The Escalade was headed down a dreary and industrial stretch of road in Commerce when the first bullet buried itself in the driver’s back. He stomped on the gas. Bullets slammed into the car. Blood leaked from his gut.
The black SUV was ferrying the son of Lev Aslan Dermen, a petroleum mogul and suspected organized crime figure. His son escaped, unscathed.
The shooting drew little notice until a year later, when an extortionist for the Mexican Mafia contacted a Los Angeles Police Department detective from jail with a startling story: The gunman was a gang member, he said, but a Glendale detective had offered him $100,000 to “scare” someone, according to an affidavit that details his statement.
The detective, John Saro Balian, was Dermen’s close associate of a decade, court documents and testimony have since revealed. They traveled together to Turkey and partied together in Las Vegas. Dermen came to trust the detective with the most delicate of tasks, the records show.
The allegation that Balian betrayed his associate and arranged the July 14, 2016, attack remains unproven. No triggerman has been charged. While Balian’s alleged role in the shooting was detailed in court documents, he wasn’t charged in the incident and instead pleaded guilty to three felonies, none of them violent.
His attorney, Craig Missakian, denied the detective was behind the shooting and said in court the allegations came from the mouths of witnesses who, facing prison for crimes of their own, were trying to save themselves “by pointing a finger at a high-profile cop.”
Two years after the attack, the detective and the petroleum mogul were behind bars — Balian charged in Los Angeles with concealing from federal agents his dealings with the Mexican Mafia, Dermen indicted in Utah, implicated in an energy subsidy scam that allegedly bilked the U.S. Treasury of $511 million.
The Times pieced together the story of their unlikely alliance and its bitter end through court records, testimony and interviews with people who knew both men.
They each came to Southern California as children, Dermen from Armenia, Balian from Turkey, where his Armenian family fled religious and political upheaval. But their lives in the United States took very different paths.
Balian’s family opened a small restaurant in Orange County. Bussing tables and washing dishes as a boy, he came to see the police officers who ate there as a second family, his attorney wrote in court papers.
Balian enrolled in the police academy at 23 and joined the Montebello Police Department in 1996. He flourished there: Officer of the Year in 2001, tapped to join the gang unit. “He was seen as a shining star,” said a former colleague who did not want to be identified because of Balian’s admitted ties to organized crime. “Everybody thought the world of him.”
Dermen, born Levon Termendzhyan, left Armenia at 14 for Los Angeles. He enrolled at Hollywood High and took his first job pumping gas at a La Crescenta station. In the quarter-century that followed, Dermen bought up gas stations, opened a string of truck stops and started petroleum companies in Vernon and Commerce, he said in a 2017 deposition.
He became enormously wealthy. He held court at the Beverly Wilshire and traveled in black SUVs, flanked by bodyguards. Parked behind the gate of his Bel Air home was a Bugatti, a Lamborghini, a Maybach and a Rolls Royce.
In 1993, Dermen, then 26, and his brother were charged with selling untaxed diesel fuel. They were acquitted, and Dermen’s mythos of operating beyond the reach of the law was born, federal prosecutors wrote in a recent court filing.
Over the next 25 years, Dermen and his energy empire were investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, Homeland Security Investigations, the FBI, and the Glendale and Los Angeles police departments, according to evidence introduced during the trial of his associate, his cousin’s appeal of a kidnapping conviction and warrants served on Dermen’s home and businesses in 2017.
He was suspected of laundering money, evading taxes, and stealing fuel and selling it in his gas stations, the warrants show; charges were never brought. He was arrested by the Glendale police in 2003, accused of brandishing a handgun at a plainclothes detective who was tailing his cousin, and acquitted after two trials. Law enforcement authorities have yet to convince a jury anywhere that Dermen committed a felony.
Mark Geragos, who has represented Dermen for more than a decade, has insisted to judges and juries that his client is no criminal kingpin, only a savvy, successful businessman in the oil and gas industry.
