Gallo was one of the last people to see Avila alive. Now, he claims, he’s about to do what the cops have failed to accomplish in 22 years: close the book on one of the most mysterious murders in Orange County history.

*     *     * 

Sitting on the opposite side of a table at a Peruvian restaurant in Costa Mesa, Gallo leans forward in a tight-fitting Affliction T-shirt that shows off a pair of bulging biceps and forearms, attributes one presumes are the product of a strict workout regimen. He’s too busy to touch the food on his plate as he recounts his metamorphosis from typical suburban-OC kid to gun-toting degenerate hoodlum. It’s a downward spiral into madness that started when Gallo returned from military school to attend University High School.

Gallo and his toy—uh, no, actually, they're real—collection, circa 1987
Courtesy Kenji Gallo
Gallo and his toy—uh, no, actually, they're real—collection, circa 1987
Mike Marvich
Courtesy Kenji Gallo
Mike Marvich

Gallo’s classmates included Zack de la Rocha and Tim Commerford, Rage Against the Machine’s singer and bassist, respectively, and actor Will Ferrell. “I was friends with Tim and knew Zach pretty well, and Will was in my dance class,” Gallo says. Before he left for military school, he recalls, there were so few Asians in Irvine that he was often singled out because of his race and chased home. “It was bad,” he says. “But when I got back from military school, I wasn’t scared, and nothing ever happened to me.”

Then as now, Gallo recalls, teenagers found Irvine inhospitable when it came to nightlife. “There was nothing to do,” he says. “So we would drink beer at someone’s pool, and the cops would come, and instead of taking us in, they’d dump out the beers. It was retarded. We’d steal beer from the back of the truck at the grocery store, and they’d chase us.” Such stunts led to Gallo’s father arranging the job busing tables at Setoya, thereby unwittingly launching his son headfirst in Orange County’s criminal underworld.

Among the restaurant’s patrons was a squat, overweight and unattractive but otherwise unremarkable-seeming Colombian woman named Griselda Blanco. In reality, Blanco, one of Avila’s coke-smuggling cohorts, was one of the most powerful players in the cocaine trade. “Everyone called her Mama Coca,” Gallo says. An undiagnosed psychopath and former child prostitute who worked her way up in the ranks of the cartels, Blanco had done so in the most vicious way imaginable: murdering her colleagues one by one, massacring anyone who double-crossed her, disrespected her or got in her way—along with their loved ones and even their children. Blanco, who moved from Colombia to New York and then Miami in the 1970s, presided over a reign of terror culminating in the infamous “Cocaine Cowboy” murders, which, by the early 1980s, claimed some 200 lives.

Thanks to increasing heat from law enforcement and threats against her life, Blanco fled to Orange County in the early 1980s. According to Gallo, she visited the nightclub that Avila opened above Setoya, Tavila’s, so often it appeared she did her business there. “She was operating right here,” Gallo recalls. “She was part of that crowd, always upstairs. I danced with her.” Blanco’s entrée into Orange County’s coke scene was short-lived, however. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) caught up with her in 1985, arrested her at her house in Irvine and sent her back to Florida to face drug-smuggling charges. She spent the next 20 years in prison before being released in 2004 and deported to Colombia, where she promptly disappeared.

Meanwhile, Gallo graduated from making deliveries for Avila to running his own crew of drug dealers and hoodlums. His specialty: identifying various local competitors, ambushing them with loaded guns, blowing up their cars with homemade explosives, stealing their drugs and running them out of town. He spent most of his free time drinking and doing lines of coke at the now-defunct Avila’s El Ranchito in the Back Bay area of Costa Mesa, which is what he was doing on May 7, 1987, the night Avila died.

“I was drinking tequila shots with my friend, and we were doing poppers [white tequila mixed with 7-Up] on the table,” Gallo recalls. Angered by the noise, Avila marched over to Gallo’s table. “Hey, come here,” he ordered. “You’ve got to stop that. This is a family restaurant.” Gallo and his friend asked if they could use Avila’s office to continue their drinking game. An hour or so later, Avila told Gallo he was leaving to go see his girlfriend. Gallo knew that Avila had been having problems lately, that he’d been threatened over some kind of drug-related financial dispute and was carrying a handgun for protection.

“I asked him if he was all right, and he said, ‘Yeah, see you later,’” Gallo recalls. “It was weird. There was something in the air. I had a bad feeling. He got in his car, and I watched his Porsche pull out.” That was the last time Gallo saw Avila. He continued drinking, and then drove home, passed out on the floor and woke up to the sound of his phone ringing. Still groggy, he picked up the receiver and learned from one of his drug-dealing buddies that Avila had just been murdered.

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