‘The best of us’: Hundreds gather to honor slain El Monte officers

Joseph Santana wanted to be a police officer in El Monte like his stepfather.

It was a long journey. He worked in the city’s maintenance department for six years and then became the deputy sheriff for San Bernardino County.

Eventually he donned a dark blue uniform and badge in his hometown.

He had been in the service for less than a year when, along with a fellow officer, Cpl. Michael Paredes in a shooting at a motel on Tuesday.

“He was a great son, brother, father and a great husband,” Santana’s mother, Olga Garcia, said at a vigil on Saturday. “My life will never be the same without my son and his beautiful smile.”

Mourners at the vigil, numbering in the hundreds, held candles that burned brightly as night fell outside the police station, where Santana, 31, and Paredes both proudly served.

The crowd spilled onto the street behind the train station. Many wore black T-shirts with the officers’ names on the back and the words “Like but not forgotten.”

Behind them, a replica of the Statue of Liberty raised its torch, surrounded by candles at its base.

A nearby memorial to the two officers has grown since their deaths, with piles of flowers, American flags, and candles surrounding their framed photos.

“To the last moments of their lives, Mike and Joseph proved they were men of character,” El Monte acting police chief Ben Lowry said at the vigil. “You were the best of us. You were the greatest of us. I’m a better person after knowing them all.”

Like Santana, Paredes was from El Monte. His roots in the city’s police department ran deep – he served as a cadet before becoming a full-time officer in 2000.

His sister Melissa Valencia told those gathered at the vigil that her brother loves his wife, daughter, son and community very much.

“Michael had a huge heart, big hugs for everyone and that perfect smile he was known for,” Valencia said. “And he had a spirit to go with it.”

She said her brother didn’t want to be remembered as a victim. She hoped his children and everyone he had looked after over the years would continue his legacy of public service.

“Let your pain fuel your fire,” Valencia said. “Choose your life path, choose leadership, and choose to be the change this community needs, just like Michael.”

Paredes, 42, was Santana’s training officer.

Olga Garcia, mother of fallen officer Joseph Santana, looks to the sky at a candlelight vigil.

Olga Garcia, second from left, mother of fallen El Monte Police Officer Joseph Santana, looks to the sky at a candlelight vigil for her son and another officer, Michael Paredes.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

On Tuesday afternoon, the couple, along with an unidentified sergeant, responded to a domestic violence call in a room at the Siesta Inn.

Santana entered first, followed by Paredes, according to sources, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Inside, Justin Flores, 35, squeezed back into the bathroom, sources told The Times.

Melissa Valencia stands in front of a microphone at an outdoor lectern

Melissa Valencia, sister of El Monte Police Cpl. Michael Paredes, addresses guests at the vigil.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Within about 12 seconds, a source said, Flores ambushed officers with gunfire. Coroners said both officers died from a gunshot wound to the head.

After Paredes and Santana fell to the ground, the source said Flores took a gun from one of the fallen officers, left the room, and fired at the sergeant and other officers in the parking lot, where a shootout ensued.

Flores fell to the ground but continued to fire at officers and then shot himself as officers moved in, sources said. A gun was found next to his body.

Flores has been banned from possessing a gun since he was convicted of first-degree burglary in 2011.

In 2020, he was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and methamphetamine.

The prosecutor assigned to this case wrote in a report that he “strike” the burglary conviction, which could have resulted in a longer sentence, because of a policy of dist. atty George Gascon.

Three women and two men, some with candles, at the vigil

El Monte Police Officers, from left, Nicole Lona, Dennis Chiu, Maribel Rojas, Raul Vega and Arlen Castillo at the vigil for their killed colleagues.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Mark Jimenez, Santana’s wife’s brother, read a letter addressed to her late husband on her behalf at the vigil.

“You were the best family man, the best person,” the letter says. “I don’t know how I’m going to live the rest of my life without you, but you left me so many beautiful memories to share with our babies. …You didn’t deserve to be taken so soon.”

Santana is survived by his wife, daughter and twins.

A girl wearing a face mask cries as she sits between two women in the crowd

Jayde Santana, 9, center, daughter of Officer Joseph Santana, is comforted by her great-grandmother Sara Pinedo (left) and grandmother Lupe Pinedo at the vigil.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Retired Orange County Deputy Sheriff Martin Ramirez was among many in the crowd who drove for miles to show respect to the officers.

“I’m here to support my brothers in blue,” said Ramirez, who retired in October. “It’s good to see people coming together and communities coming together to support what we are doing for our communities.”

Some in the crowd held signs urging voters to oust Gascón and collecting signatures for his removal.

Celina Lugo, who wore a “Recall Gascón” hat, said she came from the San Gabriel Valley to support the families. But she said she also wanted people to understand the implications of Gascón’s policies.

Many of those speaking at the vigil reminded the crowd to continue supporting the bereaved and law enforcement in general beyond the evening’s gathering.

El Monte Councilwoman Victoria Martinez Muela said her city is “so strong, we are so beautiful.”

“We are El Monte,” she said. “Michael Paredes is El Monte, Joseph Santana is El Monte. … We will not be broken.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-19/community-remembers-el-monte-police-officers ‘The best of us’: Hundreds gather to honor slain El Monte officers

Alley Einstein

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