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
Salazar was soon gunned down by a hit squad in Colombia. It was his punishment for vouching for Mermelstein.
In 1996, the then-25-year-old Mason's husband would habitually beat her. Word spread, and her boss, the big, intimidating chief engineer at Westgate Vacation Villas in Kissimmee, Central Florida, called her into his office and began asking her personal questions.
Almost everybody on the Westgate staff was terrified of Barclay. "He could get irate," Mason recalls in her native Kentucky lilt. "He would tell you to go fuck yourself quick."
Barclay had a proposal: Leave the dirtbag and come live with me until you get back on your feet. With his tar-drenched voice and steely but sympathetic gaze, he could be very persuasive.
Mason moved into a guest room in his nice two-bedroom apartment in a nearby gated community. Barclay charged her a few hundred bucks a month in rent. He was unafraid of his new tenant's jilted husband, who soon found himself divorced: Hotel engineer Barclay kept a couple of handguns and a rifle and seemed like a man who had faced worse adversaries than a wife-beater.
Barclay became Mason's surrogate father. In late 1996, he started his own hotel-consultation business and gave Mason an executive position. And around 2003, he decided to retire. Mason, who had since remarried a man named Billy, suggested they all return to her hometown of Frankfort, Kentucky.
Barclay liked the idea. He wanted to be near family — even if it wasn't his own.
He said he had two grown daughters and a Colombian ex-wife who "took all his money," but Mason never met them. On holidays and his birthdays, he celebrated with Mason alone.
It seemed Barclay was to blame for his own exile. During the 2007 holiday season, he called his daughters in Florida, where they lived. He said he was going to marry a stripper and wanted to come spend Christmas with them. The phone call ended horribly. He stayed in Frankfort. "He didn't even want to marry the girl," Mason says. "He just wanted to make sure his daughters would love him no matter what he did. I told him, 'You're just mean!'
"But he did want to be with his kids," she adds. "He loved them dearly. You just had to know Wes. Everything's a test."
In Frankfort, Barclay frequented strip clubs, browsed flea markets and smoked like John Wayne. He was a regular at LongHorn Steakhouse in Frankfort, where the servers called him Papa.
But Barclay's health was failing. He had diabetes. He spent $400 a month on insulin, needles and other medical care, which didn't leave much for anything else. He lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a low-slung Section 8 complex he called "ghetto fabulous."
He bought an expensive Himalayan cat that, with its flat face and strangely colored fur, looked like an inbred stray. The loner with the dry sense of humor named his new companion Cat.
Barclay was always somewhat mysterious. He disappeared for weeks or even months on end with little explanation. He never talked about his past professional life, but Mason assumed that was because there wasn't much to say. Hotel engineering is not the most fascinating trade.
As Tabor would find out, Mermelstein's daughters Ana and Isabella still live somewhere in Florida. With her plum-shaped face and crescent eyes, 28-year-old Ana is a prettier apparition of her father. But like Isabella, she has made a very different life for herself from Dad. Both Ana and Isabella work dull jobs in order to give their children something the sisters never had growing up: stability.
From the moment Mermelstein told Gregorie he agreed to cooperate, no aspect of life remained the same for his relocated family members. That afternoon, U.S. marshals picked up 14-year-old Isabella from her South Miami private school. They whisked her — along with her siblings and mother, Hernandez — to a "hotel room with no windows" in the basement of the federal prosecutor's Southern District headquarters.
For the next three weeks, this "submarine," as the fortified rooms are called, was the family's home. Like dogs, they were walked around the block. Food was brought to them. "Why is he doing this to us?" Isabella recalls thinking of her dad, who was en route to a secure location of his own.
They were moved to a temporary facility in Atlanta and then to their new home in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where they learned the routine: They were given birth certificates and Social Security cards with invented names. The girls sat across from marshals and chanted their new identities into memory.
It sank in that they would never see lifelong friends again. Relatives were strewn randomly across the United States. Rare family reunions took place in "neutral" sites so each cluster wouldn't know where the other had been relocated. And every year or so, they would have to uproot their false lives and start new ones.
"You have no identity, and you have no freedom," Isabella says. Her one steady companion throughout her teens was a white Palomino horse Mermelstein had bought her.