The murder shocked the conscience of a crime-scarred community.
The arrest of two suspects showed the far-reaching influence of a notorious street gang.
But revelations that one of the two men accused of murdering a young deputy sheriff belonged to an extended family of criminals, presided over by a middle-aged matriarch, provide a new twist in the saga of a gang clique that police freely admit they've been incapable of ousting – even though its members operate within 100 yards of the LAPD's Northeast Station.
(Photo California Dept. of Corrections)
Juan Escalante, 27, was shot from behind about five times in the head and upper body with a .40-caliber pistol outside his boyhood home in the 3400 block of Thorpe Street in Cypress Park. It was early morning, August 2, and Escalante was leaving to go to work at the Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. The LAPD allege that two men connected with the Drew Street clique of Highland Park's Avenues gang are responsible for the murder.
Law enforcement sources also claim the men have close ties to a particularly violent clique of the Avenues that for years has battled with local and federal authorities. The Los Angeles Times reported that Guillermo “Pee Wee” Hernandez, 20, and 24-year-old Carlos “Stoney” Velasquez were picked up on December 12 after a joint four-month investigation that involved nearly 100 officers and detectives from the LAPD, Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department and the Los Angeles High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas unit.
It is unclear whether Escalante, a former U.S. Army reservist, was targeted because of his work in a particularly dangerous jail unit — which put him in contact with Avenues gangsters and Mexican Mafia members who rule the streets of Cypress Park, Highland Park and Glassell Park from behind bars — or if it was a simple case of mistaken gang identity.
However, whether Escalante was on such a “green light” list remains to be seen.
What authorities do know is that the two gangsters maintain close ties to the Leon crime family that has terrorized the Drew Street community since the early '90s.
In September of 2006, Velasquez was among 57 gang members who were ordered by the city to stay away from the Leon's family compound on Drew Street, which was later shuttered by the City Attorney's Office as a nuisance-abatement property.
This past February three Drew Street gangsters, including Velasquez' brother Jose Gomez and cousin Danny “Klever” Leon, opened fire on 36-year-old Marcos Salas and his two-year-old granddaughter near Aragon Avenue Elementary School in Cypress Park. The former Cypress Park gang member was killed instantly, but the tiny toddler survived. A few minutes later, Gomez and Leon were confronted by gang officers and opened fire. Leon, who was brandishing an AK-47 rifle, was gunned down. Gomez, 18, was wounded and later charged with two counts of murder and attempted murder.
Then, in June, Velasquez' aunt, Maria “Chata” Leon — the reputed matriarch of the large family of drug dealing gangsters — and her extended brood were arrested under a federal racketeering indictment naming 70 defendants for murder, extortion, home invasion and witness intimidation. According to crime blogger “In the Hat, the U.S. Attorney's Office, which spearheaded the federal investigation, is “at full throttle with regard to bringing federal cases against local gangsters, shooters, dealers and shot callers.”
The motive for the killing might never be known. The two gangsters were charged today with capital murder, with Velasquez named as the shooter in the Escalante hit.