A small cement bench sits at the head of a street corner memorial in front of the Casillas family home. A silver-plated crucifix hangs on a white cross staked into the ground on which Armando Casillas died.
“What was the gain of all this?” asked Joseph Casillas, one of the victim's older brothers. “Nothing. Everybody lost.”
Family and friends all knew Armando as ‘Cookie.’ His four brothers and his sister remember him as the baby brother who would hide the cookies so he wouldn’t have to share them with his siblings. The Casillas brothers run a small martial arts studio where they used to teach classes to kids and some neighborhood law enforcement workers.
Armando Casillas died from one gunshot wound to the chest around 10:30 p.m. on June 17. After a five-month investigation, Los Angeles police arrested 41-year old Francisco Gamez, a 17-year deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, on suspicion of murder.
Gamez lives about on the same block as Casillas, about seven houses down. But the victim’s family says they never knew or met the deputy. Armando Casillas left behind a 17-year old son and his ex-wife.
On Father's Day, members of the Casillas family were in and out of their parents' house on Beaver Street in Sylmar visiting their dad for the holiday. Joseph Casillas said he saw his brother Armando around 3 o'clock that afternoon. Armando told him he'd be hanging around all day.
Armando Casillas, 38, lived just across the street from his parents' place. He'd been renting a small unit in the back of a corner house.
Meanwhile, another neighbor and friend of the Casillas family held a barbeque two houses down. A neighbor said Armando visited them during the afternoon for the holiday and to get some motor oil to fix his truck parked in front of the Casillas’ family home.
“His truck battery had went bad,” said the eldest brother, Joseph Casillas. “I remember the day before, him and Gilbert were out here charging the battery.” Gilbert was the neighbor who was with Armando Casillas the night of the shooting; he was not hit or hurt.
It’s alleged that Armando Casillas got into some kind of argument and maybe an altercation with a 20-year old man around 10 o'clock the night of the shooting. That 20-year old called his father, 41-year old Francisco Gamez, a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy detective. Gamez was off-duty that night. Prosecutors allege that Gamez drove up to the victims and after an exchange of words, fired two shots from his car.
The only people in the Casillas house that night were the father, mother and one sister. The next time Joseph Casillas saw his brother was at the hospital where he was pronounced dead.
“My mom and my sister had to see this,” he said. His sister tried to put pressure on the wound and stop the bleeding while his mother prayed on her knees.
For a while, said Joseph Casillas, the family didn’t know who'd killed their brother. He said they thought they were being followed or tracked so they added extra locks and only ran errands during the day.
A neighbor, Juan Garcia, who's lived a few houses down from the Casillas for 31 years, said he’s known the brothers since they were young kids.
“It was said because they are like family, like one of my own sons,” said Garcia.
Joseph Casillas said they'd heard rumors from neighbors and friends that it could have been the deputy who lived down the block from them, but Casillas said they tried to ignore them until Los Angeles police arrested Gamez as a suspect on Wednesday.
“It’s just, it’s hard to believe you know that somebody that is a professional that’s held up to a higher standard and their trained not to deviate from their role as community protectors to commit a crime or be accused of committing a crime such as this,” said Joseph Casillas.
Deputy Francisco Gamez had worked for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for 17 years. He was a detective assigned to the West Hollywood Division.
Neighbors on Beaver Street say they knew where Gamez lived and that he worked for the Sheriff’s department but most said they didn’t know him personally and declined to comment.
Joseph Casillas said none of his family knows the deputy, or the deputy’s son. He said that his friends have said they'd played baseball with Gamez in high school, and that the man grew up in Sylmar as the Casillas family had.
“We don’t. All our friends and relatives and people that we know, know him. But we’ve never crossed paths or talked,” he said.
Francisco Gamez has been held in county jail on $4 million bail. He has been charged with murder, attempted murder, and discharging a weapon from an occupied vehicle. He appeared in court Thursday for a brief arraignment hearing; it was postponed to Dec. 12.
In the courtroom, Gamez kept his back to news media and did not show his face.