By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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In his job as a jailer at Men’s Central Jail downtown, he was popular with his fellow deputies. Healthy and athletic, he was getting ready to join the jailers’ high-testosterone, extremely competitive push to win the so-called “Baker to Vegas,” a grueling, 125-mile relay race in which 260 police departments from several states compete.
The buff people who comprise the L.A. County jailers’ Baker-to-Vegas team were defending champs last year, and won the race again in April. Escalante’s friend and supervisor Sgt. Ron Bottomley says the 2009 race was all about Escalante: “We ran for him and dedicated our championship to him. We had a shirt made with his name on it. It was special. We run every year, but this year we really had to win. That is how much he meant to all of us.”
Before daybreak on Sunday, August 2, 2008, Abel Escalante was already wide awake. He was outdoors, had just moved a baby seat from his car to his wife’s, and was about to head downtown to his regular 6 a.m. shift at the jail. Escalante, his wife, Celeste, and their three young children were going on a minivacation to San Francisco, and his wife needed the car seat so she could run errands with the children before they left town.
He was just down the street from his parents’ longtime home, where he and Celeste were living to save money so they could buy a place of their own.
“He was very excited because they found a house in Pomona and they were ready to purchase it,” Bottomley says.
As investigators and prosecutors now believe, just after the former Army reservist transferred the baby seat to his wife’s car, a light four-door sedan pulled up. Escalante was shot several times in the head and upper body with a .40 caliber handgun.
Unlike many street murders, the police are unusually close-mouthed about that horrific day. What is known is that Escalante’s wife found him slumped in the street and called 911, and Los Angeles Fire Department paramedics undertook a valiant effort to save the mortally wounded young father. Some stark facts point to what occurred: He was found not far from his car, his .38 caliber revolver laying under his body, and his shoulder holster empty. The death scene strongly implies that Escalante was going for his gun.
The family is too devastated to talk about it, even now. Local pastor Andrew Catalan says Escalante’s mother feels that speaking publicly cannot bring back her son. “We love him,” says Catalan, a pastor with the Principe de Paz Church in Cypress Park. “He was a father and Latino dad, and it was a great loss. Cypress Park has been a very high gang-activity area and we have had to endure it. You can hear shooting outside the services. It is intimidating for the women and children.”
Escalante’s slaying in the summer of 2008 rattled gang-scarred Cypress Park, a working-class neighborhood a couple of miles northeast of downtown. Nestled next to Highland Park and Glassell Park, in the shadow of isolated and upscale Mount Washington, the area has earned dark headlines for Los Angeles before. In 1995, Avenues members opened fire on a lost family that had made a wrong turn into their gang-infested alley. They killed 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen, a toddler inside the family car.
But the law-abiding residents in this tough area want it all to end. After Escalante was left dead, a candlelight vigil was held near his parents’ home on Thorpe Avenue. Hundreds of neighbors attended, along with the paramedics and firefighters who tried to resuscitate him. At a standing room–only funeral service at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, Sheriff Lee Baca, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and many others paid tribute.
“I rarely had to ask him to do anything — that is how productive he was,” his friend and supervisor Bottomley quietly recalls. “It was his lifelong dream to be a sheriff. He couldn’t wait to work the streets. . I can picture him walking down the hall. It didn’t matter how cold it was, he was always wearing shorts. There was a bag he carried and the guys would tease him about it. He always laughed. He would joke back. It was rare to see him without a smile.”
After the tragedy, LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide detectives combed through the deputy’s work and private life for clues. Was his murder related to his job as a jailer at Men’s Central Jail, in which he regularly worked with inmates in the “High Power” unit, where the baddest of the bad are housed? Or could it have been a case of mistaken identity by local Avenues gang members who drove to Thorpe Avenue to shoot a Cypress Park gang rival?
“He could have been mistaken for a gang member,” explained one law enforcement source soon after Escalante’s killing. “He was a young, male Hispanic. Unfortunately, in L.A. that makes you a target.”