By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by P-Jay Fidler
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.Before and after: Little Joe at high school graduation, and big Joe after some time in the gym and on the juice.
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.”