By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
For the next three weeks, this "submarine," as the fortified rooms are called, was the family's home. Like dogs, they were walked around the block. Food was brought to them. Why is he doing this to us? Isabella recalls thinking of her dad, who was en route to a secure location of his own.
They were moved to a temporary facility in Atlanta and then to their new home in Virginia Beach, where they learned the routine: They were given birth certificates and Social Security cards with invented names. The girls sat across from marshals and chanted their new identities into memory.
It sank in that they would never see lifelong friends again. Relatives were strewn randomly across the United States. Rare family reunions took place in "neutral" sites so each cluster wouldn't know where the other had been relocated. And every year or so, they would have to uproot their false lives and start new ones.
"You have no identity, and you have no freedom," Isabella says. Her one steady companion throughout her teens: a white Palomino horse Max had bought her.
The isolation quickly proved too much for one relative. Arturo, Lara's soft-spoken brother who Rafa had forced to scrub Chino's brains up a decade earlier, was relocated with his wife and son to Nashville despite not speaking a lick of English. Using a protected witnesses' switchboard, Arturo reached Lara and confessed thoughts of suicide. "He was just the definition of gentle and harmless," Isabella recalls. "He couldn't handle any of this stuff that had happened to his life."
On November 10, 1986, Lara and Max contacted the Marshals Service to try to get him emergency counseling but were told it would have to wait until Arturo's case manager returned from vacation. The next day, Arturo hanged himself inside a closet in his apartment.
The suicide turned Lara against her husband. After Max returned from prison, they bickered constantly and she threatened divorce. In 1989, when the family was living in Mobile, Alabama, 18-year-old Isabella dodged Dad and the U.S. Marshals to take an illicit road trip with school friends to Disney World. "I felt more free, more alive than I had in five years," Isabella recalls. "That's when I decided, I'm not going to live in the program."
She then headed to Florida for good. Lara left soon after, taking a teenage Ana with her back to Colombia. Luis had shipped out even earlier. As far as he was concerned, his father was a snitch who had screwed his family in order to save himself. He denied the government's protection and disappeared into freedom.
In 1995, Luis was arrested in Miami. He had emulated Dad more than he let on: He'd been the "U.S.-based organizer" of a Colombia-based coke-smuggling ring. The DEA had seized nearly two tons of cocaine, worth $33 million, hidden in shiploads of metal cylinders. Then 31, Luis had lived opulently in a Miami Beach condo, keeping nothing in his own name. Isabella says of her brother: "He was chasing the fast money, the thrill, the power."
Luis was convicted of cocaine conspiracy. On May 29, 1997, Max spoke at his son's sentencing in a federal courthouse in Miami. His testimony that day was sealed, but a law enforcement official with knowledge of the proceedings recalls that Max blamed himself. The way Luis was raised, Max testified, he hardly had a choice.
A copy of The Man Who Made It Snow was also submitted to the judge. "The things [Luis] was exposed to and the way he was guided as a young man," argued his lawyer, Bob Amsel, "is a factor that I think the court should consider in sentencing."
Luis was sentenced to 17 and a half years but was released in 2002. He and Max never saw each other again.
Max's daughters received news of their isolated father via rare word-of-mouth bulletins: Max has published a memoir. It's not selling, though, because he can't exactly go on a book tour. Max left the Witness Protection Program after Escobar was killed. Max has moved back to Florida — somewhere in the middle of the state.
In 2004, 25-year-old Ana heard Max was testifying in Miami, against Fabio Ochoa. She hadn't seen him since her mother had taken her to Colombia a decade earlier. When she arrived at the federal courthouse downtown, the cadre of U.S. Marshals protecting Max wouldn't let her through, but she relayed to him a photo of her newborn daughter, Gabriela, and an invitation to the baby's christening.
Max showed up at the church and rekindled his relationship with his daughters. He even briefly moved into Ana's Florida house, where his ex-wife Lara was also living — all under false names, like characters in a slapstick sitcom.
"They almost got back together right in front of me," Ana recalls, but the longtime lovers' shared history was too complicated to overcome. When Max was done testifying, he headed back to Kentucky.
INT. MARRIOTT HOTEL — FRANKFORT, KY — MORNING (AUGUST 4, 2008)
An old man shuffles, aided by a walker, into the drab conference room. Max Mermelstein is toothpick-skinny, at 120 pounds less than half of his former weight. He is as "bald as an egg," Tabor would remember, except for an ash-gray mustache clinging to his upper lip. He is covered in tacky gold jewelry and wears blue jeans and a worn polo shirt. His baseball hat and sneakers bear the same logo: a billiards eight ball. "It's because I'm always behind the eight," he explains vaguely when Tabor asks about it.