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Paid In Full

Weekly story leads detectives to suspect gambling ties to Ballreich murder.

November 30, 2006

By CHIP JACOBS

In life, former-Alhambra mayor Stephen Ballreich was a lovable underachiever adept at keeping secret his fondness for tempestuous women and after-hour gambling. In death, he’s been a frustrating riddle, and detectives working his unsolved murder are focusing on old memories surrounding his last days to make sense of it.

This month marks the 15-year anniversary of Ballreich’s killing, a savage, execution-style slaying that jolted his cliquish hometown with fears about professional killers on the loose. Years later, with no suspect ever identified, the incident faded into a cold case that many assumed was un-solvable because of the victim’s shadowy past.

As it turns out, that may have been a premature assumption.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department began re-reviewing the crime after a Pasadena Weekly story in February brought forth new details about Ballreich’s life. While detectives won’t divulge what they’re learning from people once involved with him, some intriguing recollections have surfaced.

A longtime friend of Ballreich’s said detectives told her when they interviewed her this summer that Ballreich’s landlady watched him rush out of his sparely furnished South Pasadena apartment on the November 1991 afternoon that he was shot.

“The day Stephen died, he’d come home, and all of a sudden left in great haste,” said the friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of safety concerns. “He peeled rubber out, like it was some big emergency. If he was upset and in a hurry, somebody must’ve called him.”

When they spoke to him a few months ago, Steven Born, a friend of Ballreich’s from their days together in the Young Republicans, said detectives wanted to know about Ballreich’s gambling habits.

Ballreich for years wagered on football games and prizefights, according to numerous contacts of his. Former Councilman Parker Williams last year said that he even remembered one of Ballreich’s bookies from the 1970s.

Morever, according to Born, detectives have located somebody who remembered seeing $5,000 in cash in Ballreich’s apartment not long before the murder.

“The Sheriff’s Department thought he was meeting someone the night” said Born. “Why would he have $5,000 on the floor of his apartment? Why not keep it in the bank?”

Authorities have never recovered the shotgun used in the crime. A dark, late-model car was seen leaving the scene, sources have said.

At turns charming and erratic, Ballreich told different people different stories about pretty much every aspect of his life. Those half-truths have greatly thwarted the search for his killer, police have said repeatedly.

“The detectives asked good questions,” added Born. “They problem is that Steve lied so much.”

Jo Hartman, who’d dated Ballreich in 1991, said in an interview that he’d pressed her to pay him back all of the $1,000 he’d loaned her the summer before he died. Hartman said he’d called the repayment “imperative.”

In July 1991, something else odd occurred, Hartman said. Ballreich, by then twice-divorced with a young daughter living in the South, enlisted Hartman to witness a will he’d just had drafted.

Detectives asked Hartman about document when she met with them this summer.

“Here was someone who didn’t plan things out, and he had me witness the will,” Hartman said. “Common sense would make you question why he was concerned about not being around.”

Previously, Hartman had told the Weekly that when she went to Ballreich’s apartment the day after the killing, the will was missing. The next day it’d had re-appeared.

Ballreich, a strapping, sandy-haired Alhambra native who dreamed of politics as a kid, burst onto the spotlight in the late-1970s, when he became the city’s mayor at just 26. A hip contrast to his stodgier council peers, he was telegenic, dynamic, and, as the country’s youngest mayor, an instant celebrity.

And instantly under the microscope. In 1979, the hype that he was destined for higher office boiled into doubts about his character, as an activist group accused him of misspending and misreporting some $2,700 in city travel expenses. Despite the District Attorney’s decision not to charge him, the chastened wunderkind quit the council, relocating to Arkansas.

Returning to Southern California nine years later, the conservative Ballreich co-founded an Alhambra political consulting firm called Pegasus with former Democratic candidate and lawyer Merrill Francis. While some wrote him off as yesterday’s news, Ballreich still impressed people with his professional chops and energy.

When he jogged to exercise, it was frequently on Marguerita Avenue, close to his boyhood home, former elementary school and the shady Ramona Convent, where he once played. It was this same spot, not far from the San Bernardino (10) Freeway, where he was mowed down with two close-range shotgun salvos, one of them to his face.

Ballreich’s autopsy report noted that he was wearing sweats over underpants, not an athletic supporter, when he was attacked. This may indicate that exercise was just the pretext for his appearance on Marguerita Avenue that evening, and that whoever murdered him exploited Ballreich’s attachment to his old haunts.

“(Sheriff detectives) had a particular interest in who might know he was running in that area on that street on that day at that time,” said Francis. “Who knew him well enough to know that? It narrows the circle of people who would be of primary interest.”

Ballreich was involved with three or more women when he was killed. Detectives have re-interviewed several of them this summer, sources said.

One woman who Ballreich met through his campaign work for the Lincoln Club, a small Republican political action committee, has apparently been ruled out as a suspect for a second time, one source said.

“They found her and interviewed her at length and she admitted having an obsession with Steve, but she had alibis,” one source said.

It’s unclear if a younger, married woman Ballreich had carried on a long-term affair with has been exonerated.

The Weekly reported earlier that this woman’s husband had threatened to kill Ballreich in 1989 if he persisted seeing his wife. The relationship, which had started when the woman was a pretty, junior-high student and he was mayor, continued. This woman was also said to be disturbingly fixated on Ballreich, insisting once that Hartman stop seeing him and ripping to shreds his black silk robe during a quarrel.

Ballreich was so apprehensive about the death threat that he met with members of the Aryan Brotherhood about protecting him, the longtime friend said. How he came into contact with that organization, as so much about him, wasn’t evident.

Copyright Chip Jacobs. This story has been altered slightly from its original version.