Room for One 

Most sex offenders chased from their neighborhood end up in flophouses. Arvind Balu chills out at the posh downtown Oakland Marriott.

Arvind Balu flicked ash from his filterless Camel cigarette onto the carpeted floor of his hotel room. The move was not deliberate, but still, Balu declined to clean the mess. "When I come back from the swimming pool, it'll be cleaned up and taken care of," he said.

Such is life at the Courtyard Marriott, one of downtown Oakland's swankier hotels. As of last Thursday, the 34-year-old former Cal student had been living in the kingsize pad overlooking Broadway for sixteen days at $170 a night. He was on the lam, he said, taking cover from his deep-pocketed neighbors in the Montclair district.

Five months ago, Balu was released from prison on a charge of forced oral copulation. That earned his mugshot a place on the Megan's Law Web site. While he awaits a retrial that he believes will fully exonerate him -- his original rape conviction already was overturned -- news of his move into Montclair shook the hillside hamlet nonetheless. While residents didn't exactly picket outside his parents' home, Balu said the neighbors harassed the state's Department of Corrections until the agency agreed to investigate the dilemma. In the meantime, he moved into the Courtyard Marriott at 988 Broadway and registered it as his new address, as required by state law.

It's uncommon for newly released sex offenders to live so high on the hog. Most parolees find quarter only in the pitiful environs they typically can afford -- flophouses, trailer parks, run-down motels. Maps from the state's sex offender Web site show clusters of blue dots in downtrodden neighborhoods, while the same dots merely pepper more exclusive ZIP codes.

But in Balu's case, his family can afford the luxuries of the Marriott, complete with room-service club sandwiches, late-afternoon dips in the heated pool, and free DSL for his laptop. The hotel has been a good home, Balu said; he is confident that its managers would be reluctant to ask him to leave if they ever learned of his criminal past. "If they discriminated against me, they'd be sued," he said. "I don't think a corporation this rich would risk getting into that kind of litigation."

Balu gets up before 10 a.m. most days and wanders down to the sunlit Garden Cafe, where a buffet chef prepares his favorite omelet to order: bacon, tomatoes, spinach. In the restaurant, he crosses paths with traveling businessmen who "aren't as alert in the morning as I thought they'd be."

Then again, the suits might peg the long-haired Balu as a grad student, and a trust-funder at that. They'd be close. The son of a Rutgers professor, he came to Berkeley on an academic scholarship as a pre-med. In 1996, over the July 4 weekend, he took a trip to Lake County with college friend Brendan Loftus. A few weeks later, both men were arrested in what became known as the "Vampire Rape Case." The accuser claimed that, while Loftus raped her on a motel-room bed, Balu cut her legs with a knife and licked her blood.

Balu was released on bail, but the events in his life got even stranger. In August that summer, he was arrested after he burst into a packed auditorium and attempted to swipe a copy of the Medical College Admission Test, which he was scheduled to take in the following days. Two months later, he was arrested yet again outside Blake's on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley after he showed a bouncer a handgun in his waistband. "In my youth, I was up to some dynamic stunts," Balu explained while he smoked.

Two years after their arrest, Balu and Loftus were convicted of the Lake County rape, but not without media outcry. The San Francisco Chronicle's Joan Ryan reported at length on contradictions in the accuser's testimony -- including the theory that the girl's cuts were self-inflicted.

Loftus was sent to San Quentin while Balu went to Atascadero State Hospital after he was found "mentally incompetent." During the trial, he had shouted profanities at the judge and once used the defendant's table to strike a yoga pose.

After the two men spent two years behind bars, a state Court of Appeals overturned both convictions, ruling that the judge shouldn't have excluded the girl's diary from evidence, reasoning it contained information that might have suggested she wasn't raped. Loftus was cleared on all charges, but Balu's conviction for forcible oral copulation was not overturned. He remained imprisoned until January of this year, when he moved into his family's home in Montclair.

After breakfast, Balu often walks down to the county courthouse to study up on his case: "They have a self-help center there that's very useful." He sometimes grabs lunch at a nearby Chinatown restaurant and carries the leftovers back to the hotel, where he rents out a small refrigerator for an extra nightly fee. In the late afternoon, the former lifeguard enjoys a hot tub and some lounging in the guest pool. "While I'm swimming, I use the time to coach myself on how to approach the next day," he said. "I'll visualize what I need to do."

Once retired for the night, Balu takes in at least two movies, he said. Recent favorites included Full Metal Jacket and Alexander the Great, which, he added, "isn't even in Blockbuster yet."

In the hotel, Balu's neighbors don't bother him. Rather, the only knocks on his door have come from a random drunk woman who eventually realized that her friends were staying on another floor, and a determined businessman who tried inserting his card key several times until finally giving up and returning to the front desk.

Otherwise, the Marriott has been a relaxing spa for Balu. "I definitely wanted, in this time of stress, to be taken care of," he said. "And they've taken care of me here. I wanted to be pampered. They'll even turn up the heat in the pool a few degrees, if you ask them. ... I wanted this to be a therapeutic stay."

Balu's stay is not only therapeutic, it's indefinite. He'd like to return to Montclair, and he said his parole officers definitely believe that living with his family is the most stable environment for him. "It's a room with a great view," he said. "But I'm a little scared of the people in the neighborhood. They're all millionaires. They're all worried about their property values. There's no negotiating with those people."

Still, he's aware that he is privileged. After all, he is expecting a convertible Mercedes Benz for his birthday later this month. Most guys who are only five months removed from the big house and have their picture up on the Megan's Law Web site have a difficult time scraping together rent and a job, much less hiring a good attorney.

"In that sense, I'm glad my dad hires lawyers and is able to pay for a defense," Balu said. "At least I've got someone sticking up for me. Nonetheless, this is still a shaming and humiliating situation."


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