As the Medellín Cartel’s U.S. man, Jon Roberts lorded over America’s coke commerce for a full decade. In this exclusive excerpt from his new book American Desperado, he tells the decadent and bloody story of his rise from mafia soldier to cocaine cowboy.
EW: Following a 1970 New York Times story that linked Roberts to the murder of a disco promoter, he became entangled, though not necessarily directly involved, in the murder of a New York fashion model who had planned to testify against one of his friends in a heroin-trafficking case, and in the death of a cop, who some claimed had been taking payoffs from Roberts’s Mafia associates. None of these homicides resulted in charges being filed against Roberts, but, as he put it, “the heat was all over me. The Gambino family wanted me gone from New York.”
Roberts landed in Miami and lay low by working as a gardener and dog trainer. To make ends meet, he started ripping off drug dealers, as he’d done in his youth. But when he robbed a couple of sellers working for a homicidal, cross-eyed Cuban coke dealer by the name of Albert San Pedro, his life changed. He met San Pedro for a possible showdown, and instead they became partners. Roberts began moving the Cuban’s coke at the Palm Bay Club, a private Miami Beach yacht and tennis club. He formed fast relationships with celebrities from the club, like actor James Caan, bonding over a shared passion for his coke. And through his friendship with Dolphins running back Mercury Morris, Roberts became the unofficial supplier of choice to the NFL, hosting cocaine- and whore-packed blowouts at his home for the likes of O.J. Simpson and, on the eve of their 1979 Super Bowl win, a significant portion of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting lineup.
It was during this period that Roberts began running with a young Miami-based mafioso named Gary Teriaca, who soon got him back in the business of murder. When Teriaca’s younger brother was shot to death during a drunken dispute with a patron at a Miami steakhouse, Roberts stepped in to help get revenge. Complicating the matter was the fact that Teriaca’s little brother had been shot by a man named Richard Schwartz, whose stepfather was the legendary mob figure Meyer Lansky. According to Roberts, he met with Lansky, then in his 80s and living in Miami Beach, to obtain his permission to murder his stepson. “He knew his stepson brought this on himself by shooting Gary’s little brother. Nobody wanted to kill Richard Schwartz, but we had to make things right.”
Roberts’s account of the murder of Richard Schwartz amounts to a confession for his role as accessory. In 1993, Roberts was given immunity for the crime in exchange for agreeing to testify against one of his -accomplices.
In an ideal world, you want to murder somebody in private. It’s safer that way. But Richard Schwartz must have at least suspected somebody
was going to kill him, and when a person’s expecting to be murdered, it’s harder to get close to him in private. On the street, you’ve got witnesses. Unexpected things can go wrong. The one advantage of shooting somebody in the open is that’s where they least expect it. Another advantage we had was that Richard Schwartz was stupid. He parked his car every morning at the same time behind his restaurant in Bay Harbor, off Miami Beach.
There was a dock 75 feet away. We could put a boat there and use it to dispose of the weapon. The first thing you want to do when you shoot somebody is get rid of your weapon. I can’t emphasize this enough. Eliminate the gun, and your life will be a lot easier.
Albert San Pedro, my partner in the coke business, gave me his best bodyguard to do the shooting. He was a kid in his mid-20s. He was quiet, not the biggest guy, but he carried himself well. His name was Ricky. When I talked to Ricky about doing the job, he got very excited. He told me he was going to dress up in disguise for the hit — put on a tourist shirt, wear a fake beard — and I got a sinking feeling. I thought, This kid has watched too many spy movies. But, boy, did he prove me wrong.
We killed Richard on a weekday. Gary Teriaca and I docked my Cigarette racing boat before 9 in the morning. We knew Richard would be pulling up in the lot at any minute. We brought some fishing gear and goofed around on the boat, like we were getting ready for an outing. Then, boom, boom. Not 30 seconds later, Ricky came down the path. He had on the tourist shirt and a Panama hat. He carried a shopping bag from the Bal Harbour mall, with the gun inside. When he got a few steps from my boat, I saw a little smile on Ricky’s face.
Gary stuck his arm up and waved, like he wanted Ricky to throw him the weapon. Ricky was almost close enough to hand it over, but he threw it. Gary was so high he dropped the gun into the water. I was pissed. The water’s not deep, but we had to push the boat back from the dock so Gary could dive in and get it. While we’re doing our Three Stooges act on the boat, we start to hear sirens and then this godawful screaming. Some girl was just yelling her guts out in the parking lot. At least we knew Ricky must have done the job right.
