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Man killed by undercover police remembered as kind, thoughtful

Juan Chavez, 37, was shot at a friend's memorial by undercover police officers. Friends say the apartment building security guard shied away from aggression.

August 04, 2013|By Emily Foxhall
  • Derek Brooks, 43, friend of Juan Chavez, offers prayer before breakfast at First Friends Church in Long Beach. Chavez, who was shot and killed over two weeks ago by LAPD, used to preach at a Spanish bible study for the homeless.
Derek Brooks, 43, friend of Juan Chavez, offers prayer before breakfast… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

For tenants in an East Hollywood apartment building, Juan Chavez was a beloved security guard who always went out of his way to cheer them up and make them feel safe.

But undercover Los Angeles police officers, patrolling a vigil in Pico-Union, say they considered the 37-year-old a threat to their lives. Earlier this month, police shot and killed Chavez after he allegedly removed a blue steel revolver from his waistband.

Chavez's friends and family say they still don't understand how that could have happened.

"They killed a good man," said Zizis Carrillo, who lives at the Mariposa Hollywood Apartments where Chavez worked.

It was a twist of fate that led Chavez to the 1800 block of West Pico Avenue on the night of July 16.

Instead of working his usual security shift, Chavez, a reformed gang member, decided to stop by the memorial for an old friend to show support for the man's family.

LAPD officials said undercover gang officers also decided to monitor the vigil for Jesus Vargas, 27, who was fatally shot inside a nearby Jack in the Box on July 1.

Roughly 150 people attended the memorial, with some spilling onto the sidewalk outside, recalled Elsis Garcia, the church pastor.

Chavez's sister-in-law Kenia German said she believes Chavez, who was wearing black pants and a gray shirt, was leaving the vigil when he encountered the undercover officers just before 9 p.m.

"He was there at the wrong place at the wrong time," German wrote in an email to the Times.

Details of the shooting remain under investigation, including what communication took place between the undercover officers and Chavez immediately before the shooting. LAPD Cmdr. Andy Smith said police recovered a gun at the scene.

A law enforcement source said a security video showed Chavez pointing a gun.

Friends of Chavez say he would draw a weapon only to inform officers that he was armed or if he felt endangered by the plainclothes detectives in an unmarked car.

By all accounts, Chavez dedicated himself fully to his security position, patrolling the area and befriending those in the apartment and neighborhood.

His small acts of kindness added up. When one resident went out of town, Chavez helped look after his pet fish. When older women arrived late at the bus stop, he would go outside and watch for their return. One time, he saw a suspicious man hiding by the apartment and calmly requested that he leave the premises and stay safe, building manager Dorcy Faucedo said.

"He was a person that would try always to advise you for the better, advise the good things in life," said Faucedo, whose refrigerator was covered with Post-It messages and drawings dedicated to Chavez. "We do miss him very much."

Several tenants said the building feels empty without Chavez. They miss stopping in the lobby to speak with him about everything from religion to politics to his prized Mustang car collection. Well-informed , he always had a book on hand.

Chavez always arrived an hour early for work. He meticulously recorded everything that happened during his shift from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., writing in neat, capital letters that slanted the exact same degree to the right.

On July 11, a garage light needed fixing. On July 15, the day before his death, the elevator was broken.

"I think if a fly went through the monitors, he would record it," Faucedo said with a laugh.

Chavez's work did not go unappreciated. As he noted in the security log book on July 9, "APT. #306 BROUGHT SECURITY PIECE OF CAKE."

Chavez was armed when on duty, but he did not have an active gun permit, according to state records.

A security guard registration and gun permit for "Juan D. Chavez" expired in 2010, said Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the Department of Consumer Affairs.

While he may not have known to renew the permits, Chavez still would have been allowed to carry his gun at work or traveling to and from work, Heimerich said.

When he wasn't at work, Chavez spent time ministering to others.

He spoke many times at a Bible study for the homeless, said Pastor Joe Ginder of Long Beach Friends Church. He also preached at a camp for inner-city kids.

"He'll work with anyone. Doesn't matter what their ethnic background is, what their cultural background is," Ginder said.

Chavez drew on his own troubled past to connect with others. When Chavez was 15, he belonged to a gang and served time for murder, several of his friends said. But while serving time at a state youth facility, he turned to Christianity.

His fellow inmate, Scott, who asked not to be identified by his last name because his employer doesn't know about his juvenile record, described Chavez as soft-spoken and calm, who shied away from aggression. Scott said he wants more information from LAPD about the shooting.

"It's a polar opposite of a guy that we knew," Scott said. "It breaks my heart."

Times staff writers Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.

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