By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Is the Orange County Sheriff's Department rotten only at the top, or has Sheriff Mike Carona's eight-year reign of bribery schemes (confirmed and alleged), sex scandals and shameless self-aggrandizement soaked deep into the $700 million-per-year law-enforcement agency?
The puzzling case of Sheriff's Lieutenant Michael Charles Betzler provides a clue.
On its face, it is not strange that a veteran officer like Betzler could rise rapidly from sergeant to lieutenant and then, just as quickly, win a high-paying special assignment. But this promotion didn't immediately follow heroics—nabbing a bank robber, solving a murder, saving a person from a burning car, destroying a drug ring, or displaying extraordinary management skills.
In April 2005, Betzler admitted he took a crime-scene photograph of three windshield bullet holes, drew a skull and crossbones over the image, displayed his artwork for people to see in the sheriff's department, and shared laughs about it with Joseph William Balicki—the deputy who fired the fatal shots into an unarmed, elderly Latino grandfather during the execution of a 2003 search warrant. According to government records reviewed by OC Weekly, Betzler landed in the coveted police chief's job weeks after his confession.
But was the promotion a reward for incompetence or something else? The line at the sheriff's department remains that there is no connection between Betzler's rise and the mocking of Roberto Peralez's killing in Stanton. Indeed, officials claim they rebuked Betzler for unprofessional conduct. How stern was the punishment? Two years of digging uncovered that the usually hard-nosed Galisky gave Betzler a verbal reprimand so weak it didn't threaten him with a single consequence if he repeated the conduct.
At least, that's how Galisky recorded history. Promoting a deputy to lieutenant and giving him his own city to police signals the insincerity of the reprimand—if one was ever really given. As the FBI, IRS and California's commission on police conduct discovered in recent years, Carona and his cronies have a history of backdating and sanitizing official documents to suit their whims.
There's a second, more alarming twist in this tale. Veteran law-enforcement officers say it wasn't a coincidence Betzler took the blame for the controversial artwork and was weeks later given rule over San Juan Capistrano. They say the confession was staged to assist the real culprit: another deputy who, along with Carona, OCSD and the county, faces a pending federal wrongful-death lawsuit claiming excessive force in the Peralez killing.
In April 2004, I contacted the department to ask why Balicki, the deputy who killed Peralez, had taken a crime-scene photograph of the three fatal bullet holes in the Peralez van's windshield, drawn a skull and crossbones on the image and displayed it on his desk. I told officials I had a copy and was writing a story about Balicki's history of hotheaded conduct involving Latinos; I asked for a comment. They declined any on-the-record quote. They certainly didn't say Balicki wasn't the artist. Their biggest concern at the time was who had leaked evidence of Balicki's contempt for Peralez.
The article ("To Protect & Swerve," April 9, 2004) created a public-relations nightmare for OCSD. The Weekly published the image, which leaves no doubt of the artist's callous, juvenile disregard for life. The Peralez family filed their lawsuit.
Even without the artwork evidence, Balicki isn't the ideal cop defendant. For example, while off-duty and driving in civilian clothes in 2003, he pointed his handgun out of the window of his car at two young Latinos in another moving vehicle. Their offense? Minutes earlier at an Irvine Wendy's drive-through, the youngsters had played their music too loud for the deputy's taste; the heavily armed SWAT member claimed he felt threatened.
Some might consider the pointing of a weapon under these circumstances to constitute assault with a deadly weapon. But the man who rescued Balicki from potential criminal charges that day was his sergeant: Mike Betzler. He arrived at the scene and explained to Irvine cops that the matter would be handled internally at OCSD. What ultimately happened? Betzler didn't even bother to give Balicki a verbal reprimand for brandishing his gun or failing to identify himself as a deputy.
Are Betzler and Balicki back-scratching deputies? Removing the windshield image as a factor in the federal trial would have been a big win for Balicki and the department. In pretrial motions, defense lawyer Norman J. Watkins devised a two-pronged attack. He asked federal Judge David O. Carter to rule that the artwork was too inflammatory for juror consumption. He lost. He argued that because Betzler had confessed to drawing it, the artwork of the Peralez killing was "wholly irrelevant" to a jury studying the Peralez killing. He lost.
During a 2005 deposition in the case, Betzler had trouble with his memory when it came to the episode. "To be honest with you," he said, "I don't recall exactly if I just put it on his desk, you know . . . yeah . . . I probably put it on his desk."
Balicki isn't suffering from memory loss. In fact, he's positive of two conflicting versions. At his deposition, he stated he didn't know who had doctored the crime-scene photograph and never had a single conversation about it. Two years later, in October, on the witness stand, Balicki proposed another story. He turned to the jury and said, "I knew it [the drawing] had come from my sergeant."
He's now also able to say what was in Betzler's mind. "He was making light of my shooting ability," offered Balicki, who fired three expert shots into Peralez's chest and heart and 10 minutes later went to McDonald's to eat breakfast. "It wasn't offensive toward the shooting."
That assertion doesn't square with Betzler's original version. He's admitted that the artwork had been the heart of a joke about the killing. "It was probably a bad attempt at, you know, I don't know, some humor between myself and Balicki," he said.
There are more than inconsistencies and contradictions. Circumstantial evidence reveals Balicki's character regardless of who created the artwork. For two years until my exposé, the deputy kept it as a souvenir on his desk, alongside other personal mementos. Lawyers representing the Peralez family asked him why. Balicki replied, "I don't know."
Was it worth saving?
"I don't know?
Did it have value to you?
"I just didn't feel the need to throw it away."
For more stories, go to the Sheriff's Scandal Archives.