By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Christine Berumen says Eli confided in her that day.
"He tells me everything, good and bad," she says. "He said, 'You're gonna be mad at me, but something happened.' He told me this guy and him had been messing and then the guy came at him with a club. . . . He said he'd shot away from them, even though he could have hit them."
Molinar apparently returned to the complex several days later, and recognized a white, 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass. He wrote down the license-plate number--BYA 018--and called police. The car was registered to Eli and Frank Balkcom Sr.
Rather than question Eli immediately, Glendale investigators bided their time. Preston Becker, the Glendale PD sergeant in charge of investigations, took control of the case, which soon ballooned.
By the end of October, Becker was convinced he could link Eli Balkcom to four other violent or potentially violent Glendale crime scenes. The most serious was the unsolved July 10 near-fatal shooting of a security guard at the Glencroft Retirement Center at 67th Avenue and Butler.
Police reports indicate that, just after midnight, the victim and another guard confronted what they described as three Hispanic males acting suspiciously in the parking lot. One of the men shot the younger of the guards in the back with a .38-caliber handgun.
The men then fled in a white Monte Carlo. The fleeing car ran over a bicycle, chipping a bit of paint off the car in the process.
Though critically injured, the victim wrote down its license plate: LFK 865.
It was touch-and-go for several days, but the wounded guard pulled through. The case was assigned to Glendale Detective Tom Clayton, reputed by many to be that department's finest investigator.
Clayton ran the license plate, which was the best available evidence. The computer showed a car registered to a resident of Douglas, on the Arizona border. Its owner told Clayton she'd turned in LFK 865 for personalized plates months earlier.
But Preston Becker was running the broader investigation of Eli Balkcom, whom he strongly suspected to be the shooter.
"The similarities include the description of the suspects, the suspect vehicle and the type of weapon used," Becker noted in a police report.
Or, in other words, Hispanic males in large white cars who were armed with handguns.
On October 25, Becker visited the still-recovering security guard at his home. In a report, he described how he'd showed the victim a photo lineup of six Hispanic males on one page--three on top, three on the bottom.
Eli Balkcom was in the number-two position, a popular position, veteran detectives say, to put a suspected bad guy.
It had been more than three months since his brush with death, but the guard was adamant: The man who'd shot him was number two.
"I'll swear on a stack of Bibles that's him," Becker quoted him as saying.
In a separate interview about an hour later, the second guard also picked out a photo of Eli, still in the number-two slot.
Experienced investigators, however, know photo identification can be a shaky proposition. Prosecutors often are loath to pursue charges solely on eyewitness testimony--which is all they had of substance in the security-guard case.
(To avoid an appearance of impropriety, most detectives routinely move a suspect's photo to a different position for each new witness that reviews a lineup. But Preston Becker kept Eli Balkcom's photo in the number-two slot throughout his investigation.)
Becker continued to scan the police computers for unsolved cases that Eli conceivably could be connected to. Within days after the guards identified Eli, Becker showed the photo lineup to three men involved in separate cases in which a gun had been brandished by a Hispanic.
Two of the three identified number two, Eli Balkcom, as the man who'd threatened them with a gun.
One of those cases involved another security guard, this one at the Summerhill Place Apartments at 6801 West Ocotillo Road. On October 8, the guard alleged, a Hispanic with medium-length hair and a goatee/mustache had pointed a gun at him after being caught burglarizing a car.
The guard jotted down the Ford's license number, and called the police. This plate number also led police on a wild-goose chase.
Undaunted, Becker showed the guard his photo lineup. This man, too, pointed to number two, Eli Balkcom, as the one he'd caught burglarizing the car. But he also chose number six as the driver of the vehicle. Number six was a mug shot of a man who had nothing to do with any of the Glendale cases.
This gun-pointing case at the apartment complex had other problems. By all accounts, Eli Balkcom wears his hair short, not "medium length." And his parents and girlfriend avow he's physically incapable of growing a goatee.
Yet another Glendale man identified Eli in a photo lineup as the Hispanic male in a yellow Pontiac who had pointed a gun at him a few weeks earlier.