By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Before dawn four weeks ago, some 1,300 cops and federal agents fanned across the badlands of Los Angeles in a massive crackdown on the Avenues gang, inviting along a few reporters to observe them as they quietly approached 42 run-down hovels and crowded apartment buildings, arresting some of the city’s most violent men and women.
Forty-six Avenues gang members and associates were picked up in the September 22 sweep based on a 222-page federal indictment that cited the murder of Deputy Abel Escalante, attempted murder, extortion, money laundering, intimidation, and plotting to smuggle drugs and cell phones into state prisons. Among the prizes in the indictment: the shocking arrest of prison guard Tammy Armstrong, accused of providing forbidden pin numbers and calling cards to her alleged lover, a gang member, in Kern Valley State Prison.
The thick grand jury indictment provides a look into the Mexican Mafia’s grip on Los Angeles, with much of the evidence gleaned from 12 months of wiretaps, an intense investigation by a DEA task force including two undercover cops who posed on the telephone as Mexican Mafia allies.
But what the media never grasped was that the big bust last month wasn’t just another raid given prominent play in the Los Angeles Times and mentioned in East Coast papers as further proof that L.A. is run by thugs. To cops armed with warrants, the raid was about the Thin Blue Line. It was about attacking a cancer that has plagued northeast Los Angeles since the 1940s.
But some cops knew the raid was about more than that — it was about avenging one of their own. They knew prosecutors had strong evidence that a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy had been assassinated months before by killers from the area, who were out to settle a score.
In a killing that stunned the community, Deputy Abel Escalante was shot near his driveway last year after transferring a child’s safety seat between two family cars. Investigators pursued many theories to explain his murder — mistaken identity, a troubled marriage, retaliation because of his job as a county jailer.
L.A. Weekly has learned that prosecutors have strong evidence of a different motive: Escalante was gunned down in an act of asymmetrical retribution, payback for the spectacular LAPD shootout on Drew Street in June 2008 that forced the closure of local streets, caused the evacuation of two nearby public schools — and left AK-47–wielding menace Danny “Clever” Leon bloodied and dead in the street.
Deputy Escalante had nothing to do with LAPD’s killing of Leon last year. The 27-year-old officer most likely heard about it on the news, like everyone else. But, federal prosecutors believe, Escalante died for it.
Seeking revenge, the dead man’s friends months later went looking for a cop who would be an easy target at his home. Escalante was killed because he was convenient.
The scenario suggests a new level of chaos in the area’s streets. As LAPD Captain Bill Murphy, of the Northeast Division, says, “It’s a different breed of gangs. Not a lot are out there, shooting at and killing cops. That’s when it gets way out of control.”
The feds have long known that the brain trust behind the Avenues gang and the Leon family of Drew Street is the Mexican Mafia, whose members boldly control large swaths of Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles, working with impunity from cells in the California state prison system.
Maria “Chata” Leon is the Leon family’s drug-dealing matriarch, who moved here from a lawless Mexican village and gave birth to 13 children — a half-dozen of whom became criminals. Her huge brood was for years Drew Street’s incurable disease. Working with the Avenues gang, they turned their densely populated Glassell Park neighborhood, adjacent to Forest Lawn Memorial-Park and just four miles from downtown Los Angeles, into a criminal enterprise.
After years of rampant gang activity centered at Maria Leon’s home — much of it ordered by the Mexican Mafia — the house itself was deemed a menace and bulldozed last February by order of the courts and the Los Angeles City Attorney. A crowd of politicians and journalists looked on. Just three months later, Maria “Chata” Leon was sentenced to eight years in prison by a federal judge for racketeering and crack dealing.
But the Drew Street cancer wasn’t entirely excised. One member of this intertwined crime family is Carlos “Stoney” Velasquez, Maria Leon’s nephew, and cousin to her dead son, Danny, the AK-47–wielding gangster. Stoney had another reason for seeking revenge against the cops, beyond the LAPD killing of his cousin: Stoney’s younger brother Jose was with Danny at the Drew Street shootout, firing away at the LAPD with a handgun. He now awaits trial for numerous crimes, including a murder.
Deputy Escalante was hardly blind to what was unfolding. He had watched this area of Los Angeles circling the drain all his life, growing up several blocks away in a trashed neighborhood controlled by the Avenues gang’s rivals, a group known as the Cypress Park gang. Yet Escalante turned out to be a decent teenager, a guy who worked full-time in high school as a janitor, handed half of his paycheck to his mother, and dreamed of becoming a police officer.