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.