By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
Probably the only crony Max didn't have a chance to sell out in his conversations with Gregorie was Rafa Cardona Salazar. The sawed-off trafficker was gunned down by a hit squad in Colombia. It was his punishment for vouching for Max.
After meeting with Gregorie at his office, Tabor picks up his wife, Andrea, who has been shopping at the Bayside Marketplace, and they head back to Vero Beach. They're traveling on I-95 in his black Jeep when his cell rings. "No ID," Tabor reads from the phone in an appropriately hallowed tone, exchanging a glance with his wife.
The voice on the other end is low and husky, the product of a three-pack-a-day lifetime habit. "Brett; Max Mermelstein."
Andrea grabs the steering wheel to prevent the Jeep from swerving into a median.
An old man shuffles, aided by a walker, into the drab conference room of the Marriott in Frankfort, Kentucky. It's the morning of August 4, 2008. Max Mermelstein is toothpick-skinny, at 120 pounds less than half of what he had once weighed. He is as "bald as an egg," Tabor would remember, except for the ash-gray mustache clinging to his upper lip. He is covered in tacky gold jewelry and wears jeans and a worn polo. On a baseball hat and sneakers, Max has the same logo: a billiards eight ball. "It's because I'm always behind the eight," he explains vaguely when Tabor asks him about it.
Max gets comfortable at the conference table, palming a Parliament out of its pack. "You're going to hear some shit that's going to shock you," Max warns. "Just listen."
Max spent many hours in the next five days in that conference room as Tabor's tape recorder rolled. Tabor wanted to know everything, from minute details about smuggling to his favorite movie (Silence of the Lambs) to his opinion of Cocaine Cowboys, which Max had watched on DVD. The former smuggler deemed the film "more style than substance."
They subsisted on room service, Chinese food, and a delivery from Longhorn Steakhouse. Max chugged white chocolate mochas, his favorite drink, from Starbuck's.
As it turns out, Max put up no fight in negotiations over his film rights. He could use the check, and he was thinking about his legacy. As Tabor filmed one afternoon, Max signed away his rights with a Mont Blanc pen, a cigarette wedged between his fingers.
Tabor had teamed up with Michael Kingston, another Hollywood exile. Kingston, who had moved to South Beach to be closer to his ailing mother-in-law, had written a couple of movies. The most successful: the horror flick Population 436, which "you can still catch on Cinemax," as Tabor points out. Kingston didn't share Tabor's obsession with Max but saw its cinematic potential. Kingston agreed to help produce a script from Max's memoir The Man Who Made It Snow. They dreamed aloud of a $70 million budget and Eric Bana as the frontman — although he'd settle for Sean Penn.
After one session with Tabor, Max headed to the oncologist's office.
Max already knew he had cancer of the lung, liver, and bone. That day, he got more bad news from his doctor: He'd be lucky to live another month.
Before his death, Max told Tabor what had happened to him in Witness Protection. After Max had agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors, no remnant of life remained the same for him or his family.
U.S. marshals picked up Max's 14-year-old stepdaughter, Isabella, from her South Miami private school. They whisked her to a hotel room with no windows in the basement of the federal prosecutor's Southern District headquarters in downtown Miami, where she met up with her siblings and Lara, her mother.
For the next three weeks, this "submarine," as the fortified rooms are called, was the family's home. Any type of food they wanted was brought to them. Why is he doing this to us? Isabella recalls thinking of her father, who spoke to them on the phone but was in transport to a secure location of his own.
The feds moved the family to a temporary facility in Atlanta, then to their new home in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where they learned what would become an at-least-annual routine: They were given birth certificates and Social Security cards with invented names. The girls sat across from marshals and chanted their new identities into memory.
It sank in that they would never see lifelong friends again. Relatives had been strewn randomly across the United States. Rare family reunions would occur in "neutral" sites so that each cluster wouldn't know where the other had been relocated. And every year or so, they would have to uproot their false lives and start new ones.
"The program is so much harder than you can imagine," says Isabella, who recalls having only one steady companion throughout her teens: a white Palomino horse Max bought her. "You have no identity, and you have no freedom."
Once Max returned from his prison sentence, he and Lara bickered constantly, and she threatened divorce. In 1989, when the family was living in Mobile, Alabama, 18-year-old Isabella dodged Dad and the U.S. marshals to take an illicit road trip with school friends to Disney World. "I felt more free, more alive than I had in five years," Isabella recalls. "That's when I decided, I'm not going to live in the program."