A couple of years ago, I went to the Hollywood home of former mega-smuggler Jon Roberts-- featured in the documentary Cocaine Cowboys-- hoping to do a profile on the quiet life of a retired criminal lifer in the 'burbs.
It didn't turn out that way. After a couple of interviews, Roberts demanded that the story be scrapped because it might interfere with his book and movie deals. His not-really-that-veiled threats against my life were published in the article.
The book-- American Desperado, as told to author Evan Wright-- has finally been published. Told mostly in Roberts' own voice, the story chronicles his childhood as a budding mafia sociopath in New York, to his time in Vietnam-- where he glibly describes skinning people alive and killing women and children in villages-- to his ascent as a Miami-based coke smuggler for the Medellin Cartel in the 1980s before being busted.
I spoke to Wright about Roberts' surprising murder confession, the time the author watched him apparently buy guns from Hollywood cops, and why the hell I'm still alive.
New Times:In the book, Jon talks openly about his role in the murder of an associate, Richard Schwartz, on Bay Harbor Island. He implicates as the shooter Ricky Prado, who hasn't been charged with the crime and is a free man. What was your reaction when he described this murder in detail and why'd you feel comfortable publishing those claims?
Evan Wright: When he talked about knowledge of other murders, he couched it in terms that were legally cautious. I was a little struck by the fact that he threw caution to the wind in describing the murder of Schwartz. Something that Jon maintained to me initially--and even now sometimes-- is that he never cooperated. So I was like: That's odd.
Finally he said, "Oh, I have immunity on the Schwartz murder." And I was thinking, If you have immunity that would indicate cooperation. In a nutshell, I discovered documentation of Jon's cooperation on the Schwartz murder against Prado. So that's exactly how I got to the point of putting in the book.
Speaking of cooperating with the government: Jon has nothing but venom for snitches. But he only received three years in prison for his smuggling because he cooperated with the government. I thought it was interesting how he rationalized that.
It's okay when I do it, like many things in life. But his rationalization was that he has played the government masterfully. The best example would be Mickey Munday [Roberts' partner who was indicted with him but went on the lam]. After Jon's original arrest, they released him on the promise--he persuaded them-- that he was going to help them find Mickey Munday. He never did. He led them on wild goose chases, and then fled. In the case of the Schwartz murder, I think he felt justified because Prado betrayed the streets because he went to work for the government.
In the book, you write that Jon-- who as a felon is not allowed to have guns-- showed you silencers he kept buried in his backyard. One of his dogs regularly killed other dogs and cats in the neighborhood. Were you ever afraid during your time staying with Jon in Hollywood?
Jon doesn't live in Hollywood anymore, and he's very sick, so I think I can say this. My most uncomfortable moment came when I was doing an interview, and he gets a call. He says "Oh, that's my police friends. They're selling me some unmarked guns."
He goes to the door, and sure enough--they're not wearing uniforms, but there are cops with unmarked police cars. Now, I did not witness an exchange of guns and money taking place, but I witnessed some kind of transaction taking place. It was a very sketchy moment, and in a weird way, that was my most uncomfortable time with Jon.
Because you felt there were no rules?
Yes, exactly. And I was concerned. I was thinking: What if Jon is back in the cocaine business and the cops are here sniffing around because they're about to arrest him, and I'm staying in the house with the guy?
When I was reporting a story on Max Mermelstein, I spoke to Dick Gregorie, the legendary federal prosecutor. Gregorie, along with a couple of other law enforcement officials who were around in the 1980s who I spoke to, maintain that Jon exaggerated his importance in the Cocaine Cowboys interviews. In those interviews and your book, Jon talks about getting chummy with Pablo Escobar in Colombia. But Gregorie specifically said: "Jon Roberts never went to Colombia."
It's interesting, because... who knows the truth? What I went on was the actual indictment written by the federal government, which named him and Max as co-equal American representatives to the cartel. The indictment doesn't say whether or not Jon went to Colombia, but it's very specific in his important role.
I'm pretty sure the claim that Jon was never in Colombia was factually wrong because he did go down to Colombia as a fugitive--that's according to him and other sources--and he went there because he was familiar with it.
If you look at the interviews in Cocaine Cowboys, Mickey Munday is always filmed next to an airplane. But Mickey Munday really wasn't much of a pilot. He was not certified to fly, and he really didn't do the flying. With all of these characters, I wonder about the legend. As a reporter, I don't really know. That's why I only did the book as-told-so, but credibility is still a point I lose sleep over.
What's the status of the movie based on Jon's life?
He and Mickey both sold their life stories to Paramount. The movie deal is real. Whether they make the movie is anybody's guess. Peter Berg, the director, is a producer. Mark Wahlberg is a producer. They've gone through several scripts, some of them which I wrote.
Peter Berg came down [to Miami] and spent two days with Jon. They had a meeting with Jon and Mickey, and they had this big fight, and then Mickey refused to talk to Jon. Peter called me, saying: "It's like Lennon and McCartney in the 70s!"
Jon has terminal cancer. Was he sick when you were reporting this story?
I don't think he had been diagnosed. He had some pain in his abdomen. There are passages in the end of the book, where he says, "I'd hate for my son to lose his father". That's in there because he was actually talking about his feelings on dying. He says, "I know I'm going to die a horrible death for what I've done." He's now in enormous pain. I joke with people that he's actually a zombie. Based on what the doctors said, he should have died eighteen months ago.
I've heard he has a bucket list. But it's not of rollercoasters he wants to ride before he dies, it's of people he wants to kill.
Jon can be fucking bat-shit crazy. He can be scheming. He can be deceitful. He also, though, has a really funny sense of humor. When he talks about the bucket list, I think that's Jon winking.
I gotta admit, I'm a bit relieved to hear that.
It's weird with Jon. He was also very mad at me various times for badgering and harping on him for documents. He gets over it really quickly. Either that, or he pretends to get over it to lull his enemy into a sense of complacency before doing something to harm him.
When your article came out-- "Cracked Cowboy"-- came out, Jon never mentioned it again. I was like, "Hey, did you read the article?" And he's like, "Um, I don't think so."
Jon is very ill. As a human, I hold out hope that he'll have a full recovery, but he's seriously ill, dude. I do sometimes wonder what would happen if he was at full powers. But you can probably rest easier because the Big C is on your side here.
Edited, condensed, and the questions were tweaked to make me sound smarter.