Two alleged gang members pleaded not guilty Tuesday to capital murder charges stemming from the slaying of a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who was gunned down in front of his parents' home in Cypress Park last summer.
Carlos Javier Velasquez, 24, and Guillermo Hernandez, 20, are scheduled to be back in court on Feb. 9 for a preliminary hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to order them to stand trial for the Aug. 2 slaying of Deputy Juan Abel Escalante.
Meanwhile, both men remain in custody without bail.
The murder charge against the defendants includes the special circumstance allegation that Velasquez and Hernandez were "active participants in a criminal street gang and the murder was carried out to further the activities of the 'Avenues' criminal street gang."
Prosecutors will decide later whether to seek the death penalty against the two.
The criminal complaint also alleges that Velasquez "personally and intentionally discharged a firearm, a handgun" in the commission of the crime.
Velasquez also is charged with a second felony count -- possession of a firearm by a felon.
According to the criminal complaint, Velasquez has three prior convictions -- most recently in May 2007 for obstructing or resisting an executive officer. The two others -- in June 2004 and May 2006 -- were for drug-related offenses.
Escalante was shot in the back of the head near the 3400 block of Thorpe Avenue as he prepared to go to work at the Men's Central Jail.
The 27-year-old father of three and son of immigrants from the Mexican state of Yucatan grew up in the gang-infested neighborhood. But it was unclear what his role as a law enforcement officer might have had in his death.
Escalante was a U.S. Army Reserve veteran had been with the sheriff's department about 2-1/2 years.
A joint task force of LAPD Robbery-Homicide detectives, investigators from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's homicide bureau and members of the Los Angeles High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas unit investigated the case.
Velasquez and Hernandez were arrested earlier this month by the Los Angeles Police Department's Robbery-Homicide Division and have remained jailed without bail since then.
In announcing the arrests alongside Escalante's widow, Los Angeles police Chief William Bratton appealed to the public for more information about the deputy's killing.