A crash, 3 deaths and questions of blame
A crash, 3 deaths and questions of blame
When a young driver killed a family on Halloween, state regulators say they cracked down on a problem liquor store. But has the woman who let him leave with a bottle of whiskey really been held accountable?
Amor Amacio was so well known to some of her young customers that they called her “Mamma.”
Her corner store, Eddie’s Market & Liquor, had developed a years-long reputation for selling alcohol to underage drinkers. As far back as 2012, Long Beach police, responding to a complaint, caught a clerk selling beer to a 19-year-old decoy. The violation cost Amacio and her husband a $2,493 fine but apparently didn’t put her on the straight and narrow.
One of the teenagers who found his way to Amacio’s store in North Long Beach was Carlo Navarro, who lived in the working-class area. But when Eddie’s shut down in 2018 after Amacio was accused of engaging in a massive food-stamp fraud, Navarro needed a new place to score.
He didn’t have to go far. He knew that two blocks from the old Eddie’s storefront was Green Diamond Liquor. On paper, Amacio’s daughter owned the newly opened liquor mart but it was Mamma Amacio who was working the counter when 20-year-old Navarro walked in on Halloween night of 2019 at around 8:30 p.m.
He walked out with a $24 bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey that, he would later tell authorities, Amacio let him have on credit, so long as he promised to come back the next day with $30.
The price would be incalculably higher.
After downing numerous shots, Navarro jumped behind the wheel of his big Toyota Sequoia SUV with a friend and headed for an abandoned driving range, where they planned to continue partying. Along the way, as they sped toward the well-to-do community of Los Cerritos, they shared swigs of the Jack Daniel’s, according to the passenger.
As always on Halloween, the neighborhood and its park were crowded with kids in costumes.
Joseph Awaida and Raihan Dakhil were trick-or-treating with their 3-year-old son, Omar. He was wearing his favorite lizard outfit, a present from his grandmother. Pushing a stroller, the young couple had no time to turn around and take cover when Navarro’s black SUV jumped a curb. It barrelled into them from behind at 70 mph.
When paramedics arrived, they worked frantically to free Omar from under a parked sedan, where the impact of the crash had flung his tiny body. In the street, others tended to Raihan and Joseph. A good Samaritan used a belt as a tourniquet on his mangled leg.
Nearby, a man and a teenage boy stood guard as Navarro sat on the curb, making sure he didn’t flee before police arrived. A passenger who tumbled out of the SUV had already taken off running. According to one witness, when Navarro emerged from the vehicle, he clasped his head in his hands and paced back and forth. Later, he asked a police officer if he could kneel and pray for the family he’d just hit.
Soon, an entire city seemed to be mourning the shocking deaths of Joseph, an aspiring pediatrician; Raihan, a dedicated social worker; and their cheerful boy.
“They were special,” said friend and colleague Jenny Magana. “This could have been prevented.”
Amacio’s ability to continue selling liquor, despite a history of problems, represents a critical link in the chain reaction that led to the Halloween deaths, one that’s gone largely untold.
For years, Amacio was repeatedly targeted by law enforcement and California’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control for skirting regulatory laws, according to numerous interviews, police reports and administrative files obtained by the Long Beach Post. After each investigation, officials levied punishments that they characterized as tough but that served as little deterrent to future bad acts.
The city’s top prosecutor, Doug Haubert, seems determined to change that dynamic but admits his ability to do so goes only so far. He has criminally charged Amacio with furnishing alcohol to the underage Navarro, who faces three murder charges and is being held on $3 million bail. He’s also charged Amacio with allegedly using her daughter as a front to obtain a liquor license for Green Diamond—an arrangement he suggests the ABC failed to prevent.
“Clearly those who are irresponsible should not have licenses to sell alcohol,” Haubert says. “And when they prove they’re irresponsible, there should be swift and immediate action. And I hope that other people look at what happened here and look to fix the problems in the licensing regulations.”
A family on the rise
Joseph and Raihan had a selfless streak that immediately impressed Jenny Magana as she evaluated them for a sensitive assignment.
The recently married couple was putting down roots in Long Beach, where Joseph’s family was already well known for his dad’s repair shop, Joe’s Auto Center. And they wanted to give back to their community by volunteering.
In 2014, they discovered a nonprofit called For The Child, which counsels and supports youngsters who’ve been abused. It was Magana’s job to coordinate the volunteers who are sent to hospitals after sexual assaults to comfort and watch over children as police begin their investigations and forensic examinations are conducted.
Magana, who screened potential team members to make sure they could handle these unsettling and delicate duties, had no reservations about Joseph and Raihan.
