By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
Things were relatively quiet until the night of April 15, 1994.
What transpired is clouded by controversy. What's certain is that the Glendale Police Department gang squad responded to reports of fighting at a wedding reception at the Glendale Women's Club.
The police apparently attempted to subdue Eli Balkcom after he didn't immediately to respond to their commands. Then all hell broke loose.
Eli had undergone surgery on a hand a few days earlier. Frank Jr. says he saw Keith Otts about to strike Eli with a metal flashlight on the bandaged hand, and he snapped.
Frank Jr. later told court officials he'd come to his brother's aid and struck at least two officers before they corralled him. An officer used a stun device on Frank Jr.--the number of applications is in great dispute--before arresting him and Eli on charges of assault and resisting arrest.
Eli Balkcom recalls that two Glendale cops approached him later that evening at the police station.
"I was told, what was I going to do, go cry to my dad?" he says. "They were telling me that my dad would be real proud of me now."
The brothers later pleaded no contest to reduced misdemeanor charges of assault and disorderly conduct. Both were put on adult probation.
Then, in March 1995, Frank Jr. filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the Glendale PD and eight officers--including Keith Otts. The suit accused the officers of police brutality during the wedding-reception collar.
In part, the suit alleged: "The Glendale PD . . . was known for the racist behavior of various of its officers. Furthermore, the Glendale PD tolerated the use of radically and ethnically pejorative language among police officers, thereby allowing to exist and acquiescing in, an atmosphere of racial and ethnic bias and prejudice."
Glendale PD has denied wrongdoing in the incident. Citing "ongoing litigation," the department would not allow Rusty Peterson, Keith Otts or other officers to comment publicly about the allegations.
"The Glendale Police Department is confident that we will ultimately be exonerated," spokesman Jim Toomey wrote in an April 26 response to numerous questions posed by New Times.
Frank Balkcom Jr.'s lawsuit was destined to have problems--friendly eyewitnesses have been hard to come by, stories have changed. But its presence did nothing to ease tensions between the Balkcoms and the Glendale PD.
"We're just a family," Frank Jr. says. "They're a whole city, a whole department. We think the cops work against us."
In April 1995, Eli Balkcom opened a letter from a friend whose return address is the Arizona State Prison. The message was sobering:
"I tell you, Nasty Boy, stay out of trouble homes, 'cause being locked up is fucked up. You're still young. Make a life for yourself and keep away from the bad gente [people]."
Eli seemed to be heeding the advice. His best friends were his girlfriend, Christine Berumen, and Hector Torres.
Like Eli, Torres would never be mistaken for a choirboy. But in his own way, Torres was setting an example for his younger pal.
Now 24, Torres moved from California to Glendale a few years ago to attend an automotive school. At nights, he worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken to pay the bills. There, he befriended Eli.
"He's a lot of talk, but not much action anymore," Torres says of his friend. "His gangbanging days are old news, but he don't want outsiders to know that. Anything Eli's ever done, he's told somebody about--me, his girlfriend, his mom. Write this down, okay? We aren't perfect, but we weren't banging. We were working."
Torres works six days a week as a mechanic for a Peoria service station; at the time he was jailed, Eli Balkcom was making more than $8 an hour as an electrician's assistant.
Eli's life could have been much worse. Christine had borne their daughter, 2-year-old Celeste, whom he adored. The couple had weathered many ups and downs during their three-year relationship, but were still together.
"Eli had mostly settled down a lot," says Christine, a 21-year-old credit-card-company employee. "He wasn't doing the stupid stuff you do at 15 anymore."
But Eli apparently suffered an episode of teenage regression.
Although he was on probation, he carried a gun.
Last September 10, three people in a car flagged down a Glendale police officer on afternoon patrol. They showed him a bullet hole in the passenger-side door, about two inches below the window.
The driver, David Molinar, claimed he and two friends were nearing the intersection of 59th Avenue and Bethany Home when the sole occupant of another car flashed gang signs at him. (Molinar's fellow passengers do not corroborate this.) The driver then backed his car into Molinar's car.
Molinar told the officer he stepped out of his car and was walking toward the other driver. He said the other guy tried to run him down, and then fired a shot in his direction as he retreated to his car. The bullet hit the passenger door, but nobody was hurt.
Molinar said he followed his assailant and saw him turn into a nearby apartment complex. Then he went to find a cop. Officers couldn't find a look-alike vehicle at the complex, and made no immediate arrests.