At age 57, Jon Roberts is a wiry fellow whose rugged mug has been whittled by time and prison into a caricature of the two-bit New York hood he once was. Over the years, his features shaggy brows over deep-set brown eyes and a large nose have strengthened and become more prominent. His gray hair, once a bushy dark brown, is pulled back tightly in a ponytail.
Pilot Mickey Munday has described Roberts, his former business partner, as sharp but flamboyant. "I wanna say I didn't like him first time I met him. He was driving this black Mercedes two-door that's got drug dealer written all over it. He just looked like somebody that I don't want to have anything to do with."
Well, a couple of decades ago, Munday overcame his apprehension and the pair formed a profitable alliance with the Medellín cartel, eventually distributing more than two billion dollars' worth of cocaine before they were betrayed by a former friend and government informant. On September 20, 1986, a federal raid busted their business. Eventually Roberts went to prison for ten years. Munday fled but was later caught and imprisoned for seven years.
Their story is depicted in Cocaine Cowboys, a fascinating new documentary by local filmmakers Alfred Spellman and Billy Corben, which New Times recently viewed. A portion of Roberts's account is excerpted below. It traces his rise from a New Yorker fleeing his past in the early Seventies to a life as a small-time dealer and then a large wholesale mover of cocaine. It ends with a middle-age felon telling war stories. Here, then, in Roberts's own words:
I was born in New York, and I got involved with a group of Italians from New York they were actually part of a Mafia family. We opened about four or five nightclubs that became very big, and we were doing really well.
One day they just came in, the police. We had no idea why they were there. And then they told us that our partner [had been] found out on the Long Island Expressway. He had been killed, and he had like eleven bullet holes in him. So who knows what happened. The best thing I could think of at this time was let me get away from all this heat. So I moved down here and started into the cocaine business.
Miami back then was the South. It was like Alabama. There was no money here. There were no big buildings. Downtown was pretty barren. Miami Beach, it was a lot of old people sitting around on rocking chairs waiting to die. It was a whole different world down here back then. Like a virgin city. It was wide-open back then.
In the Seventies, when I first came down here, everybody was smuggling pot. The Colombians realized they had a gold mine here, and when they were sending all this pot, they would send a few kilos of coke. In the beginning it was very small. They would bring them in a suitcase, and they would get extremely high prices for it.
I met a Cuban man out in Hialeah. His name was Albert San Pedro. Most Cubans got what they got from the Colombians because the Colombians controlled everything. Albert would front me a quarter of a pound and he would give me like three or four days. Then I would bring him the money back and he'd give me another quarter of a pound.
I used to pay him somewhere around about $800 an ounce back in the Seventies. It wasn't of any quality, but a lot of people didn't know the difference. People would see these big rocks and they'd think, Wow, this is great shit.
My clients weren't what you would think they'd be, like these street people. It was real-estate people down here. I had lawyers, I had doctors. They were called weekend warriors. During the week, they wouldn't do anything, but on the weekend, they'd just go from Friday night till Sunday and do this stuff.
Each guy would introduce me to another friend. So eventually it went from four ounces to eight ounces to twelve to sixteen. Within a month, I was selling probably two, three kilos a week, just to these doctors and friends. When I came from New York, I came down here with $650 in my pocket. I was making $20,000 to $30,000 a week back then just off of this little trade.
I had a friend who I knew from New York; he developed a big, big trade out in California in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was selling to the Oakland Raiders. He was selling to the Grateful Dead.
I had met a stewardess. This stewardess worked for National Airlines at the time. So we would send coke with the stewardess. She would go from here to San Francisco. We were sending him anywhere from five to ten kilos a week. I was getting, back then, money at the time. I mean, you're starting to get into two, three hundred thousand.
I started meeting guys Mercury Morris, who was a great running back for the Dolphins who also went to jail, so it's no secret. I remember the week of the Super Bowl, when Dallas played Pittsburgh here. Two nights before, I've got the whole front line of the Pittsburgh Steelers in my house. They all sat down and: "Come on, come on. Break the shit out. Break the shit out."
They partied and they really partied hard. I mean, you have no idea what these guys would go through. I'm saying, "You guys are going to go out and play football?"
"Yeah, and we're going to win."
They went out and won, you know. Didn't affect them.
The popularity, it began to shoot up. Everybody who before was doing these pot things was now into doing cocaine. You just couldn't get enough cocaine. The people I was dealing with had a limited supply, and as the people I was selling to expanded their business, I couldn't get enough. You know, one guy would say, "I want 15 kilos or 20 kilos or 25 kilos," and I could only give him 10. I could sell 100 kilos a week easily.
In 1979 Roberts began dating Toni Mooney, a former Ford model. He bought her a red Porsche after three months. She introduced him to Mickey Munday, a pilot with direct connections to the boys from Medellín.
