By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
He began to announce he was now in "the business of Max." Recalls wife Andrea: "He was possessed. The way he talked about him, you'd think Max was a member of the family."
In July 2008, Tabor's search led him to Richard Gregorie, a legendary South Florida-based federal prosecutor who, 23 years earlier, had helped persuade Max to turn informant. Eager not to appear an undercover assassin, Tabor spit out his Social Security number on the phone before the prosecutor could even return a greeting. Bemused, Gregorie agreed to meet that week and hear him out.
They met outside Miami's Bayside Marketplace on a hot, breezy weekday afternoon. The prosecutor, his large, lithe frame stuffed into a drab suit, gripped Tabor's hand. At first encounter, the 63-year-old Gregorie appeared the central-casting federal prosecutor: forbidding and gruff, with a big, flat head like a Komodo dragon's and arching, skeptical eyebrows. "I felt like I was in a bad spy movie," says Tabor.
He offered to buy the prosecutor lunch and explain his search. "I'll buy my own lunch, and your business with Max is your business," Gregorie retorted. "I'll give you 20 minutes only, and then I got to get back to my office."
But the enthusiastic filmmaker must have swayed him over greasy chicken and rice at the Bayside food court, because after they cleared their trays, Gregorie invited him to his office on the eighth floor of the nearby Southern District headquarters.
The packed walls of Gregorie's office are like a de facto historical museum of cocaine smuggling: undercover surveillance photos of drug lords Pablo Escobar and Fabio Ochoa loading kilos into a plane, shots of Gregorie in court against Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega, and an image of Escobar's bloodied corpse.
The photos are artifacts from the era when Gregorie cut his teeth as a headline-making young prosecutor, when he earned convictions against such high-profile defendants as Noriega and flamboyant mega-trafficker Carlos Lehder. More recently, he's helped convict the Liberty City 6 terrorists and in 2007 was named the country's best prosecutor by the National Association of Former United States Attorneys.
Meeting with Tabor in July 2008, Gregorie explains that he first met Max in the summer of 1985 in an interrogation room in Terminal Island outside Los Angeles. It was the lowest point in the smuggler's life: He faced a life sentence for masterminding the "continuing criminal enterprise" that was the import of some 56 tons of cocaine into the United States.
Gregorie had been chasing an indictment against Max since he had first appeared on his radar after selling 26 kilos to cash-strapped automaker John Z. DeLorean several years earlier in a federal sting operation. Gregorie knew if Max cooperated, he had the inside information to serve up the whales. "The first thing I asked him was, 'A guy as intelligent as yourself, how the hell did you end up in here with me?' " recalls Gregorie.
Max's sneering response: "Not through anything you did."
After months of negotiations, Max decided to flip on the Cartel in return for a reduced sentence — he ultimately served only two years and 17 days. The feds agreed to relocate a record 16 family members into the Witness Protection Program. Max went on to become what Gregorie calls "the greatest informant in history," crippling the Medellin Cartel by helping send more than a dozen honchos and associates, including Noriega and Lehder, to American prisons.
Gregorie got in countless screaming matches with Max over various demands the underground informant made: He didn't want to pay taxes on his witness awards, lump sums as high as $275,000. He insisted on carrying a gun, even though the conditions of his lifetime probation forbade it. And when Max was hunkered down with prosecutors supplying information before a trial, he liked to have dinner delivered from Joe's Stone Crab, along with a bottle of vintage red, all on the government's tab. "He could be terrifically difficult to deal with," says Gregorie. "But the quality of his information made it worth it."
Despite the clashes, Max always kept in touch with Gregorie. With his past life excised from him, the prosecutor was the closest thing he had to a longtime friend. He sent holiday cards sans return addresses, cheesy Hallmark things displaying paintings of mistletoe and oil lamps. "Our best to you and yours from me and mine during the holiday season" reads one, signed "Max Mermelstein and family."
But Max wouldn't be easy to land. In Gregorie's dusty files were letters from professional suitors who had been summarily rejected, ranging from 60 Minutes producers to Time magazine editors. The Cocaine Cowboys creators had even managed two phone conversations with Max in which they explained the project. But he never called back.
"I'll give Max your info, but he probably won't talk to you, and if he does, good luck, because he might just make you cough up your first born," Tabor recalls Gregorie warning him. "He's smart as a whip and a real pain in the ass."
An impatient rapping rouses Max from bed at 2 a.m. on Christmas 1978 at his home in Miami Lakes. Fat and sleepy, he opens the front door. Swaying on his front steps, a Colombian man in a leisure suit, Afro, and bushy mustache regards him with vacant, bloodshot eyes.