Avila’s supposed debt to Marvich still hadn’t been repaid two years later when Avila died. Shortly after the murder, Gallo claims that Marvich, who knew Gallo was close to Avila, summoned him for an important errand: send a message to Avila’s family. “You tell Sal he already lost one brother, and I want that money,” Marvich reportedly barked.

“The way he was looking at me, the way he said it, I knew he killed him,” Gallo says. Marvich died of natural causes on Jan. 2, 1999, so he’s unable to respond to Gallo’s claim that he murdered Avila over an unpaid debt. Court records show, however, that on Nov. 14, 1989, Marvich filed a civil suit against a surviving Avila family member. The case never reached a courtroom, and it’s unclear how much cash Marvich hoped to win because the case file has been destroyed. But Gallo, who became an FBI informant in the mid-1990s after leaving the coke business to work as a producer of pornographic films—he even married porn actress Tabitha Stevens—claims Avila’s murder could have been solved years ago but was hindered by the fact that Marvich was also an FBI informant.

Although Gallo could provide no evidence to support his claim, he insists that he learned of Marvich’s status as a snitch while he was working with the FBI himself. It’s also worth noting that, despite being arrested in January 1990 along with his 24-year-old girlfriend for his role in a marijuana-and-methamphetamine-distribution ring, Marvich, then 79, was sentenced to only three years of probation. Given the seriousness of the crime, that’s a remarkably light sentence, although it’s possible Marvich’s age and infirmity played a role. In any case, Marvich appealed his conviction and had the charges overturned in 1997, two years before he died.

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

Officially, Avila’s murder remains open but unsolved, with no hint of any progress in the past two decades. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department declined to say anything about the case and refused to provide anything in response to a public-records request other than the cover sheet of the initial police report, which says nothing except that Avila was a “major narcotics dealer” who was driving a Porsche when he encountered a motorcycle late one night.

At the Peruvian-restaurant interview, Gallo pokes his fork at his barely touched food as he points out that Marvich, who was already a senior citizen when Avila was murdered, obviously didn’t act alone. He believes the actual gunmen were Colombians who were smuggled out of the country in the days after the murder but that other accomplices remain in Orange County today. “I have a feeling this case is going to get solved soon,” he predicts. “There are people who were 100 percent involved in this who are in Newport right now, but nobody wants to help me. I’m the last person who cares.”


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