By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
Glendale Police Sergeant Frank Balkcom steers his cruiser into a narrow alley.
It's past midnight on a Monday in April. He's only a mile from the postcard-perfect downtown of Glendale, Arizona's fourth-largest city. But this is a different world, one with which Balkcom, who is of Hispanic and German descent, is intimately familiar.
He brakes behind a modest home in a poor part of town.
"I grew up right here and right here," Balkcom says, gesturing to the home and then to the alley. "I never knew I could make anything out of myself. I could have been a bad guy, but I . . . went straight. Now I'm a police sergeant."
Balkcom guides his car slowly back onto the quiet streets. He doesn't speak for a few minutes, then says something softly, almost to himself.
"What's been happening makes me feel dead inside sometimes," he says. "I'm still spit-shine on the job, 110 percent every time out. But this thing has been destroying me."
Frank Balkcom is a proud but bitter man trapped between love for his second-born son, Eli, and loyalty to the Glendale Police Department, an agency he's certain has been far too determined to put Eli behind bars.
Balkcom is the first to admit that Eli has serious problems; he grew up to become a gangbanger with the handle "Nasty Boy." Now 20, Eli is in jail awaiting trial on aggravated assault and other charges.
Frank Balkcom--a delinquent himself before a stint in the Marines reformed him--understands and accepts that Eli will go to prison if convicted; do the crime, do the time.
What he can't accept is his department's zealous pursuit of Eli on other, highly dubious criminal charges.
Public records and interviews indicate that Balkcom is not just another parent making excuses for a wayward child. He has good reason to be alarmed about how Eli and his older brother, Frank Jr., have been treated by the Glendale PD.
Last November, the department arrested Eli on attempted murder, aggravated assault and other crimes stemming from five separate incidents. But evidence against Eli in all but one case has turned out to be flimsy. The most solid case grew out of a September street confrontation in which Eli allegedly shot at an occupied car.
Prosecutors obtained indictments against Eli in that case, and for allegedly threatening a watchman with a gun in the parking lot of a Glendale apartment complex last October. Evidence in the latter case is scant, and a county prosecutor told Eli's attorney last week that he plans to dismiss that charge.
But if that prosecutor, Burt Jorgensen, had followed Glendale PD's recommendation, Eli Balkcom also would have been charged--wrongly--with attempted murder in the July 10 near-fatal shooting of a security guard at a rest home.
Police Sergeant Preston Becker--who supervised the investigations--had fixated on Eli as the shooter of the security guard, and as the perpetrator of numerous other crimes he probably didn't commit. In so doing, Becker wove erroneous and misleading information into a sworn affidavit seeking a search warrant of Eli Balkcom's home. The warrant portrayed Eli Balkcom as a one-man crime spree; his alleged offenses would have cinched a few decades in prison.
Eli Balkcom can thank his father for helping to prevent that. Though he had divorced himself from the investigation of his son, Frank Balkcom stumbled across a crucial lead in the security-guard shooting; it led to the April 26 arrests of two new, highly plausible suspects with no connection to Eli.
Frank Balkcom says he's certain the unhappy history between the Glendale PD and his sons Eli and Frank Jr. is partially responsible for what's happened. The brothers have had numerous run-ins with the department's gang squad, culminating in a May 1994 clash at a wedding reception. That led to misdemeanor-assault convictions against the pair, and--more significant--to a civil-rights lawsuit by Frank Jr. against the Glendale PD and eight officers.
Balkcom believes the pending lawsuit landed his sons--especially homeboy Eli--on Glendale's permanent most-wanted list.
"They were just waiting for Eli to do something, anything, before they threw the book at him," he says of his peers. "If I had evidence that Eli had shot that guard--a cold-blooded deal--I'd have given him up. I'd never cross that line. But they should do him for something he did, not for what they wished he had done."
Frank Balkcom also suspects there is more than personal animus at play. Though he condemns any unlawful acts his sons have committed, he also blames "racist types" inside the Glendale PD for escalating the war: "The white, good-old-boy guys who have been running the show here for years. . . ."
His allegations come on the heels of similar, highly publicized accusations by members of Glendale's Hispanic community, which makes up 17 percent of the city's population.
The Glendale PD, which has only 17 Hispanics--and only three who hold rank--on its 150-member force, refuses to comment on the Balkcom family or on charges of institutional racism.
Is this a case of malevolent, racist cops who have conspired to deprive a young man of his freedom?
Or does Sergeant Balkcom have a persecution complex?
"Let me try some perspective," says a veteran Glendale officer familiar with the case. "It's possible things got out of hand when they booked [Eli] Balkcom on everything under the sun. But he was an excellent suspect, at least at the time. He did shoot at a car in that one good case. Could have killed a passenger easy.
