A USC student with a knife, a suspected car burglar and a deadly confrontation on fraternity row

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 is in custody in the fatal stabbing of a man he apparently witnessed breaking into cars near Delta Tau Delta along Greek Row in Los Angeles. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

USC student Ivan Gallegos and two friends were walking down 28th Street in the heart of Greek Row when they came across Xavier Cerf.

Cerf, a 27-year-old man whose mother said he had just been released from a mental health facility and who police said was homeless, had allegedly broken into a car on the street. Gallegos and his group confronted him.

Moments later, Cerf was lying on the ground with fatal stab wounds. Police arrived and soon took Gallegos into custody on suspicion of murder. Authorities say Gallegos repeatedly stabbed Cerf after an altercation. Gallegos remained at the scene after the stabbing and cooperated with police. He told officers the suspected car burglar said he had a gun, but law enforcement sources said that no gun was recovered at the scene.

There are still many unanswered questions about those seconds leading up to Cerf's death, including why Gallegos and his friends decided to approach him. Los Angeles County prosecutors are now determining whether to file criminal charges, and legal experts said the details of the confrontation will be central to how the case proceeds.

In a GoFundMe campaign created to support Gallegos, his mother Violet claims that her son was acting in self-defense when he stabbed Cerf. Gallegos found himself in that situation "due to the lack of safety measures around his campus," according to the post.

Meanwhile, Cerf's mother, Yema Jones, said she is reeling from his death and is searching for answers. She said he has been struggling mentally in recent years after the death of family members and, at the time of his death, had hoped to return to Houston to be with her. While Cerf does have a criminal record, Jones said he was a peaceful person.

“They’re making my son out to be a person that he’s not,” Jones said. “He was very vibrant. He loved to dance. He wasn’t a violent kid coming up."

A question of threat

In California, a person is entitled to defend themselves, but their response has to be proportional to the threat, according to defense attorney Mark Werksman, who is not working on the case.

"You can't be the aggressor and claim self-defense," Werksman said. "You can't attack somebody and then claim self-defense by finishing the person off with lethal force."

Other states, such as Florida, have broader self-defense legal protections for people protecting their homes or involved in violent encounters in public, Werksman said.

Given California's laws, Dmitry Gorin, a former prosecutor and defense attorney, said if Cerf attacked or threatened Gallegos, then he would have a right to use self-defense.

A view of Delta Tau Delta on Greek Row.
A USC student is in custody in the fatal stabbing of a man he apparently witnessed breaking into cars near Delta Tau Delta on Greek Row. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

"He would be found not guilty if his actions were to be reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances," said Gorin, who is not affiliated with the case.

But it remains unclear what Cerf said, and police have only released Gallegos' narrative of events.

Another defense attorney, Louis Shapiro, said Cerf breaking into the car is not alone enough justification for deadly force, even if Gallegos witnessed it.

The case of the Greek Row stabbing may come down to Gallegos' credibility and cooperation with authorities. Prosecutors may not immediately make a charging decision and let Gallegos be released from custody pending further investigation, Shapiro said.

Once all the facts come out, Shapiro said a key question is whether a jury could sympathize with Gallegos' point of view. Was he justified to use lethal force if he thought Cerf had a gun? He thinks if prosecutors file charges, the case would probably go to trial because a defense lawyer may feel that they can persuade a jury of their client's innocence, he added.

A mother's pain

Jones, Cerf’s mother, said the past few days have been “hard and devastating.”

She was notified of her son’s death through a phone call from the L.A. County Medical Examiner's Office, who told her Cerf had been stabbed “several times.”

A sense of shock came over her.

Jones, who resides in Houston, has not spoken to law enforcement in Los Angeles about her son’s death. She’s gathered details about Cerf’s death through news clips and YouTube videos.

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.

Her son traveled frequently, Jones said, and visited California in the past. But on his latest trip, he arrived in Los Angeles at the end of February.

He was father to a 3-year-old boy, Anthony.

“One thing about me is I’m never going to paint a pretty picture about my son. I’m just going to give you facts. Everybody goes through life issues," Jones said. "Regardless, he was still a father. He was still a brother. He was still a son. It didn’t have to go that far.”

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.

Jones is now attempting to bring her son's body back to Texas, but is struggling with funds. She said those who are mischaracterizing her son based on Monday’s events were uninformed.

“You can’t speak about somebody that you don’t know,” she said. “He was loved.”

A student 'loved' at USC

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.”

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, Violet, said: “He’s a good kid."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.