The Unsolved Murder of Joe Avila Is Only One of Many Loose Ends From OC's Coked-Out '80s

Blown Away
The unsolved murder of Joe Avila is only one of many loose ends from OC’s blood-drenched, coked-out ’80s

There was no way in hell Kenji Gallo was going back to military school.

It was a fall day in 1982, Gallo was just 13 years old and a newly minted freshman at Irvine’s University High School, and he’d rushed out of class at the sound of the bell to catch a bus for the one-hour ride to his first day of work. The job he was about to start—busboy at a brand-new Japanese restaurant in Costa Mesa called Setoya—was the latest bid by his father to teach him some discipline.

The Great Contender: Kenji Gallo at an undisclosed location in coastal OC.
John Gilhooley
The Great Contender: Kenji Gallo at an undisclosed location in coastal OC.
Kenji Gallo's book claims to solve one of OC’s most mysterious murders
Kenji Gallo's book claims to solve one of OC’s most mysterious murders

Gallo, a half-Japanese kid with deceptively sensitive eyes, grew up in a crime-free suburb of America’s safest city. But he was an inveterate troublemaker, routinely screwing up in and out of class. He’d already paid for his sins by getting his ass kicked for the past few years by older cadets at the military school where his dad had exiled him, and this job was his last chance to prove he was ready for life as a civilian teenager. Gallo wasn’t wild about the thought of washing dishes at a sushi bar, but there was no being late. He ran from the bus stop on Irvine Boulevard to the restaurant, where he was greeted by a completely empty parking lot.

“Of course, I got there early, and nobody was there,” Gallo says. Finally, after more than an hour, a black Cadillac pulled up, and from it emerged Gallo’s new boss, Joe Avila, Setoya’s proprietor and co-owner of the Avila’s El Ranchito restaurants in Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. Handsome, fit and tan, with short, curly hair, a square jaw and a confident smile, Avila was dressed in a striped silk shirt and had a gold chain draped gangster-style around his neck. He strode up the staircase and introduced himself to Gallo. Suddenly the restaurant business didn’t seem so lame after all.

“I was like, ‘Fuck, this is what I want to do,’” Gallo recalls. “This is who I want to be.”

Because Setoya didn’t have a hard liquor license, and despite the fact that Gallo was underage, Avila immediately put him to work running to the nearest liquor store to buy cigarettes and alcohol whenever a patron wanted to smoke or drink. The restaurant’s clientèle, he soon realized, also included some diners who had more specialized appetites, ones that couldn’t be filled at the nearest convenience store.

“People were doing blow all over the place,” Gallo recalls. During his first week on the job, one regular diner, a friend of Avila’s who owned a restaurant in Newport Beach, offered Gallo a small, wadded-up piece of paper full of cocaine as a tip. “At that point, I had never seen cocaine before in my life,” Gallo says. So the next day, he showed it to a high-school friend who knew chemistry. After testing it, his friend announced that the white powder was high-grade coke. “Dude, we can make so much money off this,” his friend said.

So began Gallo’s career as a coke dealer. Before long, he wasn’t just picking up beer and smokes at the corner liquor store, but he was also selling pot and delivering coke to Avila’s clients. “I was Joey’s tag-along, at his beck and call,” he says. “I idolized him and all the guys around him. These guys would come in, and I would run errands for them. Go deliver a package to some guy and earn a few bucks.”

In the few years Gallo knew Avila, he grew to worship him. “I was there every day and would talk to him every day,” he says. “We’d have a beer outside. He was real cool, real relaxed, and he had charisma. He would light up a room and inspire people.”

Thanks to his relationship with Avila, Gallo would become a flashy drug dealer in his own right, not to mention a teenage street thug with his private stash of AK-47s and Uzi submachine guns. He’d work in the front lines of the coke trade in Orange County at a time—the mid- to late 1980s—that saw a major incursion into Newport Beach’s crazed, coke-fueled party scene by the Colombian cartels. The period would also witness a string of brutal homicides, most of them at the hands of the so-called “Mickey Mouse Mafia,” which is what the police called the West Coast wing of La Cosa Nostra, or the Sicilian mob.

Before it was over, the crime wave would claim the life of Avila himself. His murder remains unsolved some 20 years later. Gallo would survive the killing spree and go on to become a pornographic-film producer, FBI informant and, now, a best-selling author. His controversial new book, Breakshot: A Life in the 21st Century American Mafia, was published last month by the Beverly Hills-based Phoenix Books with co-author and true-crime writer Mathew Randazzo V. It is an expletive-ridden, hyperbolic and mind-numbingly violent tell-all that sheds new light on Newport Beach’s dark past as a haven for Italian mobsters and Colombian cartel figures.

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