By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
He's a voracious eater whose weight pinballs between 200 and 280 pounds. Around his neck hangs a gold chain with a pendant that's been passed down from Max's grandfather to the Mermelstein men; it's welded with Yiddish family initials. Max has made his own alteration: He's plastered on a diamond-studded version of the cartoon Tasmanian Devil.
Fluent in barrio español, Max married Colombian Lara Hernandez, his third wife. He adopted her two children, 13-year-old Luis and 7-year-old Isabella, and soon they will have a baby girl named Ana.
But the family man has already shown genius for illicit importation. Using private planes and freelance pilots, he has arranged the smuggling of dozens of Lara's friends and relatives into Miami. Among the refugees: the jittery shooter standing on his front steps and demanding that Max act as his designated driver.
Max climbs behind the wheel of Rafa's rented van to find another glaring Colombian, Antonio "Chino" Arles Vargas, sitting in the back seat. Soon Max realizes there's trouble. Rafa apparently shot a man in the face at a Christmas party for no reason, and Chino does not approve. Rafa, in turn, suspects that Chino has been pilfering kilos from him.
While Chino is midsentence, Rafa suddenly spins in his seat with a nickel-plated .38 in his right hand. "I don't remember hearing the shots," Max would recall in a 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 was 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 he had only one thought in his head: I'm next.
He came to believe Rafa had wanted him to witness the murder: The Medellín 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. Then Rafa put him 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 placed innocuous lookouts, armed with high-powered binoculars, in penthouses above harbors where coke-loaded boats came in, to warn of Coast Guard patrols. The procedures were all new.
Max was the Henry Ford of cocaine, creating a world mirrored in Miami Vice. He briefly adopted a Colombian alter ego: According to a Florida driver's license, he was Maximiliano de Leon.
Meanwhile, Miami became the type of city where bayonet-wielding sicarios stabbed enemies at 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, could crash through the ceiling of a Baptist church during Sunday service. Twenty killings a month — about four times as many as today — 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, it ended. On June 5, 1985, he was arrested as he drove his blue Jaguar near his house in Golden Beach. Cops seized a permitted Walther TPH .22 from his glove compartment and $275,000 from under his bed. They sent him off to his indictment in Los Angeles, where he had a date with Dick Gregorie in a cramped room with no windows.
Rafa Cardona Salazar was soon gunned down by a hit squad in Colombia. It was his punishment for vouching for Max.
After his meeting with Dick Gregorie, Tabor picks up his wife at Bayside Marketplace and they head back to Vero Beach. They are on I-95 in his black Jeep when his cell phone rings. "No ID," Tabor reads in a hallowed tone, exchanging a glance with Andrea.
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 the median.
Stephanie Mason knew the wizened 65-year-old man as Wes Barclay, a great friend who had rescued her from rock bottom 13 years earlier.
In 1996, the 25-year-old Stephanie was habitually beaten by her husband. Word spread, and her boss, the big, intimidating chief engineer at Westgate Vacation Villas in Kissimmee, called her into his office and began peppering her with personal questions.