Even in the brief afterglow of glory following his bold escape from the Pasadena Superior Court building last week, Danny Angel Vega was not the cunning, notorious criminal he fantasized himself to be.
He had fabricated a past as a Mafia hit man with 27 murders to his credit, a $17-million bank account and a string of beautiful actresses as lovers. Then he tried to act out that fantasy to frighten and impress the victims of his robberies and extortions, and later to interest attorneys and journalists in his court cases.
But court records and interviews with his family, attorneys and law enforcement officials provide a more mundane picture of the 26-year-old Huntington Park native who was gunned down by police April 14 as he hid in the crawl space of a Victorian home in the Mt. Washington area of northeast Los Angeles.
"Danny would have liked to be a big-time hoodlum, but he never got past the car-stealing stage," said Tony Cota, a court-appointed investigator who had assisted Vega in one of his numerous criminal trials.
Never Fired a Gun
"For all his outward meanness, I don't know of one instance where he ever fired a gun or actually used a weapon," said Ray Fountain, a Pasadena attorney who defended Vega two years ago in a series of kidnaping-for-robbery cases.
Vega's criminal life was cluttered with ingenious schemes that were bungled through stupid oversights or arrogance, court records show. His audacious, brilliantly conceived escape from the Pasadena courthouse and its tragic denouement after just 24 hours of freedom was no different.
If Vega finally lived up to his delusions by making an escape in shackles which depended on the mysterious appearance of a handgun and the perfect timing of a getaway car, what he did in the last hours of his life only confirmed his careless past.
Once free, he got only six miles away from the courthouse and was found by a security guard the next morning sleeping in a blue Toyota pickup in a residential area patrolled by the Blue Shield Protective Services.
Panicked, Stole Pistol
An all-points bulletin had been issued on the pickup, but the guard did not know it. In fact, after determining that Vega was just someone napping, the guard radioed superiors that everything was fine. But Vega, apparently thinking the guard was calling police, panicked and stole the guard's .357-caliber Magnum handgun.
Then, instead of shooting the disarmed guard or driving away, Vega fled on foot. The guard alerted Los Angeles police, and a two-hour manhunt ensued. Vega, a one-time sheriff's informant, was cornered and shot several times as he apparently reached for his gun.
"Anyone who could engineer that kind of escape from jail, have a gun sneaked in and a car waiting for him, you would think that person would be in South America the next day rather than sleeping in his car in a patrolled neighborhood," said Jeffrey Semow, a deputy district attorney who was about to prosecute Vega for attempted extortion.
"An act of criminal brilliance followed by an act of incredible stupidity: That was the story of Danny's life," Fountain said. "I don't know how to account for it except to say that maybe deep down Danny wanted to get caught."
Too Meek for Role
A career criminal, Vega enjoyed terrorizing his victims but never physically harmed any of them, court records show. Several attorneys and court officers who knew Vega said he was too meek for the role he set out for himself.
Once, after stealing several thousand dollars and a car from a Montebello woman, Vega gave the crying woman taxi fare to get home.
Despite his claims of violence, Vega was basically a car thief who made the mistake of briefly detaining and threatening the owners of the expensive cars he targeted. It meant that instead of facing robbery charges, he was convicted of the much more serious crime of kidnaping for the purpose of robbery, convictions that resulted in three consecutive life sentences in 1985.
From his jail cell, Vega enjoyed manipulating the judicial system. His court file is thick with the legal motions he researched and filed in meticulous penmanship on yellow legal paper.
And although sheriff's officials refuse to discuss it, Vega was at one time an informant who attempted to trade information for leniency.
Information that Vega provided to sheriff's investigators in late 1983 led to a lengthy internal probe of a sheriff's deputy and a county firefighter whom Vega named as his accomplices in an auto theft ring, according to court records and Vega's attorneys.
At the same time, Vega provided leads on suspected organized crime figures allegedly involved in the smuggling and sale of illegal arms in Los Angeles.