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.
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.”
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.
“It was scary being in the middle of Drew Street,” recalls Langarica, in typical cop understatement. Danny Leon was wearing a black ski mask on top of his head, and he “pulled it down when he began shooting” at the two officers. Langarica, a familiar presence who made arrests almost daily on Drew Street, adds, “I think it was more personal toward me, because of the background between me and Danny Leon and the Avenues.”
But the two seasoned gang cops were better shots than the two thugs. They killed Leon and wounded Gomez, 18, who was later charged with the murder of the Cypress Park grandfather, Salas, and with attempted murder of the two officers.
That was the last day Langarica was allowed to patrol Drew Street. He was reassigned to the training division because police supervisors “were worried for my safety.” After Robbery-Homicide conducted a “threat assessment,” Langarica was given an LAPD shotgun and a radio to take home. A local police department still patrols his neighborhood in an undisclosed location.
Four months after the shootout, in June 2008, the feds oversaw a massive raid on Drew Street, which badly damaged the Avenues gang presence. In reaction, the Mexican Mafia overlords who rule Los Angeles’ Latino-gang drug trafficking began methodically rebuilding their Drew Street drug operations. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the imprisoned mafia honchos issued new marching orders starting in the summer of 2008, by using illegal cell phones smuggled into their state prison cells, and by easily passing messages during prison visitation hours.
Among those orders, the Mexican Mafia handpicked Velasquez to take over drug operations from the decimated Leon family. It was perfect timing, since Velasquez was getting out of prison in July 2008, having served only a year after brutally kicking a female cop in the face during a police chase on Drew Street, then breaking into an apartment and ordering the terrified family inside to provide him with a change of clothes.
The cocky lifelong loser went free on July 24, 2008. Just nine days after Velasquez got out of prison, the feds and LAPD allege, he shot down Escalante after the father of three strapped a baby seat into his wife’s car.
“Most people are still in bed at 5:30 a.m., and for them to go out and find him, I think it is very unusual — and it indicated that there was knowledge that he was going to work,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Brunwin.
The deputy grew up on Thorpe Avenue and his parents still lived there. The entire Escalante family was known to the gang members in the neighborhood. “I think they knew who he was. They may be trying to claim that they didn’t know who he was, or thought he was a gang member, but I don’t think it makes sense in the circumstances.”
One highly experienced gang expert has a competing theory, saying, “It would be a good thing for Carlos to say he killed the deputy, to put him in good light with the Mexican Mafia.” This source has no independent evidence of his theory, and acknowledges, “I know he said those things on the wire.” However, the source suggests, “It seems to me that he found out on the news who he had killed, then he started bragging.”
The feds are now investigating whether the Mexican Mafia ordered Velasquez to murder the deputy. The grand jury indictment unsealed last month names 88 people and alleges a vast number of crimes. Among those indicted are several key members of the Aguirre family, who local and federal law enforcement say are the bosses over the Leon family and the Avenues gang.
The Aguirres run their Mexican Mafia operations from California state prisons, led by such figures as Richie “Little Pee Wee” Aguirre and his uncle Richard “Psycho” Aguirre. The Aguirres “are charged with having been in control of the Avenues gang — for a long time — and a number of them were continuing the activity” after Maria Leon was driven out and her house torn to the ground, says Assistant U.S. Attorney Ariel Neuman.
In fact, alleged cop killer Velasquez was so tight with the Mexican Mafia, according to the indictment, that mafioso Little Pee Wee asked Velasquez to smuggle black tar heroin in his rectum into the L.A. County Jail. Incredibly, authorities say, convict Aguirre runs the drug trade in the Los Angeles County jail system from his distant perch inside Kern Valley State Prison, where he is serving a life sentence for murdering three people as a teenager.
How does the imprisoned Mexican Mafia so easily run crime ops in Los Angeles? Among other things, according to the feds, the prison guard named in the federal indictment, identified as Tammy Armstrong, appears to have been involved with Aguirre’s Kern Valley State Prison cellmate because she sent the cellmate explicit photos of herself using sex toys. Officials say Armstrong supplied him with a pin number for an illegal AT&T prepaid cell phone — and made sure he had plenty of minutes.
Just days before Carlos Velasquez’s arrest last December, federal authorities say, he was plotting an attack against rivals but worried about an increased police presence around Drew Street. So he and his pals tried to hide a loaded AR-15 assault rifle, a Norinco SKS 7.62-mm assault rifle and a Mossberg 20-gauge sawed-off shotgun at an address on Avenue 59 in Glassell Park.
After the cops found and seized the cache of weapons, investigators heard a tapped jail phone call in which Velasquez dutifully reported to his Mexican Mafia boss Aguirre, at the Kern Valley State Prison. Velasquez told Aguirre that police had nabbed his hidden assault rifles — but didn’t find his hidden dope.
Velasquez should not have felt so triumphant. The LAPD wasn’t done with him. The next day, Velasquez and his gang buddy Guillermo Hernandez were arrested for slaying Escalante. Informed by the Weekly that federal authorities believe Escalante was assassinated to avenge the LAPD’s killing of Leon, Escalante’s friend Bottomley says: “If indeed that was true, it doesn’t surprise me. That’s the way they think. We can’t take it personally, even though it hits home.”
Thanks to last month’s raid, the battleground communities of Drew Street, Glassell Park and Cypress Park have been rid of dozens of thugs. Nobody knows if the crackdown will give the area a modest chance to clean itself up, or whether the temporary quiet will soon be replaced with gunfire. But the story of Abel Escalante, at least, will persist.
“Escalante was a victim, whether they targeted him as a gang member or a Latino living in the neighborhood,” says Pastor Catalan. “The courts will sort it out. He was well-loved in the neighborhood. He shined for his determination to not go in that direction.”