Orange County resident John Saro Balian worked as a cop with the Glendale Police Department and maintained an eyebrow-raising relationship with a Texas woman identified as “SS” in federal law-enforcement files. On multiple occasions, Balian flew to Brownsville and crossed the international border into Mexico with “SS.” One of Balian’s numerous “burner” phones was registered in the name of “SS.” According to an FBI organized-crime task force, from December 2015 to January 2018, Balian and “SS” called each other 1,534 times.
During her association with Balian, “SS” also maintained a romantic relationship with a high-ranking member of the Gulf Cartel, a Mexican organized-crime syndicate based in Matamoros, located across the Rio Grande river from Brownsville. The cartel’s history includes bribing American politicians, prosecutors and cops, as well as committing ruthless violence to smuggle cocaine, humans, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine into the United States. A declassified 2017 “National Drug Threat Assessment” by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimated the gang shipped 900 pounds of cocaine monthly into the U.S. Its members are also known for kidnapping, extortion, money laundering and grotesque executions.
In mid-May, after a multi-year probe, the FBI’s Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force raided Balian’s Seal Beach residence and arrested him for repeatedly making false statements to federal agents investigating his secret ties to the Gulf Cartel, Mexican Mafia and Armenian criminal gangs operating in Southern California. A court complaint states that agents have considered potential extortion and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) charges.
“I believe Balian has obstructed justice, provided false and misleading statements to federal agents, and accepted a bribe,” Michael Hyland, a special agent on the FBI task force, wrote in a May 14 court filing. Hyland believes the cop was in a “criminal collaboration” with a series of underworld figures.
Balian, 46, is now in protective custody inside the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles. A judge considers him a flight risk. On June 1, Assistant United States Attorney Jeff Mitchell accepted a stipulation proposed by Balian’s attorney that he withhold issuing a federal indictment until June 28. That move allows the defendant to contemplate making a guilty plea deal to shorten whatever punishment he may face.
After Balian’s arrest, U.S. Attorney Nicola T. Hanna called such investigations involving public corruption “difficult and troubling.”
The keys to the government’s case are three informants—two Armenian hoodlums and a Mexican Mafia gangster—as well as captured text messages between the suspects and intercepted calls. Investigators collected numerous stories about Balian’s alleged activities. For example, in October 2015, the DEA searched the trash of an Armenian mobster the agency eventually labeled CI2 (confidential informant No. 2) in the case and found handwritten notes. It stated, in part, “1. Talk to Saro, make the deal P/O Gordo, Mexca 10/week at 23.5.”
Multiple street criminals told Hyland they knew Balian only as “Saro,” his middle name. In his complaint, the agent asserted the note outlined a “criminal objective.” He believes it listed a price for distributing 23.5 kilograms of cocaine from Mexico with the assistance of the cop. CI2 admitted he’d known Balian since middle school, called him “a business partner,” gave him money for off-the-book jobs over the years, and considered him “a greedy person who would do anything, including picking up and delivering drugs,” according to court records.
Hyland claims “Gordo,” mentioned in the note, is Arutyun Khrayan, a Soviet immigrant and killer who was convicted in 2008 for the attempted kidnapping for ransom of a wealthy business owner in Glendale. CI2 told agents that people associated with Khrayan wanted the government’s key witness in the case, James Anthony Petlan, found and were willing to pay $120,000.
“Balian orchestrated the whole fucking thing,” CI2 told agents. Hyland memorialized in his report that “Balian wanted [Mexican Mafia associates] to persuade Petlan to change his testimony.” But Petlan wasn’t located.
In another incident, CI2 said, he ordered the cop to find the men he believed had burglarized his office of valuable property in February 2017. Balian then asked a deputy on the Fugitive Task Force at the U.S. Marshals Service if he could locate one of the targets. When the deputy told him to fill out the necessary official paperwork, the cop dropped the request, according to Hyland’s complaint.
A Feb. 6, 2017, text message shows CI2 telling the cop, “I’m home have $$ call when you can.” Balian replied, “Ok.” In another message, CI2 told him to “focus” on finding the burglars. Balian answered, “I told you I’m working on things but I’m not a magician.”
CI3 (confidential informant No. 3), a Mexican Mafia associate in the St. Andrews (STA) Gang, told investigators Balian carried out secret missions for Jose Loza, a.k.a. “Cartune” or “Pumpkin Head.” When Loza, a full-fledged member of the Mexican Mafia with the Santa Fe Springs-based gang Canta Ranas, was arrested in 2016 on RICO charges, CI3 says, “the cop came looking for me,” to carry out orders. “He comes to me with a list,” said the informant. “[It’d be] ‘Go pick up this money. Do this or that. . . . Cartune says do this or that.’”
CI3 claims Balian switched burner phones monthly “due to security concerns,” tipped gangsters before planned police-fugitive hunt operations, ordered robberies of marijuana shops and stash houses cops scheduled to raid, gave lists of individuals to be extorted and/or roughed up, and worked on a plot with the Southsiders gang in the Mexican Mafia to squeeze $50,000 per week from Los Angeles area pot dispensaries. But, upon reflection, they considered the amount too implausible and reduced it to $2,000, according to CI3.
CI1 (confidential informant No. 1), an Armenian convict, told agents that Balian provided him the locations of vehicles to be stolen so they could be loaded into shipping containers and sold outside the U.S.
The mess gets messier. According to Hyland’s complaint, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) detectives determined that Department of Homeland Security special agent Felix Cisneros and Balian had once worked as bodyguards for “GT,” a businessman who’d been under investigation. LAPD files record the two cops as “close personal friends.” A federal jury convicted Cisneros in April for conspiracy, making false statements and falsifying records; he faces a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison at his July 30 sentencing.
In one of his stressful interviews with the FBI task force, Balian denied any wrongdoing. But he conceded that CI2 liked bragging to other gangsters that he controled a police officer.
“[He’d say he had] this special fucking cop,” explained Balian. “‘Pig this. Pig that.’ And these guys get all fucking excited, you know, which there is nothing like that. Absolutely nothing. I’m not fucking on anybody’s payroll.”
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; earned six dozen other reporting awards; and been hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.