By 2006, Balian was the spokesman for the Glendale Police Department, having transferred from Montebello two years earlier. Dermen was awaiting trial in the alleged assault of the Glendale detective. Under circumstances that remain unclear, the two met that year at a deli in Burbank.
Lawyers for both men would not discuss what went on there. But over the next decade, the two grew close. Dermen “surrounded himself” with law enforcement officers, federal prosecutors wrote in a recent court filing, to convey to business partners that he was insulated from prosecution.
A federal jury in 2018 convicted Felix Cisneros, a Homeland Security Investigations agent, of unlawfully helping Dermen’s business partner travel between the United States and Mexico, where he was negotiating a deal on Dermen’s behalf with Pemex, the state oil company. Cisneros told investigators he intervened as “a solid” for Dermen and Balian, who he said was also involved in the incident, according to a transcript of the interview. Cisneros spent a year in prison for the offense.
Balian was Dermen’s frequent companion. The two were pulled aside at LAX before boarding a flight to Istanbul in 2011. Balian told customs he was carrying $18,000 in cash that belonged to Dermen, according to a law enforcement document reviewed by The Times. Nothing in the document suggests that carrying the cash was unlawful.
In 2014, according to an affidavit for his arrest, Balian took on a sensitive task. Dermen’s cousin — a squat émigré of the Soviet Union known as “Gordo” — was serving a life sentence at Pelican Bay State Prison for a kidnapping conspiracy. Central to his conviction was the testimony of a man named James Anthony Patlan, according to an appeals court’s decision that summarized the case.
Patlan had tried in 2002 to abduct a wealthy Armenian baker at gunpoint in Glendale. Arrested that night at Glendale Memorial Hospital, he told a detective he was joined in the botched kidnapping by a short, overweight Armenian man he knew only as “Gordo.”
Shown a lineup of possible “Gordos,’ Patlan picked out Dermen’s cousin, Arutyun Khrayan, who stood 5’1 and weighed 225 pounds, according to the appeals court’s decision. Khrayan was convicted of kidnapping for ransom in 2008.
Six years later, with Dermen’s cousin appealing the verdict, Balian offered an associate with ties to the Mexican Mafia $80,000 to find Patlan and persuade him to recant, according to the associate, whose statements are detailed in Balian’s arrest affidavit. Patlan was out of prison, having served a 10-year sentence. Furnished with addresses and license plate numbers, two gang members — Pete Cordero and Jorge “Bouncer” Grey — set out to find him, Grey testified in August.
“If you had found this witness,” a defense attorney asked, “and he said, ‘No, thanks very much, I’m not interested,’ you were just going to walk away?”
“No,” Grey said.
They never found Patlan, Grey testified, and Khrayan remains in prison. Missakian, Balian’s attorney, acknowledged in court the detective tried to track down the witness. But “the effort,” he said, “was to try to get Mr. Patlan to tell the truth” about a “very tainted and disturbing” process the Glendale police used to implicate Dermen’s cousin in the kidnapping.
The pursuit may not have turned up Patlan or sprung Dermen’s cousin from prison, but it did bring Balian into contact with the Mexican Mafia, the criminal syndicate born six decades ago in the California prison system, according to the affidavit for his arrest.
Associates of the gang, trading testimony for leniency, have implicated the detective in various extortion plots. He has been charged in none of them. One was allegedly hatched after Cordero, who Balian had enlisted to find Patlan in 2014, was shot to death in Highland Park.
Jose Sanchez, a Mexican Mafia associate, testified in a Van Nuys courtroom in December that he and the detective attended Cordero’s funeral at Rose Hills, then shook down an Armenian bail bondsman said to be on a hit list drawn up after Cordero’s killing.
Balian relayed an order from Cordero’s best friend, a jailed Mexican Mafia member tasked with exacting revenge, Sanchez testified: The bondsman, Mihran Papazian, could buy back his life for $100,000.
“I can’t pay that, I can’t pay that, I don’t have that type of money,” Sanchez recalled the bondsman pleading. “Balian kept saying, ‘They’re bullshitting you that they don’t have money.’ To keep slapping him, to keep pressuring him, and they’ll pay.”
