To Protect and Swerve

Whats the deal with Sheriffs Deputy Joe Balicki and Latinos in cars?

Efforts to interview Balicki were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, we know he's a highly trained veteran deputy who began as a patrolman in the Stanton division before earning a promotion to the sheriff's detective staff. The department honored Balicki for courage when he pulled a passenger from a burning vehicle on the 22 freeway in February 1995. Five years later, he joined the undercover narcotics unit.

Balicki is no doubt responsible for countless criminal convictions over the years, but law-enforcement documents obtained by the Weekly raise questions about the deputy's temperament and fitness to carry a badge and gun. They also fuel worries among some of his colleagues that Balicki is combustible around the combination of guns, Mexican-Americans and cars.

They point to several incidents:

•At an Irvine Wendy's drive-through on Dec. 2, 2002, an off-duty Balicki became enraged when two Irvine Hispanic males—22-year-old pool cleaner Lorenzo Morales and 14-year-old Lupe Moreno—pulled behind his 2003 department-issued unmarked Ford Explorer. The pair were playing loud music. Morales later said he saw the driver "continually staring" at him but didn't think much of it. After getting his food, Morales pulled onto Walnut Street, and the Explorer driver—wearing fatigues, several days' growth of a beard and slicked-back hair—swerved in front on him, causing his 1991 Chevrolet Blazer to graze the road's center divider, according to a police statement. Balicki—who was accompanied by fellow off-duty officer Christopher M. Ledbetter—then pulled next to the two and twice yelled, "Pull the fuck over!" without identifying himself as a deputy.

What happened next made Morales and Moreno fear for their lives. Balicki pointed his loaded, black, semiautomatic 9 mm Sig Sauer handgun out the window of his SUV and at their heads. Morales slammed on the brakes, called 911 and—apparently unbeknownst to Balicki—followed the deputy to Ledbetter's Irvine residence. Irvine police officers arrived there shortly after the emergency call.

At first, a female inside Ledbetter's house claimed Balicki was not there, but the deputy eventually came to the door. An Irvine officer told him to step outside, and Balicki asked "if we were there about the 'idiots'" who had been "playing extremely loud rap music" and tried to intimidate him at Wendy's.

Irvine police records show that Balicki "freely stated that he had, in fact, brandished his weapon at a vehicle while on Walnut, but only because the driver had allegedly "attempted to strike his vehicle." He told Irvine officers "he is in a plain-clothes narcotics assignment and finds it necessary to display his weapon on numerous occasions." Irvine officer B. Anderson then asked Balicki why he'd driven away instead of calling Irvine police if he believed Morales and Moreno had assaulted him. Balicki responded that he felt it was "unimportant" to pursue the matter.

Ledbetter, 30, backed Balicki's version. He told the Irvine officers that the incident began with the young men playing music "loud enough to impair my ability to hear the Wendy's employee's voice over the drive-through intercom." After getting their food, Morales and Moreno chased the two undercover officers down Walnut, stared at them and tried to run them off the road, Ledbetter claimed.

At the end of his report, Irvine officer Anderson said that he had two conflicting stories, so he could not file charges against Balicki. "With the statements provided by the victims, suspect and witness, I am unable to confirm that an assault with a deadly weapon did occur," Anderson wrote. The Irvine P.D. officer concluded that "the possibility exists" that Morales and Moreno had lied.

The next day, Dec. 3, 2003, sheriff's Sergeant Michael Betzler issued an internal department report that found no fault with Balicki. Betzler's version contained new allegations that Morales and Moreno had made threatening hand gestures at the deputies and cursed at them before Balicki drew his weapon.

•On Nov. 5, 2002—almost a month before the Irvine incident with Morales and Moreno and five months before the Peralez killing, Balicki had another violent encounter with a Hispanic male. According to a sheriff's department report filed by Balicki, he was driving east on Santa Ana Boulevard when 23-year-old Heriberto C. Moran, who was behind the wheel of a 1988 Pontiac Grand Prix, "swerved" in front of his unmarked Explorer and tried to run him off the road. "I honked my horn," Balicki told his supervisors. "Moran held the middle finger of his left hand out the window, in an obscene manner." The deputy said Moran next "was yelling something at me" and tried to "swerve against my vehicle as if to force me into oncoming lanes again."

After Balicki displayed his badge, Moran pulled over but refused to comply with his orders, according to the deputy. Balicki said he put Moran in a "control hold and physically pulled" Moran from his car. "I asked Moran if he was injured or needed paramedics to respond," Balicki wrote in his report. "Moran stated, 'It was my fault. I deserved it.'"

•On April 21, 2003, five days after killing Peralez, Balicki again used force—including pulling his 9 mm handgun—after a 40-year-old Hispanic suspect allegedly bumped his Isuzu Trooper into the deputy's undercover SUV. "There was a tiny bit of damage to Balicki's vehicle," a source familiar with the incident told the Weekly. "But it pissed him off, and he kicked or punched the suspect after he was handcuffed." The suspect did not file a complaint against Balicki.

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