A Kilo Full of Kryptonite


Carrying his recently deceased father's sky-blue retro suitcase as well as a Walkman and a dozen CDs, Joe Bralic cleared U.S. immigration and boarded his flight to Los Angeles. Bralic said the trip was for fun, to celebrate his 22nd birthday, which fell on June 21, five days before he left for Los Angeles. The popular kid from Vancouver planned to meet up with some American "friends." But it wasn't going to be all fun and games; there was also business to attend to on this trip -- one that would take Bralic from Vancouver to Los Angeles, to Las Vegas, to Bismarck, North Dakota, all the way back to Los Angeles. Only a handful of Bralic's friends knew or suspected what the business entailed.

Vancouver was typically cloudy when Bralic departed, but soon his mood reflected the sunny skies that greeted him in the Southland. He was having a good time -- at least that is what he told his best friend, 22-year-old Dustin Riske, when he called him from Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas a few days after getting off the plane in L.A. on June 26, 2001. He also told his childhood friend to keep his trip a secret. Nothing more needed to be said. Over the previous six months, Riske had gotten used to keeping Joe's secrets. That two-minute chat was the last time Dustin Riske, now 25, spoke to his best friend.

When Bralic's body was discovered in the back parking lot of a Discount Tire store in Fullerton on July 5, 10 days after he left home, folks back in Bralic's hometown of Burnaby, a middle-class suburb of Vancouver, were shocked. An article that appeared in the Vancouver Province a few weeks after his death described Bralic as a "popular Burnaby bodybuilder" and a "hard-working, jovial man who was a hero to his friends." His family, reeling from the death of their patriarch a few months earlier, offered a reward for any information about Bralic's "mysterious shooting death" while vacationing in California.

When Dustin Riske heard that Joe Bralic was dead, his heart sank. He knew that the news reports about his best friend being randomly killed while on vacation were false. Bralic wasn't in the States to visit the sights, as he led friends and family to believe. Instead, he had gotten himself in over his head playing the cross-border game of smuggling B.C. bud, highly potent marijuana grown in so-called grow-ops all over British Columbia. It's a risky venture, but if successful, it can net drug smugglers at least three times more than if they sold the stuff in Canada. Bralic had told Riske he had a connection in Los Angeles. It was a simple exchange -- pot for cocaine. Bralic assured him that this was a one-time deal. Riske didn't realize then how true Bralic's words would be.

"I was concerned about his safety, but he is going to do what he is going to do," says Riske, a souvenir wholesaler. "He is the type of person that you can't tell him anything. He is not going to listen to anyone but himself."

In 1979, Josip Ivan Bralic was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, to Croatian parents who had immigrated to Canada in 1972. Friends who attended Burnaby North High School with Bralic say he was a good student who loved the theater (he played Kenickie in "Grease") and sports, especially martial arts. He became a black belt in karate at 18. In his senior year, Bralic started to hang out with Riske and others who loved to bodybuild. "All of my friends worked out and competed with each other," says Riske. "It is a status thing. Everyone tries to be bigger than the other guys."

By 20, Bralic was the biggest and toughest. And like a lot of young male bodybuilders in Vancouver, he used steroids. His size started to get him recognized at the more popular bars around town, where Bralic and his friends would hang out at least four times a week.

"A lot of people knew of him. They knew he was a real tough guy, and would want to fight him to prove it," says Riske. "He never really instigated the fights. Nor was he ever beaten up."

Bralic's local legend grew, and it wasn't long before the owner of the Wild Coyote and the Big Bamboo (now Daddy O's), two of Vancouver's more popular drinking establishments, asked him if he wanted work as a bouncer. He agreed.

"If you saw the guy, you would be instantly intimidated," says one of Bralic's friends who didn't want to be named. "He was a gentle guy, but you wouldn't want to cross paths with him the wrong way. Five normal guys couldn't have taken him on."

Bralic was tough enough to enter the sometimes bloody, no-holds-barred world of Ultimate Fighting. He competed 16 times and lost only once. The bouncer gigs and Ultimate Fighting contests were big ego boosts for a kid who friends say was picked on for being small when he was growing up. "That was one of the reasons why he became so big," says Bralic's friend Joe Ciccone. "A lot of people seemed blinded by him. To me, he was very easy to read."

