Film company Rakontur's Billy Corben tweeted yesterday: "Just got word that Jon Roberts from Cocaine Cowboys passed away. Thankful he gave us the opportunity to tell his story." And the singer Akon, the old coke smuggler's unlikely friend, tweeted, "Rest in Peace to Jon Roberts! Original Cocaine Cowboy! A true brother! I will miss u man!"
Roberts suffered through a lengthy battle with cancer. He was married to a younger woman named Noemi and had an adolescent son from a previous marriage. By all accounts cantankerous and often evil -- in his recently published memoir, American Desperado, he admitted to one murder and alluded to several others -- Roberts at points eulogized himself in the book: "I'm going to suffer because of what I've done to people in life. Why would whoever controls the universe let me die peacefully in bed? I'm going to have a horrible, horrible death."
Originally from a Mafia-connected family in New York, Roberts served a tour in Vietnam. According to his memoir, he spent much of it skinning people alive. He made hundreds of millions of dollars smuggling cocaine for the Medellín Cartel into Miami in the '80s, and claimed to be a close crony of Pablo Escobar.
After being ratted out by smuggling partner Max Mermelstein, Roberts spent three years in prison. His sentence was short because he also cooperated with the government, he admitted in the memoir.
Released in 1995, he was sent back to prison two years later in an episode that was vintage Jon Roberts. Fort Lauderdale cops responded to a complaint he was stalking his ex-girlfriend. When they attempted to arrest him at gunpoint, he kicked the officers and ran two blocks with his arms handcuffed behind him, leaving a trail of hundred dollar bills. After being pepper-sprayed, he kicked out the back windows of squad cars and escaped -- twice. The officers eventually hogtied him in order to take him to jail.
He achieved a bizarre sort of celebrity after the 2006 release of Cocaine Cowboys. A Paramount Pictures film about his life, produced by Peter Berg and starring Mark Wahlberg, has been in pre-production for years.
A couple of years ago, I did two interviews with Roberts for a New Times story. When he decided the article might jeopardize his book and movie deals -- but was told we would publish it anyway -- he threatened everything but my death: "I have a book deal worth millions. You cost me that money, so help me, it's the last thing you ever do on this earth. I don't mean that physically."
Last night, I spoke to Roberts' smuggling partner and costar in Cocaine Cowboys, the laid-back and quirky Mickey Munday, with whom he had epic disagreements. The last time Munday saw Roberts, he recalls, was at a Miami restaurant with Peter Berg -- where the cancer-stricken old criminal vowed to kill Munday before he kicked the bucket: "Before I go, I'm going to get you."
"I told him: 'If I had a bucket list, I might put that blonde over there on it,'" Munday says. "'But not whacking somebody who's known me for 25 years.'"
"I always thought that he would beat this, I really did," Munday told me. "If anybody could, it was him, because he's the meanest son of a bitch I knew. If cancer could get to him it could get to anybody."
Munday later texted me, referring to Roberts' nemesis Mermelstein, who also died of cancer: "I hope Jon is kicking Max from one end of Hell to the other."