Max Mermelstein was, in the beginning, a law-abiding citizen. His father owned a little corner store in Brooklyn, and Max enrolled at the New York Institute of Technology to study mechanical engineering. After graduation, he worked at firms in Manhattan before becoming chief engineer at the Adventura Club.
He was a large man with a big appetite. His weight sometimes soared as high as 280 pounds. And he wore a pendant on a gold chain – one that had been handed down from his grandfather and bore the family initials in Yiddish.
Max was fluent in Spanish. After two unsuccessful marriages, he wed Lara Hernandez, a Colombian, and adopted her two children. The couple would later have another child of their own. And it was through this relationship that he developed a useful talent. He smuggled dozens of Lara’s relatives and friends into Miami, using private planes with freelance pilots.
Max found his real calling in the import of cocaine. Brought in on Cessnas, plastic-wrapped packages of the white powder would be dropped onto the water for pickup and distribution. It’s a technique that he pioneered.
Another Max Mermelstein innovation was eavesdropping on law enforcement radio frequencies. He also created the technique of flying below radar and staying over the central part of Florida before moving in on the actual drop target. And he stationed lookouts in rooms above the harbors where the pickup boats arrived in case the Coast Guard got too close.
Before long, Max was the Henry Ford of cocaine – a kingpin in a city where stabbings and shootings related to the drug trade had become commonplace. There were 20 killings a month in Miami during that period. It was the highest murder rate in the world. And much of the mayhem could be attributed to Max Mermelstein.
But he didn’t feel responsible. “I didn’t think I was hurting anybody,” he said later. “In my mind, I was making an honest living.
About six years after he smuggled his first load, the empire came crashing down. On June 5, 1985, he was arrested near his house in Golden Beach. In his Jaguar’s glove compartment, authorities found a Walther TPH .22 pistol. Searching his home, they confiscated $275,000 that was under his bed.
Max Mermelstein was sent to California, where he would be charged. And that’s where he met Dick Gregorie.
Richard Gregorie, chief assistant U.S. attorney in Miami, interrogated Max during the summer of 1985 in a windowless room at Terminal Island, outside Los Angeles. The smuggler was facing a possible life sentence for masterminding the import of some 56 tons of cocaine.
Gregorie knew that Max had been caught on tape selling 26 kilos to automaker John DeLorean a few years earlier and had been trying to secure an indictment against him since that incident. His ultimate goal was to gain Max’s cooperation as a witness against others like himself.
“The first thing I asked him was: ‘A guy as intelligent as yourself, how the hell did you end up in here with me?’ the prosecutor recalls.
Max responded, “Not through anything you did.”
After months of negotiations, Max decided to cooperate in return for a reduced sentence and the relocation of 16 members of his family into the Witness Protection Program. Gregorie called him “the greatest informant in history”. By the time the case was closed, he had helped to put away more than a dozen Medellin cartel leaders and associates. In the end, he served only a little more than two years in prison.
In August of 2008, an old man known only as “Wesley Barclay” was dying in Frankfort, Kentucky. Skinny and bald, he suffered from cancer of the lung, live and bone. He had only weeks to live.
After his passing, the local paper gave him just a 24-word obituary. But later, “Wes” – Max Mermelstein – got a full thousand words in the Washington Post.
In late September, a wake was held for Max’s cremated remains at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. It was the first time in over two decades that his real name was spoken in public. About 20 relatives were there. And most of them were still in hiding, thanks to the deal he made for them with the Federal government.