By the time he reached his 20s, Bralic's identity was just the opposite of a bullied little kid. He had become something of a hero in his city of 165,500, and no one loved that title more than he did. His outgoing and friendly personality ensured that he was the center of attention at family functions and with friends. He even had a nickname: Superman -- his favorite action hero. The nickname stuck after he foiled a liquor-store robbery in Burnaby by chasing down the unsuspecting robber, tackling him and then holding him down until the police arrived a few minutes later.

The Superman nickname also fit with his propensity for getting into accidents and making it out alive. At five, he was hit by a car and survived. A few years later, he almost bled to death after he fell through a sliding glass window. To friends and family, he was the comic-book hero come to life.

"When I would be scared at night, it was Joe who I phoned," says Dustin Riske's sister, Simone. "He was such a good-hearted person. My mum travels, and sometimes I would be sleeping at home by myself. I would tell him I heard something, and he would run over and check the back of the house. I felt safe knowing he was there. He is the type of person you would call. He would do absolutely anything for anyone."

Despite his displays of toughness and bravado, Bralic had an artistic side. He loved to draw. After high school, he enrolled in the prestigious Vancouver Film School, where he majored in animation. His favorite characters were Superman, Spider-Man and the X-Men. He aspired to work for Disney and draw his own cartoons. His friends pictured him as having a career in the movies as the next big action hero. Bralic was also very sensitive and easily manipulated, his friends say. "There are people who are strong, and there are people who can be persuaded or influenced, and he was that type of person," says Ciccone. "Anyone who does steroids and wants an image is clearly not comfortable with himself. Instead of being himself, he was trying to be the fighter. He was just trying to find his place."

Canada's third-largest city, Vancouver has become known as "the Amsterdam of North America" because of its tolerant drug policing. With its quick access to scuba diving, river rafting, hiking, sailing, kayaking, boating, golfing, bird watching and skiing at world-famous resorts such as Whistler/Blackcomb, it's an outdoorsman's paradise. It is also the home to a $4 billion marijuana industry that, via hydroponic cultivation (an indoor growing method using lights, high heat, humidity and heavily fertilized water), grows pot four times more potent than most of the stuff from Mexico and Humboldt County. Over the last decade, B.C. bud has become the region's largest export to the U.S., next to lumber.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has reported that one pound of B.C. bud sells for as much as $6,000 in California. In nearby Seattle, B.C. bud sells for around $3,000. On the streets of Vancouver, the take would be closer to $1,500. If you're willing to take the risk, dealing B.C. bud can bring a nice profit.

Since Prohibition, Canada and the U.S. have had a lucrative partnership in smuggling illicit contraband. During the Depression, Canadians made lots of money sneaking alcohol into the U.S. through tunnels and across the lax U.S.-Canadian border, a frontier of vast, remote areas interrupted by the occasional residence and farm. In some areas, the border is delineated only by a narrow trench, which is easily traversed.

In December 2000, the DEA published an intelligence brief, "B.C. Bud: Growth of the Canadian Marijuana Trade," that said the province's pot business had become "a billion-dollar industry" and that "traffickers smuggle a significant portion of the Canadian harvest into the United States" in everything from sod trucks to hockey-equipment bags. In 2001, the DEA opened an office in Vancouver, citing British Columbia's marijuana trade to the U.S. as the key reason.

Meanwhile, smuggling has continued to boom, as the Hells Angels and Asian and Indo-Canadian gangs have taken over the trafficking and now outnumber law-enforcement agencies on both sides of the border. To make matters worse, in recent years a new breed of smuggler, composed mostly of enterprising blue-collar folks and yuppies looking for a fast buck, has entered the market.

By any measure, marijuana is big business in Canada -- one with its own shady infrastructure. In B.C. alone, there are an estimated 12,000 grow-ops, with most of the product heading toward the border, according to law enforcement. To have a successful average-size greenhouse (100 plants), a grower needs a house, hydroponic supplies, lights, fans, seeds and labor. It can cost upwards of $100,000 to set it up. (More recently, sophisticated plant genetics have come into play that produce plants with THC levels of 30 percent.) Once that is in order, you need a "cross" or "mule" to smuggle the pot over the border. Once in the U.S., you need a connection.

