USC student felt 'imminent threat' when he killed alleged car burglar, DA says in declining to press charges

Los Angeles, CA - June 18: A 19-year-old USC student was in custody today for allegedly fatally stabbing a man he apparently witnessed breaking into cars near Delta Tau Delta on the university's Greek Row Tuesday, June 18, 2024 in Los Angeles, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
A 19-year-old USC student was in custody this week for allegedly fatally stabbing a man. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A USC student whom police accused of fatally stabbing a man who had broken into a car on Greek Row will not be charged in the killing, prosecutors announced Thursday.

Ivan Gallegos, 19, was freed after two days in custody after Los Angeles police say he and two others confronted Xavier Cerf, 27, as he was breaking into a car, and Gallegos pulled out a knife and fatally stabbed him earlier this week.

"After careful consideration and a thorough review of all available evidence, we have decided not to pursue charges against ... Gallegos. We believe that Mr. Gallegos’s actions were driven by a genuine fear for his life and the lives of others," Dist. Atty. George Gascon said in a statement. "Our heart goes out to the deceased’s family, friends and everyone impacted by this tragic incident."

The confrontation occurred Monday just after 8 p.m. in the 700 block of West 28th Street, police said.

According to documents from the district attorney, Gallegos and other members of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity saw Cerf enter a 2010 Mercedes that was parked in the back of the fraternity house.

Three people from the house, including Gallegos, approached the car. Gallegos had a knife and another person had a large wooden stick, the report said. They demanded Cerf leave the car but he refused and locked the door, saying the "car was calling him," the report said.

Prosecutors said Cerf then opened the door and told Gallegos "I have a gun" and simultaneously reached for his waist with both hands "as if reaching for a gun." Two witnesses confirmed to authorities Cerf's statements about having a gun.

The report said Gallegos grabbed Cerf's hands with his left hand to prevent him from pulling out a gun while simultaneously stabbing him in the chest with his right hand. Cerf then grabbed Gallegos' right hand and they struggled, with Gallegos stabbing him three more times and pulling him out of the car.

Police said they found Cerf in a nearby alley suffering from stab wounds and when paramedics arrived he was pronounced dead at the scene.

Gallegos later told police he had the knife because "the area is dangerous and there have been several violent crimes committed against students," the report said.

Meeting with reporters Thursday afternoon, Gascon said they had "three individuals all make consistent statements and they were interviewed separately. There's a 911 call that is occurring ... right as a struggle is occurring. So there is consistency in the assessment that ... [the suspect] had a gun, although he didn't have a gun. He then reached out for his waistband.”

Based on the evidence, "it appears Gallegos acted with the actual and reasonable belief that deadly force was necessary to protect himself and others from the imminent threat of being shot," wrote Deputy Dist. Atty. Jose Luis Arias in declining to charge him.

The situation "would cause any reasonable person to be in sustained fear of being shot," he said. "Use of deadly force under these circumstances was both proportionate and objectively reasonable and would support such a claim of perfect self-defense."

"It is a horrific tragedy," Gascon said of the case. "First of all, someone lost his life and that is very unfortunate for the family with all the suffering that goes with the loss of life. On the other hand, Mr. Gallegos also has been traumatized. Not only him but the other two young men with him. There is no question here Mr. Gallegos will carry this with him for the rest of his life. There are no winners here, just a horrible loss of life."

Dmitry Gorin, an L.A. defense attorney and former prosecutor, said Thursday that in order for the district attorney not to bring charges, they would have to find Gallegos acted "reasonable based on all the facts and circumstances in the police reports."

The evidence "demonstrated that the accused was acting in self-defense, and therefore, the homicide is legally justified," he added.

Cerf's family was angered by the DA's decision.

“I want justice," said Yema Jones, Cerf’s mom.

She said she “didn’t understand” the self-defense claim because no gun was recovered at the scene.

“Even if he was breaking into a car, that’s not your job to put justice in your own hand,” added Cerf's uncle, Detorrien Jones. “That’s not how it operates.”

The family said they were told video evidence of the altercation contradicts the story from prosecutors. The family is now pursuing other legal avenues.

"They approached him in someone else's vehicle," said Rashani Jones, Cerf's aunt. Gallegos "took the law into his own hands to protect someone else's property."

Yema Jones said her son was not a violent person and had just been released from a mental health facility in Los Angeles. He was father to a 3-year-old boy, Anthony.

On his TikTok page, which had accumulated nearly 2,000 followers, Cerf shared multiple videos of himself dancing — sometimes by himself, sometimes with family and friends.

In one video, Cerf filmed himself performing in front of the downtown Houston skyline, a grin on his face even as neighbors poked fun.

Public records show Cerf has had several run-ins with law enforcement in recent years. In Texas, he was convicted of a 2020 misdemeanor assault with bodily injury in Harris County.

In Los Angeles County, he was arrested on March 10 by Glendora police for a misdemeanor and charged with misdemeanor possessing personal identifying information with intent to defraud and loitering. They arrested him again about a week later on March 18 for alleged drug paraphernalia. He was then arrested by the LAPD in a citizen’s arrest on April 28 for an alleged battery.

After he failed to appear at a June 12 court hearing related to the Glendora arrest, court records show that a bench warrant was issued for his arrest.

Now his family is working out the logistics to return his body home to Texas. His family have started a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for expenses.

On Tuesday, one of Gallegos’ high school friends going to school with him at USC described him as someone who went out of his way to take care of his friends.

“He was always looking out for others,” said the friend. “I was heartbroken when I heard the news about Ivan. At the end of the day, I know he was just trying to defend himself. He is loved by many at USC.”

Gallegos’ family did not return calls seeking information about him. But in a brief phone conversation on Tuesday, Gallegos’ mother said: “He’s a good kid.”

Earlier this year, Gallegos took to his LinkedIn page to share an excerpt of an essay he wrote for the USC Dornsife Prison Education Project.

“I will dedicate my life to start a movement to inspire people struggling with criminality to seek a better life for themselves because a life living locked up, is not a life worth living for,” he wrote. The piece was awarded an honorable mention.

Gallegos has also been featured in campus media for his work as a musician producing electronic dance music.

In May, he performed with Mariachi Los Troyanos at the school under his stage name IDG, according to a recent report from USC Annenberg Media.

“Throughout his childhood, Ivan navigated the realities of both his parents’ involvement in gang activities, leading to their intermittent incarceration,” the report said. “Despite growing up in an environment saturated with drugs, gangs and prostitution, he focused on music and sharpened his skills to become a multifaceted [instrumentalist] and vocalist.”

Times staff writer Matt Ormseth contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.