Max Mermelstein, the Snitch Who Brought Down the Cocaine Cowboys, Hid for Two Decades
Editor's note: To protect living members of Max Mermelstein's family, his alias and certain names have been changed.
Aspiring filmmaker Brett Tabor tops a medium popcorn with jalapeños, as is his custom, and sits down in the air-conditioned darkness in a Delray Beach movie house to watch a 7 o'clock showing in November 2006 of Cocaine Cowboys.
On the screen, superspliced interviews with two former smugglers tell the story of the cocaine avalanche that in the 1980s turned South Florida into a bullet-riddled Little Medellin. Using budget special effects to augment footage of drug busts and murder scenes, Cocaine Cowboys isn't your typical PBS-style documentary.
Thirty minutes into the hyperkinetic film, the former actor fidgets in his seat and considers walking out. But one character, a central figure whose story doesn't get much screen time, keeps Tabor watching.
Only one photo of the man appears onscreen. He's burly and pasty, with severely parted hair and long sideburns framing a moon-shaped face behind a handlebar mustache. He wears a stiff brown leather jacket and shoots daggers at the photographer, who snapped the photo sometime in the early 1980s.
Other than that, Max Mermelstein, the Jewish smuggler who pioneered the cocaine pipeline from Medellin to South Florida, is nowhere in the film. No silent B footage, no interviews, just that one picture of America's greatest cocaine king.
It wasn't for a lack of trying that the filmmakers had no footage of Max — as he was singularly known to federal agents and coke kingpins alike. After turning rat and bringing it all to a crashing halt, Max had disappeared. In 1986, he had fled the cartel's $3 million bounty into the Witness Protection Program.
"I had one thought in my head as I left the theater," Tabor recalls. "Who's this Max guy?"
The two years Tabor spent in Hollywood shaped him more than he would like to admit. He refers to film-industry superstars using only their first names, compares pivotal moments in his life to scenes in classic movies, and can't help but brag about the time he shared a Thanksgiving table with Al (Pacino) — which he swung because his wife, Andrea, was once assistant to Harvey (Keitel).
In 1997, the 24-year-old Kendall native, blessed with dark-eyed puppy-dog good looks, moved from South Florida to California to try to make it as an actor. He lived in a garage outside a house full of aspiring actors and scored less-than-Brandoesque roles: He played a "young officer" in a B movie called Judas Kiss and the doomed title character in the schlockfest See Dick Die.
Tabor still gets emotional when he recalls his career's epic bad beat: He received three callbacks for the main role in a biopic of boxer Vinnie Curto, alongside Robert De Niro as trainer Angelo Dundee. But then Mark Wahlberg, at that time known primarily as a rapper and Calvin Klein model, showed up for the audition. Tabor maintains he was KO'd by star power: "I never had a chance."
Out on My Feet, as the project was titled, was never made, but that wouldn't soothe Tabor. In 1999, soon after losing the role, he headed to New York City, where he landed some off-Broadway work and took acting lessons under renowned acting coach Susan Batson. Tabor shared a class with Keitel and eventually married the star's assistant, Madrid-born Andrea. They had two daughters together.
The struggling-actor lifestyle lost its romanticism as Tabor plowed through his early 30s with new mouths to feed. So in 2004, when his father, prominent Vero Beach developer Marty Tabor, asked him to come manage his property business, Tabor grudgingly agreed. He moved his family into a staid gated community in the moneyed town a couple of hours north of Fort Lauderdale but kept his eye trained on Hollywood. He still wanted to storm that insidery fiefdom, but now on the production side of things, using some too-good-to-deny film project as his battering ram. "The movie business is a club," he says. "It doesn't matter how you break in. Once you're in, you're in."
To Tabor, the glancing treatment of Cocaine Cowboys' most intriguing character offered just such an opportunity. He ordered a copy of The Man Who Made It Snow, Max's out-of-print memoir written with authors Richard Smitten and Robin Moore five years after Mermelstein entered the Witness Protection Program, and was thoroughly convinced of its cinematic potential. He had heard of only one other story involving an ethnic outsider bringing down a criminal organization from within. It had become a gangster classic. "This was my Goodfellas," Tabor says.
It's also, depending on when you ask him, his Rocky and his Good Will Hunting. Both were vehicles that made their writers into famous actors. Tabor arranged to pay $9,000 for the rights to The Man Who Made It Snow. All he had to do now was find Max.
His father, Marty, thought the proposition was flat-out foolish. "Found Hoffa yet?" he'd jab when Tabor reported to their office, or "It's called the Witness Protection Program for a reason, son."
