By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
They met outside a Miami shopping mall on a hot, breezy weekday afternoon. The prosecutor, his large, lithe frame stuffed into a drab suit, gripped Tabor's hand. On first encounter, the 63-year-old Gregorie looked like a federal prosecutor from Central Casting: forbidding and gruff, with a big, flat head like a Komodo dragon's and arching, skeptical eyebrows.
"I felt like I was in a bad spy movie," Tabor says.
Tabor offered to buy lunch and explain his search. "I'll buy my own lunch, and your business with Max is your business," Gregorie retorted. "I'll give you 20 minutes only, and then I got to get back to my office."
But the enthusiastic filmmaker must have swayed him over greasy chicken and rice at the food court, because after they cleared their trays, Gregorie invited him to his office, on the eighth floor of the nearby Southern District headquarters.
The office walls are like a de facto historical museum of cocaine smuggling: undercover surveillance photos of drug lords Pablo Escobar and Fabio Ochoa loading kilos onto a plane, shots of Gregorie in court against Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega, and an image of Escobar's bloody corpse.
The photos are artifacts from the era when Gregorie cut his teeth as a headline-making young prosecutor, when he earned convictions against high-profile defendants such as Noriega and flamboyant megatrafficker Carlos Lehder. More recently, he helped convict the Liberty City Six terrorists, and in 2007, he was named the nation's best prosecutor by the National Association of Former United States Attorneys.
Gregorie explains he first met Mermelstein in summer 1985, inside an interrogation room at Terminal Island outside Los Angeles. It was the lowest point in the smuggler's life: He faced a life sentence for masterminding the import of 56 tons of cocaine to the United States.
The prosecutor had been chasing an indictment against Mermelstein since he first appeared on his radar, after selling 26 kilos to cash-strapped automaker John DeLorean several years earlier in a federal trap. Gregorie knew if the smuggler cooperated, he would have the inside information to serve up cocaine's CEOs. "The first thing I asked him was, 'A guy as intelligent as yourself, how the hell did you end up in here with me?'" Gregorie recalls.
Mermelstein's sneering response: "Not through anything you did."
After months of negotiations, Mermelstein decided to flip on the cartel in return for a reduced sentence — he ultimately served only two years and 17 days — and the relocation of a record 16 family members into the Witness Protection Program. Mermelstein went on to become what Gregorie calls "the greatest informant in history," crippling the Medellín Cartel by helping to send more than a dozen honchos and associates, including Noriega and Lehder, to American prisons.
Gregorie got into countless screaming matches with Mermelstein: He didn't want to pay taxes on the rewards the federal government paid him for agreeing to be a witness, lump sums as high as $275,000. He insisted on carrying a gun, even though the conditions of his lifetime probation forbade it. And when hunkered down with prosecutors, he liked to have dinner delivered from Joe's Stone Crab, along with a bottle of vintage red, on the government's tab. "The quality of his information made it worth it," Gregorie says.
Despite the clashes, Mermelstein always kept in touch. The lonely ex-smuggler sent holiday cards sans return addresses, cheesy Hallmark things with paintings of mistletoe and oil lamps. "Our best to you and yours from me and mine during the holiday season," reads one, signed "Max Mermelstein and family."
But Mermelstein avoided all others. In Gregorie's dusty files are letters from journalists who were summarily rejected, ranging from 60 Minutes producers to Time editors. The Cocaine Cowboys creators managed two phone conversations with Mermelstein in which they explained the project. But he never called back.
"I'll give Max your info, but he probably won't talk to you," Gregorie told Tabor. "And if he does, good luck, because he might just make you cough up your firstborn."
After his meeting with Dick Gregorie, Tabor picked up his wife at the mall and they headed back to Vero Beach. They were on I-95 in his black Jeep when his cell phone rang. "No ID," Tabor read in a hallowed tone, exchanging glances with Andrea.
The voice on the other end was low and husky, the product of a three-pack-a-day lifetime habit. "Brett. Max Mermelstein."
Andrea grabbed the steering wheel to prevent the Jeep from swerving into the median.
Afterward, Tabor barricaded his two young daughters out of his red-painted TV room, with its 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 Mermelstein, 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 Mermelstein's memoir, The Man Who Made It Snow, Tabor 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 screenplays. 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 Mermelstein but saw the cinematic potential. They dreamed of a $70 million budget and Eric Bana as the front man — although they'd settle for Sean Penn.