference whether the Sheriff's Department had consulted with Gascón's office, Villanueva said yes and called the county prosecutors' response "not satisfactory."
"I believe their plan was to just prosecute a simple murder with no gun enhancements, no gang enhancements, nothing," the sheriff said. "And that really did not cover the depravity of this crime…. It should be noted that the California penal code does cover all these things. The tools are there but we need to have someone who’s willing to use them."
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.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti eulogized Arroyos on Thursday while announcing crime statistics.
"An angel in our city, Officer Fernando Arroyos, was shot and killed defending himself and his girlfriend when they were off duty, house hunting for their first home," he said. "Fernando grew up in L.A., graduated from Crenshaw High School. I remember him from his graduation, he dreamt of becoming a police officer, attended a top university, UC Berkeley. And now his family. His mother, also an immigrant to our country, no longer has her only son."
"My heart is broken. Our city's heart is broken. And certainly our LAPD family's hearts all grieve," Garcetti said earlier this week.
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. He more than achieved that, Ingram said.
"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."
Mendoza said the Sheriff's Department is asking for the public's help in finding Arroyos' wallet and two silver chains.
Anyone with information about Arroyos' shooting or other robberies involving the suspects is asked to call the department's Homicide Bureau at (323) 890-5500.
"I will tell you that those two chains and a wallet mean, I'm sure, the world to the family," Moore said. "I'd ask that the most important thing is that people listen to the description of that wallet and those two chains."
Times staff writer Gregory Yee contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.