A man with a history of mental illness who was identified as a suspect in the brazen fatal stabbing of a high school student last week was arrested Wednesday morning after barricading himself inside an Alhambra home, authorities said.
The man, identified by police as David Zapata, 32, is the suspect in the killing of Xavier Chavarin, 17, who was described by family as a straight-A student at Woodrow Wilson High School in El Sereno and a loving son. Hours after the teen was killed, police say, the same assailant stabbed another person, who survived his injuries.
Claudia Montes, the man’s former girlfriend and mother of his child, confirmed Zapata was taken into custody.
Los Angeles Police Department detectives went to Zapata’s Alhambra home Wednesday morning after receiving a tip that the man who lived there was the same person seen in video of the knife-wielding attacker in El Sereno.
Cmdr. German Hurtado said the barricade situation unfolded after detectives arrived. LAPD gang and narcotics division officers surrounded the home in the 2300 block of Westmont Drive around 7 a.m. A special weapons team brought in two armored vehicles and blocked the area surrounding the house.
Hurtado said a crisis negotiator was able to persuade Zapata, who was in the home alone, that he would be safe and to walk out. The crisis negotiator and a mental health evaluation team, along with Zapata’s mother, talked to him on his cellphone for a couple of hours before he surrendered, Hurtado said.
He was taken into custody without incident, the commander said. His bail was set at $2 million.
“I don’t want to taint the investigation, [but] he is not going to be able to hurt anyone else,” Hurtado said.
Hurtado said Zapata had a history of mental health problems and that Alhambra police said he’d “been a problem in this neighborhood.”
Several neighbors said that the man taken into custody lived with his grandmother and that they moved into the Alhambra house about a year ago. Richard Evans lives across the street and said he spoke to him a handful of times.
“There was definitely something about him that seemed not right,” Evans said.
He said he thought police detained the man on another occasion and took him away in handcuffs, but Evans said he was back at the home the next day.
Evans said when he saw a photo of the stabbing suspect on TV, he didn’t immediately recognize him because the image was blurry. But when a clearer photo began to circulate, he saw the resemblance to his neighbor.
“I thought, ‘Wow, OK, that does look like him,’ ” Evans said.
City Councilman Kevin de León, whose district includes the site of the fatal El Sereno attack, said the streets of L.A. “are the largest psychiatric ward in the United States.”
“Unfortunately, it has become quite normalized in Los Angeles for someone to walk up to someone and snap and walks away freely, or just hits someone,” said De León, who went to the Alhambra home Wednesday. “There’s no question about it; he’s suffered from severe mental illness,” he said of the suspect.
Authorities have yet to comment on Zapata’s apparent mental health problems or how they may have related to the attacks.
Friday afternoon’s killing shocked the city in its brutality, with surveillance footage showing a black-clad assailant approaching the victim around 3:55 p.m. in a parking lot on Valley Boulevard in El Sereno while brandishing a long blade.
The footage released Tuesday by police ends with the assailant putting both hands on the knife, pulling it back and then swinging it at something just outside the video’s frame.
The man in the video had long, wavy black hair and a long beard and can be seen in the video wearing a black jacket, T-shirt and pants. His vehicle was described as a black 1996 to 2001 Honda CR-V, according to LAPD investigators.
Laura Frias, Xavier’s mother, told KNBC-TV that her son had been waiting for her outside a restaurant when he was stabbed, the station reported.
The same attacker is believed to have stabbed a 33-year-old man on the 5400 block of Valley Boulevard later that evening, police said. In that attack, the assailant approached the man and stabbed him numerous times without saying a word, police said. The second victim survived.
A woman who works at Valley Food Liquor on the block where the second stabbing occurred remembered a strange customer who would buy a beer and cigars but would not speak.
“He was weird, not normal. I always tried to be kind and nice, but he never answered. He is not friendly,” said the woman, who gave only her last name, Choi.
Police went to the liquor store Friday and showed her an image of the suspect, whom she immediately recognized.
De León said Zapata had a connection to Woodrow Wilson High, the school that Xavier attended. He said Zapata attended the school a decade earlier.
The councilman said he had been in touch with Xavier’s mother. He hugged the family and spoke with them privately.
Frias was outside the police barricade Wednesday when authorities announced the man’s surrender. She broke down in tears and was consoled by her father, Jesus Frias.
When De León arrived on the Alhambra street, he tried to shake hands with Xavier’s father, Daniel Chavarin, but Chavarin rebuffed him, saying of the greeting, “That’s not real.”
Chavarin was upset because of a reported leak of an internal LAPD memo regarding the suspect that began to circulate online over the weekend.
“It gives this person a head start to flee, to go to another country and hide after killing someone,” Chavarin said.
Capt. Kelly Muniz said the department is conducting an internal investigation into the leaked flier and whether it is a legitimate LAPD document.
Times staff writer Jessica Perez contributed to this report.
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