Tag Archives: Jon Roberts

Style

I’ve talked before about how I’m fascinated with the idea of the illicit drug business. I like the double lives the dealers and importers lead. Even the cops who work that as their beat—from the DEA to the local vice cops—generally are leading double lives. Then there’s the whole thing of secret meetings in out-of-the-way places, everybody there already paranoid, and most of them taking their own product doesn’t help.

Would I want to live in that world? Absolutely not. But it’s great looking at it from the outside.

Style, man. That’s what they have. You can watch the fictional version, with Miami Vice being one of the more

Don Johnson epitomizing the dress style that b...

well-known examples, or you can get into the reality with documentaries like Cocaine Cowboys, which chronicles the times the original Miami Vice made famous: the Cocaine Wars of South Florida in the late seventies and early eighties.

You got expensive cars. Sonny Crockett drove Ferraris on TV, Jon Roberts preferred Porches and Mercedes in real life. They had expensive clothes, with Sonny doing the Armani thing, and I’m not sure what Jon wore, but they were flashy.

Of course, we’re talking about opposite sides here. Sonny Crockett was a fictional vice cop. Jon Roberts was a very real importer for the Medellín Cartel. According to his own estimate, in a roughly six year period, he burned thorough some one hundred fifty million dollars. He bought seven or eight Mercedes a year. He and his girlfriend Toni once trashed two in a fight with one another. He called someone the next day to haul them off and they went and bought a couple more.

Miami-vice-car-b2

Expensive cars. High-end clothing. Exclusive clubs. It’s the kind of setting I’d like to write about sometime. Mostly because, at the very least, I don’t have to keep track of my characters’ budgets. And who knows? Maybe I will someday.

But then again, maybe not. My style seems to be different. No matter how much I might admire the films and TV shows based on this—and the flashy style they convey—my fiction is, for the most part, rooted closer to home. My characters tend to be more down to earth…and a lot poorer.

Take the characters in my forthcoming book Spree. Yeah, they go through a considerable amount of money during the story, and end up with a goodly sum at the end, with the prospect of more to come. But when it starts out, they’re just scraping by, a couple of two-strike losers looking at doing some serious time if they screw up again. Like a lot of people these days, they’re one paycheck away from living on the street. In fact, Steve has spent a lot of his life there.

And then there’s Lyle, the central character in my Rural Empires setting. When we first meet him, he’s already around forty, and he’s spent almost twenty years in a factory job when he’s confronted with the specter of leukemia in his daughter. If not for that, he probably would have lived his life out working the factory job and dealing with his divorce. Pretty Joe Average kind of stuff. And even after he makes a ton of money distributing meth, his lifestyle doesn’t change that much. He spends a lot of money carting his daughter around the world seeing if there’s some way to get her to walk again, only stopping when she insists. It’s the kind of thing most of us would do for our kids.

And I think that’s why I might not ever write about the characters I mentioned above: I’ve never led a life with expensive clothes, cars, and houses. I’ve struggled to make ends meet for as long as I can remember. Seems like I’m always watching people around me slowly build their fortunes, or at least achieve a level of being comfortable, but I don’t even have a retirement account right now.

I’m not looking for pity. I’m just saying I can’t easily relate to driving around in sports cars and needing a machine to count my money. I can’t imagine my biggest problem being finding a way to avoid paying taxes on the proceeds from my latest drug deal.

But I think, in a lot of ways, that means I write characters readers can more readily identify with. Even Eddie and Steve, career criminals that they are, are more relatable than someone like, say, Tony Montana is. We like Scarface because, in the end, we see a guy get what’s coming to him. He lived a life of excess and danger, and made tons of money. But he was still a psychopathic killer who cared pretty much for only one person: Tony Montana. So when he takes that coke-addled, bullet-ridden plunge into the pool at the end, we’re a little sad, but we nod to ourselves and think he got his just desserts.

But Steve Wilson, or Lyle Villines, they’re just a couple guys trying to make it in the world. One is a criminal, one becomes one to take care of his child. The first one comes to regret his life of crime and seeks a way out. The other one does his best to abandon his life of crime at the earliest opportunity, only to find it keeps pulling him back in.

Alfred Hitchcock was famous for making movies that involved men who were out of their element, but had to deal with

Cover of "North by Northwest"

it. I just watched North by Northwest the other night, and that’s exactly what Cary Grant was in that movie: a man out of his natural element. But as the movie progresses, he adapts to the reality he finds himself in and even excels at it.

That’s what I try to do with Lyle. Working in the drug distribution business was never on his list of things he wanted to achieve in life, but he finds that he’s good at it. And has a disturbing ability to deal with the violence that goes along with it. Much to his dismay.

