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Sheriff's deputy's 2008 murder helped inspire changes in Northeast Los Angeles

A wall in LAPD's Northeast Community Station houses the division's awards for gang initiatives, as well as a memorial to murdered Sheriff's Deputy Juan Abel Escalante.
A wall in LAPD's Northeast Community Station houses the division's awards for gang initiatives, as well as a memorial to murdered Sheriff's Deputy Juan Abel Escalante.
Rina Palta (KPCC)

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Sentencing is scheduled Monday for Jose Renteria, convicted in February of murder in the drive-by shooting death of Sheriff''s Deputy Juan Abel Escalante in 2008.

RELATED: Life in prison without parole for gang member who murdered LA County deputy

Two others have pleaded guilty and two others still await trial for their roles in a murder that helped inspire a sweeping change in some of the most violent neighborhoods in Northeast LA. 

The change is plenty visible in Glassell Park, on a street that's basically a stone's throw from the parking lot of LAPD's Northeast Community Police Station. 

Walk down Drew Street, once infamous as a drug nest, and you'll find a fairly quiet residential street, save the near-constant sound of barking dogs.

“One dog, two dog, somebody has three dogs," said longtime resident Simon Tejada. He says everyone who's lived in the area for a long time has dogs, a holdover from when this was a much more dangerous area. The sidewalks weren’t full of strollers and kids walking home from school like they are now.

“The corner was very hot," Tejada says. "Hot corner.”

Now Tejada jokes the neighborhood’s changed for the better, but everyone’s stuck with a bunch of dogs.

Number 1 in gang violence

Five years ago, back before Captain Bill Murphy took command of the LAPD's Northeast Station, the area led Los Angeles in homicides.

"We were number one, unfortunately, in gang violence," Murphy says.

In March 2008, LAPD officers had had just ended up in a shootout with a member of the Drew Street clique of the Avenues gang; officers shot and killed one of the gang members.

Months later, after a lengthy federal and local investigation, law enforcement raided several locations on Drew Street, arresting dozens of Avenues gang members. 

There, things might have stopped. 

"On August 2, I got a call about 5:40 in the morning," Murphy says.

Juan Abel Escalante, a deputy sheriff, had been gunned down by Avenues gang members. They'd driven up and shot him as he was outside his parents' Cypress Park home, getting ready to go to work.

"They shot him and killed him in cold blood," Murphy says. It was apparently a case of mistaken identity; the gang members thought Deputy Escalante was from a rival gang.

Almost immediately, law enforcement flooded the neighborhoods that make up the Northeast Division: the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, the U.S. Attorney and, of course, the LAPD.

“And we were going to take the entire Avenues gang on," Murphy says. And they did.

Another federal investigation was launched and about a year later, law enforcement arrested hundreds of alleged gang members.

Deputy's murder sparks a change

But Murphy says he wanted to do things differently – not stop with kicking in doors and arresting suspects in neighborhood raids. That would clear out some gang members, but it wouldn't bring a lasting peace.

So Murphy reached out to community leaders like Nancy Moore, a former pastor at a church in Highland Park and head of the local clergy council.

“Bill came to the clergy council and said: ‘You know what? These kids have lost their daddies and their brothers,'" Moore says.

The task of community groups like Moore's has been to make sure the families of people in prison had support. They also organized peace marches, resource fairs, and are a regular presence at murder scenes to provide support to family members.

She says it’s sad that it took the death of a sheriff’s deputy to spark a change in the Northeast neighborhoods. Still, Moore says everything jelled: the community groups, social services organizations, government agencies, and law enforcement.

“A lot of things happened in conjunction with one another, and as a Christian, I’d say God was kind of directing some things," Moore says. "You can read that however you want to.”

More change for Northeast L.A.

Now, things are changing again for the Northeast. Captain Murphy was just promoted to Commander, and will move on in a week.

He leaves behind a station with an entire wall devoted to awards for Northeast’s work fighting gangs – and Deputy Escalante is in the middle of it. 

"His picture is up there with the end of watch the day that tragically, he was murdered," Murphy says. "We have a memorial to him to always remind us the type of job that we do, the importance of it, and the impact we can have on a community.”