But for Tabor, locating the ex-smuggler was becoming more necessity than dream. Even worse, 2008 was not a good year to be a developer in Vero Beach, a onetime speculator's playground now pocked with foreclosures and stalled constructions. Tabor had come home only to lose his shirt — and could soon lose his family's condo, he says.
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.
Rafael Cardona Salazar, a family friend of Max's Colombian wife, Lara, has the build of a pubescent teenager. But Max knows that this is not a man to be fucked with. Rafa's a rising prospect within the Medellin Cartel's cocaine business, a former slum kid who is constantly high on bazuka joints — fat cigarettes filled with superpowerful cocaine paste.
At the time, 36-year-old Max Mermelstein had been, for the most part, a law-abiding citizen. The son of Benjamin Mermelstein, owner of a little corner store in Brooklyn, Max studied mechanical engineering at the New York Institute of Technology. He then bounced between Manhattan engineering firms with names like Wold & Ziggers and Cullen & Lemelson before finding his niche in the hospitality field: At the Aventura Country Club, he was now its chief engineer, making him the well-paid general of an army of janitors, plumbers, and maintenance men — the guy who gets things done.
He's a voracious eater whose weight constantly pinballs between 200 and 280 pounds. On a gold chain, he wears a pendant that had been passed down among Mermelstein men from Max's grandfather, welded with Yiddish family initials. Max has made his own alteration: He's plastered onto the pendant a diamond-studded version of the cartoon Tasmanian Devil.
Fluent in barrio español, Max had married Colombian-born Lara Hernandez, his third wife. He'd adopted her two children, 13-year-old Luis and 7-year-old Isabella, and she would soon have a baby girl named Ana.
But the family man had already shown genius for illicit importation. Using private planes and freelance pilots, he had arranged the smuggling of dozens of Lara's friends and family into Miami. Among those refugees: the jittery shooter standing on his front steps and demanding that Max act as his designated driver.
Max climbed behind the wheel of Rafa's rented van to find another glaring Colombian, Antonio "Chino" Arles Vargas, sitting in the back seat. As he began to drive, Max realized he was in trouble. At an earlier Christmas party, Rafa had apparently shot a man in the face for no apparent reason, and Chino did not approve. Rafa, in turn, suspected that Chino had been pilfering kilos from him.
While Chino was in midsentence, Rafa suddenly spun in his seat as a nickel-plated .38-caliber handgun appeared in his right hand. "As incredible as it seems, I don't remember hearing the shots," Max would recall in a later deposition. "I only remember seeing the flashes. And my foot froze on the accelerator, and I just kept driving. And at this point, Cardona was starting to direct me where to go."
He might as well have been speaking metaphorically. From that moment forward, Max would become Rafa's personal zombie. They would dump the bullet-torn body in a suburban field in South Miami. The next morning, with the help of Lara's straight-as-an-arrow brother Arturo, Max and Rafa would scrub the van of blood and bits of brain.
Max would say later that he had only one thought in his head: I'm next. He considered calling the cops but never did: Colombian gangsters were known to retaliate against a man's family.
Max came to believe that Rafa had wanted him to witness the murder: The Medellin Cartel — the Colombian cocaine conglomerate helmed by drug superlords including Escobar, Lehder, and the Ochoa crime family -- needed a smart American who knew how to smuggle. Max had the perfect curriculum vitae. For two years after the killing, Max sold loose kilos around Miami and New York.
Rafa put Max to work full-time as the Cartel's American point man.
Max found his calling in cocaine smuggling. Using Cessnas loaded with plastic-wrapped coke footballs, he pioneered the water drop. He mastered the eavesdropping of law-enforcement radio frequencies and evasive flying routes: His pilots stayed below radar and headed to the middle of the state before swooping down to South Florida. Max put innocuous lookouts, armed with high-powered binoculars, in penthouses above harbors where coke-laden boats came in to warn of Coast Guard patrols. At the time, these procedures were all sheer innovation.
Max relished his role as the Henry Ford of cocaine, even briefly adopting a Colombian alter ego using fabricated documents: According to a Florida driver's license, he was Maximiliano de Leon.
Meanwhile, his adopted hometown burned around him. Miami became the type of city where sicarios stabbed enemies with bayonets in the airport, where men with machine guns performed daylight massacres at Dadeland Mall, where a shrink-wrapped kilo, hurled from a smuggler's plane evading fighter jets, fell through the ceiling of a Baptist church during Sunday service. Twenty killings a month gave the city the highest murder rate in the world. And it could all be traced back to Max.
But he wasn't pulling the trigger. "I didn't think I was hurting anybody," he said later. "In my mind, I was making an honest living."
