TheTyee.ca(Second of two parts)
Yesterday's Part 1 traces Bralic's path from bullied kid to Burnaby hero to steroid using tough guy on a mission to L.A. Here's how the deal, and Bralic, went down.
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.
'They knew something was up'
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.'"
Searching for Joe
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.
A double life unravels
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.
Smuggling: 'Two benefits in one'
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."
'Street code we don't have in Canada'
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."
Set up and without a gang
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 up 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.
Superman's parking lot memorial
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 [email protected] is a writer and editor at the LA Weekly, where this article first appeared.