Amid the cries of a lone bagpipe, more than 3,000 people gathered Friday to say farewell to Juan Abel Escalante, a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who was shot to death by an unknown assailant as he left home for work last weekend.
At the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angeles downtown, a priest told mourners that Escalante's life had revolved around his family, God and his community -- bonds revealed by the family photograph, crucifix and deputy's badge Escalante carried with him when he died.
The 27-year-old father of three was a local success story who emerged from a neighborhood plagued by gang violence, friends and neighbors said. They described him as an outgoing child from a close-knit Catholic family who, from a young age, strove to improve his community.
"When it comes to the young people from Abel's part of town, we tend to only hear about the kids sucked into lives of violence and crime," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. "Abel was a man who rejected the conventional wisdom and defied the odds. He turned away from the destructive forces entrenched in his community and refused to give in to the elements of hate and division."
Escalante's popularity was evident on the day of his burial.
Hundreds of law enforcement officers, childhood friends and even the waitresses who had served him and his family at one of his favorite restaurants in Montebello attended the funeral Mass, which was closed to reporters at the request of the family.
Shortly before 9 a.m., throngs of uniformed officers, black ribbons stripped across their badges, lined Temple Street outside the cathedral. As Escalante's flag-draped coffin was carried from a white hearse by his two brothers and several deputies, Sheriff Lee Baca joined the line in salute. Later, a funeral procession, which included dozens of sheriff's buses and patrol motorcycles, made its way across four empty freeways, following Escalante's hearse to Resurrection Cemetery in Montebello.
The mayor, the sheriff, Escalante's captain and two family members spoke during the bilingual ceremony.
Villaraigosa paid tribute to the fallen deputy who was gunned down Aug. 2 in front of his parents' home. He said Escalante was a "true example of everything we could wish for in a public servant."
Escalante was shot to death about 5:40 a.m. as he left for work at the downtown Men's Central Jail. He and his family had been living at his parents' home, where he grew up, as they finalized the purchase of a home in Pomona.
A U.S. Army reservist, Escalante had worked for the Sheriff's Department for 2 1/2 years. He was assigned to the "high power" unit, where dangerous inmates -- many of them violent gang members -- are housed in single-man cells. Investigators said this week that the shot that killed Escalante was fired from behind him and that he may not have seen his killer or killers.
Investigators have yet to determine a motive in the slaying.
Outside the cathedral Friday, the deputy's widow, Celeste Escalante, stared straight ahead with tired eyes as Escalante's body was loaded into the hearse. She hugged their young daughter, who clung to a floppy brown teddy bear. The couple, who met in eighth grade, had reconciled recently after being apart for some time.
Friends remembered Escalante as a man who spent most days at home with his children. He loved music, attended Mass on Sundays and, from a young age, learned to value and protect his family. In high school, half of his paycheck went to his mother, Ana Maria Escalante.
Maria Rodriguez, a longtime neighbor, spent time with the Escalante family as they gathered for carne asada the night before the deputy's death. Escalante's mother was cutting Rodriguez's hair, she recalled, as Escalante -- "Juanito" as she called him -- stood nearby feeding his son, the youngest of three children.
"His little boy was excited because they were planning to leave that weekend to San Francisco," said Rodriguez, 48.
Early the next morning, she awoke to gunshots, but dozed off soon after, never imagining that the neighbor she'd known since age 8 had been killed.
Maria Ayala, a close family friend, said the deputy, the second of three sons, made his parents proud.
"He was a very smart child, a very active child," she said. "You could tell from a young age he wanted to give back to the community."
As she left the cathedral shortly after the mayor spoke, Guadalupe Garcia said she had lived next door to the Escalante family for 18 years. Despite the neighborhood's bad reputation, Escalante and his brothers were raised well, she said.
"What a shame to lose someone so special and with so many values," Garcia said.
Inside the cathedral, Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar said the love of the Escalante family was palpable. So was the pain.
"You felt as if the air was being vacuumed out of the cathedral," he said. "It was a somber mood."
Times staff writer Joanna Lin contributed to this report.