Roughly six years and 56 tons of cocaine later, reality surrounded Max in the form of siren-blaring vehicles belonging to several federal agencies and Broward County deputies. On June 5, 1985, he was arrested as he drove his blue Jaguar north of his Golden Beach house. Deputies seized a permitted Walter TPH .22 in his glove compartment and $275,000 they found stored under his bed. They sent him off to his indictment in Los Angeles, where he had a date with Gregorie in a cramped room with no windows.
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."
She headed to Florida for good. Lara left soon after, taking a teenaged Ana with her back to Colombia.
Max, living under the name Wes Barclay, moved to Kissimmee, where he became chief engineer of Westgate Vacation Villas resort. He lived in a nice two-bedroom apartment in a gated community near the resort. He kept a couple of handguns and a rifle close by.
Max retired at 61 and moved to Frankfort, Kentucky, with a former coworker from the resort. He'd tell people he had two grown daughters with a Colombian ex-wife who "took all his money" to explain why he was alone on holidays and birthdays.
In Frankfort, Max frequented the local strip clubs, browsed flea markets on the weekend, and smoked like John Wayne. He was a regular at Longhorn Steakhouse, where the servers called him "Papa."
But his health was failing. He had diabetes. He spent $400 a month on insulin, needles, and other medical care, which didn't leave much for anything else. He lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a low-flung Section 8 complex, joking that his lifestyle was "ghetto fabulous."
He bought an expensive Himalayan cat that looked, with its flattened face and strangely colored fur, like an inbred stray. The loner with the dry sense of humor named his new companion simply Cat.
In 1995, Max's stepson, Luis, was arrested in Miami. Turns out he had emulated Dad more than he let on: He was charged with being the "U.S.-based organizer" of a Colombian-based coke smuggling ring. In a raid, the DEA had seized nearly two tons of cocaine worth $33 million hidden in shiploads of metal cylinders. Then 31, Luis had been living opulently in a Miami Beach condo, keeping nothing in his own name. Isabella says of her brother: "He was chasing the fast money, the thrill, the power."
Luis was convicted of cocaine conspiracy. On May 29, 1997, Max spoke as a witness at his sentencing in a federal courthouse in Miami. His testimony that day was sealed for security reasons, but a law enforcement official with knowledge of the proceedings recalls that Max blamed himself for the kid's wrong path. The way Luis was raised, Max testified, he hardly had a choice.
A copy of The Man Who Made It Snow was submitted to the judge. "The things [Luis] was exposed to and the way he was guided as a young man," argued his lawyer, Bob Amsel, "is a factor that I think the court should consider in sentencing."
Luis was sentenced to 17 and a half years but was released in 2002. He and Max never saw each other again.
The obituary in the Frankfort State-Journal was 24 words long and listed him as one year younger than he actually was: "Services for Wesley Barclay, 64, will be held at a later date in Florida. He died on September 12. There will be no visitation."
Max Mermselstein, meanwhile, received a thousand-word eulogy in the Washington Post. It was written by Jeff Lean, author of Medellin Cartel tome Kings of Cocaine and the only professional reporter to ever interview him.
In late September, a wake was held for Max's cremated remains at the Sacred Heart Church in Homestead. For the first time in more than two decades, his real name was used openly. About 20 relatives attended the ceremony.
Tabor was also there, along with Gregorie. When it came time for a speech in remembrance of Max, heads swiveled to the back of the room, where Tabor sat. In a room full of family, the man who knew Max best had met him four weeks before he died. Tabor's short speech recalled that Max was honest to a razor-sharp edge: "You always knew where you stood with him."
Afterward, Gregorie thanked Tabor for speaking instead of him. Nobody wanted to see an old prosecutor blubber. "I had a tear in my eye, and it wasn't for the mean old Max," says Gregorie. "It was for what everybody had just lost. He was a piece of history."
Max's ashes now sit in Ana's house. The daughter was also bequeathed $800, according to Wes Barclay's will, which was filed in Franklin County Court in Kentucky. That's a third of his net worth at death: $4,000, minus $1,600 in credit card debt. Isabella also inherited her share.
Max left Ana's husband, Mannie, a computer and a handgun that he legally should not have owned. Max's pet, Cat, also lives in Ana's house somewhere in Florida.
Ana's 4-year-old son, Pedro, will inherit the Yiddish/Tasmanian Devil talisman when he comes of age.
Tabor is shopping his finished script to producers. Isabella, Ana, and the coworker who brought him to Kentucky will split any royalties, which, according to the will, are of "Values unknown."
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