With Papazian proving uncooperative, the detective told Sanchez to hire someone to shoot up his car in front of his house, Sanchez testified. He said he demurred: “I wasn’t going to get someone’s house shot up just over bullshit, especially coming from a cop.”
Through his attorney, Balian said he has “no idea what Sanchez was talking about and denied any truth in his claims.”
Papazian tried to placate Sanchez with firearms and six pounds of marijuana, Sanchez testified. He said he kept the guns, sold the marijuana and gave Balian $1,000 of the proceeds. Sanchez was then arrested on an extortion charge.
But the bondsman’s woes did not end there. On a Sunday morning in October 2017, his 73-year-old father returned from walking the family dog and was shot to death outside Papazian’s home in Valley Glen. Five months later, Papazian’s friend and cousin were gunned down on his front porch.
Assassins dispatched by the Mexican Mafia had mistaken Papazian’s cousin, friend and father for the bondsman, authorities said at a preliminary hearing. No testimony or evidence was introduced at the hearing that implicated Balian in the killings.
By 2016, two views of Balian had developed within Glendale police headquarters. To his supervisors, he seemed as hardworking and good-spirited as ever. He took the lead on nine investigations that year, including one that netted 13 pounds of heroin and a mention in the Glendale News-Press, his performance review noted.
A sergeant described him as “trustworthy and reliable,” “always upbeat,” and bringing to the narcotics squad “a sense of high morale, good teamwork and cohesiveness.”
An FBI-led task force, focused on Russian and Armenian organized crime and stationed in the same building, had by then formed a much different impression of the detective. In December 2015, a car thief told a roomful of agents, who were investigating a suspected narcotics trafficker, that their target had an associate who wore a badge and a gun. Shown a series of photographs, the thief identified Balian “without hesitation,” the affidavit for his arrest said.
The agents weighed whether to recruit a Glendale officer to approach Balian and propose they commit crimes together, according to law enforcement documents reviewed by The Times. They decided against it, reasoning such a strategy was more likely to raise his suspicions than succeed. As a precaution, the Glendale officers assigned to the task force were walled off. LAPD detectives began tailing Balian’s unmarked grey Honda sedan through the streets of Los Angeles.
As investigators closed in, his relationship with Dermen was collapsing. In a lawsuit playing out in Los Angeles Superior Court, Dermen said businesses he’d helped Balian finance — a beverage company in Nevada and a fuel dock in Newport Beach — had failed and the detective owed him money. Through his attorney, Balian denied taking money from Dermen and said the Nevada business was funded with a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Dermen alleged in a declaration that Balian conspired with an estranged business partner, Edgar Sargsyan, who he says embezzled $23 million, “to take me down to ensure they would not be responsible for the tens of millions of dollars they owe.” Sargsyan, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, said in court papers he cut ties with Dermen after learning he was under investigation. He denied stealing money from Dermen or conspiring with Balian.
The evening of July 14, 2016, Dermen’s son was in a black Escalade, headed home from his father’s office in Commerce. The son’s bodyguard, who asked that his name be withheld out of safety concerns, told The Times they had pulled up to a stop sign when he felt a burning in his lower back.
He spun around and saw stuffing from the SUV’s seats filled the air. He realized someone was shooting at them, that the seats were being punctured by bullets, and he slammed on the gas. Once he reached a safe distance, he pulled over and told Dermen’s son to call 911. He looked down at his hands, which had been clutching his stomach. They were covered in blood.
The task force investigating Balian took an interest in the shooting: The agents, who knew Dermen well, at one point theorized his son may have been targeted by an Armenian organized crime figure whose own son was murdered two months later, according to court testimony. It was a dead end, an FBI agent testified in 2018.
They had few leads until about a year later, when Sanchez — facing a long stretch in prison for extortion and narcotics trafficking — decided to “drop out,” as he put it in court.
In an interview with LAPD detectives at the Los Angeles County jail, Sanchez implicated Balian in a series of crimes, including the Commerce shooting, according to the affidavit for Balian’s arrest.
