Owner of El Ranchito Restaurant Chain Gunned Down

Times Staff Writers

One of the family owners of the El Ranchito restaurant chain, once indicted in Hawaii for drug smuggling but never tried, was shot and killed just after midnight Thursday as he drove through his neighborhood west of Upper Newport Bay.

Orange County Sheriff’s Department investigators said “several shots” were fired at Joe Luis Avila, 40, of Costa Mesa, through the window of his black 1985 Porsche Carrera convertible. When police arrived two minutes later, they found him slumped against the steering wheel, dead.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 9, 1987 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 9, 1987 Orange County Edition Metro Part 2 Page 2 Column 5 Metro Desk 2 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
The ownership of a La Habra restaurant was incorrectly described in an article Friday about the death of Joe Luis Avila, who, along with members of his family, owned units in the El Ranchito restaurant chain. A restaurant that once was owned by an Avila family member, in La Habra, is now owned by Ricardo Meeks. The Avila family no longer has an interest in the restaurant, which now is named Ricardo’s El Ranchito.

Avila’s car showed evidence that at least 14 shots had been fired in a short, narrow swath, starting near the car top, going across the driver’s door window and ending in the front-seat upholstery. One source acquainted with the investigation said the weapon could have been a machine gun.


Investigators said all shots were fired from outside the car and apparently struck no other part of the car but the window.

Members of the Avila family quoted police as saying it appeared to be the work of a professional killer.

“The first word out of everybody’s mouth is that he was a big-time drug dealer,” said Chief Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. James Enright. “We realize that drugs are the primary deal here, but we’re looking at it from a little broader aspect that I can’t talk about.”

“We have no indication that there were any drugs going on at the time of the shooting, but we do know and have had information in the past that he was involved in drug dealings,” said Capt. Doug Storm, commander of Sheriff’s Department investigators. “The actual motive for this one, it’s way too early to tell.”

Avila family members Thursday denied that Joe Avila had any contact with drug trafficking. They said they know of no reason anyone would want to murder him.

In October, 1977, Avila and 10 others, including his brother Sergio, were indicted by a federal grand jury in Honolulu on drug-smuggling charges.


Federal investigators alleged that Joe Avila and a Hawaii man masterminded the so-called “Tahiti Connection,” a smuggling operation they said brought Peruvian cocaine to the West Coast via Tahiti to avoid the close scrutiny customs officials give shipments from South America.

Five months later, however, a federal judge in Honolulu dismissed the charges, agreeing with defense attorneys that the key witnesses against the suspects should have testified in person before the grand jury.

Closed Up Restaurants

Family members said that on Wednesday night, Avila, as usual, had helped close up his two El Ranchito restaurants, one on Placentia Avenue in Costa Mesa and the other on Irvine Avenue in Santa Ana Heights near Upper Newport Bay.

He had left the Costa Mesa restaurant at 11 p.m. and had gone to check the Santa Ana Heights restaurant, they said.

He was driving alone only 1 1/2 blocks from his $500,000 house in Santa Ana Heights when, according to investigators, he apparently began to turn right onto Tustin Avenue from Santa Isabel Avenue and was shot.

Neighbors reported hearing noises and seeing a small, tan-colored “Honda-type” automobile with three people inside driving away from the scene.

Costa Mesa police were summoned at 12:26 a.m. and arrived two minutes later, investigators said.

They found Avila’s car, its headlights on, its right turn indicator lights still flashing and the driver’s door window completely shot out. Avila’s body was still belted into the driver’s seat.

Abandoned Motorcycle

A motorcycle was parked on its kickstand in the street 10 to 15 feet in front of Avila’s car and apparently was abandoned. Investigators said the motorcycle appeared to be “newly purchased” but would add no details. The cycle was impounded as possible evidence.

Paramedics declared Avila dead at the scene. Sheriff’s Department spokesman Lt. Richard J. Olson said an autopsy revealed “several” gunshots to Avila’s body between the neck and waist.

“At this point, we have no motive for the shooting,” Olson said.

“We were looking into a series of shootings that have happened recently and we’re trying to connect them,” Enright said.

Six days before Avila was murdered just outside the Costa Mesa city limits, a man identified as William Charles Carroll, 55, was shot several times in the head as he sat in his car in a Costa Mesa parking structure. Though he survived, he has refused to help police investigate the matter and is under heavy police guard in a hospital, Costa Mesa officers said.

“You can guess what we’re concerned with; they may be connected,” Enright said. “In the dope trade, there may be a dissatisfied customer. Who knows?”

Relatives Gathered

Avila’s younger brother Sergio and his twin brother Salvador arrived at the scene at about 3:30 a.m., investigators said. Salvador Avila’s house is two doors from Joe Avila’s and about 1 1/2 blocks from the murder scene.

Thursday night, more than a dozen Avila relatives gathered to mourn at the home of Salvador Avila. They were red-eyed from crying, but they were also insistent that drug trafficking played no role in his death.

“It is not a drug-related thing,” said Salvador Avila. “We have zero clues. We have all sat down and tried to figure out what Joe might have done to jeopardize his life.”

Recently, Salvador Avila said, his brother had asked his family for money to open a new restaurant because he was spread “too thin financially.” Several months ago there also was “some financial difficulty with partners” in a Newport Beach nightclub Joe owned, he said.

But these were not reasons for killing him, Salvador Avila said.

Court records indicate that Joe Avila was being sued for divorce by his wife Lynn.

According to Margarita Avila, 30, Joe Avila’s sister, the couple were reconciling. She said the couple have two children--Brandon, 9, and Melissa, 8 months.

Sued by Supplier

Records also showed that El Ranchito was being sued by a meat supplier for nonpayment of $68,169.99.

Sergio Avila, 35, said: “Joe was the type who would tell us if he was in need of money, in need of anything. And we didn’t see no reason at all. It was a shock.”

Margarita Avila said she hoped that reports of a “gangland murder” would not harm the family’s restaurant business.

There are El Ranchito restaurants and catering outlets in La Habra, Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, Laguna Hills, Brea, Newport Beach, Santa Ana Heights, Huntington Park and Long Beach. As family members describe it, the El Ranchito chain, headquartered in La Habra, is family-owned, but individual family members own and operate individual restaurants.

“We don’t want to be marred by the indication that it could be drug-related,” Margarita Avila said.

Man of Means

Joe Avila’s brothers described him as a man of means--with a Porsche, a $500,000 home overlooking a miniature lake and two El Ranchito restaurants worth $2 million to $3 million.

In addition, about a year ago Joe Avila bought a Japanese restaurant in Newport Beach formerly known as Setoya, transformed it into a nightclub called Avila’s Club, then changed the name to Pompeii’s. He recently sold or leased the restaurant, family members said.

In court documents related to the divorce, his wife listed that he owned two El Ranchito restaurants, Avila’s Club, the Setoya restaurant and Barely There Swimwear.