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Friends of Jovita's boss shocked, dismayed about charges

Steven Kreytak

After serving three prison sentences during the 1970s and 1980s, including two for murder, Amado "Mayo" Pardo returned to the South Austin neighborhood where he was raised and opened Jovita's Mexican restaurant with his family in 1992.

Pardo eventually built the South First Street restaurant into what was once among the city's most happening live music venues. He also used Jovita's as a headquarters for his impassioned politics — hosting fundraisers, spearheading voter registration drives and sharing his ideas about uniting Mexican Americans to lift up the poor, to unite politically and to educate their youth.

Though he at times came off as hostile and abrasive, some who knew Pardo best said he appeared to have overcome his criminal past to become a community leader, a successful businessman and a strong patriarch to his large family.

But Pardo's standing in that community changed, perhaps for good, on June 21 when a major crimes task force raided the restaurant, his home and other properties, and a judge unsealed a federal indictment that charges Pardo, his wife and 13 others with conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute heroin.

"It's a bit hypocritical to be a community leader and destroying the community at the same time," said one longtime friend who did not want to be identified because he believes the nature of the allegations against Pardo indicate he is potentially dangerous. "That's the devil — ... heroin — that destroys lives."

Authorities said Pardo, 64, is a member of the Texas Syndicate prison gang and the ringleader of an enterprise that did up to $6,000 in heroin sales a day. The charge came after authorities said they watched Jovita's and Pardo's adjacent house for months and tapped the phones of Pardo and his associates.

Prosecutor Liz Cottingham said in court last week that the government's evidence in the case is very strong.

Though the indictment accuses Pardo and the others of dealing heroin since May 2011, an FBI agent testified during a co-defendant's detention hearing that he believes Pardo has been dealing the drug for more than 25 years — a period that predates Jovita's.

Through his lawyer, Ben Florey, Pardo has denied the charges. Florey said Pardo is "insulted" by them. Florey said Pardo's family is shocked by the allegations.

Joyce DiBona, who drew upon Pardo's passions — including the history of Mexican American and indigenous people — as inspiration for murals she painted on Jovita's walls, said Pardo appeared to have overcome his childhood as a poor migrant farm worker and his time in prison.

"It seemed like this was a scenario of great potential redemption. The guy from the cotton fields actually pulls it all together and raises a great family and cares about his community and makes good," DiBona said. "That sounds like a great story, and then something like this happens. It's a great disappointment and shock."

Twice-convicted killer

Pardo once wrote in an essay published in a community newspaper targeted at Hispanics that while he grew to be proud of his "skin color and everything about being Mexican," he had been ashamed of his family, and of being poor, when he was a child.

DiBona, who once used Pardo's house on Milton Street as an art studio and also booked bands for Jovita's, said Pardo told her he was 5 when he first recognized that his family was different from some. He was in a Texas field with his relatives, too young to join them picking cotton.

She said Pardo recalled that he wandered up to a nearby road, where a more well-off family got out and began taking pictures and sharing food and drinks.

"He said he realized how different that was," DiBona said, and it was a perception that left him bitter.

Pardo grew up in the neighborhood near Jovita's and went to Becker Elementary School.

Mike Moore, who now lives outside Dallas, knew Pardo from those days, when different groups of kids from the neighborhood would pass weekends and summers hanging out at Gillis Park, near South First and Oltorf streets. He described Pardo as a "punk" who would pick fights with other kids.

Pardo was 23 when he was arrested for murder the first time.

According to police and court records, Pardo fatally shot 41-year-old Johnny Gomez and 28-year-old Raymond Gomez as they drank at the Motif Lounge at 2422 S. First St., a building across from Gillis Park that now houses part of the G&S Lounge.

Pardo had been a regular customer — drinking there almost every night of the week except Sunday, a bar manager testified during a pretrial hearing — and was one of seven people there just after midnight on July 24, 1971, according to witness statements.

The witnesses said they didn't see an argument before the shooting and didn't see Pardo pull the trigger, but they said they heard several gunshots and saw the cousins fall from their places at the bar.

A bar worker told police he saw Pardo run out with a gun. The bar manager initially said he saw the same thing but during a pretrial hearing under cross-examination said he could not tell whether Pardo was holding a gun.

Police apparently did not interview anyone but those in the bar; no motive for the shooting was offered in their reports.

In a plea bargain, Pardo pleaded guilty to one murder charge and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. The other charge was dismissed. He was released on parole in 1975, after serving about four years.

In 1978, three years after he was paroled, Pardo was convicted of illegally possessing a firearm and sent to federal prison, according to prison records. He got out in 1981.

Pardo was again charged with murder in 1983 after he shot a man in Harris County, according to prison officials and court documents. He was sentenced to eight years but was released after four.

Court records obtained from Harris County did not disclose the circumstances of that murder.

Prison to politics

When Pardo returned to Austin after prison, he became involved in politics.