While in Los Angeles, Bralic checked into the Radisson Hotel in Baldwin Hills. A few days later, he drove to Las Vegas for a brief respite before heading on to North Dakota to meet up with his girlfriend, Rachel Duck, and his two friends Derrick Madinski and Garry Favell. They stayed overnight in Bismarck sometime around June 29 before driving back to L.A. Joe drove with Duck, and Favell and Madinski drove Madinski's girlfriend's Jeep. Friends say Bralic asked Duck to join him to celebrate their anniversary. The two had been fighting to the point where he had recently moved out of the Vancouver apartment they shared, and this trip was meant to signal a more positive turn for their relationship.
Although it was last-minute, she agreed and flew to Regina, Saskatchewan -- around 1,000 miles from Vancouver -- to meet up with Madinski and Favell, who had driven there from Vancouver. Why they had rendezvoused in Saskatchewan before heading into the U.S. would later become a subject of scrutiny and speculation for police. The Jeep they were driving was given a secondary search by U.S. customs officials at the North Dakota border before they were allowed to enter the U.S.

Despite whatever romantic notions they had for their time in the States, Duck left Bralic and flew back to Vancouver the day after they all arrived back in Los Angeles. Friends say she had to return to work, but authorities believe otherwise. Fullerton Police Sergeant Kevin Hamilton, who has been working the case for the last three years, believes that Bralic may have realized that something was going sour with the "business" end of his Los Angeles trip and asked her to leave just in case it got dangerous. "We couldn't determine a valid reason why she would leave California without him," Hamilton says.

On the evening of Wednesday, July 4, Bralic and his friends Madinski and Favell cruised the Sunset Strip. They had a couple of drinks at the Viper Room before they crossed the street and checked out one of L.A.'s late-night tattoo parlors. Bralic had a skull-and-crossbones of the comic-strip character the Punisher tattooed on his ankle. Fullerton's Sergeant Hamilton says that Bralic was reportedly acting tough that night. The artist who gave Bralic his tattoo told police that he warned the Canadian tourist about his cocky behavior, telling him that he would get himself into trouble if he kept it up. Bralic just shrugged it off, smiled and left.

The next day, Bralic got five calls on his cell phone. The second was from his girlfriend, at 9:47 a.m. He told her about his new tattoo, according to Vlatka Bralic, Joe's oldest sister. The other four calls (9:30 a.m., 10:08 a.m., 10:40 a.m. and 11:57 a.m.) were all less than one minute long. Any calls after that went straight to Bralic's voice mail. Madinski and Favell told Vlatka that they had asked her brother that morning to join them sightseeing, but he declined. They told her that brief conversation was the last time they spoke to Bralic.

Later that very day, almost 30 miles away, two Fullerton water-maintenance workers were driving through the back alley of a Discount Tire store on West Orangethorpe Avenue when they made a gruesome discovery. Lying next to two parked cars was a body wrapped in plastic. The city workers told police they were certain the body had been freshly deposited, because there was no body there when they passed by a half-hour earlier, at 1:30 p.m. The victim, a well-built male, was fully dressed and looked to be in his early 20s. He was wrapped so tightly that it stemmed the heavy flow of blood visible through the plastic. There was no ID on the 230-pound frame, just a couple of tattoos, including a large one that covered his right shoulder blade and a smaller, fresh tattoo of a comic-book character on his left leg, just above his ankle. His chest, legs and arms were completely waxed. He was clean-shaven and good-looking. The victim apparently died from a single gunshot wound to the head. You don't see an execution-style murder every day in Fullerton.

"This started out unusual. A body dumped in the middle of the day," says Hamilton. "In an alley off a very busy street. He hadn't been killed very long."

At first, Fullerton detectives believed the murder was linked to an ongoing investigation into possible credit-card fraud that Anaheim police and the U.S. Department of the Treasury were conducting in the area at the same time the body was found. They were told the cases were unrelated. They also thought that because the body was dumped next to two unmarked police cars, it might have been a vendetta against the police. That proved baseless. When no one filed a missing-persons report, the Fullerton police gave the local press a composite sketch of the deceased and a description, which included the frosted blond tips that highlighted his dark, spiky hair. Police believed at first the victim was possibly European, because of the Croatian coat-of-arms tattoo that covered his shoulder blade. In addition, police processed his fingerprints through state, FBI and military records, but found no matches. They also filed a report with the Department of Justice, which keeps updated information on missing-persons cases nationally and internationally.

