VERO BEACH — An aspiring screenwriter and producer living in Indian River Shores has big plans to explore the life of Medellin cocaine cartel’s mastermind Max Mermelstein, a movie which may well touch upon the drug-running days of old Vero Beach.
Brett Tabor is working on the blueprint of his film, which he hopes to produce with a $35 million-plus blockbuster budget.
From the top shelf of the study of his Indian River Shores home, Brett Tabor, actor and now aspiring screenwriter and producer, pulls down a DVD of “Blow,” the 2001 movie starring Johnny Depp as a hapless drug smuggler.
Tabor, a diehard movie buff, knows by heart when the word “Vero” is uttered. He can download a script, and scroll right to where the scene is set in Vero Beach, and a twin-engine Cessna loaded with duffle bags of cocaine lands on an unknown airfield.
Medellin cartel honchos, discuss details of the flight.
“Where are you coming in?”
“It’s good,” answers a third smuggler. “It’s small.”
It certainly is. So small that when the subject of the screenplay Tabor is writing, Medellin mastermind Max Mermelstein, heard that this was Tabor’s new home, he laughed at the irony. “He says, ‘Vero was one my biggest windows,'” according to Tabor.
Mermelstein, a former hotel engineer turned cocaine king turned federal informant, told Tabor he had been here himself more than once, Tabor says – scouting for entry points and arranging coke drops and distribution routes, his planes landing on remote access roads or local ranches.
Sleepy Vero, it turns out, was a key pushpin on the map of the Medellin Cartel, which authorities estimate brought in 80 percent of the cocaine for the entire United States from 1979 to 1985.
Mermelstein spent more than two decades hiding from his enemies, only to be tracked down by the fledgling filmmaker living in the very town where he had once run drugs.
Those formerly involved in the drug trade agreed to speak to our sister publication, Vero Beach 32963, on the condition that their names not be used because they fear how the news of their involvement would be received in their new social circles.
At the time, so much was happening in the area that people listened to police scanners for entertainment, including the smugglers themselves.
“It was a blast,” says a former pilot and convicted drug runner, now a successful businessman. “It was so wide open that you could go in a bar and have a celebration that you got a load in,” he says. “And sometimes, yours wasn’t the only load being celebrated. There’d be a couple others in there, too.”
He recalls the reckless sense of adventure of those days with something close to nostalgia.
“Back then, if you had a boat, or you had a plane, you were smuggling. Everybody was doing it. That’s an exaggeration, I know. But not by much.”
It is those memories, Brett Tabor hopes to invoke in his latest film project. Once he finishes the screenplay – which he insists on writing himself — he intends to build himself a blockbuster production, figuring on a budget of $35 million-plus.
His inspiration came in 2006 as he watched a low-budget documentary, Cocaine Cowboys, now legendary in Miami lore. There on the screen, he got his first glimpse of Max Mermelstein. Not as an interviewee – only as a photo. Mermelstein had long since vanished under a new identity, after spilling the goods that brought down his cartel colleagues.
“I thought, I’m going to have to find this man,” says Tabor. “I knew he was still around – the government pays him up to $200,000 a trial. This is the man who made it snow in Miami. I wanted to know this guy’s story.”
Tabor wondered why such a powerful figure had gotten so little attention, as the film traced the collapse of the cartel.
By the time Tabor had his answer, he was eulogizing Mermelstein at a Catholic church in Homestead, Fla. Tabor had only met him four weeks before.
As he develops the character in his movie, Tabor sees Mermelstein as a more or less ordinary guy, who allegedly was forced by his wife’s drug-smuggling cousin to witness a murder, and threatened with death himself if he didn’t immediately go to work for the cartel.
” ‘Guys, I’m the Oz behind the curtain,’ Max used to say,” according to Tabor. “But he was duped – he was duped into engineering all the transportation and distribution of the cartel. And eventually, this insanely intelligent man who completely misused his talents grew that industry into a multi-billion dollar business that was rivaling the likes of General Motors. Billions of dollars passed through his hands.”
Tabor appreciates both the bad and the good in the man, who nearly destroyed his family by forcing them into hiding but ultimately wanted to right his wrongs by helping the government stem the tide of drugs.
“I met a man who was dying,” says Brett. “Honestly, I had never seen anything like it before. It was somebody who wanted to not necessarily set the record straight – if the movie’s going to get made, it’s going to get made — but to talk about the regret he had at exposing his family. It was like he was making a confession to get into heaven. It was like ‘Tuesdays with Morrie,’ only triple-X.”
Tabor will not be the first to out Mermelstein, who lived in the Witness Protection Program for years before leaving its perpetual shadow to assume his own alias and secret life. Max himself made his story public, in a memoir, “The Man Who Made it Snow,” written with Richard Smitten and Robin Moore.
It was that book that Tabor needed rights to, and after settling on a sum from Smitten and Moore, he realized he had one more necessary sign-off: from Max himself.
With a federal prosecutor’s help, who called Max on Tabor’s behalf, he finally met up with Mermelstein in Kentucky, and found him dying of lung cancer. Over the course of five days, Mermelstein, chain-smoking all the while, talked into Tabor’s tape recorder in the conference room of a hotel in Frankfort.
In the end, he sold the rights to his story to Tabor for $3,000. A month later, Max was dead.
Planes would circle into the state from the north, throwing off law enforcement expecting incoming flights from the Caribbean and Latin America, Tabor recalled Mermelstein saying.
Planes would cross the coastline at the St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant, and follow power lines into ranch lands. Once the coke was offloaded in a field or access road, Mermelstein told Tabor, waiting local ranch hands would pack it into the false floors of wrecked cars, and the cars would then be hoisted onto tow trucks for the ride to South Florida.
Along the way, another car would tail the operation, with a driver willing to deliberately slam into any police car that pulled the tow truck over. A bottle of whiskey was at the ready so that the cop would be distracted with a possible DUI. Meanwhile, the tow truck could make a getaway.
It’s a scene Tabor wants to use in the movie. Only once did the DUI ploy have to be used.
In all, it is estimated that Max Mermelstein managed to smuggle in 56 tons of cocaine, delivering $300 million in cash back to Medellin. He served just over two years in prison before being released into the Witness Protection Program in exchange for his testimony.
He left the program after the death of Pablo Escobar, the cartel’s leader. But he always lived under an alias, and apparently told no one about his former life. Today, some of his family members still live in central Florida.
Meanwhile, Brett Tabor pounds away at his screenplay. And the ghost of Max Mermelstein may be walking Vero’s beaches again.