Will I write a slick Miami Vice-style novel someday? I hope. I still think it would be great to pull one off, if only as an homage to something I love. But for the most part, I imagine I’ll stick to what I do best: taking some poor schmuck and plunking him down in a setting he never imagined to find himself in. And in that way, I’ll make my own style.

One I’m happy with.

Later,
Gil

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American Desperado

My initial interest in crime started back around 2000 or so, when I started reading books about serial killers. Maybe this stemmed from reading Red Dragon when I was a teenager. I don’t know. But I got tired of reading about the killers after a while. I still dabbled in it from time to time, but not like I had in my initial burst of interest.

I do that with a lot of thing, so I didn’t think much of it.

But the interest in crime was apparently still there. I reluctantly began reading crime novels that took place in LA a couple years back because my daughter lives out there and it made me feel closer to her, in a weird way. The thinking was, if I couldn’t go out and visit her regularly, I could at least read stories that took place there.

That’s what led me Robert Crais, T. Jefferson Parker and some as yet unread Raymond Chandler novels.

Then you throw all that in with being a fan of Miami Vice. I’d pick up books that took place in Florida by authors as diverse as James W. Hall and Carl Hiassen. But the real interest there was what I think of as the Cocaine Cowboys days of the late 70s/early 80s. That’s where Miami Vice comes in, as well as Scarface and even Blow.

Miami in those days is a lot like the Chicago of the 30s, except instead of Mafia wiseguys making money off Prohibition, it’s Colombian cartels and their American colleagues importing drugs—chiefly cocaine—and getting filthy stinking rich off it. There was the same excess, the same debauchery, the same set of corrupt officials. This era fascinated me, partly, I supposed, because I lived through it. The 80s are to me what the 60s were to aging hippies. That’s when I came into my own, learned about the larger world, all that. That’s when I had that most interesting time of my youth, the part I look back on and miss in many ways.

When I began research into meth for my Lyle Villines novels, I started looking at documentary DVDs and books. One of the DVDs I discovered as a result was the documentary Cocaine Cowboys. Even though it wasn’t concerned with meth, I got it anyway because it did center on something of interest to me.

One of the characters interviewed for Cocaine Cowboys is a guy named Jon Roberts. Jon and his partner Mickey Munday imported the bulk of the Medellín Cartel. The stories these two tell are practically unbelievable—except that, they’re so out-there you have to believe them. I mean, how could you make this kind of thing up? Jon and his girlfriend, the model Toni Moon, getting mad at one another and destroying two Mercedes cars, then laughing about it the next morning. And buying two more Mercedes. Mickey—a real-life McGuyver—talking about buying a twin-prop airplane for over $900,000 in cash after having to ditch one just like it when law enforcement got too close.

All this and more is talked about in the book I just read, American Desperado: My Life—from Mafia Soldier to Cocaine Cowboy to Secret Government Asset by Jon Roberts and Evan Wright.

I learned about it when NPR had Mr. Roberts and Mr. Wright on for an interview about the book. The ways it’s written is different from most of these kind of books. Most of it is told by Jon, but Evan tried to document everything that he could, and most of it matches up. Of course, Jon was a criminal his whole life—he witnessed his father kill a man when he was seven—and criminals don’t exactly document their doings with the idea of writing their memoirs when they’re older.

One of the things that kept going through my head while I read this was that it almost seems as though Jon is bragging about what he’s done. But, hey, who wouldn’t? The Cocaine Cowboys documentary makes the claim that Jon Roberts and Mickey Munday imported $2.5 billion for the Medellín Cartel in the 80s. But, as Even Wright notes late in the book, that’s a very arbitrary number. The government estimate that Jon Roberts and Max Mermelstein—who was married into the Cartel—imported $2.3 billion is based on what Max told them. But Max didn’t know all the loads that were brought in because Jon didn’t like him. He portrays Max as a blowhard who liked to parade around and think of himself as el jefe—the boss. But because he was such a nervous Nelly, Jon didn’t let him in on all the details. The $2.3 billion estimate is a low-end one based on Max saying they brought in fifty-six tons of coke. On the high end, including flights that Jon and Mickey brought in independent of Max, the figure is $15 billion.

Whatever the true figure is, the bottom line is that these men imported about 80% of all the coke imported in the US during those years. Jon lost $150 million when the US captured Manuel Noriega in 1989. When Jon and Mickey were arrested, 250 local and federal law-enforcement personnel were involved and they hit 17 locations, seizing 12 airplanes, 21 cars and trucks, and 28 boats. Jon also owned Mephisto Stables and several expensive racehorses. In Cocaine Cowboys, Mickey says he owned whole neighborhoods.

This kind of stuff is too ridiculous to be false.