According to police, around 3 p.m. that same Thursday, Favell and Madinski asked the maid at the Radisson Hotel back in Baldwin Hills for the key to Bralic's room. They told the maid they wanted to check in on their friend, who was not answering his door. The two had checked out of the Radisson and moved down the street to the Queen's Lodge Motel that morning. "I think they knew something was up," says Hamilton. "Why would you move across the street? It doesn't make sense unless you are trying to protect yourself." On Friday, they made another trip back to the Radisson and paid for his room for another night. The next day, the two swung by the hotel again before driving the 1,300 miles back to British Columbia. They arrived in Canada that Sunday night.

Meanwhile, Vlatka Bralic was starting to panic. Her baby brother had not returned from his trip to L.A. He was due back on Friday, July 6, in plenty of time for his cousin's wedding, an event he was supposed to attend with Vlatka the next day. Her calls to his cell phone went directly to his voice mail. "I kept saying that Joe was missing," says Vlatka. "When anyone would ask me, I would keep saying that. I started to fantasize that he went to Mexico with a girl and didn't want his girlfriend to know."

Vlatka says she last saw her brother two days before his trip at his birthday dinner at their mother's house. That was when he announced he was going to California alone. She said she was surprised and uneasy about his decision.

"I remember saying, 'Why would you go to Los Angeles by yourself? What happens if you get killed and you are alone in a hotel room with no one there to help you?' He did his usual 'Shucks, Sis, I am not going to get killed.'"

On Sunday, July 8, Rachel Duck went over to Bralic's mother's house and told the family that she had last spoken to her boyfriend on the morning of July 5. Duck informed the family that she, Madinski and Favell had been with Joe while he was in California. Duck then told the family that Bralic's friends had returned without him. Vlatka Bralic began contacting the authorities and hospitals in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas. She filed a missing-persons report with the Vancouver Police Department and with the local authorities in Baldwin Park. There was still no sign of Joe Bralic.

Three days later, while at her job as an insurance investigator, Vlatka received a call from Fullerton police informing her that they had a John Doe who possibly fit the description of her brother. They asked her to describe his tattoos. Later that day, Joe Bralic was identified through his B.C. driver's-license photo as Fullerton's first murder victim of 2001.

Not long after they identified Bralic, Fullerton detectives started to suspect Bralic's trip was more business than pleasure when they learned from Joe's friends and family that Madinski and Favell had driven back to Canada days after their friend disappeared without reporting him missing to the local or Canadian authorities. The only missing-persons report was filed by Vlatka Bralic on July 8 -- three days after her brother vanished. A week after Bralic's body was identified, two Fullerton police detectives made their way to Vancouver to interview his family and friends, including his girlfriend, Madinski and Favell. After an initial interrogation by detectives from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Fullerton detectives, both Favell and Madinski hired attorneys.

Even without the help of Favell and Madinski, Bralic's hidden life began to unravel. Friends say Bralic started to veer in a dangerous direction around the time of his father's sudden death from lung cancer in March 2001. Of all the four siblings, Bralic took his father's death the hardest. He became secretive and reclusive. He started to act recklessly. Vlatka Bralic says her brother felt some obligation to help their mother financially. His relationship with his then live-in girlfriend, Rachel Duck, was also on the rocks.

"It was like he had a double life. That whole direction started after my dad's death," says Vlatka. "He valued life less. I think it also had to do with his age. He was still in some ways immature, not thinking things through. Usually you outgrow the fact that you are invincible, but it magnified after my dad's death."

It was after his father's death that Bralic grew tighter with Derrick Madinski, Garry Favell and, eventually, with a dangerous former American resident named Anton Brad Hooites-Meursing. Hooites-Meursing was born in Canada, but grew up in Long Beach before he was deported back to Canada 10 years ago, when he was in his early 20s. Hooites-Meursing would eventually introduce Bralic to the men in L.A. who friends think placed a gun to Bralic's head and killed him.

Dustin Riske says Bralic met Madinski, a fellow bodybuilder who did stints as a bartender at nightclubs in Surrey and Vancouver, at a rave on the burgeoning Vancouver scene. When they met, Bralic was working as a bouncer, and Madinski was investing in the drug trade with his friend Javan Luke Dowling, a convicted drug trafficker. Friends say Bralic soon began to deal marijuana on a small scale. Sources say he also sold Ecstasy. Madinski, on the other hand, was beginning to deal in larger quantities. In the Vancouver law courts a year later, Madinski told authorities that those deals, which started as low as $5,000, soon escalated to amounts as high as $80,000. By February 2001, Madinski's success in the drug trade allowed him to quit his straight jobs.