"It's just gotta be tough to be Frank Balkcom these days--a decent guy stuck between his imperfect department and his screwed-up kid."
The Glendale in which Frank Balkcom grew up was a far cry from today's burgeoning city.
When Balkcom was born in 1955, Glendale was a farm town on the Valley's outskirts with a population of about 13,000. Today, its population is about 177,000 and, according to the Census Bureau, it's the nation's 14th fastest-growing city.
Balkcom, who identified with the Hispanic side of his family, says he learned the meaning of racism as a youngster. As recently as the mid-1960s, he recalls, the City of Glendale only allowed Hispanics to use its lone swimming pool the day before it was to be cleaned.
For decades, many of Glendale's poorer Hispanics traditionally have lived in three housing projects. The Balkcom clan's small home was near the Ocotillo projects.
Balkcom's father wasn't in the picture. The Georgia native had met Frank's mother, Frances, while stationed in Casa Grande during World War II. He fathered several children--Frank has ten siblings and half-siblings--but abandoned the family when Frank was a youngster.
Frank Balkcom's male role models were his older brothers, who floated in and out of jail for various crimes. Balkcom says he, too, participated in several burglaries and other crimes as a teen. He spent more than a year in reform school before returning to Glendale.
After his release, Balkcom was befriended by a parole officer, a tough ex-Marine who urged him to enlist. Armed with a newly earned GED, Balkcom at 18 took the leap.
"Being a cocky little punk, I thought I could eat those guys up," he says. "I found out I wasn't half as tough as I thought I was. I also found out what being a man is."
To this day, Balkcom oozes Marine--with his erect bearing, neatness, clipped speaking manner and belief in discipline. He's still a sergeant in the Marine Reserves, and his office at the police station is dominated by posters and slogans--"U.S. Marine Corps--Loyalty and Integrity," one says.
Balkcom says he transferred that loyalty and integrity to the Glendale Police Department when he signed on as a patrolman in 1982.
"I knew I was a Hispanic going into a white department," he says, "but I was honored that they'd have me. I've been good to go ever since."
Balkcom and his wife, Ruth, were raising four sons, and he says he didn't want them to grow up without a father, as he had. But Balkcom admits his career often took priority.
"My hours rarely have been 8 to 5, weekends off," he says. "I was really into helping others, but when I think about it now, I think I could have done a better job in being there more for my own family."
His oldest son, Frank Jr., now a well-spoken 21-year-old, recalls his youth ambivalently.
"My dad was trying to save la raza [the race] and that was cool," he says. "He'd take poor kids to the Suns games, start reading projects, walk the projects all the time. But he was kind of hard for me and Eli to relate to sometimes--talking down to us and stuff. Now, he treats me much more like a man."
Balkcom's office for several years was at Cholla Vista, one of Glendale's toughest projects. He walked that and two other neighboring projects daily.
"I was right near where I grew up," he says, "keeping tabs on what was going on. Most people in the projects are very good people. All it takes is a couple of tweakers or bangers to make things bad. I knew everybody, and who belonged where."
In August 1993, the Glendale police promoted Balkcom to sergeant, which meant a transfer to the station on 63rd Avenue and Union Hills Drive. His first evaluation as a command officer was outstanding.
"Your working relationships have continued to be very good and very productive," Lieutenant James Curtis wrote in January 1994. "You have once again handled several citizen complaints in an efficient and timely manner. Your squad continues to be the leader in Community Policing."
But as his career soared, things at home soured.
Eli Balkcom tries to swagger into the visitors' room at the Madison Street Jail, but he can't. Six months behind bars--and facing a potential prison term--have put a slump in his shoulders and a shuffle in his step.
The former "Nasty Boy" has a pleasant demeanor, and he's eager to talk about his life and times. His attorney, Joe Chornenky, who isn't present, has warned Eli not to talk specifics.
He's not particularly fast on his feet, and seems to have little perspective on the hell he has wrought. His comments lend credence to what those who know Eli well say about him: That he talks big, and is incapable of keeping secret his deeds and misdeeds.
Eli, however, offers little about his longtime affiliation with the Barrios Chicos Locos (BCL) gang.
"I did some shit I shouldn't have done, but that's who I was," he says, flashing a sudden smile. "That's a blast from the past. When they busted me, I was being cool for a change. I was working all day and then hanging with my buddy, chillin' with [girlfriend] Christine and [their daughter] Celeste."
In late 1994, a county probation officer summarized the Glendale PD's view of Eli as "a longtime troublemaker in the community."
