By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
MIAMI LAKES — MAX MERMELSTEIN'S HOUSE — CHRISTMAS 1978
An impatient rapping roused Mermelstein from bed at 2 a.m. Fat and sleepy, he opened the front door. Swaying on his front steps was a Colombian man in a leisure suit, with an Afro and a bushy mustache. His eyes were vacant, bloodshot.
Rafael Cardona Salazar, a family friend of Mermelstein's Colombian wife, Lara, had the build of a pubescent teenager. But Mermelstein knew this was not a man to be fucked with. Salazar was a rising prospect within the Medellín Cartel's cocaine business, a former slum kid constantly zooted on bazooka joints — fat cigarettes filled with superpowerful cocaine paste.
Thirty-six-year-old Mermelstein had been, for the most part, a law-abiding citizen. The son of Benjamin Mermelstein, owner of a little corner store in Brooklyn, the young Mermelstein studied mechanical engineering at the New York Institute of Technology and then bounced between Manhattan engineering firms with names like Wold & Ziggers and Cullen & Lemelson before finding his niche as the Aventura Country Club's chief engineer, overseeing an army of janitors, plumbers and maintenance men.
Mermelstein was a voracious eater whose weight pinballed between 200 and 280 pounds. Around his neck hung a gold chain with a pendant welded with Yiddish family initials, passed down from Mermelstein's grandfather to the Mermelstein men. Mermelstein had made his own alteration: He plastered on a diamond-studded version of the cartoon Tasmanian Devil.
Fluent in barrio español, Mermelstein married Colombian Lara Hernandez, his third wife. He adopted her two children, 13-year-old Luis and 7-year-old Isabella, and soon they would have a baby girl named Ana.
But the family man has already shown genius for illicit importation. Using private planes and freelance pilots, he has arranged the smuggling of dozens of Hernandez's friends and relatives into Miami. Among the refugees: the jittery shooter standing on his front steps and demanding that Mermelstein act as his designated driver.
Mermelstein climbed behind the wheel of Salazar's rented van to find another glaring Colombian, Antonio "Chino" Arles Vargas, sitting in the backseat. Soon Mermelstein realized there was trouble. Salazar apparently shot a man in the face at a Christmas party for no reason, and Chino did not approve. Salazar, in turn, suspected that Chino had been pilfering kilos from him.
While Chino was in midsentence, Salazar suddenly spun around in his seat with a nickel-plated .38 in his right hand. "I don't remember hearing the shots," Mermelstein would recall in a deposition. "I only remember seeing the flashes. And my foot froze on the accelerator, and I just kept driving. And at this point, Cardona [Salazar] was starting to direct me where to go."
He might as well have been speaking metaphorically. From that moment forward, Mermelstein was Salazar's personal zombie. They would dump Chino's bullet-torn body in a suburban field in South Miami. The next morning, with the help of Hernandez's straight-as-an-arrow brother Arturo, Mermelstein and Salazar would scrub the van of blood and bits of brain.
Mermelstein would say later he had only one thought in his head: I'm next.
He came to believe Salazar had wanted him to witness the murder: The Medellín Cartel — the Colombian cocaine conglomerate helmed by drug superlords including Escobar, Lehder and the Ochoa crime family — needed a smart American who knew how to smuggle. Mermelstein had the perfect curriculum vitae. For two years after the killing, he sold loose kilos around Miami and New York. Then Salazar put him to work full time as the cartel's American point man.
Mermelstein found his calling in cocaine smuggling. Using Cessnas loaded with plastic-wrapped coke footballs, he pioneered the water drop. He mastered eavesdropping on law enforcement radio frequencies, and evasive flying routes: His pilots stayed below radar and headed to the middle of the state before swooping down to South Florida. Mermelstein placed innocuous lookouts, armed with high-powered binoculars, in penthouses above harbors where coke-loaded boats came in, to warn of Coast Guard patrols. The procedures were all new.
Miami became the type of city where bayonet-wielding sicarios stabbed enemies at the airport, where men with machine guns performed daylight massacres at Miami's Dadeland Mall, where a shrink-wrapped kilo, hurled from a smuggler's plane evading fighter jets, could crash through the ceiling of a Baptist church during Sunday service. Twenty killings a month — about four times as many as today — gave Miami the highest murder rate in the world. And it could all be traced back to Mermelstein.
But he wasn't pulling the trigger. "I didn't think I was hurting anybody," he said later. "In my mind, I was making an honest living."
Roughly six years and 56 tons of cocaine later, it ended. On June 5, 1985, he was arrested as he drove his blue Jaguar near his house in Miami's Golden Beach. Cops seized a permitted Walther TPH .22 from his glove compartment and $275,000 from under his bed. They sent him off to his indictment in Los Angeles, where he had a date with Gregorie in a cramped room with no windows.
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