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Accused gang member goes to trial in slaying of off-duty Los Angeles sheriff's deputy

Juan Escalante

Grant Slater/KPCC

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.

Jose Renteria wore a long braid and glasses for the first day of his trial in Downtown Los Angeles Monday, almost exactly four and a half years after the death of Juan Escalante. 

Renteria is on trial for Escalante's murder. He's one of six men accused of the Cypress Park drive-by shooting that killed the off-duty Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy. Jury selection concluded Monday afternoon and 0pening statements are expected to start Tuesday.

Escalante was 27 years old when he died. He worked at Men's Central Jail, and that's where he was headed when he died outside his parents' home in Cypress Park early on the morning of August 2, 2008.

At the time, police thought his work as a deputy led to his targeting by members of the Avenues gang weeks after a massive law enforcement crackdown on the gang. Since then, prosecutors have said that  co-defendant Carlos Velasquez, who admitted to shooting Escalante, likely mistook Escalante for a rival gang member. After Velasquez pleaded guilty to murder in October of 2012, he received a sentence of life without parole. Two other defendants pleaded guilty to manslaughter and two more have yet to be tried.

Renteria is accused of supplying the handgun used in Escalante's murder. He's also charged with the attempted murder of Luis Piche, a former gang member, who's expected to testify in the coming 10 to 12 days. If a jury convicts him, Renteria could be sentenced to life without parole.

Escalante left behind a wife and three children and his death reverberated heavily in L.A. In 2011, the county dedicated a section of the Hollywood Freeway to the deputy. A 2009 profile of the murder in the L.A. Weekly noted that Escalante's murder also helped inspire increased attention on the Avenues gang in L.A.'s northeast neighborhoods. 

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