Former state Rep. Glen Maxey recalls that when he was first running for his former southern and southeastern Travis County district in 1991, Pardo supported one of his opponents, David Rodriguez.

Maxey said that at times during the campaign he felt intimidated by some activists who believed that the seat held by state Rep. Lena Guerrero should be filled by a Hispanic candidate. Pardo was particularly intimidating, Maxey said, showing up at his public appearances and standing as close to Maxey as he could get.

"He ... would stand very near me and just stare, steely-eyed stare, at me. And people would, of course, tell me he murdered these people," Maxey said. "That ... was sort of chilling."

In 1992, Pardo realized what he had once said was a childhood dream in opening Jovita's.

The 1994 articles of incorporation listed its partners as Pardo, his sister Jovita Patino and his wife, Amanda Pardo.

The owner was listed as Patino, who has not been indicted. The property the restaurant sits on is owned by Amanda Pardo, according to county records.

Amado Pardo, though, has always held himself out as the boss of the place.

The restaurant soon became a frequent host of political fundraisers, and there are probably few Democratic activists in town who did not pass through its doors.

In a newspaper essay published in 1994, Pardo wrote that he had attended the state Democratic convention the previous year and laid out ideas for improving the plight of Mexican Americans in politics and other arenas.

"We need to ... lead our people to some kind of economic, political, cultural, spiritual, liberation," he wrote. "We must educate our people at the grassroots level. We must start a movement of family."

A forceful personality

By the late 1990s, Jovita's was booking an eclectic list of bands, including regular acts such as Don Walser and the Pure Texas Band every Tuesday and the Cornell Hurd Band every Thursday.

"What we're trying to do is create a world in which all worlds fit," Pardo once told the Austin Chronicle.

Hurd said he got along with Pardo, whom he came to know as a dedicated family man despite a gruff exterior.

"He was kind of a tough guy. ... He's just not openly friendly and outgoing like that," Hurd said.

Others who had only brief interactions with Pardo described him similarly.

Neighbors who were interviewed said that Pardo was repeatedly dismissive — and often rude — when they complained that Jovita's violated the city noise ordinance.

One, Robert Young, said Pardo once screamed at a Freddie's customer who had parked in his lot.

"He just went nuts on her, really screaming at her," Young said. "He's a pretty volatile guy."

DiBona said Pardo had strong opinions about some of the wealthier new residents in his neighborhood, believing that they "didn't sometimes respect that all these other people had been here, sometimes ... from one generation to a next, and got treated kind of like, ‘What are they doing in the neighborhood?' "

"He wasn't afraid to express an opinion," DiBona said. "He is definitely a personality force to be reckoned with."

Vivian Price, an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills, said she left with a different impression of Pardo after a 2010 chance encounter in East Bouldin Creek, which runs between Jovita's and Pardo's house, near a dead end on Milton Street.

Price said that Pardo yelled — "Do you have your green card?" — as Price and her wife tried to cut through the creek.

Pardo then motioned for them to come to his house and talk.

"We spent about three hours there talking about politics and art, and Mayo showed us Jovita's and told us about his daughter," Price said. "He really was interested in ... people getting respect, regardless of what race they were, and how for too long Chicano and Mexican Americans didn't have any political power."

Price said that when they parted, Pardo gave them a book on La Raza Unida political movement and T-shirts.

"We met a really wonderful person," she said.

Advocate for education

In the 1994 newspaper essay, Pardo wrote that he believed his people — Mexican Americans — were uneducated because of "a people in this world who are greedy and want to keep us ignorant and poor."

He encouraged fellow community members to become "an army of liberation for our people. We must learn how to be professional in business, in politics and in education."

Several people who were interviewed, including Pardo's lawyer, have said that Pardo stressed education to his six children, including two children of his brother-in-law whom he and Amanda Pardo adopted.

His son, Amos Pardo, is a lawyer in Houston. He has two daughters in college, his lawyer said, including one who is an honors student in history at Austin College, a liberal arts college in Sherman.

Florey said that Pardo's children did not want to be interviewed, and calls to his Milton Street house, his sister's house and his son's law office were not returned.

Pardo, who told a federal magistrate judge after his June arrest that he suffers from liver cancer and Parkinson's disease, is in jail awaiting a hearing Tuesday to determine whether he will be released on bond pending trial.

If convicted, he and the other defendants face a minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum of life. Authorities are also seeking to seize Jovita's and several adjacent properties, including Pardo's house.

The restaurant has remained closed since it was raided.

DiBona, Hurd and other friends, political activists and neighbors who were interviewed for this story said they had never seen evidence of drug dealing at Jovita's or at Pardo's house.

"What I saw is somebody who was pretty passionate about trying to not just give people a leg up, but being active in his community, active in the political process, active in education," DiBona said. "I think for a lot of people that know him, this has been a heartbreaking series of events."

Contact Steven Kreytak at 912-2946

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