Gasoa Balas will likely spend the next 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to second degree murder, aggravated assault and driving under the influence Tuesday.
Balas recently was sentenced to 12 years in prison for a separate, August 2011 domestic violence case that took place a year before the death of his daughter.
This week’s plea bargain springs from an Aug. 1, 2012 incident resulting in the death of Balas’ 7-year-old daughter, Calandra, as he fled from police.
Under the terms of the plea bargain, Balas will first serve 12 years for the domestic violence conviction and then 20 years for the death of his daughter.
The 2011 assault involved Balas’ girlfriend, an incident Calandra witnessed.
However it took more than two years to bring that case to trial. Then office of then-Gila County District Attorney Daisy Flores in Oct. 2011 decided not to prosecute at the request of the victim. As a result, Calandra remained in Balas’ custody a full year after the assault on his girlfriend. That violent fight started after the girlfriend objected to Balas’ disciplining of Calandra.
Gila County Prosecutor Shawn Fuller, who came on board in early 2013, in April of 2013 decided to prosecute that earlier assault case when reviewing Balas' file for the prosecution in the death of Calandra. Although the victim remained reluctant to prosecute, the county attorney's office obtained the conviction a month ago.
However, the failure of the system to intervene immediately after that assault in 2011 set the stage for Calandra’s death.
That fatal day started with a call from a woman in a Payson mobile home park who said Balas had sexually assaulted her. Balas had reportedly left the scene, but returned before police arrived to investigate the report. Balas then fled, nearly running down an officer as he sped away. The assault charge stemmed from the officer’s close escape from being run over, not from the reported sexual assault. Prosecutors never filed charges in connection with the alleged rape.
Balas reached speeds of 100 miles an hour as he fled. Officers dropped back to avoid causing an accident, but Balas crashed at “Corvair Curve” on Highway 87 south of Payson.
As the car rolled, Calandra was hurled from the back seat and killed.
Reports indicated that when Balas learned his daughter was dead at the scene he wept and begged officers to shoot him. He later said he didn’t know the girl was in the back of the car.
Fire crews extracted Balas from the crumpled car. Because he was wearing a seat belt, he suffered only minor injuries. Sitting without a seat belt in the back seat, his daughter died at the scene.
A subdued, frail-looking Balas took the plea deal on the brink of a trial, with dozens of potential jurors crowded into the courtroom and hallways.
Chief Deputy County Attorney Shawn Fuller said Balas admitted he’d been drinking before the incident and that he veered his car in the officer’s direction. The officer, jumped out of the way as the car careened past.
The plea agreement stipulates that Balas will be sentenced to the Arizona Department of Corrections for 20 calendar years for the murder, which is to run consecutive to the 12-year prison sentence he is currently serving in the domestic violence case.
In addition, the plea agreement stipulates Balas will be sentenced to prison for the aggravated assault and DUI charges.
In total, the plea bargain deal calls for Balas to serve 32 years in prison for both cases.
Judge Peter Cahill will impose sentence on Balas at a Dec. 9 hearing in Payson. The judge doesn’t have to accept the terms of the plea bargain.
In fact, the Gila County prosecutor’s office has several times protested decisions by Gila County Superior Court judges to reject negotiated plea deals. Prosecutors generally have latitude when it comes to what charges to file against defendants, which means defendants can face far longer potential sentences if they run the risk of a trial on a longer list of charges than stipulated in the plea bargain.
The overwhelming majority of felony cases get settled through a plea bargain rather than through a trial. If most cases did go to trial, it would quickly overwhelm the already clogged court system.
The domestic violence case
Balas still had custody of his daughter after the domestic violence case that last month resulted in a separate, 12-year prison sentence.
In that case, a jury convicted Balas on three counts of domestic violence for attacking his then-girlfriend with a pair of scissors.
Testimony at trial indicated Balas and the woman argued over his disciplining of Calandra. When the woman woke Balas in the early morning to continue the argument, he grew enraged. He reportedly knocked her down, sat on her chest, cut off her hair with the scissors and then stuffed the hair into her mouth. He told her, “That’s what you get for waking me up at 3 a.m.”
Neighbors heard the screaming and called 911. When the police arrived, they found the woman bleeding from several cuts. Police found the toilet plugged with hair and the scissors hidden.
Balas told a probation officer he wasn’t in his right state of mind when the fight occurred.
In that case, Balas’ mental health and family relationship reports remained confidential. However, he had a lengthy criminal history and a history of drug and alcohol abuse. He had completed several drug treatment and parenting programs.
One friend, who asked not to be named, previously told the Roundup that Balas loved his daughter and cared tenderly for her.
However, a close relative of Calandra said her father was dangerous and unstable. She said family members had made repeated reports to Child Protective Services, but Balas retained custody.
The testimony in the domestic violence trial didn’t reveal why the girl remained in Balas’ custody.
The jury trial concluded last month, more than two years after the assault. Had Balas been charged and convicted soon after the domestic violence assault despite the reluctance of the victim to prosecute, he would not have been at liberty when his daughter died a year later.
Testimony indicated that Calandra had witnessed the screaming fight during which her father had cut off his girlfriend’s hair, cut her with scissors and stuffed the hair down her throat.
The state recently revealed that Child Protective Services in the past four years classified more than 6,000 reports statewide of abuse and neglect as “not investigated,” in apparent violation of state law.
CPS caseworkers in Arizona have caseloads close to double the accepted national standard. The agency suffered cuts during the state budget crisis despite a rising number of reports.
The state also suffers from a critical lack of foster parents thanks to a near doubling of the number of children in foster care.
Reportedly, CPS also has a backlog of 10,000 cases not investigated within the required two months.