Ten miles out in Biscayne Bay, Gary dropped the gun into the bottom of the ocean. He opened a bottle of Johnnie Walker and started whooping and pumping his fist, like we’d won the big game. I heard that Richard Schwartz’s teenage daughter was the first to find him after he got his face blown off. I wasn’t glad for her, but I hope Richard Schwartz felt good for what he made us do.
EW: Roberts’s coke-dealing career -received a significant boost when he met Fabito Ochoa, the 21-year-old son of Medellín cartel founder Don Ochoa. The cartel was still in its infancy, and Fabito had come to Miami to help grow the family’s business. The Ochoas were looking for people to help move their coke — to import it and distribute it — and Roberts was eager to help out.
The first time I met Fabito, he showed up at my house in Coral Gables in a Rolls-Royce convertible. He had a little-kid face that probably couldn’t grow three beard hairs. His bodyguard, Pancho, opened the car door, and Fabito pulled a flask out of his jacket. “Bebe, bebe, bebe” — drink, drink, drink — he said.
It tasted like I’d swallowed a Molotov cocktail. My whole chest was on fire. What he’d given me was aguardiente. They drink it in Colombia like Gatorade. I’m coughing and dying, and Fabito laughs. He pats my back and says, “Let’s go have some fun.”
Fabito and me spent months forming a relationship. We’d meet at my Coral Gables place and do lines of coke and go to clubs. Pancho always came with us. One afternoon Fabito shows up alone. He says, “Come. You and me, we’re going to go party the way I like to party.”
We get into his convertible and drive to the University of Miami. Fabito parks by a lecture hall. He looks at his watch and says, “Five more minutes.”
Five minutes come, and all of a sudden hundreds of students pour out of the lecture hall. They must have had a class that mostly girls take, like nursing or poetry, because we had dozens of 18- and 19-year-old girls streaming past. Fabito looks at me and says, “Watch.”
He takes a bag of Quaaludes from his glove box. He pulls out a pill and holds it up. All these girls stop and watch. “Quaalude,” he says. That’s the only word in English he knew, and it was all he needed. He throws the bag of pills in the air. It rains Quaaludes in our car. The girls start jumping in to grab them. It would be like if you went fishing and the tuna jumped into your boat. He fills the car with college girls and says to me — in Spanish — “Now, let’s go fuck these bitches.”
Fabito drives to an apartment tower near the Omni, a high-end mall they’d just built in Miami. The girls are already pilled-out by the time we get up to his apartment. It is a nice place high up with a view. The only furnishings are a couple of couches, a stereo, and a blender in the kitchen. Fabito goes right to the blender and mixes ice, booze, and fistfuls of Quaaludes. The girls drink down the knockout cocktails, while we all laugh and listen to disco music.
Half an hour later everybody’s nude, having a good time, when one of these doped-up college girls opens her eyes wide and says, “I want to go back to school.”
She crawls over to one of her girlfriends and says, “Let’s go.”
Fabito says, “I’m gonna help this girl out of here.”
This girl is so stoned, she don’t know where she is. Fabito picks her up and carries her out to the balcony. I think he’s going to give her some fresh air, but he takes her to the railing.
Fabito says, “Jon, is it OK if I throw her off?”
“Bro, are you nuts?”
“Nobody will know. I can do anything.”
“OK, Fabito. You’re the host. It’s your house. If you want to throw the girl off the balcony, knock yourself out.”
Fabito drops the girl onto the railing. Her naked ass is hanging out over 10 stories of air. The only thing keeping her from flipping backward is her arms holding Fabito’s neck. I guess he took pity on her because he yanked her forward onto the terrace. She hit so hard, the floor shook. I’m sure she woke up later with a big bruise, not knowing how she got it or how lucky she was to have it.
Fabito’s mind was clear. He says, “Let’s go. I’ll have Pancho come over and clean up the girls.”
Soon as we get in Fabito’s car, he says, “Jon, I like you. You understand the kind of person I am.”
What happened that night built trust between us. Fabito saw I wouldn’t have judged him if he’d thrown the girl off the building. I would have been uptight about being tied to a murder. But I had no heart for the girl. Fabito knew how I was now.
For the first time, we talked business. Fabito says, “I’m going to tell you who I am. I’m the guy that’s going to get you all the coke you ever needed.”
EW: Roberts impressed Fabito early on by paying off nearly a half-dozen police in the tiny municipality of North Bay Village, next door to Miami Beach. Under Roberts’s influence, the cops not only helped unload coke shipments from the Medellín cartel at the police docks, they also provided their own homes as stash houses. “There is no place safer to store your coke than a cop’s house,” Roberts observed. Eventually, his police cohorts ended up in federal prison, but by then Roberts had moved on and up.
