By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
During his life, Roberto "Pino" Peralez made terrible mistakes, but his last one was fatal: on April 16, 2003, he got out of bed early.
At 6:30 a.m. that day, the 69-year-old Stanton grandfather who'd been addicted to heroin since 1945 drove his burgundy GMC Safari van to a nearby clinic. There, Peralez received his court-ordered daily dose of methadone. If he felt he'd gotten a jump on the day, Peralez was clueless that his alacrity set in motion the final 50 minutes of his life.
While Peralez sat in the clinic, about a dozen Orange County sheriff's gang and narcotics deputies broke down the front door to his house. Officers held his wife, daughter and grandkids at gunpoint while they rummaged through each room, looking for a weapon used in an unsolved robbery. They used shovels to dig up the back yard.
The officers didn't find the gun or Peralez, who had served three drug-related stints in California state prisons. Deputies in unmarked police vehicles raced to the methadone clinic near Cerritos Avenue and Dale Street in Stanton. They spotted Peralez driving west toward Beach Boulevard and his home.
What happened next is disputed except for this fact: three bullets from a sheriff's department semiautomatic 9 mm Sig Sauer handgun penetrated Peralez's windshield. The shots slammed into the diminutive, unarmed man's chest and heart. He died on the spot at 7:20 a.m. before paramedics arrived. Four hours later, two deputies wearing suits told the Peralez family, "There has been an accident."
The job of convincing the public the killing was righteous fell to Jim Amormino, top public-relations adviser for the sheriff's department. Amormino told reporters that deputies had been agitated by the fleeing ex-con, who was scheduled to stand trial two days later on unrelated drug charges. The department's story was simple: officers trapped Peralez on an industrial cul-de-sac, issued warnings to "freeze" and killed him after he tried to run them over with his van. Amormino did not reveal how far the van had been driven at the deputies, saying only that it had "headed straight toward" them. Not noticing the distinction, the Los Angeles Times pretended it knew Peralez's mental state: "Driver, 69, Shot Dead as He Tries to Ram Deputies."
Just weeks before the first anniversary of her father's death, Jessica Peralez insisted deputies were too quick to pull the trigger. "My dad was old. He had bad eyes and bad hearing," said the 23-year-old. "He didn't know what was going on around him when he was driving."
She believes the shooting may have resulted from a quirk in her father's vehicle.
"I know that van. When we would put it into 'park,' it would make a jerk forward and stop," she said. "He wasn't going to run over nobody. . . . That's just crazy. He was just putting the van into the 'park' position when they shot him three times."
Numerous other details raise questions about the sheriff's department story: How could Peralez have fled if he had no way of knowing deputies were looking for him that morning? Why had he driven so slowly, as witnesses said? If he believed police were chasing him, why would he have headed back to his house—the most obvious place for deputies to find him? Why did the "chase" last less than 90 seconds? If Peralez—who lived his entire life within blocks of the spot where he died—really wanted to flee, why did he turn onto a street he knew was a dead end? What kind of risk could an unarmed, five-foot-seven-inch, elderly man driving a sluggish old van pose to deputies?
Getting answers nowadays to those questions is almost impossible. The Orange County district attorney's office, which is allegedly investigating the shooting but hasn't issued a report, declined requests for comment. The coroner's office refused to release autopsy information and would acknowledge only that the shooting was a "homicide." The sheriff's department won't even identify the deputy who killed Peralez.
If everything the department says about the incident is true, why the secrecy? Wouldn't the cop who pulled the trigger three times be a hero?
Could it have anything to do with three other run-ins the deputy had with Latinos in cars in just a five-month period?
During an April 1 ceremony at the Irvine Hyatt Regency, the Orange County Sheriff's Advisory Council honored 10 deputies for exhibiting bravery during life-threatening situations in 2003. For example, Deputy Daniel Missel shot a resisting suspect in a hit-and-run traffic investigation and received a medal of courage. Deputy Sean Howell, who killed a knife-wielding man during a domestic-violence dispute, was given a medal of valor.
"Day after day, the men and women of the sheriff's department are engaging the worst in our community to protect the best in our community," Sheriff Mike Carona told the audience.
Oddly, one name was missing from the heroes list: Joseph William Balicki. Law-enforcement sources say it was the 41-year-old deputy who allegedly risked his life to capture and then kill Peralez. While the department may be reluctant now to talk about—never mind celebrate—Balicki's conduct, the deputy is reportedly less restrained. Sources in the sheriff's department provided the Weekly with a copy of a crime-scene photograph they say Balicki has kept on his desk. The snapshot shows three bullet holes in Peralez's van windshield. Someone has drawn a skull and crossbones on the picture.