Crime

The kid from the Kendall Toyota ads may have been dealing something besides cars

If you lived in Miami for any length of time, you’ve likely seen his dimpled smile, blue eyes and moptop hair on Spanish-language TV, the sides of county buses and banners towed by airplanes cruising along the beach.

He’s Michael Gonzalez, for years the ubiquitous and adorable child face of Kendall Toyota.

But authorities suspect Gonzalez went into the business of selling something besides cars: drugs. The 17-year-old was the dealer, according to law enforcement and other sources, who was robbed outside an Aventura LA Fitness in a drug rip-off gone fatally wrong. Gonzalez’s friend wound up dead, bleeding from a single gunshot to the neck.

For now, Gonzalez remains the unnamed victim in the case against two teens who were arrested and charged this month in the murder of Omar Darwish, 18. Because Gonzalez is a juvenile, he is listed only as M.G. in court documents, but his identity has been identified independently by the Miami Herald, including through the slain teen’s family.

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Omar Darwish, 18, who was killed in a shooting outside the Aventura LA Fitness on Jan. 19. Family photo

Although he has not been charged with anything in the case, because a drug deal was involved in the killing, he remains under criminal investigation. Aventura police and the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

His father, Claudio Gonzalez, the former face of Kendall Toyota and West Kendall Toyota who appeared alongside his son on many TV spots, said the family was cooperating with authorities. He declined to comment because of the ongoing investigation.

“I feel bad for what happened to the other kids,” Claudio Gonzalez said when reached by the Miami Herald.

Gonzalez’s lawyer, Mario Machado, stressed that the teenager had not been arrested or charged or even named in the case. “He is innocent until proven guilty,” Machado said.

Last week, prosecutors charged two other teens on allegations they robbed Gonzalez, and killed his friend, Omar Darwish, 18, outside the gym on the night of Jan. 19.

Suspected shooter Silas Spence, 18, was taken into custody last week in Georgia and will be extradited to South Florida. The accused getaway driver, Lucas Seeger, 19, was arrested at his home and is now in a Miami jail awaiting trial. Both are charged with armed robbery and felony murder.

Darwish, 18, was an aspiring rapper who wanted to go to college. He grew up in Miami, playing catch with his dad, skateboarding and dutifully helping his father clean their Mediterranean restaurant.

“He always wanted other people to laugh and be happy,” said Tammer Darwish, his father.

While Darwish sometimes smoked marijuana, he had promised his father he would never deal drugs. But he was also a loyal friend who accompanied his buddies wherever they went, his father said.

Gonzalez and Darwish knew each other from Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High School in North Miami. Darwish’s father said he was shocked, saying he never expected Gonzalez might be dealing drugs.

The Gonzalez family story is a familiar one for many in South Florida.

An Argentine immigrant who came to Miami penniless in the early 1980s, Claudio Gonzalez eventually became a successful salesman with Kendall Toyota. He went on to spearhead marketing for the dealership and its sister businesses. Throughout the mid-2000s, it was hard to escape the images of Claudio and his son flooding ads across Miami-Dade County. On TV and radio spots, their distinct Argentine accent — pronouncing the brand like “To-sho-ta” — was easily recognizable on Spanish-language television.

Claudio Gonzalez was media savvy, traveling to Japan to do spots with his son, doing an afternoon show on Radio Caracol and conducting frequent interviews about his local fame. “This is the Argentine who conquered Miami,” proclaimed one Argentine news website in 2013.

The elder Gonzalez formed his own advertising and media production company, which later contracted with Bean Automotive Group, which runs four dealerships. Bean stopped working with Claudio Gonzalez on March 1, “separate from and before we had any knowledge of the current situation with Michael,” according to a company spokeswoman.

“We are heartbroken by this unfortunate tragedy and our thoughts are with the Darwish family and others impacted,” Bean Automotive said in a statement on Tuesday.

In an interview with the newspaper Diario de las Americas in December, Claudio Gonzalez admitted his son had grown tired of doing the ads because he was being made fun of at school. “I want him to study and we agree on that because he intends to continue studying his law degree,” he told the newspaper.

But Michael Gonzalez’s future could be derailed by the Jan. 19 robbery chronicled in an arrest warrant.

That day, a group of teenagers, including Spence and Seeger, got together to plan a drug robbery. One teen, identified as E.B., knew Gonzalez and said he “would be an easy person to rob.”

Spence reached out to Gonzalez through the social media app Snapchat, asking to buy $800 worth of marijuana oil cartridges for an electronic cigarette. The deal was to go down in the parking lot outside the LA Fitness in the 3400 block of Northeast 207th Street.

Gonzalez picked up Darwish and another friend, Tobias Picazo, smoked marijuana and then drove to the LA Fitness. Spence, Seeger and Seeger’s underage girlfriend drove up in the girl’s Mercedes-Benz.

Gonzalez and Darwish approached the Mercedes. But they “did not produce the drugs,” the warrant said. Spence, angry and suspicious that Gonzalez was a police informant, “said the deal was off” and the Mercedes drove off.

Gonzalez “expressed frustration that the deal was off because [he] bought the THC vapor oil specifically for this drug transaction,” according to the warrant. So he immediately began messaging Spence on Snapchat, wanting to go through with the deal, according to the warrant.

They returned. Gonzalez got in the Mercedes. That’s when Spence handed Gonzalez a bullet. “I’m going to pay you with this,” Spence said, according to the warrant.

“I knew this was going to happen,” Gonzalez replied, before jumping out of the car.

Gonzalez pushed past his friend, Darwish, who was standing next to the car, a realistic-looking BB gun tucked into his waistband. Spence yelled out “he has a gun! “ before firing a single shot, according to the warrant.

The bullet hit Darwish in the neck. The Mercedes sped away. Picazo, who was in Gonzalez’s car, jumped out of the car to find his friend on the ground, his face covered in blood.

“That just happened,” Gonzalez yelled.

The two wondered what to do with the drugs. “We have to put it on top of Omar and say it was him,” Gonzalez cried, according to the warrant.

Gonzalez dumped out the 25 marijuana oil cartridges from a Target bag onto Darwish’s body. A passerby happened upon the scene and called 911.

This story was updated with a statement from the company that owns Kendall Toyota.

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