Cocaine king Max Mermelstein came out of hiding for a screenwriter

To protect living members of Max Mermelstein's family, his alias and certain names have been changed.

INT. DELRAY BEACH — MOVIE THEATER — NIGHT (NOVEMBER 2006)

Aspiring filmmaker Brett Tabor tops a medium popcorn with jalapeños, as is his custom, and sits down in the air-conditioned darkness to watch a 7 o'clock showing of Cocaine Cowboys.

Max, living under an invented identity, spent several years in Florida after nemesis Pablo Escobar was killed.
Courtesy of the Max Mermelstein family
Max, living under an invented identity, spent several years in Florida after nemesis Pablo Escobar was killed.
Screenwriter Brett Tabor
C. Stiles
Screenwriter Brett Tabor

On the screen, superspliced interviews with two former smugglers tell the story of the cocaine avalanche that in the 1980s turned Miami into a bullet-riddled Little Medellín. Using budget special effects to augment footage of drug busts and murder scenes, Cocaine Cowboys isn't your typical documentary.

Thirty minutes into the hyperkinetic film, the former Hollywood actor fidgets in his seat. But one character, a central figure whose story doesn't get much screen time, keeps Tabor watching.

Only one photo of the man appears on the screen. 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 picture in the early '80s.

Other than that shot, Max Mermelstein, the Jewish smuggler who pioneered the cocaine pipeline from Medellín to Miami, 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 lack of trying on the filmmakers' part. 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. He was as deep underground as you can get.

"I had one thought in my head as I left the theater," Tabor recalls. "Who's this Max guy?"

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The two years Tabor spent in Hollywood shaped him more than he likes to admit. He refers to film-industry superstars by their first names, compares pivotal moments in his life to classic movie scenes, and can't help but brag about the time he shared a Thanksgiving table with Al (Pacino) — which Tabor swung because his wife was once an assistant to Harvey (Keitel).

In 1997, the then-24-year-old Kendall native, blessed with dark-eyed, puppy-dog good looks, moved from South Florida to L.A. to try to make it as an actor. He lived in a garage 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 to audition. Tabor maintains he was KO'd by star power: "I never had a chance."

The project, titled Out on My Feet, was never made, but that wouldn't soothe Tabor. In 1999, he headed to New York City, where he landed some off-Broadway work and took acting lessons under legendary coach Susan Batson. Tabor shared a class with Keitel and eventually married the star's assistant, Madrid-born Andrea. They had two daughters.

Tabor was plowing through his early 30s with new mouths to feed. So in 2004, when his father, Vero Beach developer Marty Tabor, asked him to manage his property business, Tabor grudgingly agreed. He moved his family into a staid gated community in the moneyed town two and a half hours north of Miami, but he kept his eye trained on Hollywood. He wanted to storm that insiders' fiefdom, but now on the production side, using a 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. "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 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.

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Tabor's father 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. The real estate market had tanked and Tabor was losing his shirt. He began to announce he was now in "the business of Max." Recalls his 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 Dick Gregorie, the legendary Miami federal prosecutor who, 23 years earlier, had helped persuade Max to turn informant. Eager to not seem like 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.

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