According to a 2017 Caltrans study, 17,600 vehicles a day pass Exit 73 of Interstate 8 at Jacumba Hot Springs in the Cuyamaca Mountains. In recent months, their occupants have had the same thought:
What’s a military helicopter doing on top of a Chevron station?
Turning heads, for sure.
He’s the owner of the Chevron shop as well as the adjacent Shell station, where huge American and POW-MIA flags fly.
“I’m just a big fan of the military — and this country,” he said Tuesday.
The son of an Iraqi soldier who fled with his pregnant wife at the start of the Iraq-Iran War in 1980, Shallal was born in Athens, Greece, before his family came to America. He grew up in Jacumba and Boulevard, where his parents owned and ran Mountain Top Market. Became a U.S. citizen.
“Is there a better place than the United States?” he says with a laugh. “That speaks for itself. … Everywhere I’ve ever went, the second I get back to U.S. soil I want to kiss the ground.”
The helicopter has its own made-for-Hollywood story. He says it was a prop used in the AMC series “Fear the Walking Dead.” He bought it from a friend with Corporate Helicopters of San Diego for $42,500 — minus the engine and transmission.
But the canopy over the Chevron gas pumps wasn’t enough to support the chopper’s weight.
So he tore down and rebuilt the canopy — “solid steel” — to hold 10,000 pounds.
“It’s a major, major heavy-duty pad,” he says. “We didn’t just throw anything up there and hope for the best.”
A crane placed the copter on the canopy, and it became an instant eye-catching hit — especially with Marines traveling over the mountains on I-8.
“We get 10 buses, 12 buses of Marines (a day),” says Shallal, a 40-year-old La Jolla resident. “Each one has 44 Marines. Everybody who gets out always salutes it — the POW flag — and they love the fact that the Huey is from the Vietnam era. … It flew in full action.”
Shallal posted a biography on Facebook in which he said: “I used to ride past the filling stations on my way to Imperial Valley. They were dilapidated, but I saw their business potential and said to myself: ‘I am going to own these one day.'”
Ten years ago, he says, he bought the “complete dumps” built in 1969 and 1972 and began improvements: “As the years went by, I’ve spent a couple million renovating them.”
The Exit 73 road got repaved as well.
“That road is actually a private road, not public,” he said in a phone interview. “I own that road. People think it’s a county road. It’s actually not. Those two stations are on one property. Kind of weird.”
His road to becoming owner of gas stations, truck stops and “travel centers” in California, Nevada and Arizona has strange twists as well. The private-license pilot who owns a pricey McDonnell Douglas 500 helicopter says he’s worth tens of millions of dollars.
He says he owns at least 20 companies — “all profitable operating companies.”
But in his early 20s, according to court records, he recruited a San Diegan to help him transport marijuana — first from San Diego to Michigan, then on three trips from San Diego to Iowa. Four other men were involved in the crime, and Shallal was sentenced to 63 months in prison.
He appealed the sentence in an Iowa federal court and lost — eventually serving 3 years and 3 months as Bureau of Prisons inmate 08832-029. He was released in July 2007.
“Bottom line: I got in trouble when I was a kid,” he said Tuesday. “Yes, I made mistakes. I could sit with you one day and tell you the whole story. But I have had people who know my whole story — they swear to God they want to find somebody to make a movie out of it. It’s pretty crazy.”
Updated at 2:05 a.m. March 24, 2021