To launder money, he founded a racehorse stable and, to his surprise, began dominating at tracks across the country. He built a rambling ranch north of Miami that he shared with a Ford Agency model he was dating, exotic birds, a cougar that slept in his bed, and a Doberman attack dog with gold fangs — though Roberts explains, “I didn’t put them in for looks. My dog broke his fangs in a fight with an alligator, and I had a cokehead dentist build him the gold implants.”
Roberts’s secret weapon in running the cartel’s smuggling operations was an unassuming, self-admitted Florida redneck named Mickey Munday, who was a self-taught technical genius. Says Roberts: “I dealt with the people — Pablo Escobar, the Ochoas, the guys in the street — but Mickey made it all work.” Munday ran the network of airfields, radio rooms, and dozens of planes, boats, and specially modified smuggling vehicles that defied the U.S. government’s “war on drugs” for the better part of a decade.
Mickey didn’t belong in my world. He didn’t do cocaine. He didn’t swear. He used Boy Scout words like “gee whiz.” He lived with his mom. He’ll tell you he had his own apartment, but there was no furniture in it. For a while he had a skinny little girlfriend. The two of them would ride up on Mickey’s motorcycle and step off in their matching white jeans and their blond hair. They looked like they might have been out hunting unicorns together. You’d never imagine this guy was the technical mastermind of the Medellín cartel. But that was part of his true genius.
Mickey had two mottoes: “If it rolls, floats, or flies, I can make it go faster” and “You can never have too much horsepower.” He made his own smuggling boats, cars, and planes. He’d customized this green Continental for my partner, Max. It was an ugly piece-of-shit Lincoln with a landau top — vinyl over the roof — like old people drove back then. But when you opened the trunk, it was so deep you could have stood a midget in there and closed the lid. Mickey had deepened it by taking out the gas tank and hiding it under the backseat. The engine was a blown-out monster, and the car had special air shocks that jacked up the rear when you put a load in it. It could drive with a half-ton of cocaine and look normal.
Mickey had all kinds of tricks. He would run tourist flights from Miami to the Bahamas. He’d pay girls to go on chartered tours. He and his pilot would dress in uniforms and fly these girls to a luxury hotel. When the girls checked in, Mickey and the pilot would fly out and smuggle drugs for four days. Then they’d clean the plane, put on their uniforms, pick up the girls, and fly them back to Miami. Nobody ever inspected the planes because they were part of a legitimate tour company.
Sometimes the Colombians would put thousands of kilos of coke on a fishing trawler and send it into the Gulf of Mexico. Then we’d send speedboats out to unload it. Mickey built boats that were so ugly, I guarantee you, no girl would get on them, with or without Quaaludes. But he put huge engines in them and secret cargo holds. Mickey was so sure of his creations that one time, when he was driving in a load of coke and saw a Coast Guard boat having engine trouble, he threw the guys a line and towed them in. This with a half-ton onboard.
What put us over the top was Mickey’s listening in on government radios. He recorded them 24 hours a day. We knew when the Customs Service and Coast Guard were sending patrols and where. If they were going south, we went north. If one day they were looking for a red smuggling plane, we made sure to fly only green planes. And Mickey put spotters everywhere. He had people watching Homestead Air Base, where the Customs Service flew its jets, to tell us how many were in the sky. He had people watching their docks.
One of the greatest things Mickey did was situate secret landing fields in the last place anybody expected them: government property. Mickey landed most of our coke at old Nike missile bases that the Air Force had abandoned in the 1970s. What a twisted guy. We were almost unbeatable together. Almost.
EW: In smuggling drugs, Roberts told me, he had found his true life passion: “It was beating the U.S. government. That got me off harder than anything I’d ever done. I was never addicted to coke, but I definitely got hooked on smuggling it.” That addiction, of course, would lead to his downfall. Even after his indictment for cocaine trafficking in the mid-1980s, he and Mickey continued to make fools of the federal government. Both evaded arrest and lived as fugitives for the better part of a decade. After Roberts’s capture in 1992, his prison sentence of three years was itself a mockery of American justice.
Despite being a self-confessed sociopath, Roberts claims he doesn’t want his son, whom he fathered in 2000, to turn out like he did. Which is one of his reasons for telling his life story. “The important thing,” he told me, “is my son will know the truth about me.”
He adds, “Just because I love my son doesn’t make me a good person. If there is a heaven and hell, I know where I’m going. I anticipate that here on Earth, I will not have a pleasant time dying. I’m going to suffer because of what I’ve done to people in life. But I’m not worried. When I get to hell, I expect Satan will take good care of me. I’ve worked for him my whole life.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of Men’s Journal.