By his own account, Eli started drinking at 12, then turned to sniffing paint fumes during a yearlong period around his 14th birthday. That was about the time he got "jumped into" the BCL gang.
Stints at Ironwood and Centennial high schools and at an alternative school ended in failure. He dropped out and worked menial jobs on and off.
Somehow, Eli Balkcom had slipped from his parents' grasp.
"It wasn't like we were blind to it," Frank Balkcom says. "We tried everything--being super-strict, signing 'I promise' contracts with each other, taking his gang clothes from him, taking his bedroom door off the hinges. I'd tell him, 'I'm hearing the same lies from you as I hear from the punks out there. Come on, man.' But the street got him."
By 1990, the Glendale PD was coming to grips with a burgeoning gang population. It formed a special unit, which donned black tee shirts and patrolled malls and neighborhoods and spoke at schools and other events.
Like the police department, the gang squad was mostly white; its targets mostly Hispanic. Several locals with and without apparent gang ties filed complaints about being verbally and physically hassled by the high-profile squad.
The squad also faced internal criticism from other Glendale officers.
"I was asked if I had ever heard members of the gang squad make racial statements," wrote Glendale officer Janis Whitson, in a memo obtained by New Times. "I advised Lieutenant [Denver] Wells I had heard them make racial slurs and gave him examples. . . . I told Wells I had worked the gang squad on two occasions and did not desire working with that unit after my observations on those occasions."
That's not the only documentation of racism inside the department. On November 6, assistant police chief Paul Felice sent a message to several patrol command officers after getting wind of a drawing someone had stuck up in the squad room.
"Please be aware of the caricatures and symbols that are drawn on the Mylar boards throughout the department," Felice wrote. "One was placed on a board that could be depicted as having racial overtones. . . . I don't want to stop it all together [sic], but it is your responsibility to make these things stay as innocuous as possible."
At first glance, the drawing does appear to be innocuous--it looks like a sliced-up pie chart. But its verbal punch line was vile.
"I asked someone about that drawing 'cause I couldn't figure it out," Balkcom says. "I was told, 'This is what a nigger sees when he's looking up from the bottom of a well.' Like he's seeing the hoods of Ku Klux Klanners."
Balkcom says he was stunned by Felice's cavalier attitude.
"It was like he was condoning it," Balkcom says. "To me, there's no gray area in something like this or something like sexual harassment. If you're in charge, you put a stop to it hard."
Frank Balkcom says he first felt the sting of his own department's bias after a November 1991 brawl involving then-15-year-old Eli Balkcom and several juveniles at a Glendale park.
Police reports and other records indicate that a 19-year-old punched Eli during the melee, breaking his jaw. But the department's gang squad, specifically members Keith Otts and Rusty Peterson, quickly focused on Eli as the prime suspect.
They recommended prosecutors charge Eli with assault, and with threatening or intimidating his alleged victim under Arizona's antigang laws--a felony.
Ruth and Frank Balkcom were outraged. Eli's "victim" had outweighed him by 60 pounds and Eli wound up with a metal plate in his jaw. They knew their son was no sweetheart, but he didn't deserve this.
The police reports reflect what the Balkcoms came to believe was a slanted investigation: The squad conducted lengthy interviews with the alleged victim and his friends, who were white. Eli's allies--all Hispanics--barely were questioned, if at all.
Eli was sentenced in juvenile court to community-service work; the guy who broke his jaw never was charged.
The gang squad continued to bump into Eli and Frank Jr., and the meetings were never cordial. After the boys had another unpleasant encounter with Keith Otts at a Glendale mall in mid-1992, the Balkcoms hired an attorney.
The lawyer wrote a letter of complaint in October 1992 to Glendale City Attorney Peter Van Haren. It pointed out that the juvenile probation officer assigned to the park-brawl case had advised Frank Balkcom to "contact the ACLU because the reports were rampant with racial connotations."
He continued: "Several officers within the Glendale PD were aware that these detectives [Otts and Peterson] asked to have Eli's case assigned to them because they wanted to 'do him.'"
The Balkcoms met with Van Haren and the police chief in October 1992. But apparently nothing was resolved.
"It was what they call a whitewash," Frank Balkcom says. "It was, 'We'll keep an eye on the guys and you keep an eye on your kid.' That wasn't good enough, but we had to live with it."
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.
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 man had retreated to a tan-colored 1982 Oldsmobile, where a getaway driver was waiting, also with a gun. The pair had returned October 19, this time in a late-model Ford Fairmont.
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.
