As far back as 2015, a Glendale narcotics detective used burner phones to tip off gangsters about upcoming raids, once allowing a top target of federal law enforcement to elude arrest for a month, authorities said Tuesday.
John Saro Balian is also suspected of collaborating with other criminals to steal cars, presumably to sell abroad, and taking money to hunt someone down.
When confronted by federal agents in four interviews over the last year, authorities say Balian, 45, lied about his ties to the Mexican Mafia and Armenian organized crime in Southern California.
"I'm not [expletive] on anybody's payroll," he told the Los Angeles Police Department and FBI in one interview.
Now, the veteran officer who once served as the spokesman for the Glendale Police Department is facing up to five years in federal prison. Prosecutors this week charged Balian with one count of making false statements to federal investigators, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court.
"Mr. Balian moved in criminal circles and operated as though he was above the law by repeatedly lying to hide his criminal activity," Paul Delacourt, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field office, said in a statement. "His alleged actions impeded legitimate investigations into organized violent crime and consequently presented a threat to public safety."
It's unclear whether Balian has retained an attorney.
Balian was identified as a person of interest by the FBI's Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force, which in 2016 was probing ties between the Mexican Mafia and Armenian organized crime.
Since then, three confidential informants have described a series of troubling interactions with the detective — known to them as "Saro" — that are detailed in a 47-page affidavit supporting the complaint. In some cases, Balian appears to have instigated clashes between the two sides, according to court records. Investigators corroborated some of the informants' stories with cellphone records, police reports and interviews.
In one incident, Balian allegedly offered an informant and a second man $100,000 to "scare" the bodyguard of an Armenian businessman in Commerce, a request that led to a shooting in July 2016.
After the encounter, the second man spoke with the informant.
"I think I hit him," he said, according to the filing. Later, he added, "I think I killed him."
The alleged shooter gave the gun to the informant, who said he gave the gun to Balian, according to the filing. It's unclear whether the bodyguard lived.
In one case, that same informant described a situation in which Balian offered a tip about a gang sweep, allowing a top target — a Frogtown gang member — to flee before agents arrived.
"Tell your boy Bouncer that he's the No. 1 on the list for tomorrow," Balian warned, according to the affidavit. It took agents another month to arrest the target.
The informant also said Balian gave him locations of marijuana grow and drug stash houses — information he was privy to as an officer — and told him to "hit them" before law enforcement could execute their search warrants, according to the court filing.
Balian also allegedly instructed him to "slap around" people to persuade them to pay money. Armenians would not respect or pay him, Balian told the informant, if they didn't fear him, the filing said.
Another informant met with Balian up to 15 times in 2015 and occasionally saw him wearing a badge and a gun. That person admitted to stealing more than a dozen high-value cars for Balian and his associate, the filing said. He said he'd leave the keys inside the car and park it on a designated street, where someone else would pick it up.
During a search of a third informant's home, investigators found handwritten notes in the trash referencing "Saro" and possible cocaine shipments from Mexico. It's unclear whether a transaction occurred and if Balian was involved.
Federal authorities Tuesday afternoon were searching Balian's Seal Beach home, an FBI spokeswoman said. They were looking for evidence of racketeering, interference with commerce by robbery or extortion, and bribery, according to the affidavit.
Investigators first interviewed Balian in April of last year. He told them he was an expert on the Mexican Mafia when he worked for the Montebello Police Department, so he used to "stay on top of all these guys."
Balian was one of five Armenian American officers who sued Glendale in 2010, alleging discrimination, retaliation and harassment. The city eventually agreed to settle the case, paying $7,500 in Balian's attorney's fees, and depositing 250 hours of sick time and 50 hours of vacation time into his leave bank.
10 p.m.: This article was updated with more information from the affidavit.
7 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from an FBI official.