Along the way, Dowling introduced Madinski to Mihaly Illes, a Hungarian native who was kicked out of Canada and who had returned to the country illegally. Illes had previously done stints in an Alberta jail for drug offenses and weapons charges before being deported back to Hungary. Madinski said he let Illes crash in his living room, and even gave him money for food and expenses. In April 2001, Madinski says, he witnessed Illes shoot his friend Dowling twice in the head while the three were driving around Vancouver in Dowling's van. Illes was allegedly upset that Dowling, a crack addict, was stealing his product. Madinski told police that at the time of the shooting, Illes threatened him not to go to the authorities. When Dowling's severed head was discovered on March 26, 2002, almost a year after Illes killed him, Madinski did go to police. In February 2003, Madinski testified at the first-degree-murder trial of Illes. He told the jury that Illes cut off Dowling's head and dismembered his body while he watched. Then both of them buried Dowling's body parts in two separate locations outside of Vancouver in a small city called Squamish.

Besides testifying about his part in the murder, Madinski told the jury about his role in smuggling drugs across the U.S.-Canada border in exchange for cocaine, which was then smuggled back across the border into Canada. "You bring back the coke and sell it for a lot more money," he explained to the jury. "So it's two benefits in one." Madinski stated that they used another man who rented a house in Burnaby so they could grow their own marijuana, eliminating the need to buy the B.C. pot they would take to the U.S. "I figured even if he was busted, he wasn't going to jail," he said of pot grower Garry Favell. "You get busted for weed here [Canada], and it's a slap on the wrist." The group typically used a person called a "cross" who smuggled the drugs across the border for a fee.

"A person arrested for trafficking pot in the U.S. would get at least two years in jail, so the risk is higher in the U.S., and it [pot] is a lot more expensive," he added. "Canada's sentences are much lighter -- often a fine and no jail time -- so marijuana prices are cheaper here."

Finding growers among Vancouver's 12,000 active grow-ops was the easy part. Making connections with buyers in the States was a more difficult and dangerous prospect, especially in Los Angeles, where large-scale drug deals are usually brokered through street gangs with ties to the Mexican mafia. Enter Anton Brad Hooites-Meursing, a.k.a. Compton (as he was called in Canada) or Blanco (meaning Whitey, the gang moniker given to him by his Latino friends). Riske says that Bralic met Hooites-Meursing around six months before Bralic went to Los Angeles, through a mutual friend who worked at a car dealership in Burnaby. Riske, who had met Hooites-Meursing twice himself, describes him as dangerous -- a loose cannon who carried a gun with him everywhere he went and was known to shoot it off in the streets. Once, when Riske was at the mall with Bralic, Hooites-Meursing came up and had a private conversation with Bralic. Riske recalls that he heard Hooites-Meursing had affiliations with a Latino street gang that he routinely supplied with drugs.

"Joe told me that Compton knew of some guys in L.A. Joe could sell to," Riske says. Hooites-Meursing made the connection, according to friends of Bralic. Authorities believe that Bralic flew to Los Angeles on at least two occasions to meet up with the gang associates of Hooites-Meursing to whom he would be supplying B.C. bud. Bralic told one of his friends that while he was there he was working out on Muscle Beach and hanging out "with these crazy Mexican guys." Bralic's friend, who doesn't want to be identified, says that Bralic's newfound friends had also visited him in Vancouver.

Bralic soon quit his job at the clubs and dropped out of school. Friends say he didn't come around as much. He was more secretive. The friend of Bralic's who requested anonymity says he tried to warn Bralic of the dangers of his new profession. "He was either naive or had a death wish. I told him it was a bad idea and that he would get killed doing it," the friend says. "When Blow came out, he said that Johnny Depp's character was stupid and that 'It would never happen to me.' That was a week before he left."

Friends may have been alarmed, but for Bralic, things were happening. He was the middleman, a big deal.

"Joe was trying to make a name for himself through Compton. Joe was naive and wanted to break into a criminally active group. He was way over his head. It doesn't matter how much you bench press, you can't stop a bullet," says a source who doesn't want to be identified. "He was dealing with people that live and breathe gang mentality, where there is a street code and honor that we don't have in Canada. They have guns they deal with every day."

