They met outside 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 looked like a federal prosecutor from Central Casting: 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," Tabor says.

Tabor offered to buy 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 food court, because after they cleared their trays, Gregorie invited him to his office on the eighth floor of the nearby Southern District headquarters.

Federal prosecutor Dick Gregorie
AP Photo/J. Pat Carter
Federal prosecutor Dick Gregorie
Max Mermelstein back in the day.
Courtesy Brett Tabor
Max Mermelstein back in the day.



The packed walls are like a de facto historical museum of cocaine smuggling: undercover surveillance photos of drug lords Pablo Escobar and Fabio Ochoa loading kilos onto a plane, shots of Gregorie in court against Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega, and an image of Escobar's bloody corpse.

The photos are artifacts from the era when Gregorie cut his teeth as a headline-making young prosecutor, when he earned convictions against high-profile defendants such as Noriega and flamboyant megatrafficker Carlos Lehder. More recently, he helped convict the Liberty City Six terrorists, and in 2007, the National Association of Former United States Attorneys named him the nation's best prosecutor.

Gregorie explains he first met Max in summer 1985 inside an interrogation room at Terminal Island outside Los Angeles. It was the lowest point in the smuggler's life: He faced a life sentence for masterminding the import of 56 tons of cocaine to the United States.

The prosecutor had been chasing an indictment against Max since he had first appeared on his radar, after selling 26 kilos to cash-strapped automaker John DeLorean several years earlier in a federal trap. Gregorie knew if the smuggler cooperated, he would have the inside information to serve up cocaine's CEOs. "The first thing I asked him was: 'A guy as intelligent as yourself, how the hell did you end up in here with me?'" Gregorie recalls.

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 — and the relocation of 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 Medellín Cartel by helping to send more than a dozen honchos and associates, including Noriega and Lehder, to American prisons.

Gregorie got into countless screaming matches with Max: 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 hunkered down with prosecutors, he liked to have dinner delivered from Joe's Stone Crab, along with a bottle of vintage red, on the government's tab. "The quality of his information made it worth it," Gregorie says.

Despite the clashes, Max always kept in touch. The lonely ex-smuggler sent holiday cards sans return addresses, cheesy Hallmark things with 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 avoided all others. In Gregorie's dusty files are letters from professional suitors who were summarily rejected, ranging from 60 Minutes producers to Time magazine editors. The Cocaine Cowboys creators 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," Gregorie told Tabor. "And if he does, good luck, because he might just make you cough up your firstborn."



An impatient rapping rouses Max from bed. 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 this is not a man to be fucked with. Rafa is a rising prospect within the Medellín Cartel's cocaine business, a former slum kid who is constantly zooted on bazuka joints — fat cigarettes filled with superpowerful cocaine paste.

Thirty-six-year-old Max Mermelstein has 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 and then bounced between Manhattan engineering firms with names like Wold & Ziggers and Cullen & Lemelson before finding his niche as the Aventura Country Club's chief engineer, overseeing an army of janitors, plumbers, and maintenance men.

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