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Crime & Justice

Murder trial for slain deputy focuses on gang ties

The widow of slain county sheriff's officer Juan Escalante looks on at a memorial ceremony for her husband who lost his life when he was shot by a gang member outside his home in 2008.
The widow of slain county sheriff's officer Juan Escalante looks on at a memorial ceremony for her husband who lost his life when he was shot by a gang member outside his home in 2008.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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In his opening statements, Deputy District Attorney John Collelo painted the murder of off-duty L.A. County sheriff's deputy Juan Abel Escalante as the beginning of the end for a close-knit clique of Los Angeles gang members embroilled in violence and dogged by law enforcement.

"This case, at its core, is about gangs, guns, and gang violence," Collelo told the jury. "Violence so intense that it almost claimed the life of Luis Piche and in fact cost Juan Escalante his life."

The defendant, Jose Renteria, faces murder charges for allegedly providing the weapon used to kill Escalante and inciting his death by instructing fellow Avenues gang member Carlos Velasquez to kill "any Park"—a reference to rival gangs in Highland Park and Cypress Park.

Velasquez, who mistook Escalante as a gang member, pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole for shooting Escalante as he left for work at Men's Central Jail in the early morning of August 2, 2008. Two others in the car duringthe driveby shooting pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Another two defendants have not yet gone to trial.

Escalante's murder happened a month and a half after a federal raid targeting the Avenues that resulted in the shot-caller of the Drew Street clique of the Avenues, Francisco Real, turning into a law enforcement informant. Weeks later, a shootout between Los Angeles police officers and members of the gang ended in the death of Avenues member (and Real's half-brother) Daniel "Clever" Leon. Prosecutors say that threw the clique into emotional chaos.

Escalante's death, weeks after Leon's, unleashed a new flood of law enforcement on the gang as investigators at the time suspected that gang members may have targeted the peace officer out of revenge. Los Angeles police officers arrested two of the suspects in December 2008. Both are in prison now.

The history lesson, Collelo told the jury, would be the contextual key to understanding his argument that when Renteria allegedly handed Velasquez a Colt .40 handgun, he was intentionally arming him to go out and kill, thereby making Renteria eligible for a murder charge for aiding and abetting the crime.

Renteria also faces attempted murder charges for a 2007 driveby shooting that riddled Luis Piche with assault rifle bullets and left "zipper scars" all over his body. In that instance, prosecutors are depending on Real's testimony to place Renteria as the shooter and an eye witness's identification.

The eye witness in the 2007 shooting, Defense Attorney Larry Sperber said, was about 30 feet away when she allegedly saw Renteria lean out of a passenger-side car window and fire 13 times at Piche. 

For three years after the shooting, law enforcement released no composite sketches and showed no pictures to the eyewitness, Sperber told the jury. 

"And now that everyone's going after the Avenues gang," he added,  "she can suddenly identify my client?" 

Sperber spent his opening statement trying to quell some of the prosecution's narrative and attacking jailhouse video recordings that allegely show Renteria discussing Escalante's murder with another inmate. 

In the clips shown to the jury, Renteria tells another inmate about "that night," allegedly the hours before Escalante was shot. "I was mad," Renteria appears to say. "I was like, 'any Park.'" Renteria goes on to talk about how he didn't want to hand over a .25 calber pistol for fear it would jam. 

The clips indicated that Renteria had knowledge of the murder weapon, Sperber said, but not that he incited a crime.

"Did you hear his voice say, 'I told them, I wanted them to kill somebody?'" Sperber asked the jury. "This is a young, bragging gang member speaking to another gang member."

Sperber also questioned the reliability of key witnesses, including Real, who could receive lighter sentences in exchange for their testimony.

"It's tragic what happened to Mr. Escalante," Sperber said. "But you're not here to be emotional. You're here to judge the evidence."

The trial is expected to last 10 to 12 days. Among the expected witnesses are Real, Piche, and Vanessa Arellano, the wife of admitted shooter Velasquez.