Deadly mis­take

He says the sus­pected shooter mis­took the deputy for a mem­ber of a ri­val gang.

Los Angeles Times - - Latextra - Vic­to­ria Kim vic­to­ria.kim@latimes.com

Wit­ness says slain deputy was thought to be gang ri­val.

Arnoldo Pineda nav­i­gated through the nar­row back streets of Cy­press Park as the sky grew brighter with ap­proach­ing day­light, his car full of men he knew to be mem­bers of the Av­enues gang. From the Chrysler’s stereo, Mex­i­can bal­lad singers crooned of war and vi­o­lence.

His pas­sen­gers, he tes­ti­fied this week, were on the prowl for ri­val Cy­press Park gang mem­bers.

“There’s one right there,” he quoted Car­los “Stoney” Velasquez as say­ing about a bald man in a white T-shirt stand­ing next to an SUV. Pineda said Velasquez told him to stop the car and then jumped out. Pineda said he heard gun­shots, but he didn’t look. “ Pelate, pelate,

pelate!” Velasquez de­manded af­ter get­ting back in the car. Go, go, go!

“Did you see the way he dropped?” Velasquez al­legedly said as they sped away.

As it turned out, the man killed that morn­ing in 2008 wasn’t a ri­val gang­ster. He was 27-year-old L.A. County sher­iff ’s Deputy Juan Abel Es­calante, a U.S. Army re­servist and fa­ther to three young chil­dren who was de­scribed as hav­ing over­come the odds of grow­ing up in a gang-plagued neigh­bor­hood. Pineda of­fered up an ac­count of the slay­ing at a pre­lim­i­nary hear­ing this week as the deputy’s widow, his child­hood sweet­heart, watched from the au­di­ence.

Velasquez, 26, and Guillermo “Flea” Her­nan­dez, 22, an Av­enues mem­ber who was also in the car at the time, were or­dered Wed­nes­day to stand trial in the deputy’s killing, which led to a mas­sive crack­down of the no­to­ri­ous Av­enues by fed­eral and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties. Pineda, who said he wasn’t a gang mem­ber and claimed he was or­dered at gun­point to go along with the oth­ers, agreed to plead no con­test to vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter and tes­tify against his co-de­fen­dants.

The deputy’s slay­ing on Aug. 2, 2008, puz­zled au­thor­i­ties for months, with in­ves­ti­ga­tors look­ing into the pos­si­bil­ity that the shoot­ing was re­lated to his per­sonal life or his job guard­ing in­mates at Men’s Cen­tral Jail.

But Pineda, in his tes­ti­mony, said the morn­ing’s events be­gan with a whim at the drive-thru of a McDon­ald’s, where gang mem­bers who had been up all night drink­ing had gone to get some cheese­burg­ers about 5 a.m. One Av­enues mem­ber, Robert “Block­head” Salazar piped up and said “Let’s go bang­ing,” Pineda tes­ti­fied.

“I told them, I don’t want to go bang­ing,” he re­called.

Pineda said they next headed to Salazar’s house where Velasquez met the group, car­ry­ing a gun. When Pineda said he didn’t want to go, Velasquez pointed the gun at him and or­dered him to get in the car, he tes­ti­fied. He said Velasquez gave him di­rec­tions from the pas­sen­ger seat, lead­ing them to the street where Es­calante was gunned down.

Later, as Pineda lay nap­ping at a gang mem­ber’s house, he said he over­heard Velasquez tell Salazar that Velasquez wanted to “smoke” Pineda.

“I thought they were go­ing to kill me,” he said. “I was just play­ing the part.”

Pineda, who faces a 14year sen­tence un­der his plea agree­ment, ad­mit­ted that he ini­tially lied to in­ves­ti­ga­tors and said he wasn’t the driver of the car. In cross-ex­am­i­na­tion, de­fense attorneys at­tacked his cred­i­bil­ity.

Au­thor­i­ties con­ducted ex­ten­sive wire­taps of gang mem­bers’ phones and con­fronted Pineda with in­for­ma­tion from those calls.

In the hear­ing, which lasted more than two days, pros­e­cu­tors also called to the stand 15-year-old Greg Mon­dragon, an Av­enues mem­ber.

Mon­dragon tes­ti­fied that he heard Velasquez say “I [messed] up” af­ter he found out a sher­iff’s deputy had been killed, say­ing he thought the man was an “ en­e­migo,” an en­emy. He said older gang mem­bers or­dered him to dis­pose of a .40cal­iber gun nick­named “Mickey’s,” which he be­lieved was used in Es­calante’s killing.

Velasquez’s wife, Van­nessa Arel­lano, tes­ti­fied that her hus­band did not ex­press re­morse or re­gret af­ter the shoot­ing, and that he told her to ask a fel­low gang mem­ber to set up an al­ibi for his where­abouts.

Arel­lano, who mar­ried Velasquez at Twin Tow­ers jail last year, was pout­ing and in tears dur­ing her tes­ti­mony. She pleaded guilty to rack­e­teer­ing charges in a fed­eral case against Av­enues mem­bers, Deputy Dist. Atty. Phillip Stirling said.

A third man charged in the shoot­ing, Jose “Snap­per” Ren­te­ria, ac­cused of sup­ply­ing the murder weapon, was or­dered ear­lier this year to stand trial.

War­rants are out­stand­ing for Salazar and Ar­mando “Chivo” Al­bar­ran, who were also in the car, said Deputy Dist. Atty. John Colello.

SLAIN: Deputy Juan Abel Es­calante was killed in 2008 in Cy­press Park.

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