Jon Roberts: Cracked Cowboy

Threats, violence, and kilos of coke are just the start for this cocaine cowboy.

Former mega-smuggler Jon Roberts, who flooded Miami with $2 billion worth of cocaine in the '80s, naps away his days in a quiet lakefront Hollywood home. But soon, if what he says is true, a book, a high-octane movie, and videogame contracts will again make him a player. But he doesn't want you to know this. He's worried this article could spoil the publicity for his book deal. When I told him last week this story would be published, the craggy, gray-mustached ex-gangster vowed, "You will never write another word in this town again... I will go on TV and tell them everything in your article is bold-faced lies. I hope you get hit by a truck, you little scumbag."

The outburst is in character with Roberts's gangster-flick biography, which he described in an on-the-record interview before changing his mind about publication. It begins with a hardscrabble childhood, continues through an astronomic ascent, and concludes with the inevitable prison reckoning. What probably won't make the official cut, however, is his post-incarceration life, which his ex-wife claims included snitching on friends for cash.

Roberts was born and raised in New York's Little Italy in 1948. His Mafioso dad was deported when the future smuggler was still a kid, he says. His mother died during a medical operation when he was a young teen. "Everybody told me it was a hysterectomy," he recalls. "I don't believe that was true. I think she went into the hospital to have an abortion, which was illegal at the time."

Jon Roberts: "I hope you get hit by a truck, you little scumbag."
Magnolia Pictures
Jon Roberts: "I hope you get hit by a truck, you little scumbag."

A budding violent criminal as a teenager, he bounced among relatives' homes. His sister, who lived in Brunswick, Maine, booted him when he was around 16, he says, and he drove back to Mulberry Street, where he entered the family business. He worked as an enforcer for a loan-sharking uncle, he says, augmenting his income with two-bit capers. "This was the early '60s — everybody was 'love, peace, and hope,'" Roberts says. "So I'd tell some hippie I had 20 pounds of pot. He'd give me $10,000. I'd take the money and not give him any pot."

After a failed kidnapping involving a debtor escaping from a basement "with a chair tied to him and no clothes on," the adolescent mobster shipped off to Vietnam for five years. "I thought it was great," he says. "There were no rules. You could kill people, do whatever you want."

After an explosion in an ammunition dump, he was sent home with four screws and a metal plate in his head, he says. Back in New York, he began opening nightclubs — until the late '70s, when one of his partners turned up dead after taking 11 bullets. Roberts headed to Miami. He explains simply: "I heard there was a lot of coke down here."

Soon he hooked up with the Medellín Cartel's point man in the United States and began orchestrating plane shipments of hundreds of kilos a week. He bought houses and helicopters and says he stashed $158 million in a Panamanian bank and spent time with Gen. Manuel Noriega and Pablo Escobar, who "was just another guy to me."

In September 1986, FBI and Customs officials busted the then-38-year-old. He was released on bond and spent almost a year on the lam in Colombia and Mexico. After capture, he was sentenced to eight years in prison. The feds and the Panamanians, he says, "took everything they could get their hands on."

His tale was chronicled in the 2006 documentary Cocaine Cowboys, an indie hit that spawned a sequel. An HBO series and a film by Paramount Pictures — starring Mark Wahlberg, according to Variety — are in the works.

In his interviews for Cocaine Cowboys, Roberts came across as a reformed man, and the same redemptive chord will likely be struck in the movie and his ghost-written biography, both being penned by Evan Wright, author of the first-person Iraq tome Generation Kill. "The way I see him, Jon is still that cocaine cowboy — that's how he's wired," explains Wright on the phone from Los Angeles. "But he's operating with a greater objective now, which is raising his son."

Indeed, during my interviews with Roberts, he doted on his preteen son, often flashing the kid's photos. But a closer examination reveals something less than a complete reformation.

According to the final credits of Cocaine Cowboys, Roberts was released from prison in 2000. In fact, he got out in October 1995, according to federal records, but his freedom was short-lived.

On the night of September 29, 1997, three Fort Lauderdale cops staked out the home of an ex-girlfriend of Roberts who claimed he had been "following, harrassing, and threatening" her since their breakup, despite a restraining order. When he pulled up in a gray Infinity, officers attempted to arrest him at gunpoint. The livid ex-con kicked one of the cops in the thigh and sprinted for two blocks, arms cuffed behind his back, according to a police report. A trail of at least ten hundred-dollar bills fell from his pockets before cops pepper-sprayed and subdued him.

On the way to the station, Roberts kicked out the cruiser's back window and was promptly sprayed in the eyes again. After they transferred him to another car, he wriggled out of the cuffs, shattered another window, and escaped into the darkness. Eventually, he was sniffed out by a police dog and "hogtied to prevent further escape."

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