So the guy introduces himself. His name is Mickey Munday, and he's like a redneck who's been in Florida his whole life. I told him I outgrew the Cubans and it became a necessity to find a Colombian that could supply the large amounts that were needed.
He said, "Well, I'm going to hook you up. I'll take you to some Colombians I know and they can give you whatever you want."
I'd heard stories like that many times, so I just said, "Sure. Whenever you're ready, let me know."
We drove to Sunny Isles, Florida, and we go into this house, and it was about five or six Colombians there all, like, loaded to bear. When I say loaded, they were strapped. They had pistols, machine guns. And they were all standing around.
At that point I realized this guy is serious. This is for real, because people don't just stand around like that. I meet this little guy. His name is Rafa and he's telling me: "I'll give you whatever you want...."
I said, "Well, you know, show me something."
He takes me in this back room and presses a button and a whole wall opens up. I had never seen so much cocaine in my entire life, just sitting behind this wall.
I said, "Okay, I guess you can help me, man. Give me a day to put together the money and I'll be back."
The next day I came, he had this American guy there and he introduces the American and says, "This is my compadre. You know I'm not in town a lot, but whatever it is you need, he'll take care of it. Don't worry about it he's a hundred percent."
The American was Max Mermelstein. He became a government informant after being arrested in 1985. He is one of the most important informants ever used to bring down key figures in the Medellín cartel.
Max was, at the time I thought, a very good person, a trusted person. In the beginning, it was 75 to 100 kilos a week. When you bring somebody a million dollars a week, a bond grows between people. Max said, "I want you to do my end of the business going to Colombia, arranging the trips. You're going to make much more and you can continue to supply whoever you want."
Max sent me to Colombia. I would hook up with Rafa and he would introduce me to the people he was working with. It would be the Ochoas, people that you read about in books. Rafa was like a lieutenant. Rafa really controlled almost every kilo of coke that came into this country from Medellín. He had many soldiers that would work for him. He had accountants, lawyers.
We worked with shortwave radios at the time. We had antennas that would come up out of the ground. That's how we would set up the trips. We would send the plane down there. The plane would land and you'd spend the night. Next day they'd be loaded. [After the planes landed,] we would load 300 pieces and put air shocks on the car so that the car wouldn't fall to the ground. We had a towing company that we formed [to haul cars loaded with coke]. We'd have a caravan, one car in front and one behind. We did that six, seven years and never had a problem at all.
I had different stash houses in Miami. I used normal people, working people who wanted extra money. I would pull in the garage with these cars, I would take the product out. I would count it, make sure everything was there. Each product was marked with a marking. Maybe 300 would have bicycles and 200 would have eyeglasses.
Each one went to a certain group. There was three, four different groups. I would have guys driving the cars to, say, a Denny's or Uncle Tom's Ribs. Whoever drove the car there would go inside and there would be a Colombian there, and [the driver] would hand him the keys. It was always delivered to Colombians because they had brought their own Colombians over here to sell it and that was it....
We were getting $3500 a kilo. We would only deliver half. They would put the money in the truck and return the car and I would then give them the rest of the product. You never wanted to have money and drugs in the same place.
At that time we were working with Noriega in Panama. The money would be put on one of our planes and we would fly the plane from here to Noriega's people. We would never send a plane with less than ten million dollars. The money would be taken off there by the army. The army would take it to the bank. We were partners in the bank with Noriega.
It ended up where Max and I were making $750,000, a million a week. I had garbage bags on my lawn, and each bag had like a million, $700,000 because I had nowhere to put it. Nobody was questioning anything. My neighbor was getting ten kilos a week; the neighbor across the street was getting twenty. I had three Cigarettes [boats] hanging in the back yard, two cougars, a helicopter in the back yard. I would fly to the racetrack.
I'd land to see my horses run. I had 40 to 50 horses at a time. It's $50,000 a month just to feed them. At the Forge ... you'd spend $20,000 in a night there. It was like waste. It was nothing, the money.
We bought a boat company, apartment buildings, land up in Tampa. How much did I spend? Probably as much as I put in the bank, $50 million. Easily.
Just more than a year after Mermelstein was arrested, the feds staged a raid on the gang's various properties all over Florida. Roberts was caught at a building used for radio communication with Colombia and the pilots.
Max rolled, started cooperating with them in jail. The government had no idea, and honest to God, if it wasn't for Max Mermelstein.... They knew nothing of where the farm was, knew nothing of our trips. We'd been working for like five years. You get on a trip where you're making so much money, that you are just so powerful [you think] nothing is going to happen.
I have nobody to blame but myself.
Roberts was released from prison in October 2000.
Introduction and transcription by Rebecca Wakefield
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!