In a ninth-floor courtroom at the Ronald Reagan Federal Building in Santa Ana last week, Joseph William Balicki, an accused rogue sheriff's deputy, twists the corner of his mustache, scratches his Roman nose and stares ahead as if lost in thought. Is he pondering the civil lawsuit that alleges he needlessly killed Roberto Peralez, an elderly grandfather and drug addict, during a 2003 search warrant executed at a traffic stop? Is he angry the Peralez family is making a fuss that 10 minutes after the killing, he'd gone to McDonald's to eat breakfast? Is he still calculating who in law enforcement leaked embarrassing evidence that he'd mocked the killing?
We may never know. Balicki is an elusive character. He's admitted, reluctantly, that he learned to convincingly sell lies while working undercover narcotics and vice. His survival depended on his acting ability, he's explained.
This much is certain: Balicki is one of Orange County's most highly trained deputies. During 19 years of service, he has earned impressive awards for valor. He's risked his life to subdue armed criminals and has jailed a long list of drug users, bandits and prostitutes. Though he observes that police work "isn't like the movies," Balicki likes to recount how he saved a passenger from a burning vehicle early in his career.
Such service gives certain cops a locker-room swagger. Asked if he's in good shape, Balicki will cock his head back, pause, raise his eyebrows and respond, "I am in above-average shape." Asked if he's a good shot, he will smile and say without a hint of modesty, "I am a very good shot. I am at the top of my 30-man [SWAT] team."
But this is equally certain: The 45-year-old deputy has a history of questionable conduct, usually involving Latinos and excessive force.
A few months before he killed Peralez, he committed an act of road rage in Irvine. While off duty, he pointed his loaded handgun out the window of his car at two Latinos, ages 22 and 14, who were in a moving car playing loud music. The victims were so terrified they crashed into the road's center divider, called 911 and tailed the gunman from a safe distance.
You wouldn't expect a cop to flee a crime scene and hide in a house, but that's exactly what Balicki did. When he finally emerged to speak to a puzzled officer, he admitted he'd aimed his gun "to frighten" the "youngsters." Though Balicki had been drinking alcohol, he also declared that he had wanted to arrest them for threatening him, except for one problem: He'd been in a rush to watch the Oakland Raiders on Monday Night Football. A case of assault with a deadly weapon evaporated when Irvine officer Robert Anderson (now retired) decided not to file charges against a fellow cop.
In another 2003 incident, Balicki—then on SWAT—stopped a Latino who'd changed lanes in front of him in traffic. He placed the driver in a chokehold and dragged him from his car into the street. In his report, Balicki downplayed the violence by claiming the wounded man thanked him because he "deserved it."
The deputy has issues with reporters, too. More than three years ago, I wrote an article ("To Protect and Swerve: What's the deal with Deputy Joe Balicki and Latinos in cars?" April 8, 2004) detailing not just the road-rage incident, but also the deputy's use of force on other occasions, including the Peralez killing. At least a half-dozen times, he's driven to my home, stopped his vehicle in the middle of the street, and stared at me while I watered my outside plants. According to public records, he carries a Sig Sauer P228 9 mm pistol, a high-powered rifle with a scope, and a machine gun in his vehicle.
During lunch several months ago, Undersheriff Jo Ann Galisky told me Balicki "hates you," a sentiment she indicated she appreciated.
An attempt at a trial in the Peralez wrongful-death lawsuit last year ended after two days, when Sheriff Michael S. Carona's staff conceded they'd withheld major crime-scene evidence in the case from Peralez family attorney Milton Grimes and his colleague, Shandor S. Badaruddin. It was an accidental oversight, Balicki lawyer Norman J. Watkins assured Judge David O. Carter. The federal judge then declared a mistrial.
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At the new trial last week, Grimes—a fast-talking (if self-deprecating) lawyer who favors black cowboy boots and a Columbo style of questioning—addresses the court on an issue. Balicki leans back in his leather chair, rolls his eyes and utters a barely audible wisecrack to his taxpayer-funded, three-person legal-defense team. The deputy will soon lock eyes with a juror, smile and nod politely. The juror returns the smile. When nobody's watching, he shoots an icy stare at me, the lone observer of his trial.
Orange County juries are notoriously generous to police officers accused of wrongdoing. This year, a jury acquitted an Irvine cop who disabled his patrol car's GPS system, tailed a female motorist for more than 10 minutes to Laguna Beach, pulled her over after 1 a.m., worked up an erection and ejaculated on her chest before returning to his jurisdiction. The cop, David Alex Park, claimed he thought the woman—who called 911 afterward—had been receptive to his sexual desires.
Balicki is relying on a similar defense in the Peralez killing: If I say I believed the dead man wanted to kill me—regardless of evidence to the contrary—then I'm entitled to use lethal force.
Despite their reputation for unbridled liberalism, California politicians have spent decades rewriting laws to give cops ever-increasing immunity for using deadly force. Watkins made this point in his Oct. 23 opening statement. "The basic question you have to answer is: From the officer's perspective, was the shooting reasonable—not some 20/20 hindsight," said Watkins, a frail if mentally agile man who wears thick glasses, ill-fitting suits and sports a daily cowlick. "Put yourself in that spot, the officer's spot."
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It's a smart ploy to shift the question from, "Was it necessary to fire three bullets into a 69-year-old man who carried no weapon and suffered from numerous debilitating medical conditions?" to, "Can you doubt this badge-wearing man—a "highly decorated . . . hero" against "a drug addict" dead man?"
The ace for Watkins, who will present his side of the case this week, is that Peralez failed to obey all commands issued by Balicki. He calls it "suicide by cop."
Carona isn't taking chances. Before this trial, the sheriff promoted Balicki and decorated his olive-green uniform, the one he wears each day to court, with new, yellow sergeant's stripes.