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.
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.
For 53-year-old Lola Peralez—disabled and wheelchairbound by polio since the age of one—Roberto was the love of her life. Informed of her husband's death, she fainted. "My husband was a human being, and he had his faults, but he really was always a good man to me," she said. "I will never believe he tried to run over the deputies. He wasn't that kind of person. Once, he even called the police himself and told them he needed help with his drug problem."
In her front door, there is a grapefruit-sized hole, a remnant of the raid on the morning of the killing. A hand towel is all that blocks the wind from pouring in. More than a dozen family pictures and religious figurines decorate her modest, tidy 88-year-old house; Roberto was born on the property in 1933. Since the shooting, Lola Peralez says she can't sleep well and has contemplated hiring a lawyer to file a wrongful-death lawsuit.
"It hasn't been easy," she said. "I have a very bad feeling about what happened. I wonder if they [the deputies] figured it wasn't a bad thing that there would be one less poor Mexican in the world."