Although only in their mid-20s, they seemed to have a warmth and humility beyond their years. Their backgrounds seemed perfect, too. Raihan, who recently graduated, was preparing for the master’s program at Cal State Long Beach’s school of social work. Joseph was finishing up his bachelor’s degree and getting on track for medical school.
“You know who’s gonna make it and who’s not, who has the skin for it, who has the heart for it,” Magana said. “And it was never a thought, or never any concern, that they would not make it—at all.”
The team at For The Child quickly bonded with Joseph and Raihan, who were funny and generous and always seemed first to volunteer for an extra shift on a holiday or overnight, knowing that either one of them might be dispatched to a hospital on a moment’s notice.
When Joseph and Raihan excitedly announced they were pregnant with Omar, the team threw them a baby shower, despite Raihan’s embarrassment at being the center of attention.
“Omar was the first baby that came to our meetings,” Magana laughed. “He was a very happy baby. They were great parents.”
In 2019, with their baby now 3 years old, Joseph and Raihan were looking forward to taking him trick-or-treating along the wide tree-lined streets in their Los Cerritos neighborhood, where homes are extravagantly decorated. But when nobody volunteered to cover the on-call overnight shift, Joseph stepped up.
“I’ll take it,” he said of the group’s on-call cell phone, which hospitals know to dial if they need a team member to help comfort an abused child. On the night he would die, Joseph was ready to come to the aid of someone else’s family.
Fraud, kickbacks and a new plan
For those familiar with Amor Amacio and her husband, opening a business built around liquor sales seemed like an odd choice for the religiously devout couple. But according to Mark Hammond, the pastor of their Norwalk-based Baptist church, they saw their small brick-fronted building on Long Beach Boulevard as more of a grocery or convenience store for a neighborhood with few other options.
Eddie’s mostly stocked chips, soda, liquor and candy. But within a few years of its opening in the early 2000s, the store was suspiciously raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from customers using electronic food stamp cards, or EBTs.
Approved retailers can accept payments with the cards so long as they’re being used for qualifying food items. The government then immediately reimburses merchants for the designated purchase amounts.
In 2010 alone, Eddie’s collected $542,258 in such EBT purchases, according to records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the publicly funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
The large amounts prompted the Agriculture Department to dispatch undercover agents to investigate whether Amacio was operating a kickback scheme—possibly disguising cash disbursements to EBT cardholders as food purchases in exchange for a cut of the money.
The secret operatives visited Eddie’s 13 times over three years. On a number of occasions, store employees told them that, if they wanted to obtain cash for their food-stamp benefits, they’d need to come back so Amacio could do it for them.
According to Agricultural Department reports reviewed by the Post, agents directly caught Amacio cheating the system at least three times, giving them cash for bogus EBT purchases while skimming some off the top for herself.
It’s not clear how much Amacio illicitly pocketed during the five years she’s suspected of operating the scam. Agriculture Department officials estimate that about $2 million of illegal EBT redemptions flowed through her store between July 2009 and April 2014.
But in criminal court—where a successful prosecution requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt—estimates don’t win cases. So Los Angeles County prosecutors, who were given the case by agricultural officials, winnowed down nearly 750,000 EBT transactions at Eddie’s to a handful they believed could persuade a jury.
In 2015, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office filed 13 felonies against Amacio, including fraud, trafficking food stamps and 11 counts of different types of theft. Although Amacio faced a maximum of 22 years in prison, Deputy District Attorney Sandi Olivera knew a lengthy sentence was unlikely so she struck a deal that let Amacio avoid prison time.
Amacio pleaded guilty to a single count of trafficking food stamps. Court records show she was placed on probation, required to pay $100,000 in restitution and ordered to perform 1,300 hours of community service.
Amacio also was barred from participating in the food stamp program and, in 2018, the ABC revoked her license because of the case. The state agency gave her six months to sell it to another approved merchant, with one condition: It could not go to a family member.
Amacio let the offer expire. Other plans were in the works. Less than four months after the ABC took action against Amacio, her 24-year-old daughter, Syntyche, moved to open her own store, Green Diamond.
In her ABC liquor license application, obtained by the Post, Syntyche attested that she would be the sole owner of the business, purportedly funded with $9,000 she’d saved since high school and a $10,000 gift from her aunt.
Syntyche, who was studying to become a physical therapist, embraced the opportunity to own a neighborhood market and liquor store, according to a longtime family attorney, who declined interview requests on behalf of the mother and daughter.
