Almost everybody on the Westgate staff was terrified of Wes. "He could get irate," Stephanie recalls in her native Kentucky lilt. "He would tell you to go fuck yourself quick."

Wes had a proposal: Leave the dirt-bag and come live with me until you get back on your feet. With that tar-drenched voice and steely but sympathetic gaze, he could be very persuasive.

Stephanie moved into a guest room in his nice two-bedroom apartment in a nearby gated community. Her boss charged her a few hundred bucks a month in rent. Wes was unafraid of his new tenant's jilted husband, who soon found himself divorced: The hotel engineer kept a couple of handguns and a rifle and seemed like a man who had faced worse adversaries than a wife beater.

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

Wes became Stephanie's surrogate father. In late 1996, he started his own hotel consultation business and gave Stephanie an executive position. And around 2003, he decided to retire. Stephanie, who had since remarried, to a man named Billy, suggested they all return to her hometown of Frankfort, Kentucky.

Wes liked the idea. He wanted to be near family — even if it wasn't his own.

He said he had two grown daughters and a Colombian ex-wife who "took all his money," but Stephanie never met them. On holidays and his birthdays, he celebrated with Stephanie alone.

It seemed Wes was to blame for his own exile. During the 2007 holiday season, he called his daughters in Florida, where they lived. He said he was going to marry a stripper and wanted to come spend Christmas with them. The phone call ended horribly. He stayed in Frankfort. "He didn't even want to marry the girl," Stephanie says. "He just wanted to make sure his daughters would love him no matter what he did. I told him: 'You're just mean!'

"But he did want to be with his kids," she adds. "He loved them dearly. You just had to know Wes. Everything's a test."

In Frankfort, Wes frequented strip clubs, browsed flea markets, and smoked like John Wayne. He was a regular at LongHorn Steakhouse, where the servers called him "Papa."

But Wes's 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-slung Section 8 complex he called "ghetto fabulous."

He bought an expensive Himalayan cat that, with its flat face and strangely colored fur, looked like an inbred stray. The loner with the dry sense of humor named his new companion simply "Cat."

Wes was always somewhat mysterious. He disappeared for weeks or even months on end with little explanation. He never talked about his past professional life, but Stephanie assumed that was because there wasn't much to say. Hotel engineering is not the most fascinating trade.

----------

His day job be damned. Tabor's father had taught him to think like a speculator, and Max's story looked like a piece of prime land in a booming neighborhood.

Among the '80s-era cocaine-themed TV and film projects reportedly in the works: three about Escobar, three about automaker DeLorean, and, of course, the Paramount project based on Max underling Jon Roberts's criminal adventures. Tabor seems to take personal offense to the last — which might have something to do with archenemy Mark Wahlberg being cast as the lead.

After receiving the call from Max, Tabor barricaded his two young daughters out of his red-painted TV room lined with black-and-white photos of the patron saints of gangster cinema: Michael Corleone, Tony Montana, Henry Hill. Tabor stationed himself on a couch with his laptop and a box of documents from Gregorie: old testimony and letters from Max, most of them complaining about not receiving enough money or enough security from the government. Tabor read them over and over, trying to capture the old smuggler's voice.

In basing a script on Max's memoir, The Man Who Made It Snow, Tabor had teamed up with Michael Kingston, another Hollywood exile. Kingston, who moved to South Beach to be closer to his ailing mother-in-law, had written a couple of produced movies. The most successful: horror flick Population 436, which "you can still catch on Cinemax," Tabor points out. Kingston didn't share Tabor's obsession with Max but saw its cinematic potential. They dreamed of a $70 million budget and Eric Bana as the frontman — although they'd settle for Sean Penn.

----------

As Tabor would find out, Max's daughters Ana and Isabella still live somewhere in Florida. With her plum-shaped face and crescent eyes, 28-year-old Ana is a prettier apparition of her father. But like Isabella, she has made a very different life for herself than Dad. Both work dull jobs in order to give their children something the sisters never had growing up: stability.

From the moment Max told Gregorie he agreed to cooperate, no remnant of life remained the same for relocated family members. That afternoon, U.S. marshals picked up 14-year-old Isabella from her South Miami private school. They whisked her — along with her siblings and mother, Lara — to a "hotel room with no windows" in the basement of the federal prosecutor's Southern District headquarters.

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