The Unsolved Murder of Joe Avila Is Only One of Many Loose Ends From OC's Coked-Out '80s
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.
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.
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’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.
* * *
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.
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.
* * *
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.
The Mickey Mouse Mafia’s alleged shenanigans weren’t limited to the Mustang Club: Between late 1986 and early 1988, it seemed as though every cocaine dealer in Newport Beach was being ripped off by a trio of Samoan mob enforcers led by Johnny Matua, a 400-pound bodyguard for Newport Beach restaurateur and businessman Robert “Fat Bobby” Paduano. Between August 1987 and March 1988, DA prosecutor Wallace Wade probed the robberies—none of which had been reported to police—and put a string of witnesses on the stand before a grand jury in an attempt to implicate Paduano in the crimes.
Each of the robbery victims, all of whom unconvincingly claimed they had nothing to do with the coke business, alleged that Matua had shown up at their front door carrying flowers, only to pull out a gun, steal whatever cash was lying around, and then leave with a demand they either work for Paduano or get out of Newport Beach. One of the last witnesses to take the stand was George Yudzevich, a former Mustang bouncer who had recently turned state’s evidence against the mafia in a federal case in New York. He repeatedly attempted to plead the Fifth but then reluctantly answered several questions.
On March 16 of that year, someone shot Yudzevich to death at a business park in Irvine. Both Paduano and Matua were convicted of the robberies and sent to prison for several years. During the Paduano probe, Wade asked witnesses about rumors that Paduano wanted to take over Avila’s restaurant business, but he failed to elicit any useful information. “Whenever we had an organized-crime investigation, we always tried to use it to go into these unsolved murders,” Wade says. “But we never arrested anyone or had a strong lead on that case.”
Did Joe Avila—like Casino, Carroll and Yudzevich—somehow earn the wrath of the Mickey Mouse Mafia? One former Newport Beach cocaine dealer who asked not to be identified finds the fact that a motorcycle was left at the scene of the crime suspicious. “If it was the boys from down south who did this, they would have taken the bike with them,” the source said. He believes the murderers wanted both the police and Avila’s family to believe it was the work of Colombians. “They were trying to send a message that this was done by folks down south, but I think it goes to Vegas,” he said. “One time, a guy boasted to me that [the murder] was his people, and his people were from Vegas.”
But if Avila were on the Mickey Mouse Mafia’s shit list, Dino Sigliuzzo would have known about it. At the time of Avila’s murder, Sigliuzzo had the responsibility of maintaining discipline and resolving mafia grievances in Orange County. In a recent interview with the Weekly, Sigliuzzo said he knew that Avila had been threatened and possibly owed someone money he couldn’t repay. At the time of his murder, Sigliuzzo says, he was hoping to convince Avila to allow him to operate a vending-machine business in tandem with Avila’s restaurants. So when Sigliuzzo’s friend Paduano told him Avila had been threatened, he readily agreed to meet with Avila to ask him if he needed some protection.
“I was with Joey the day before he got shot,” he recalls. “He had a lot of people pissed-off. We drank and sat and bullshitted, but we never had any kind of discussion. In those days, everyone was wired, so neither of us was about to initiate anything. I tried to see what was his concern, but I had a lot on my plate, and I wound up going to New York the next day, and when I got back, all was said and done.” Sigliuzzo says that as far as he knows, Avila was on good terms with the mob, and therefore his murder had to involve a dispute with the Colombians, presumably over cocaine—“either coke or Pepsi,” he joked.
Not long after Avila’s murder, Wade hauled Sigliuzzo before the grand jury to ask him about his role in the recent robberies. Wade seemed especially eager to have Sigliuzzo implicate Paduano. “Do you know this guy Bobby?” Wade asked. “What’s your relationship with him?”
Sigliuzzo recalls thinking the question over carefully. “Platonic,” he finally said. “It was all downhill from there. I said, ‘If you have something against me, charge me.’ Nobody would testify against me, which was good, but it became a problem because the cops wanted to know why nobody would testify against me.”
Sigliuzzo was never charged with any crime relating to the Mickey Mouse Mafia. “Everyone says I was a mob enforcer, but that’s never been proven,” he adds. He believes the mob was scapegoated by the police, who had no idea who Orange County’s true arch-criminals really were. Those individuals, he explains, always stay behind the scenes, and their names will never show up in any criminal indictment, much less a newspaper article.