Even though state regulators had barred Amacio from transferring her own liquor license to a relative, they say they saw no issue with her daughter opening an establishment with a different license. With Syntyche’s pledge that she was in charge and funding the store, they swiftly approved her application.
Green Diamond Liquor still had its grand opening sign hanging above the doors on Halloween night when the underage Navarro walked in for something to fuel his partying. Waiting for him behind the counter was Mamma Amacio.
‘We love you, Rai’
The morning after the crash, social media was pulsing with news of the Halloween tragedy.
Magana knew Joseph and Raihan lived near Los Cerritos Park, where the crash occurred, but she didn’t make the connection to what she was seeing on Facebook until a coworker called with a question: “Is it Joseph and Rai?” In that moment, Magana was hit with the sickening realization that the young family being grieved on social media was the one she’d come to admire so deeply.
Magana gathered her team of volunteers and rushed to the hospital, as they were trained to do when tragedy struck. By then, Joseph, who’d been transported to St. Mary’s, had passed. So they headed straight to Long Beach Memorial, where Omar and Raihan were nearing death.
There, Joseph’s aunt told them she’d watched on Facebook the night before as a bystander livestreamed the aftermath, including efforts of paramedics to revive a young man she didn’t yet know was her nephew.
When Joseph and Raihan didn’t answer her phone calls, she ran to their condo across from the park and pounded on the windows until police arrived and confirmed her fears.
Over the next few days at Memorial, Magana wept with Joseph and Raihan’s family and friends. Relatives ushered her and her co-workers into the ICU to see Omar and his mother.
Talk to her, they urged Magana, she’ll know it’s you.
“We love you, Rai,” Magana told her friend. “Omar needs you. We can’t wait for you to get better.”
But within a few days, with no brain activity, Omar and Raihan were removed from life support. Their families made sure Magana and her co-workers were in the room.
“They called us,” Magana says. “We were there when the baby died.” Soon after, they said goodbye to his mom.
As friends and family mourned, law enforcement dug in.
Authorities had a fundamental question: How did this underage man get his hands on the liquor they believed led to his deadly driving?
Five days after the crash, ABC investigator Andrea Alcazar spoke with Navarro in a small interview room at the Long Beach Police Department.
In a report on their conversations, Alcazar said Navarro revealed that he’d been buying liquor since he was a teenager, first at Eddie’s and then at Green Diamond. Nobody at Green Diamond had ever asked for his ID, he told the investigator. Twice, he would later tell Alcazar, Amacio had let him buy alcohol on credit.
When Alcazar arrived at Green Diamond to collect security camera video of Navarro’s Halloween night purchase, she encountered Amacio’s daughter, Syntyche.
“I asked her if she was the owner,” Alcazar wrote in a report, “and she stated that her mother was the owner.” In fact, when the investigator asked if Syntyche still had the store’s receipts for Halloween night, she said she’d need to call her mom to find out.
Although the ABC can revoke a license or force a transfer if it discovers a recipient has hidden the ownership of a business, that did not happen in the aftermath of the Halloween killings.
Brad Beach, the agent who oversees ABC’s Lakewood office, said his agency thoroughly vetted Syntyche’s application when she applied for the license and investigated whether Amacio was really the boss after the crash.
“There was no evidence of Amor Amacio owning Green Diamond Liquor,” Beach said.
Long Beach officials concluded differently, calling into question the thoroughness of the ABC’s license review.
In December 2019, after a joint investigation by the ABC and Long Beach police, the city prosecutor’s office charged Amacio with furnishing alcohol to the underaged Navarro and operating Green Diamond without proper licensing by using Syntyche as a front. The daughter, meanwhile, was charged with maintaining a public nuisance by allowing the store to operate in a dangerous manner.
All the counts are misdemeanors.
Their attorney, Richard Herman, says Amacio was simply a volunteer at the liquor store, helping a daughter who had followed her parents into the family business.
On the night of the crash, he says, Amacio thought she was selling the Jack Daniel’s to Navarro’s 21-year-old friend, standing nearby. Instead, the attorney contends, Navarro stole it by walking out without paying. This, despite store security footage showing Amacio placing the bottle in front of Navarro and handing him a paper bag for it before he leaves.
To protect his clients from prosecution, Herman says he has offered to provide unspecified evidence against Navarro to help prove the murder charges but only if the district attorney’s office persuades city prosecutors to drop their case—an unlikely scenario since the two offices operate independently.
Although he’s been rebuffed so far, Herman says, he’ll keep trying in hopes that the mother and daughter can avoid a trial during which prosecutors will prominently highlight the fallen family.
