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
The isolation quickly proved too much for one relative. Arturo, Hernandez's soft-spoken brother whom Salazar had forced to scrub Chino's brains up a decade earlier, was relocated with his wife and son to Nashville despite not speaking a lick of English. Using a protected witnesses' switchboard, Arturo reached Hernandez and confessed thoughts of suicide. "He was just the definition of gentle and harmless," Isabella recalls. "He couldn't handle any of this stuff that had happened to his life."
On November 10, 1986, Hernandez and Mermelstein contacted the Marshals Service to try to get him emergency counseling but were told it would have to wait until Arturo's case manager returned from vacation. The next day, Arturo hanged himself inside a closet in his apartment.
The suicide turned Hernandez against her husband. After Mermelstein returned from prison, they bickered constantly and she threatened divorce. In 1989, when the family was living in Mobile, Alabama, 18-year-old Isabella dodged Dad and the U.S. Marshals to take an illicit road trip with school friends to Disney World. "I felt more free, more alive than I had in five years," Isabella recalls. "That's when I decided, I'm not going to live in the program."
She headed to Florida for good. Hernandez left soon after, taking teenage Ana with her back to Colombia. Luis had shipped out even earlier. As far as he was concerned, his father was a snitch who had screwed his family in order to save himself. He declined the government's protection and disappeared into freedom.
In 1995, Luis was arrested in Miami. He had emulated Dad more than he let on: He'd been the "U.S.-based organizer" of a Colombian-based coke-smuggling ring. The DEA had seized nearly two tons of cocaine, worth $33 million, hidden in shiploads of metal cylinders. Then 31, Luis had lived opulently in a Miami Beach condo, keeping nothing in his own name. Isabella says of her brother: "He was chasing the fast money, the thrill, the power."
Luis was convicted of cocaine conspiracy. On May 29, 1997, Mermelstein spoke at his son's sentencing in a federal courthouse in Miami. His testimony that day was sealed, but a law enforcement official with knowledge of the proceedings recalls that Mermelstein blamed himself. The way Luis was raised, he hardly had a choice, Mermelstein testified.
A copy of The Man Who Made It Snow was also submitted to the judge. "The things [Luis] was exposed to and the way he was guided as a young man," argued his lawyer, Bob Amsel, "is a factor that I think the court should consider in sentencing."
Luis was sentenced to 17 and a half years but was released in 2002. He and Mermelstein never saw each other again.
Mermelstein's daughters received news of their isolated father via rare word-of-mouth bulletins: Max has published a memoir. It's not selling, though, because he can't exactly go on a book tour. Mermelstein left the Witness Protection Program after Escobar was killed. Mermelstein has moved back to Florida — somewhere in the middle of the state.
In 2004, 25-year-old Ana heard Mermelstein was testifying in Miami, against drug lord Ochoa. She hadn't seen him since her mother had taken her to Colombia a decade earlier. When she arrived at the federal courthouse downtown, the cadre of U.S. Marshals protecting Mermelstein wouldn't let her through, but she passed on to him a photo of her newborn daughter, Gabriela, and an invitation to the baby's christening.
Mermelstein showed up at the church and rekindled his relationship with his daughters. He even briefly moved into Ana's Florida house, where his ex-wife Hernandez was also living — all under false names, like characters in a slapstick sitcom.
"They almost got back together right in front of me," Ana recalls, but the longtime lovers' shared history was too complicated to overcome. When Mermelstein was done testifying, he headed back to Kentucky.
MARRIOTT HOTEL — FRANKFORT, KENTUCKY — AUGUST 4, 2008
An old man shuffled, aided by a walker, into the drab conference room. Max Mermelstein was toothpick-skinny, at 120 pounds less than half of his former weight. He was as "bald as an egg," Tabor remembered, except for an ash-gray mustache clinging to his upper lip. He was covered in tacky gold jewelry and wearing blue jeans and a worn polo shirt. His baseball hat and sneakers bore the same logo: a billiards eight ball. "It's because I'm always behind the eight," he explained vaguely when Tabor asked about it.
As Mermelstein got comfortable, palming a Parliament cigarette out of its pack, Mason shook like a leaf next to him. She had just learned that her old Catholic friend Wes Barclay was a Jewish guy named Max Mermelstein who once wrote a book. That, of course, was just the beginning. "You're going to hear some shit that's going to shock you," Mermelstein warned her. "Just listen."
Mermelstein spent many hours over the next five days in that conference room as Tabor's tape recorder rolled. Tabor wanted to know everything, from minute details about smuggling, to his favorite movie (The Silence of the Lambs), to his opinion of Cocaine Cowboys, which Mermelstein had watched on DVD. The former smuggler deemed the film "more style than substance."