L.A. County sheriff’s deputy’s killing remains a mystery

Detectives hope a $95,000 reward will get witnesses to step forward in the possible gang-related shooting in August in Cypress Park.
By Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton
November 26, 2008

When Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Juan Abel Escalante was gunned down in August outside his boyhood home in Cypress Park, theories abounded on possible suspects and a motive.

The early focus of Los Angeles Police Department detectives was whether the slaying was related to Escalante’s job at the Men’s Central Jail, where he guarded the county’s most dangerous inmates, including members of the Mexican Mafia.

Investigators also combed for clues in Escalante’s personal life, examining whether the slaying may have stemmed from divorce proceedings between the deputy and his wife, who reconciled shortly before the killing.But, so far, those trials have led to dead ends — and the mystery of who killed Escalante and why has endured.

Now, authorities have begun to consider a new scenario: that Escalante was slain by local gang members — perhaps by assailants who didn’t even know he was a lawman.

Detectives have been looking more closely into gang activity in the neighborhood where the 27-year-old deputy grew up and lived. They are especially interested in the long-running feud between the notorious Avenues Gang and rival Cypress Park gang, whose territory includes the northeast Los Angeles neighborhood where Escalante was killed.

As the months go by, the need for a break in the case is becoming more urgent.

“We are focusing on the gang angle,” said Det. Tom Matthew of the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division. “But we are still keeping all of our options open.”

Despite the setbacks, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said he remains optimistic that detectives will solve the case, even if it takes many more months.

“We are being very deliberative here. They are doing everything possible that can be done,” he said. “All homicides are basically who-done-it’s.”

Los Angeles police today will announce a $95,000 reward for information leading to a prosecution in the case. But investigators also know that finding new witnesses four months after the killing is proving difficult, especially when they fear reprisals from neighborhood gangsters.

“The circumstances surrounding the murder give the investigators strong reason to believe that there are people with information who have not come forward,” the department said in a statement to be released today.

“There are many reasons why witnesses do not come forward. It could be that they are fearful of neighborhood gang members. Other times, people do not understand how important a minor detail is to the case. All clues, no matter how seemingly insignificant, are requested; those desiring to remain anonymous may do so with confidence.”

After the shooting, the LAPD flooded the streets of northeast L.A. with undercover detectives with hopes of gaining street intelligence about the slaying. They were hoping to make inroads into the Avenues gang, which for generations has been a source of crime in the area.

Sources close to the investigation, who spoke on the condition that they not be named because the probe is ongoing, said there are several reasons to be believe gang involvement.

Escalante was shot at close range in the head, a type of slaying sometimes seen in gang cases, the sources said. It remains unclear whether the assailants knew he was a deputy because he was in plain clothes.

The sources said efforts to somehow link his death to inmates he dealt with in jail has so far been fruitless.

“We believe it’s related to street gang violence,” said LAPD Capt. Bill Murphy. “We’ve brought in gang officers from all over the city to work the street gangs angle.”

Escalante was preparing to leave for work from his parents home when someone came up from behind and shot him in the head as he was trying to adjust a child’s car seat inside a black GMC sport utility vehicle.

Escalante’s wife, Celeste — his childhood sweetheart — and mother Ana Maria Escalante rushed to aid him. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Neighbors reported hearing gunshots, followed by the squeal of tires. A minute later, the silence was broken by screams of “My husband! My husband!” said one neighbor, who at the time declined to be identified for fear of gang retaliation. Witnesses also reported seeing a gray car speeding from the area.

Escalante was the eldest son of immigrant parents from the Mexican state of Yucatan and a Army reservist. His mother worked at a candy store and his father was a construction laborer.

Although they are optimistic about their progress in the case, LAPD officials said it was too early to rule out possible motives.

They cited the 1985 slaying of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. George Arthur who, like Escalante, worked at the downtown Men’s Central Jail. Arthur had completed a shift at the jail and was driving home when he was attacked by someone who had hidden in the back seat of his van.

There was a struggle before Arthur was shot and killed near the Mission Road onramp of the southbound 5 Freeway, about a mile from the jail. There, too, authorities initially believed the case was related to his work.

But rumors began to surface that the killing was related to romantic jealously. It was not until 1999, however, when the LAPD resubmitted DNA evidence in Arthur’s shooting that implicated a co-worker, Ted Eugene Kirby, who killed himself before police could take him into custody.

Anyone with information about the Escalante case is urged to call the LAPD at (213) 485-2531.

After hours or on weekends, calls may be directed to a 24-hour, toll-free number at (877) LAPD-24-7 or by texting CRIMES (274637) and beginning the message with the letters LAPD.

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