“How could I put them in front of a jury when they’re going to flash the dead babies?” he said.
A punishment to fit the crime?
Less than six months after the Halloween deaths—and while the ABC was weighing potential penalties against Green Diamond’s liquor license—the store was once again straying from the agency’s rules.
In what the ABC has called a “spot check,” undercover agents sought to determine whether the business was letting customers drink on the premises, which is prohibited.
Three times in two days, the agents logged violations.
Two were committed by the same clerk who was caught selling alcohol to a minor during the 2012 police sting at Eddie’s. The third was committed by Amacio, who was behind the counter. At an agent’s request, she grabbed his bottle of Modelo and popped off the cap. She watched as he took some sips and walked out.
In July 2020, while this latest case was pending, the ABC moved forward with administrative actions against Green Diamond for its role in the Halloween crash. The agency accused Syntyche, as the store’s licensee, of furnishing alcohol to a minor, thus causing the deaths of Joseph, Raihan and Omar. Amacio was identified in the filing as supplying the liquor to Navarro.
Within a few months, Syntyche agreed to a settlement with the ABC. The agency’s sanctions left Long Beach’s top prosecutor “deeply disappointed” in light of the calamitous toll that followed Amacio’s actions.
The punishment: a 25-day suspension of Green Diamond’s liquor license.
“The reason we are aggressively pursuing criminal charges is we believe those who provided the alcohol to Carlo Navarro should be held accountable,” Haubert says. “More importantly, I want to make sure this never happens again.”
In the ABC’s view, 25 days was a harsh response.
“The standard penalty for a sale to a minor is a 15-day suspension,” ABC spokesman John Carr said. “Due to the circumstances in this case, we aggravated the penalty.”
What’s more, Amacio would be allowed to continue working at the store, despite her string of admitted misdeeds and the revocation of her license at Eddie’s.
The ABC does have the power to ban Syntyche from employing Amacio in the course of disciplinary proceedings, Carr said, but “there would have to be a good reason to do so.”
Shortly after the ABC issued the Halloween punishment, Syntyche also accepted the department’s recommended discipline for Green Diamond’s violation of on-site drinking rules. The agency issued a five-day suspension of alcohol sales, to be served within the same span as the earlier 25-day suspension. In other words, the store’s operations went unscathed from those violations.
One family grieves, another gets back to business
Four days before the second anniversary of her son Joseph’s death, Vera Awaida waited alone outside a Long Beach courtroom.
Normally, she attends hearings in Navarro’s slowly approaching murder trial with her sister and their supporters. They wear blue-and-white ribbons in remembrance of their loved ones.
On this day, the proceeding was not for Navarro. It was a lower profile hearing for attorneys to spar over procedural matters involving the misdemeanor charges against Amacio and Syntyche.
“It’s a crime against the community, what they do,” Awaida said before heading into the courtroom, where Amacio and Syntyche were not required to appear on this October day.
Inside, she watched from the empty gallery as attorney Herman tried unsuccessfully to convince a judge that his clients were being unfairly targeted because of the high-profile nature of Navarro’s crime. He called Amacio and Syntyche “peripheral victims of a very tragic event.”
If Amacio did anything wrong that night, he argued, it was “something trivial,” not worthy of the jail time prosecutors want.
The statement stung Awaida. She sobbed when the prosecutor flashed a photo of her son, grandson and daughter-in-law on an overhead screen—lives, he said, that were anything but trivial.
When the bailiff offered a box of tissues, Awaida waved her off and quickly composed herself, thinking of a mantra her family repeats for strength.
“We always say we’ve survived our worst day,” she said after the hearing. “We’ll get through this one, too.”
The misdemeanor charges are the last, lingering legal hurdles for Amacio and her daughter. With its 25-day license suspension completed, Green Diamond is selling liquor again, and Amacio has been seen working the counter.
In October, Amacio’s food stamps conviction was expunged from her record after she’d completed probation, paid restitution to the federal government and produced a letter from her pastor stating that she’d completed community service at his church.
In a recent interview, pastor Hammond said Amacio had often volunteered at his church but he was unaware she needed to complete 1,300 hours of community service until a Post reporter informed him of the requirement. The pastor said she fell well short of those kinds of hours and that he didn’t fully understand what he was signing.
Throughout much of Amacio’s long history of troubles, attorney Herman has been by her side, including during the resolution of her food stamps case. Looking back, he seems satisfied—at least so far.
“Worked out well for her,” he says. “Better than I thought.”
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Thomas Cordova, Stephen Carr and Jeremiah Dobruck
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