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Driver in deputy’s slaying provides details of attack in testimony

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 earlier this month 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, where he was assigned to the “high-power” unit.

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 14-year 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, questioning him about the lie. 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 .40-caliber 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.

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.

victoria.kim@latimes.com


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