Over 100 family members, friends, neighbors, local politicians, police and firefighters attended a prayer vigil last night for a sheriff’s deputy who was gunned down outside his parent’s home in Cypress Park on August 2.
“It takes a lot of courage to be here,” said Councilman Ed Reyes who was surrounded by a handful of sheriff’s deputies and four Los Angeles firefighters who responded to the 911 call. “Cypress Park is a great community. We are going to get you. You are going to pay the price. United we are strong. We will have justice.”
The hour-long prayer vigil, which took place on the corner of Thorpe and Aragon avenues, was officiated by a local pastor who spoke to the mostly Hispanic neighbors and a small army of television reporters. The area was blocked off by yellow police tape.
Deputy Juan Abel Escalante, who was assigned to guard the county’s most dangerous inmates at Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, was shot around 5:40 am as he was preparing to leave for work. A law enforcement official told the Weekly that Escalante was in the process of removing a child seat from his SUV that was parked on the street when he was shot from behind around five times in the head and upper body with a 40-caliber pistol.
Witnesses told detectives they saw a white or silver Honda drive towards 27-year-old Escalante before he was shot. Escalante, his wife and three children were living at his boyhood home while they were getting ready to buy a house in Pomona. He became a sheriff’s deputy two and a half years ago.
Escalante was not wearing a uniform at the time of his death.
Detectives have not figured out the motive behind the slaying but they are not ruling out that an inmate who had a beef with Escalante killed him. The deputy worked in a particularly dangerous unit that put him in contact with Mexican Mafia members who rule the streets including Cypress Park from behind bars.
However, cops also said they can’t rule out the possibility that a personal grudge provoked the killing or that Escalante may have been a victim of mistaken identity.
“There is always the possibility that it was a mistaken identity,” said another law enforcement official. “He could have been mistaken for a gang member. He was a young male Hispanic. Unfortunately in LA that makes you a target.”
The police said they are following several leads but are hoping that the public will provide them with additional information about what happened.
“We need the community to help solve this murder,” said LAPD Robbery-Homicide detective Steve Eguchi. “Without the publics help this investigation could go on for a very long time.”
The early morning shooting occurred within a block of the shooting death of alleged Cypress Park gangster Marco Salas who was gunned down by Avenues gangsters in February. The gunmen ended up in a shootout with LAPD gang detectives a few minutes later. An Avenues gangster, who was wielding an AK-47, was shot to death by police.
Escalante’s death happened in the middle of a particularly violent weekend in the North Los Angeles area. On Friday night, two gunmen shot a young black man in the leg around Avenue 43 and the 110 Freeway. The next day, at 4:50 in the afternoon, a local drug dealer was shot three times by two Hispanic gang members outside the Cahuenga Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. Later that night, two gangs opened fire on each other outside a party on the 200 block of North Avenue 51. An hour later, more gunfire erupted on the 200 block of South Avenue 52.
“Had the people been better shots the body count would have been high because there was no lack of shootings,” said the law enforcement officer.
On Monday afternoon, a procession of sheriff’s deputies took Escalante’s body to a mortuary. His funeral is scheduled for Friday morning at 9 a.m. at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, located at 555 West Temple Street in downtown Los Angeles.