To his neighbors, Max Mermelstein was an engineer and a businessman, a husband and father, a man who lived quietly and comfortably in a secluded suburban ranch house in Florida's Broward County on the $30,000 a year he earned in consulting fees.
To the U.S. government, Mermelstein was an international cocaine distributor responsible for importing $360 million worth of the drug into Florida and Los Angeles, a man who knew book and chapter on at least five bloody killings, a man who, for seven years, had acted as one of the primary operations chiefs in the United States for Colombia's largest cocaine cartel.
The law caught up with Mermelstein on June 5, 1985, when FBI agents in Florida surrounded his Jaguar, arrested him, grabbed the loaded .22-caliber Walther from the seat next to him and then went to his home where they seized $250,000 in cash, 25 guns and an array of ammunition.
Under indictment in Los Angeles for cocaine trafficking and facing a near-certain conviction and a life sentence in federal prison, Mermelstein turned government witness against the infamous Medellin cocaine cartel and took his family with him into hiding.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 7, 1987 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
On Monday, The Times quoted former Los Angeles prosecutor Fred Friedman as saying Max Mermelstein was "a smart guy, and a thug," who had begun cooperating with the government to "make amends." Friedman actually said the former international cocaine distributor was "a smart guy, not a thug."
In the months since, the man, who was described by his attorney as "just a nice Jewish guy who got into the wrong industry," has emerged as the most important witness in the nation against what law enforcement officials say is the most dangerous criminal organization in the world.
"He is probably the single most valuable government witness in drug matters in the country today. I don't think it's possible to overstate the significance of his testimony," said James P. Walsh, head of the major narcotics section for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.
In the months since he began appearing as a government witness, Mermelstein has given testimony to grand juries in New Orleans, Miami and Los Angeles. His accounts have led to indictments--and some convictions--of some of the most elusive and powerful drug lords in the world and their lieutenants, the men who operate the cartel in Medellin, Colombia, that is believed responsible for 75% of the cocaine that is shipped into the United States.
As a direct result of Mermelstein's testimony, indictments have been returned against Fabio Ochoa Vasquez, believed to be head of the Ochoa family's operations in Medellin; Pablo Escobar Gaviria, a former Colombian senator who heads the Gaviria drug family, and Rafael Cardona Salazar, the elusive drug kingpin who reportedly headed the cartel's operations in the United States.
Together, the Medellin cartel families are believed to gross an estimated $7 billion a year in the United States. They are also responsible for a rampage of murder and intimidation in their native Colombia, where judges seeking to combat cocaine trafficking have been killed at the rate of one a month and crusading journalists, police officers and even top-level justice ministers have fallen victim to assassins' bullets.
"It is no longer a question of threats, but of death notification," a Colombian newspaper editor said recently.
While nearly all of the cartel's kingpins have escaped extradition on U.S. indictments, authorities say Mermelstein is capable of providing "firsthand" testimony against them should they ever fall into U.S. hands.
In addition to his testimony against top cartel leaders, Mermelstein has provided evidence to local authorities investigating the 1979 shootings at a Miami shopping mall of a suspected drug dealer, his bodyguard and two bystanders that became known as the Dadeland Massacre.
Mermelstein also warned U.S. officials of a Medellin cartel contract to murder government witness Barry Seal and helped convict the three Colombian nationals arrested when Seal's bullet-riddled body was found outside a Baton Rouge, La., halfway house. Seal had testified in 1985 against a number of top Medellin cartel leaders, including Jorge Ochoa Vasquez.
"Mermelstein is unbelievable as a witness," said Al Winters, a New Orleans federal prosecutor. "I don't know how to express it in any way other than to say I've been doing this for a long time, and he's as good a witness, both in recall and quality of information, as I've ever run into. His connections within the Medellin cartel are the highest."
Mermelstein, who had told law enforcement authorities the essential terms of the contract on Seal's life--$500,000 dead in the United States, $1 million alive in Colombia--later helped investigators identify the murder weapon.
"We had a murder weapon, but we didn't know where it came from," Winters said of the fully automatic Mac-10 rifle recovered near the scene with its serial number drilled out.
"I asked him (Mermelstein) about the weapon, and he began questioning me, and all of a sudden, he's hitting on all fours, you know? Like, did it have a drilled serial number? He said, 'Not only can I identify it, the weapon was test fired at my house in Florida.' "