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
Detectives also examined whether the slaying may have stemmed from divorce proceedings between the deputy and his wife, with whom he had gotten back together before he was killed. Baffled police wondered, Could this be about a love triangle?
Then, late last year, four months after Escalante was shot, police brass announced that LAPD had cracked the case, arresting Avenues gangsters Velasquez, 24, and Guillermo “Pee Wee” Hernandez, 20. They were charged with one count each of murder with special circumstances — carrying out a murder to further the activities of a criminal gang. A third suspect was arrested this year, and a fourth is at large.
According to a federal law enforcement source privy to details of their arrests, Velasquez “was paroled nine days before the murder. A week after that he comes out and boom, a cop is dead. We think he came with orders to take someone out.”
But led by the DEA, a multi-agency task force of local and federal investigators was just getting started. Their effort culminated in the big raid last month, which targeted several Mexican Mafia members from the notorious Aguirre family. The grand jury indictments unsealed during September’s massive, 1,300-officer raid reveal that Velasquez bragged on a tapped prison phone to an incarcerated son of Maria Leon’s about having shot the deputy — in retaliation for the unrelated LAPD shooting death of his cousin Danny.
The indictment language reads like a family revenge scene from The Sopranos. Federal prosecutors state that during the tapped jail-phone conversation, “defendant Velasquez told Avenues gang member Jose Leon that he had killed Deputy Escalante in retribution for the shooting death of an Avenues gang member, D.L., a.k.a. ‘Clever’ ” — the street nickname for Danny Leon.
Later in the same phone conversation, Jose Leon, Danny’s big brother, promised to reward Velasquez for having murdered the innocent deputy. According to the document, Jose Leon says he will see to it that Velasquez’s little brother Jose, heading to prison for the 2008 shootout with the LAPD, will be protected.
This revelation suggests a new level of virulence among L.A. gangs. “The scenario in which Escalante was killed looks very, very deliberate to me,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Brunwin, who wrote the thick indictment unsealed last month. “The timing of the events, and the unusual hour and the confined schedule of the timing seems far less like a random encounter and more like a deliberate, planned attack.”
Another piece of evidence is also damning. In the hours leading up to Escalante’s assassination, a multi-agency task force of federal and local investigators was conducting a pre-tap of the phone of a member of a Mexican Mafia family — a tap that allows no listening in but which does allow the cops to determine who is calling whom. The team hoped to get a judge’s permission for a full wiretap into a suspected money-laundering operation.
The investigative team tracked an unusual flurry of phone calls between “Stoney” Velasquez, other Avenues gang members and a Mexican Mafia associate, made during the predawn and morning hours of August 2, 2008. “Stoney’s phone was active the entire night and the morning: 5:30, 6, 6:05, 7 ...,” says one investigator. The deputy was gunned down at about 5:30 a.m.
In one of the bitter ironies of this case, the highly successful effort by the feds, LAPD, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, and even the city’s Department of Building and Safety to drive Maria Leon and her boys away from Drew Street is what cleared the way for alleged cop killer Carlos Velasquez.
Before the multi-agency Drew Street crackdown began in 2008, Los Angeles Police Department Northeast Division gang officers were getting into physical altercations with criminals who openly controlled Drew Street, just a stone’s throw from the police station. “Our gang unit approached the DEA and said we need some help,” says Captain Murphy. Assistant U.S. Attorney Brunwin remembers how “officers [were] telling us what they were dealing with, and the prospect that the neighborhood was becoming, in a lot of ways, too dangerous to patrol.”
Things came to a head on February 21, 2008, when Danny Leon and Jose Gomez opened fire on 36-year-old Marcos Salas and his tiny granddaughter near Aragon Avenue Elementary School in Cypress Park. Salas, a former Cypress Park gang member, was riddled with bullets and killed instantly. But the toddler, who was dropped to the ground by her mortally wounded grandfather, survived — another L.A. gang story that went global.
Upon hearing of the killing, two LAPD gang officers, Carlos Langarica and his partner, drove immediately to Drew Street, on a strong hunch that Salas’ shooters were from there. Once on Drew Street, Langarica and his partner soon spotted a suspicious car and turned around to follow it, but the car suddenly pulled over and out burst Danny Leon and his cousin Jose Gomez — Stoney Velasquez’s little brother — with Leon wielding an AK-47.