In a crowded Payson courtroom Monday as guards with machine guns hovered over a downcast defendant, a tearful grandmother painted the picture of a joyful, beautiful girl who once loved SpongeBob SquarePants, chocolate milk and bubble baths.
The courtroom came alive as Donna Ferguson spoke of 7-year-old Calandra Balas picking flowers in her back yard, playing with dolls, dressing up as a princess, soaring high on the park swings, giggling at rabbits and getting her hair styled with ribbons and bows.
“Calandra’s Greek name means ‘lovely one’ and it was so very befitting because she was indeed very lovely, inside and out,” said Ferguson, Calandra’s maternal grandmother.
Calandra, however, was ripped from the world in a horrific car crash last year at the hands of her father, Gasoa “Joshua” Balas, Ferguson continued.
Calandra died after she was thrown from the vehicle Balas was driving. Balas fled from police Aug. 1, 2012 from a Payson trailer park, speeding down Highway 87 and ultimately rolling. He nearly struck a Payson police officer during the rampage.
Last week, Balas pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and other charges, taking a last-minute plea deal.
Ferguson said she went from saving for Calandra’s college fund to picking out the girl’s burial dress and planning her funeral.
“It had to be a very special dress for it would the very last dress I, her grandmother, would ever buy for her.”
Ferguson said she now walks around in a daze.
“It is as though a huge, black veil has covered my once colorful world and now I walk through a thick fog,” she said.
“I kept hoping that it was all a terrible, ugly nightmare that would soon go away. I did not want to accept the reality that I had lost my Calandra, the light of my life.”
Throughout Monday’s sentencing hearing, Balas sat to the side of the courtroom with his lawyer, his head bowed low. He never looked up while Ferguson spoke. He only moved to cover his cough with his chained hands, revealing a large tattoo on his right forearm reading HATE.
Later, speaking in a hushed voice, he told the court he was sorry.
“I just wish I could take back the tragic incident,” he said. “I do apologize.”
Superior Court Judge Peter Cahill ultimately accepted the recommendation of the county attorney and imposed a 20-year prison sentence for second-degree murder and assault on a police officer.
The incident swirls around an August day. Police were summoned to a Payson trailer park for a disturbance at one of the residences.
When they arrived, they found Balas outside, acting erratically.
Ignoring officers, Balas got in his passenger vehicle and gunned it. He veered toward one officer, who jumped out of the way to avoid being hit, according to police reports. The officer was not injured.
Balas then fled down Highway 87 even though officers were no longer chasing him. They had stopped for safety reasons, said Police Chief Don Engler previously. Balas sped down the highway, swerving around vehicles at speeds above 100 mph until ultimately rolling north of Corvair Curve. Calandra was ejected from the back window. Balas meanwhile hung upside down from his seat belt in the car with just minor scratches.
He later admitted he had been drinking that day and it was not his first run-in with the law. He was convicted of a felony in 1994 for riding in a stolen vehicle. He was convicted on a second felony in 2000 for misconduct involving weapons in Maricopa County. After that, he spent nearly two years in prison.
Balas was also recently convicted of assaulting his girlfriend with a pair of scissors one year before Calandra’s death.
Although Payson Police thoroughly investigated that assault in August of 2011, when the victim said she didn’t want to press charges, the county attorney at the time decided not to prosecute. Calandra stayed in Balas’ custody over the objections of her grandmother.
When Bradley Beauchamp took over the county attorney’s office this year, he reopened the domestic violence case with the help of Shawn Fuller, chief deputy county attorney.
The men decided that with or without the victim’s cooperation they would hold Balas accountable for the abuse.
In that assault case, Judge Cahill sentenced Balas to 12 years for straddling his girlfriend, cutting off her hair and stuffing it into her mouth. Calandra reportedly witnessed this abuse.
The sentence in that case will run consecutive to the 20 years Cahill sentenced Balas to Monday.
Fuller previously said he would accept no other plea deal than Balas admitting to second-degree murder.
In all, Balas will serve 32 years in prison for both cases.
Balas’ attorney, Michael Bernays, said Balas was not an evil person.
“Joshua made the determination to (take a plea) rather than to put everybody through what surely would have been a very uncomfortable trial for Mr. Fuller, myself, the court, jurors, Mrs. Ferguson and himself,” he said. “Nobody feels the loss of Calandra and the responsibility for that loss more than he.”
Bernays added that Calandra had become a beautiful girl under Balas’ “tutelage.”
Balas was awarded custody of Calandra on the recommendation of Child Protective Services after Calandra had been put in foster care. It is unclear how long she was in foster care.
Bernays admits Balas has mental health issues, had medication issues and was making poor choices for he and Calandra and that all “culminated in this terrible, terrible tragedy.”
“Throughout all of this it is sometimes easy to paint Joshua Balas as some kind of evil incarnated on this world and he is not,” he said.
Balas told police that he didn’t know that Calandra was in the car when he fled from police. When officers told him later that she was dead, he begged them to shoot him.
Ferguson said every day without Calandra for her is an “eternity.”
Cahill admitted while he could say nothing to ease Ferguson’s grief, he hoped she would find peace one day.
“This beautiful girl’s legacy ought not to be a dark, black veil over her grandmother,” he said. “She would not want you to struggle through the rest of your days in any sort of fog.”
Balas is not eligible for early release.