Sources say that Bralic, besides being the middleman, was also setting up his own deal to trade 25 pounds of B.C. bud for cocaine. At the time, the exchange was 5.1 pounds of weed for one kilogram of coke.

What made Bralic turn from hometown hero into international drug smuggler? Friends and family believe it was a combination of things -- partly it was being young, feeling like a hotshot and loving the rush; partly it was Bralic's belief that he had to be "the man" and provide for his family after his father died. Some also blame the new culture of fast cash sweeping through Vancouver. Joe Ciccone believes that a lot of people in Vancouver have fallen in love with the idea of making quick money on B.C. bud with little risk of being caught or fined. Bralic, who was not rich but was far from poor, was just one of many. "A lot of people don't think about the consequences," says Ciccone. "I think he thought about the chance to make a little bit of money. I know right now I can quit my job and deal drugs, but for me it is not worth it. I don't want to put myself in that position. It isn't worth dying over."

The last call registered on Bralic's cell phone on July 5, 2001, came two hours and 11 minutes before his body was found at 2:08 p.m. in the alley in Fullerton. Authorities believe that Bralic met with his killers shortly after noon in a secluded place where the sound of a gunshot would not be heard or wouldn't rouse phone calls to the police. What happened after that is unclear. Bralic and the locals may have argued over the price, as one source says is the case. According to this source, Bralic tried to lowball the original asking price and pissed off his associates, who weren't likely to look too kindly on a Canadian rube, no matter how large, trying to haggle with them. But one friend of Bralic's says he believes it was a simple robbery, because there would be no consequences for the killer or killers. "There would be no recourse, because Joe was not with an organization," says the friend. "If he was with an organization, it wouldn't have happened. If you shoot someone from a gang, they will retaliate, especially the Hells Angels."

Joe Ciccone believes that Bralic was being set up by Compton and his local gang associates from the start. "He was just a normal kid from Burnaby. I think that he was just a guinea pig," Ciccone says. "Send him down there to get robbed and killed. It was an easy way to make money on the part of the guy who pulled the trigger. Joe was the type of person who would get set up and everyone else around him would know except him. It wasn't like there were problems before and they wanted to get rid of him. He wasn't a big drug dealer. It wasn't an ongoing thing. I don't think it was a deal gone bad. Would you go to a foreign city and take the chance of arguing with this guy over money?"

More than 300 people -- including Bralic's closest friends, who were recently adorned with Superman tattoos; members of the Hells Angels who had tried to recruit Bralic for Ultimate Fighting; Fullerton police, who were in town investigating; and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- attended Bralic's funeral in Burnaby on July 19. His ashes were placed next to his father's in a mausoleum at the Ocean View Burial Park in Burnaby.

A week later, Vlatka Bralic and Rachel Duck flew to Los Angeles to check out the alley where the two city workers discovered Bralic's body. Despite warnings by Discount Tire store employees that the property was private and should not be marked up, the two constructed a makeshift memorial decorated with colored candles, flowers, a Superman T-shirt, Superman comic books and a photo of Bralic. They remained at the site for hours, periodically accepting condolences from those passing by.

Today, almost three years later, there are no signs of the makeshift memorial or the killer who ended the life of 22-year-old Joe Bralic. The Fullerton Police Department says it is still investigating his death. Vlatka says she is just starting to get her life back in order. She has a new job, her first since her brother died. She says the last time she spoke to Fullerton police was more than a year ago, but she remains hopeful that one day her brother's killer or killers will be caught. "I have faith in the police and that everyone eventually gets caught. I know that one day soon I will know everything," she says. "I haven't been to the grave since. I think until it is solved, I am not ready to accept that he is dead. I don't want to see his name on a friggin' wall."

Bralic's former girlfriend, Rachel Duck, still resides in Vancouver but has refused to discuss this case. His friends believe that she knows what really happened, but is afraid to speak for fear of retribution. Madinski is allegedly in the witness-protection program in Canada after he testified against Illes. Favell's whereabouts are unknown. Hooites-Meursing was arrested last October for the murder of 24-year-old Canadian Jean Guy Lahn, a well-known member of an infamous home-invasion gang in B.C.'s lower mainland.

"At the end of the day, Joe was a good guy that everyone felt comfortable around," says a friend. "Everyone knew him and liked him. It was a total waste. With his personality, he could have done anything he wanted to do. He had nothing to show for it when he went. It was like he disappeared."

Christine Pelisek writes for LA Weekly.

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