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Police say it was just after midnight when Avila drove his sleek black 1985 Porsche Carrera toward the intersection of Santa Isabel Avenue and Tustin Avenue in the Costa Mesa neighborhood of Santa Ana Heights. A small motorcycle blocked the road, surrounded by two-story stucco and timber houses and a parking lot for Harbor Christian Church. Avila slowed down in front of the bike. Moments later, a car pulled up behind Avila, and someone wielding a machine gun peppered his convertible with 14 bullets that formed a line angling down from the roof, through the driver’s side window and ending in the driver’s seat.

When officers arrived at the scene at 12:28 a.m., they found Avila slumped against the dashboard, his seatbelt still fastened. His headlights were on, and his front and rear turn signals still flashed in expectation of the right-hand turn he never made. The bike, now lying on its side, still blocked the road. Witnesses who heard the gunfire claimed they saw three men speeding away from the intersection in a small Honda-type vehicle.

Joe Avila
Courtesy Kenji Gallo
Joe Avila

The brutal murder shocked those familiar with the Avila family and its celebrated chain of Mexican restaurants. Joe Avila was one of four brothers and a daughter whose parents, a Mexican immigrant named Salvador and wife Margarita, had launched the Avila’s El Ranchito chain at a modest Huntington Park eatery in 1966. By the late 1980s, the Avilas had successfully expanded their business to include nearly a dozen Southern California restaurants and a catering business that provided food for the inaugural dinner at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda. The five U.S.-born Avila siblings had carried on the family enterprise, launching and managing their own restaurants, and like their parents, who had traded their East LA home for a luxurious mansion in Corona del Mar’s Spyglass Hill, they had became millionaires many times over.

But local law-enforcement officials weren’t exactly shocked at the crime scene. For years, they’d suspected Joe Avila of running an even-more-lucrative side business: cocaine smuggling. Athletic, gregarious, flamboyant, recently divorced and rich, Avila was the quintessential Newport Beach playboy and a major player in the city’s decadent, drug-addled underworld. In 1977, he’d been indicted for his role in the so-called “Tahitian connection,” in which cocaine was smuggled from Peru and Bolivia to Tahiti in false-bottomed suitcases, and then placed on commercial flights to California. But the charges had been dropped because of a procedural error, and although police were certain Avila was still in the coke business, they’d never been able to arrest him.

Family members denied that Avila had anything to do with drugs, although they acknowledged he’d been secretive about his affairs, and they suspected he owed someone money. Such protests did little to convince the cops. “Drugs are the primary deal here,” Deputy District Attorney James G. Enright told the Los Angeles Times in a December 1987 interview. “The first word out of anybody’s mouth is that he was a big-time drug dealer.”

Besides, his grisly murder had all the markings of a professional hit. The neat line of bullet holes left in his car suggested a machine gun—probably a MAC-10 or Uzi—that had been outfitted with a suppressor to stabilize the weapon and was fired by an experienced gunman. Police quickly traced the bike to a dealership in LA, but there the trail ran cold. Whoever purchased the motorcycle had provided a phony name and nonexistent address. That it was left at the scene of the crime, however, suggested the murderers were either Colombians or that they wanted the police and public to believe they were, given that motorcycle-riding assassins known as sicarios were responsible for countless murders in the world’s No. 1 cocaine-exporting country at the time.

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Avila’s murder was just the latest in a string of assassinations, professional and otherwise, that had occurred in the past several months, spotlighting the city’s status as a playground (and killing field) for shady businessmen, drug kingpins and organized crime figures affiliated with what cops dubbed the “Mickey Mouse Mafia,” who reveled in Newport Beach’s glamorous lifestyle and coke-fueled nightlife scene.

On Jan. 1, 1987, 48-year-old Jimmy Lee Casino, the owner of the Mustang Topless Theater, a Santa Ana strip club, returned to his Buena Park home after attending a New Year’s Eve party with his 22-year-old girlfriend. As the LA Times later reported, two “masked and armed intruders were waiting. The intruders tied up and raped his girlfriend and dragged Casino downstairs. They ransacked the condo, taking jewelry, furs, credit cards and two cars.” Then they shot Casino three times in the head. (In May 2008, police arrested Richard C. Morris Jr. at his home in Oahu, Hawaii, and charged him in connection with the shooting.)

Casino, whose real name was James Lee Stockwell, was a well-known mobster with a three-decades-long rap sheet, the Times said. He wasn’t the last person connected with the Mustang to find himself on the wrong end of a gun. On May 1, 1987, just a week before Avila was murdered, local mobsters Joseph Angelo Grosso and Michael Anthony Rizzitello forced Bill Carroll, one of the strip club’s investors, to a Costa Mesa parking garage. The two men were angry because Carroll had barred them from the club for selling cocaine. They shot him through the face, blinding him, but he survived, and both men were convicted of attempted murder and sent to prison, where Rizzitello later died. In January 1988, the Mustang, which had survived earlier unsolved arson attempts, mysteriously burned to the ground.

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