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Suspected Avenues gang members charged with murder

December 16, 2008 |  1:05 pm

Two suspected Avenues gang members were charged today with capital murder in the shooting of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Juan Abel Escalante outside his parents’ home.

Carlos Javier Velasquez, 24, the alleged gunman, and Guillermo Hernandez, 20, were charged with one count each of murder with the special circumstances that the murder was carried out to further a criminal street gang, making the two men eligible for the death penalty, prosecutors said.

Jane Robison, a District Attorney’s spokeswoman, said that prosecutors will decide later whether to pursue the death penalty in the Aug. 2 slaying. Velasquez also was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon.

The two men were arrested in the deputy’s shooting death Friday after months of investigation by a joint task force of LAPD robbery-homicide detectives, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s homicide bureau and members of the Los Angeles High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas.

The two suspects are alleged members of the notorious Avenues gang, which has long feuded with the Cypress Park gang whose territory includes the northeast Los Angeles neighborhood where Escalante lived.

-- Richard Winton

Hernandez and Velasquez are scheduled to be arraigned this afternoon in downtown L.A. and are being held without bail.

Despite the suspects’ alleged gang affiliation, investigators still don’t know why Escalante was shot near the 3400 block of Thorpe Avenue on Aug. 2.

At Saturday’s news conference, police did not say whether the shooting was a random attack or Escalante was targeted.

"We are still seeking additional information," said Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton on Saturday, adding that the investigation has been "very, very, very difficult."

He said police were aided by tipsters

There is still "an effort to search for additional suspects that may have been involved in the murder of Escalante," according to a police statement.

Early on, detectives wondered whether the shooting was related to Escalante’s job at the jail, where he guarded inmates that included members of the Mexican Mafia.

They also examined his personal life for possible clues. Then investigators considered a new scenario: that Escalante was killed by local gang members, perhaps by gunmen who did not know he was a law officer.

Bratton said investigators obtained a series of search and arrest warrants on Thursday and made the arrests the following day. Bratton asked for patience and said officials would be able to divulge more information after the case is filed with the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office this week.

The Cypress Park neighborhood where Escalante grew up had experienced a lull in gang violence in recent years until rival groups began violently feuding in January.

In February, a shooting outside an elementary school a few blocks from the Escalante family home sparked a fierce gun battle between gang members and police in neighboring Glassell Park.

The Avenues gang took root in the 1950s and derives its name from the avenues that cross Figueroa Street. It is among the most powerful gangs in the city and retains strong ties to the Mexican Mafia gang, known as the Eme, which is a dominant force in California prisons.

Escalante, 27, who worked at the Men’s Central jail guarding some of the county’s most dangerous inmates, was gunned down outside his parents’ Cypress Park home about 5:40 a.m. as he prepared to go to work.

He was adjusting a child’s car seat in a vehicle when he was shot in the back of the head. Celeste Escalante heard the gunfire, looked out her window and saw her husband lying on the ground.

Escalante was a 2 1/2 year-veteran of the sheriff’s department and had served in the U.S. Army Reserve. "When one of us is brutally killed, all of us grieve," Sheriff Lee Baca said at Saturday’s news conference.

"Hopefully, this will lift some of the pain that’s on your shoulders," Baca said, speaking to Celeste Escalante, who stood onstage with her two young sons, daughter and in-laws.

Early on, detectives wondered whether the shooting was related to Escalante’s job at the jail, where he guarded inmates that included members of the Mexican Mafia.

In November, police announced a $95,000 reward for anyone with information leading to a prosecution in the deputy’s killing. He and his family had been living with his parents while waiting to move into a new Pomona home.

Late last month, Celeste Escalante pleaded for witnesses to come forward. Escalante was the eldest son of immigrant parents from the Mexican state of Yucatan; his mother worked at a candy store and his father was a construction laborer.

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