Growing up surrounded by gang activity on the Eastside, Juan Diaz became a Los Angeles police officer remembered as a kind-hearted young man who loved his job and always made people smile.
"He grew up in a gang-infested neighborhood and he still managed to be a good man," LAPD Officer Manuel Hernandez said at a Saturday evening vigil at the LAPD headquarters attended by dozens of Diaz's police academy classmates, former teachers, childhood friends, and family members hours after his death. He was 24 years old, with two years of experience in the force.
"He didn’t join a gang," Hernandez told the mournful crowd. "He didn’t get in trouble. That’s because of his family, his parents. And he had no excuses. He showed up everyday ready to work."
Hernandez said he watched Diaz grow up in the months that he trained to join LAPD.
"I had no doubt that he was going to be a great police officer," he said.
Diaz was gunned down at a taco stand in Lincoln Heights not far from his home in the early hours of Saturday, law enforcement sources said. A tagger he had approached stopped what he was doing and left only to return with a group and shoot him and his girlfriend's brother, according to authorities.
While Diaz did not survive his injuries, the second victim was hospitalized for treatment.
As of Sunday, officials have not announced an arrest in Diaz's death. Investigators believe his killer is a member of the Avenues gang, a group that for years has claimed Northeast L.A. its territory.
"He was just trying to do the right thing," said one of his academy classmates at Saturday's vigil.
Another classmate described him as a class clown who always talked about how much he loved his family.
His sisters, wearing Dodgers shirts, a nod to their brother's favorite team, tearfully addressed his friends and colleagues.
"We have a mom, a dad, broken. Can’t even come because of how broken they are," Anahi Diaz said.
She remembered her brother's passion in becoming an officer.
"He wasn’t good at school. It wasn’t for him," she said, smiling. "My mom would be like, 'Juanito I never see you read a book. Come on, get it together.' We finally saw him open a book and actually devoted to something when he was in the academy."
Diaz's other sister emphasized the risks police officers face every day and condemned the violence that took her brother's life.
"Come on guys, we’re better than this," she said. "We’re better than the evil and the cruelty that’s out there in this world. We owe it to one another."
A friend who met Diaz in middle school described the officer as the brother he never had.
"He was never the jock. He was never the smart kid," his friend said. "He was the best kid. You can count on him on anything."
Diaz loved to tell stories about his academy class, "the outtakes," he said.
"To those who grew up with him in Arroyo, you remember the 'me and my homies' stories," his friend continued, eliciting a faint giggle from the crowd. "It’s up to us to make sure those stories don’t die."