The detective, he said, had offered him and another gang member, Jonathan “Trigger” Montano, $100,000 to scare somebody — an Armenian man he didn’t know, according to the affidavit. Sanchez said he didn’t take part but lent his Honda Pilot to Montano, who returned the car that night, handed Sanchez a gun and said, “I think I hit him.”
That night, Sanchez told the detectives, Balian came to his apartment in downtown Los Angeles and took the gun. Balian’s phone pinged off a cell tower two blocks from Sanchez’s apartment at 10:37 p.m., according to the arrest affidavit.
Reached by phone, Montano denied meeting Balian or having any role in the attack on Dermen’s son. “All I can say is those are false allegations,” he said. “The cops came and asked me about it when I was in jail, and I told them I don’t know anything about that. I’ve never met the guy. I have nothing to do with him.”
Balian’s attorney denied, both in court and in a statement to The Times, that the detective had any role in the shooting. He called into question Sanchez’s credibility and motives, saying he and other witnesses were “obviously trying to help themselves, and if they can help themselves by pointing a finger at a high-profile cop, so be it.” Sanchez has pleaded guilty to extortion and narcotics trafficking charges. Jeff Mitchell, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Balian, said in a sentencing memo there wasn’t enough evidence to tie him to the attack conclusively.
Balian was arrested in May 2018, charged with lying about his dealings with the Mexican Mafia and Armenian organized crime figures. The detective, held in solitary confinement for his own safety, soon agreed to cooperate and pleaded guilty to three felonies. He admitted taking a $2,000 bribe, tipping Grey, the former Mexican Mafia associate, to his impending arrest, and lying to federal agents about his “criminal business relationship” with Sanchez, among other falsehoods.
A grand jury in Salt Lake City, meanwhile, was hearing testimony allegingthat Dermen had conspired with Jacob and Isaiah Kingston, leaders of a fundamentalist Mormon sect in Utah, to plunder a half-billion dollars in biofuel subsidies and stash the proceeds in Turkey. He was arrested three months after Balian.
Since then, prosecutors have hinted at why he befriended Balian: Dermen, they say, charged the Kingstons tens of millions of dollars to come under the auspices of “the umbrella,” as he called his coterie of lawmen. Geragos, Dermen’s attorney, dismissed this account as a “fairy tale” concocted by government witnesses facing decades in prison.
It is unclear, in the prosecution’s telling, whether Balian or other law enforcement officers supplied Dermen with actual protection from the law or merely the impression of it. The umbrella “sounds like a fairy tale,” a prosecutor, Leslie Goemaat, acknowledged in court, but Jacob Kingston “believed in this — he believed in this umbrella.” In one instance, Kingston sent Dermen $70 million to pay off “the umbrella,” prosecutors allege.
Kingston — who has pleaded guilty to several dozen counts of fraud, money laundering and witness tampering — will testify he saw Dermen and his associates hand cash to law enforcement officials in Southern California, a judge in Turkey and government ministers in Belize, prosecutors wrote in a court filing.
John Saldivar, prime minister-elect of Belize, has already resigned; prosecutors revealed text messages between the minister and Kingston, in which Saldivar wrote he “really [needed] the February tranche,” and that the “usual is 25k but perhaps it’s best to deal with March at the same time.”
Dermen’s trial began last month; if convicted on all counts, prosecutors say he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Balian was sentenced last March. He offered little explanation for what he called “serious errors in judgment” in a letter to the court, although he said he wished he could tell his younger self “to ignore the lure of money.” He was ordered incarcerated for 21 months, 10 of which he had already served, and walked out of prison in November.
His former colleague from Montebello, remembering the young, ambitious officer who had impressed so many, said he was stunned to hear Balian was working with the Mexican Mafia and Armenian organized crimes figures, as he has since admitted doing.
“When we were there,” he said, “that’s who he wanted to save the world from.”
Ormseth writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Matthew Ormseth is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Before joining The Times in 2018, he covered city news and state politics at the Hartford Courant. He grew up in Arcadia and graduated from Cornell University.