“What was happening on the street back then you can’t all blame on the Italians,” he adds. “You had a bunch of undisciplined rogue idiots running through the streets.” Avila’s murder was just one example of that rogue element in the 1980s, Sigliuzzo concludes. “If I’d have known Joey was in a jam or his life was being threatened, I would have stepped up to the plate. If he needed a couple of gorillas around, that was my thing.”
* * *
Like Sigliuzzo, Gallo insists the Mickey Mouse Mafia had nothing to do with Avila’s murder. “The mob always kills the same way,” he argues. “They get some younger guys that want to come up [in the mafia], and these guys lure you somewhere and shoot you.” Besides, he adds, Avila was on good terms with the mob. Instead, what killed Avila was his deep involvement with the Colombians, he claims. According to Gallo, Avila was highly valued by the Colombian cartels not only because he spoke Spanish, but also because he was tight with all the white drug dealers and society people in Orange County.
“He surfed, he traveled, he had restaurants, and he knew everyone in Newport Beach,” Gallo says. Among Avila’s friends was John Gale, a rich kid from Newport Beach who in the 1960s became one of the biggest drug dealers affiliated with the Laguna Beach-based Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a group of hippie hash smugglers who befriended Timothy Leary and sought to turn on the entire world through their trademark acid, Orange Sunshine, before a task force of local cops and federal drug agents arrested dozens of members and sent the rest scurrying underground in 1973.
Gale spent a year in prison but quickly went back to drug dealing, and by the late 1970s, he’d become an extremely successful coke broker. His career ended on June 22, 1982, when the Mercedes he’d borrowed from his friend Mike Hynson, the surfer of Endless Summer fame, rolled off the road during what police figured was a high-speed chase by parties unknown. Although eyewitnesses said Gale had just left a Dana Point bar with a suitcase full of cash, none was found at the scene of the crash. Police classified his death as an accident, but it is widely believed among both cops and Gale’s former associates to be the result of foul play, possibly the work of Colombians or the mob.
Another of Avila’s American affiliates was Michael Patrick Marvich, or “Big Mike,” a former paralegal for the law firm of George Chula, which represented Leary and various members of the Brotherhood in their endless Orange County Superior Court appearances in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For those unfamiliar with the true nature of Chula’s services, Marvich would seem an unlikely employee: His rap sheet included numerous felonies dating back to at least 1948, when he was convicted and sent to prison for robbing a bank in Oakland.
According to one former Brotherhood source, Chula met Marvich when he defended him in a murder case and succeeded in getting the charges dismissed. After joining Chula’s firm, Marvich would use the attorney-client privilege to share information with Brotherhood members, even going so far as to serve as a middleman between Mexican marijuana smugglers and the Laguna Beach-based Brotherhood dealers. Every week, the Brotherhood’s Mexican suppliers would drive a car full of weed through the San Ysidro checkpoint and leave it somewhere in San Diego, ready for pickup, and Marvich was the only person north of the border who would know its exact location. “It got to the point where we didn’t do anything but wait for a call from Chula’s office and go pick up the car in a parking lot somewhere,” the source said.
By the 1980s, Marvich, now a septuagenarian, had moved on to the much-more-lucrative cocaine-smuggling business, and, according to Gallo, he had Colombian-cartel connections that rivaled Avila’s. He also had a reputation as a sinister crime lord. “Mike was the guy,” Gallo recalls. “Everyone used to say he was the biggest and baddest. He was a snake—an evil fucking guy.” Gallo claims Marvich had no qualms about ripping off fellow drug dealers, and then telling the Colombians that his victims had either lost or stolen the coke in question, with the predictable body count that followed.
In 1985, something happened that Gallo insists has everything to do with Avila’s murder two years later. On March 29, Marvich’s 38-year-old girlfriend, Catherine Lawrence, died of a gunshot wound to the head at Marvich’s Costa Mesa house. Police ruled the shooting a suicide, and other than a few needle marks and one small bruise, the coroner’s report provides no evidence of any struggle or foul play. But Gallo insists that Marvich murdered her in her sleep because she had loaned $200,000 to Avila to help him open the nightclub above Setoya. Furthermore, Gallo claims, Marvich suspected her of having an affair with Avila, even going so far as to hire an investigator to spy on her.
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.
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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