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
Carlos "Stoney" Velasquez receives a visitor on the fourth floor of the Twin Tower Jail, an area so secure it's used by just one inmate at a time. Velasquez, 26, has been incarcerated almost constantly since he was 13, graduating from juvenile hall to the California Youth Authority, Los Angeles County jail and state prison.
Now, possibly facing California's rarely exercised death penalty if convicted for the 2008 shooting death of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Abel Escalante, he doesn't seem overly concerned.
"It's no biggie," he says, his grin more disconcerting than the graphic gang tattoos covering his arms and neck. "I don't really worry. Maybe sometimes, but not really. Of course I want to get out. But what can I do?"
It is a biggie to a lot of people. Escalante's family and friends. The extended family of deputies who worked with 27-year-old Escalante at the county jail. Law enforcement in general, especially the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.
"Velasquez was the shooter," says Deputy District Attorney Phillip Stirling of the Crimes Against Peace Officers division. "Our goal is to seek justice and the truth — and we have the right people."
Stirling says eyewitnesses, cell-phone calls made from jail and "side-to-side conversation he made at the old Parker Center with [co-defendant Guillermo] Hernandez" will sink Velasquez.
Authorities contend that Velasquez, an Avenues gang member, killed Escalante outside the victim's childhood home in Cypress Park in the early hours of Aug. 2, 2008, just nine days after the gangbanger was released from state prison.
Escalante, a former Army reservist, was getting in his car to drive to work when he was shot several times. Velasquez's cell phone was very active right after the 5:38 a.m. shooting. Federal authorities and the LAPD obtained taped phone conversations — including some made to state prisoners with illegally smuggled cell phones — and used those conversations to put together evidence that led to Velasquez's arrest on Drew Street on Dec. 12, 2008.
The District Attorney's Office has not been able to prove theories that Escalante was killed because he was a deputy.
The theory among some police holds that he was shot as payback for the bloody February 2008 street shootout between the Los Angeles Police Department, Danny "Klever" Leon and Velasquez's brother, Jose Gomez, which left Leon dead and Gomez wounded.
The deputy was not involved in that shootout, which led to the shutdown of the infamous Leon crime family of Drew Street. But some in law enforcement saw the slaying of a Sheriff's Department deputy as revenge for the successful actions of the Los Angeles cops who felled Leon.
But, Stirling says, "I think Velasquez just went into Cypress Park because he's a gang member who wanted to kill someone. It might have something to do with his brother and Klever getting shot. [Or] it might have been because many of his homies got murdered by [rival gang] Cypress Park" and he mistook the deputy for a rival gang member.
The key evidence is a series of taped phone conversations in which Velasquez allegedly admits to co-defendant Guillermo "Flea" Hernandez and others that he was the deputy's killer — but says he didn't know he was killing an officer.
During pretrial testimony in Los Angeles Superior Court in September, when Judge William R. Pounders ordered Velasquez and Hernandez to stand trial for murder next year, a witness said, "Stoney said he fucked up." And one LAPD detective said, "He shot someone who he thought was a rival gang member — but it was actually a cop."
Stirling and the Los Angeles Police Protective League are upset with the L.A. Times for printing the names of pretrial-testimony witnesses, including a 15-year-old. Yet Stirling admits the vicious Avenues gang would have figured out these witnesses' names, and probably "green-lighted" them for attacks. Still, he grumbles: "The Times just made it easier for them."
Asked by the Weekly if he shot Escalante, Velasquez says, "No. Of course I'm going to say I didn't."
His upper left arm is covered by a tattoo of a fur-coat-wearing, bullet-riddled skeleton wearing a brimmed hat — the Avenues symbol. Velasquez joined the gang when he was 13, became a member of the notorious Drew Street clique, and now says, "Where I grew up you got to join the gang. It's like the street is calling your name. And, yeah, I answered."
Authorities describe him as being "as hard-core as they get in the Avenues."
Velasquez seemed surprised that a stranger had come to find out about a man accused of shooting another stranger dead. "I don't have much visitors. I haven't had a visitor for months."
He says he wanted to be an astronaut as a kid, and that he enjoyed Jim Carrey movies. He never really knew his dad. Both his mother and his wife are in custody. He reads in jail, and the first book he mentions is The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy.
When asked "Did you know Abel?" Velasquez smiled, like it was a name he should know. "Who?" he asked. Abel. He smiled again, shook his head. Abel Escalante, he's told.