Avenues gang members arrested in slaying of L.A. sheriff’s deputy

Juan Abel Escalante was gunned down outside his parents’ Cypress Park home as he prepared to go to work. LAPD sources say the two suspects are well-known members of the gang.
By Richard Winton and Ari B. Bloomekatz, Times Staff Writer
December 14, 2008
As the wife and three children of slain Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Juan Abel Escalante solemnly looked on, top law enforcement and city officials announced Saturday that two men had been arrested in the deputy’s shooting death, although the motive in the killing is unclear.

The two suspects — Guillermo Hernandez, 20, and Carlos Velasquez, 24 — were described by Los Angeles Police Department sources as well-known members of the notorious Avenues gang, which has long feuded with the Cypress Park gang whose territory includes the northeast Los Angeles neighborhood where Escalante lived.

Hernandez and Velasquez were booked on murder charges after their arrest late Friday night and are being held without bail.

Despite the suspects’ gang affiliation, investigators still don’t know why Escalante was shot near the 3400 block of Thorpe Avenue on Aug. 2. At Saturday’s news conference, police did not say whether the shooting was a random attack or Escalante was targeted.

“We are still seeking additional information,” said Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, adding that the investigation has been “very, very, very difficult.” He said police were aided by tipsters.

There is still “an effort to search for additional suspects that may have been involved in the murder of Escalante,” according to a police statement.

Escalante, 27, who worked at the Men’s Central jail guarding some of the county’s most dangerous inmates, was gunned down outside his parents’ Cypress Park home about 5:40 a.m. as he prepared to go to work. He was adjusting a child’s car seat in a vehicle when he was shot in the back of the head.

Celeste Escalante heard the gunfire, looked out her window and saw her husband lying on the ground. Escalante was a 2 1/2 year-veteran of the sheriff’s department and had served in the U.S. Army Reserve.

“When one of us is brutally killed, all of us grieve,” Sheriff Lee Baca said at Saturday’s news conference. “Hopefully, this will lift some of the pain that’s on your shoulders,” Baca said, speaking to Celeste Escalante, who stood onstage with her two young sons, daughter and in-laws.

A joint task force of LAPD robbery-homicide detectives, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s homicide bureau members and members of the Los Angeles High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas unit have been investigating the case.

Early on, detectives wondered whether the shooting was related to Escalante’s job at the jail, where he guarded inmates that included members of the Mexican Mafia. They also examined his personal life for possible clues.

Then investigators considered a new scenario: that Escalante was killed by local gang members, perhaps by gunmen who did not know he was a law officer. The investigators were particularly interested in the feud between the Avenues gang and the rival Cypress Park gang.

Bratton said investigators obtained a series of search and arrest warrants on Thursday and made the arrests the following day. Bratton asked for patience and said officials would be able to divulge more information after the case is filed with the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office this week.

The Cypress Park neighborhood where Escalante grew up had experienced a lull in gang violence in recent years until rival groups began violently feuding in January. In February, a shooting outside an elementary school a few blocks from the Escalante family home sparked a fierce gun battle between gang members and police in neighboring Glassell Park.

The Avenues gang took root in the 1950s and derives its name from the avenues that cross Figueroa Street. It is among the most powerful gangs in the city and retains strong ties to the Mexican Mafia gang, known as the Eme, which is a dominant force in California prisons.

The violence led to a raid mostly targeting the Avenues gang in late June by police and federal agents, who stormed an area around Drew Street, about a mile north of where Escalante was killed.

In November, police announced a $95,000 reward for anyone with information leading to a prosecution in the deputy’s killing. He and his family had been living with his parents while waiting to move into a new Pomona home. Late last month, Celeste Escalante pleaded for witnesses to come forward.

“I know somebody saw. I know somebody heard it,” said Celeste Escalante, the deputy’s childhood sweetheart. “Please call and let them know what you know. Let the kids and I and my in-laws have closure . . . so we can know whoever did this is brought to justice.”

Baca, Bratton, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other city officials said the arrests provided some closure to the shooting but would not end the investigation. Councilman Ed Reyes announced that at least $75,000 in reward money is still available.

Villaraigosa told how Escalante had worked at a local market as a young man, made his way through high school and “rejected the conventional wisdom and defied the odds.”

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

“With today’s arrest of gang members for the murder of Sheriff’s Deputy Juan Abel Escalante, two accused killers are one step closer to justice,” said a statement released by Paul M. Weber, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. “We also hope these arrests bring a bit of peace to Deputy Escalante’s family and colleagues.”

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