Although Becker suspected Eli of a little reign of terror, Glendale police surveillance failed to produce results. It revealed only that Eli spent his free hours quietly, usually with Christine Berumen, Hector Torres and another friend.
But Preston Becker never showed any alleged victims photos of Torres or the other friend until the day before Glendale police arrested Eli. At that time, he showed the wounded security guard mug shots of the friends. The guard said he didn't recognize them.
Becker remained confident he'd struck pay dirt. He composed a 22-page affidavit, asking a judge to allow Glendale police to search Eli's apartment, and Hector Torres' apartment, where Eli sometimes stayed.
In the affidavit, Becker attributed yet another crime to Eli Balkcom. In the end, this part of the investigation would lend great credence to Frank Balkcom's contention that the Glendale Police Department has had it in for his son Eli.
A Glendale man named Andrew Mendez had complained to police in July that two of four Hispanics in a car had pointed guns at him. But the case had gone nowhere, and Becker himself had authorized dropping it in August.
On November 1, however, Becker revisited the incident. Mendez told him he suspected someone named "Danny" had been responsible for the brief encounter.
Becker showed Mendez the photo lineup anyway. This time, however, the victim didn't choose Eli, in his standard number-two position.
"Andrew stated that the subject in photo number four had possibly been one of the subjects who had pointed a gun at him," Becker wrote in a report. "Subject number one in the lineup was possibly a passenger in the vehicle in the back seat."
The men in photos one and four could not have been involved in this incident.
But in his sworn affidavit dated November 2--just one day after his interview with Mendez--Becker wrote:
"Upon reviewing the photographs, Mendez indicated to me that he believed the photo marked number two, that of Eli Balkcom, was the passenger in the vehicle, but not one of the subjects who had pointed a weapon at him . . . [Balkcom was] leaning forward and looking directly at him."
New Times pointed out this egregious error to Glendale police about two weeks ago. A department spokesman said Becker would discuss the discrepancies in an interview. But Becker canceled the interview, Glendale police spokesman Jim Toomey says, upon the advice of the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.
(However, on April 25, Becker filed an amended report in which he conceded the error: "Upon reviewing the affidavit for search warrant issued on November 2, 1995, in reference to this investigation, I observed an error which referred to a statement given by a victim Andrew Mendez . . . The affidavit inaccurately indicates that subject Eli Balkcom was a passenger in the suspect vehicle.")
Armed with a search warrant, Glendale police raided Eli's apartment on the morning of November 3, as he and Christine were about to leave for work. They found a .32-caliber handgun--likely the weapon fired at David Molinar's car--but not the .38 used to shoot the security guard at the Glencroft Retirement Center.
The police also searched Hector Torres' apartment, but found nothing linking anyone to any crime listed on the warrant.
"They asked me, 'Were you with Eli when he shot that security guard?'" Torres recalls. "It was, 'Tell us now before it gets worse for you. Was he using your car? We've already got his fingerprints. He's history.'"
Torres says he knew about the gunshot into David Molinar's car door, but that news of the security-guard shooting floored him.
"Eli would have told me if he'd done something like that," he says. "No way he would have kept his mouth shut. That ain't Eli."
Investigators confiscated the cars owned by Eli and Torres, hoping to link the paint chips left on the bicycle during the security-guard shooting. The chips didn't match.
The Glendale PD arrested Eli Balkcom for attempted murder, burglary and eight counts of aggravated assault in five separate cases.
But prosecutors sought indictment on just two of the cases--the shot fired at David Molinar's car and the October gun-pointing incident at the Summerhill Place Apartments. That a grand jury endorsed the thin gun-pointing case suggests that the panel would indict a brick if prosecutors asked it to.
Eli faced nine felony counts in the two cases, including aggravated assault, drive-by shooting, burglary (of the car at the complex) and other charges.
The attempted-murder case was on the back burner, but, by all accounts, Becker insisted he'd arrested the right man on that case.
"The uncharged cases are still being investigated," spokesman Toomey said in early April, when New Times first contacted him about this story. "But as far as I know, the suspect or suspects in those cases haven't changed."
But they had.
The news of Eli's arrest staggered Frank Balkcom, but he resigned himself to what he feared was the inevitable.
But on November 15, two weeks after Eli's arrest, Balkcom became enmeshed in the security-guard-shooting case. It happened, he avows, quite by accident.
"I was checking out the area near 67th [Avenue] and Butler because we've always had a lot of burglaries there," Balkcom says. "It was right near where they said Eli shot the guard. It's about two in the morning and I see a white Oldsmobile Cutlass that looks just like Eli's car. It's occupied by four subjects. No big deal, but something kicked in."
