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.
“Oh, yeah. Man, I don't even know his first name.”
After learning of the interview, his attorney, Michael Adelson, admonished him for speaking to a reporter and sought a protective order to prevent reporters from interviewing his client. Judge Pounders said he did not have the authority to tell the media they cannot request interviews, but suggested to Velasquez that it might not be in his best interests to grant them.
Although the District Attorney's Office has not announced it is seeking the death penalty, Velasquez could receive it if found guilty because of the special circumstances of the case. A section of California Penal Code 190 allows for the death sentence if “the defendant intentionally killed the victim while the defendant was an active participant in a criminal street gang … and the murder was carried out to further the activities of the criminal street gang.”
The irony is that while some prisoners and hard-core gang members might look up to the Avenues for causing a young deputy sheriff's death, the after-effects of murdering Escalante dealt a debilitating blow to the Avenues gang on the streets — particularly to its most infamous criminal cell, Drew Street.
The Weekly's October 2009 cover story, “The Assassination of Deputy Abel Escalante,” described how a huge June 2008 police raid before the deputy's slaying badly damaged the Avenues gang and Mexican Mafia in the Cypress Park and Drew Street area. In reaction, Mexican Mafia prison thugs who control Latino-gang drug trafficking tried to rebuild their operations.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, using illegal cell phones and passing messages during prison visitations, the Mexican Mafia put out word from prison that they were taking back Cypress Park. Police say they chose Carlos Velasquez, who was being released from prison in a few days, to step into the shoes of the wiped-out Leon family of Drew Street.
But now, Velasquez sits in jail. More than 170 members of the Avenues, which authorities say has around 500 members, have been arrested since 2008. Many of the 170 have since been released from jail, but their power is diluted.
Homicides in LAPD's Northeast Division, which covers the Avenues territory, have plummeted 74 percent in two years. So far in 2010, the area has seen six homicides — compared with 23 for the same period in 2008. Aggravated assaults have dropped 45 percent from 509 to 278.
Much of that, police believe, is because the Avenues gang has been driven from residential streets longing for quiet and decency.
Velasquez says he is not particularly worried about returning to prison — perhaps because he'll have a special status on the yard.
A former Drew Street shot-caller now in federal custody explained to the Weekly what it might be like: “Once you are in state prison, they talk about why you are here,” says convict Francisco Real. “I'm here for killing an enemy. And it's like I'm in here for killing a cop. So it's like people [are] like, 'Damn, he's with it. You know. He'll kill a cop.'
“In the yard — 1,000 people — you might be the only one killed a cop. It distinguishes you.”
Deputy D.A. Stirling agrees with that cold reality. “The fact that he killed a police officer absolutely distinguishes Carlos Velasquez from other killers.”
But on Drew Street, the shadow long cast by this menacing gang has all but vanished. The graffiti is gone, too.
“It's quiet now,” says Jose Luna, an apartment manager in the area. “The neighbors are working with the police now. The LAPD is doing good.”
Two blocks from where Escalante fell, at the Principe de Paz Church that Escalante's parents often attend, the pastor says the difference between now and two years ago is almost unbelievable.
“We had memorial services for 13 people, including Abel,” says Pastor Andrew Catalan. His was the 13th service. “Since Abel, we have not had any. I think his death helped stop the killings.”
Escalante's parents live less than 50 feet from where he died. It is still too painful for them to speak about their son. “I can't talk about him,” says his father. His wife is behind him, just off to his side. She is slowly shaking her head.
They both put their right hands over their hearts, tap three times, thank a stranger for not pushing it and walk inside their home.
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