Balkcom says he ran its plate number. It came back to a Trinidad Cota, of neighboring Peoria. The car turned into an apartment complex, but instead of following it, Balkcom says he drove to nearby Grand Avenue and parked.
"I tell myself, 'If they don't have nothing to hide, they'll go up 67th Avenue and I'll be done with them. If they come back on Grand--which would take them three or four different turns--they're probably hiding something. Within a minute, they drove right by me on Grand."
Balkcom says he pulled the car over after it made an unsafe lane change. He then cited Trinidad Cota for having no proof of insurance, warned him about driving more carefully and sent him and his buddies on their way.
Balkcom then noted the encounter on a Glendale police identification card that detailed the date, time, location and identification of Cota and the front-seat passenger.
About two weeks later, Balkcom asked a body-shop repairman named John Tercero to estimate the cost of fixing Eli's car, the 1984 white Oldsmobile Cutlass. Tercero's son, John Jr., happened to be present and said the car looked familiar.
"John [Jr.] says out of nowhere, 'This is the kind of car Skippy was in when he shot at us,'" Balkcom says. "I ask him who Skippy hangs around with. I swear to God, he mentions the name Trinidad Cota. Things were getting interesting."
Tercero Jr. confirms Balkcom's account.
Balkcom says he called a friend at the Peoria PD: "I say I'm looking for a guy named Skippy. Ha ha. Ever heard of him? He tells me they just busted a guy in an agg assault named Skip. Says he's Jimmy Wright, who's been doing a lot of ripping and threatening people.
"I was in a tough spot--I didn't want to be implicated for trying to manipulate an investigation, which I wasn't. So I sat on my hands."
In January, Balkcom was the crime-scene manager at a shooting when he bumped into Tom Clayton, the detective still working the shooting of the Glencroft Retirement Center security guard.
Balkcom respects Clayton, and he opened up about Jimmy Wright.
"I told him about Skip and he was dumbfounded," Balkcom says. "He said he'd look into it."
Court records reveal that a 22-year-old El Mirage man named Jimmy Eugene "Skip" Wright is awaiting trial on aggravated assault stemming from an October 1995 incident at a Peoria gas station.
Wright allegedly fired a .38-caliber at a car during the clash. No one was wounded, and Peoria police confiscated the gun.
In March, New Times confirmed that Wright owns a white 1981 Oldsmobile Cutlass. Its license-plate number is LFK 656--strikingly similar to the license plate the wounded security guard scribbled down, LFK 865.
There is no known connection between Jimmy Eugene "Skip" Wright and Eli Balkcom.
Tom Clayton apparently hasn't written reports to reflect these major developments. But last Friday, Clayton arrested Wright and 18-year-old Dennis Bryley on charges related to the July 1995 security-guard shooting at the Glencroft Retirement Center. Police say Bryley is suspected to be the shooter and Wright the driver in the case.
"I'm happy I lucked onto something that may break that case open," Frank Balkcom says. "But I'll tell you: If Tom Clayton hadn't been around, they would have gotten an indictment on Eli in this. And they may have convicted his ass."
Eli's attorney, Joe Chornenky, says he and his client have rejected a plea-bargain offer that called for a seven-year prison sentence.
"I've known Eli for about two years now," Chornenky says, "and, unlike a lot of my clients, I've never found him to be lying to me about anything he's done or hasn't done. When he says that David Molinar had a club or a stick, I believe him."
The attorney says prosecutor Burt Jorgensen last week indicated that he plans to dismiss the two counts in the gun-pointing case.
Chornenky points out that Eli has passed lie-detector tests that concerned his culpability in each case developed by Preston Becker after the Molinar incident. The tests were administered by a Glendale PD polygrapher.
And though the evidence against Eli in the Molinar case seems compelling, the victim himself may make a conviction more difficult. Phoenix police records show that last November 22, an officer cited Molinar after another run-in on the street.
The officer reported that the couple had gestured to Molinar to slow down as his car raced down a residential street. Molinar stopped his car, and, according to the police report, allegedly threatened to shoot the couple.
"He then took off his shirt and kept reaching to the side as if he was going to grab an object, possibly a gun," the report says. "David kept telling [the couple] that he was going to shoot them. He also stated he was a member of some west-side gang . . ."
On April 18, Molinar received a 30-day suspended jail sentence after he was convicted of threatening and intimidating.
He also is awaiting trial on a charge of misdemeanor assault, stemming from a February 7 domestic dispute.
Frank Balkcom, meanwhile, worries that airing his family's travails will ruin his 14-year career. But he says it's something he's felt compelled to do.
"On duty, my squad is my family," he says, "and at home, my family is my family. But families are never perfect, you know.