Jon was born John Riccobono in 1948, to Edie and Nat Roccobono in the Bronx. In fact, their apartment was above the Luna Restaurant, used by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather when Al Pacino kills the two guys with a pistol hidden in the restroom (in the movie the restaurant is called Louis’ Italian American Restaurant).

Jon was a Mafia blueblood (as Evan Wright calls it). His uncle Joseph was indicted in 1937 as a member of “Murder Incorporated,” a mostly Jewish syndicate ran by Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky that worked closely with the Italian Mafia. As Jon says later in the book, if you put a Jew and an Italian together, there’s gonna be a crime. His other uncle, Sam, was a capo and ran a large loan-sharking business. Father Nat, though, was the violent one: one of Lucky Luciano’s most trusted killers.

I won’t go into all the details of Jon’s biography—that’s what the book is for. But I will recommend reading this thing. Hollywood should be embarrassed that they haven’t come up with something as interesting as this. Well, actually, I’m not sure about that. If I wrote this as a crime novel, it wouldn’t be believed. Some of what happens stretches things that much, but proves the old adage of truth being stranger than fiction. Jon is the original Scarface in some ways, such as having a pet cougar named Cucha. In fact, in the extras of the Platinum Edition of Scarface, screenwriter Oliver Stone says he got a lot of the ideas for Tony Montana’s excesses from his research hanging around drug dealers in Miami in those days—including one who owned a tiger. And I think this is touched on in Cocaine Cowboys as well.

It’s an incredible, wild ride. You could read this as fiction. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t fiction. Yes, in some ways it’s Jon Roberts bragging about his life story. But to see it only that way is to possibly reveal that you’re jealous. The guy had the American Dream: houses, cars, money, racehorses, the works. But he paid for it, in a lot of ways. Who wants to be able to say they can kill somebody and it not bother them? Sure, it sounds macho, but would you really want to know you could do that? That it bothers you more to kill one of your racehorses because it broke a leg (or you doped it up till it was a mercy to kill the poor thing) than it does to kill somebody because they screwed up?

I write about that kind of world, but I don’t want to be in it. For me, it’s something to study from a distance. And if that means I’ll never be able to say I had $150 million in the bank, so be it. He had it and lost it, along with all the other toys he acquired.

And, in the end, I’m not sure if he’s as guilt-free as he likes to project. His sister Judy, who is also interviewed for the book, doesn’t think so. And Jon himself says things that makes me think maybe he’s not that way. He repeatedly points out times when someone died who should have lived, a good person. For instance, there’s an incident when he’s approaching a jockey who just on a race. This guy is one of the most beloved jockeys ever. Jon waves at the guy, and when the jockey raises his hand to wave back, he is literally struck by lightning and killed. Did God miss? I don’t know. Not if He’s perfect. But it does leave you wondering why it happened that way. And it left Jon feeling bad and asking what kind of justice there is in the world if someone like him can keep going while a good person gets killed.

Jon served a grand total of three years in prison for everything he did as an importer.

If you want to gain insight into the drug world of the 80s and what it is to grow up in a Mafia family, living like a true-life Tony Montana, read American Desperado. I think you’ll come away from it glad you did.

Later,

Gil

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A Walk on the Dark Side

Crime fascinates us. If you don’t believe me, look at all the cop shows right now, such as CSI and all the variations of it. Then there are cop movies and crime novels in all their variations. In fact, CSI has pervaded society so much that most people think that’s how crimes are solved. That’s showing up in crime fiction.

We make it glamorous, too. Think of older shows like Miami Vice, where the cops wore Armani suits and drove hot cars. The rumor for years was that the show was started by then head of NBC Brandon Tartakoff (not sure if I spelled that one right) when he scribbled “MTV Cops” on a piece of paper. The truth, while maybe not so dramatic, is still telling: show creator Anthony Yerkovich got the idea from an article about all the illicit money in Dade County from the coke trade. He combined that with the way stories were being told in videos on MTV and, for spice, threw in the federal law that allows the seizure of property used in the commission of a crime. It was this last that allowed Crockett and Tubbs to wear the suits and drive the cars, despite what detractors say. In fact, there are several times throughout the series where Crockett gripes that he doesn’t own the clothes he wears or the cars he drives.

But if you look close, you’ll see the grit, too. Yerkovich wanted Miami as a setting for another reason: its seediness. There are several episodes that concern things like pornographic movies and the sex trade in general. There’s even an episode that wasn’t shown during the regular run that centers around child molestation. NBC decided it was too graphic for prime time TV, and that episode wasn’t shown until later, during syndication.

Then, of course, there was the whole Cocaine Cowboys thing, where the Colombians were murdering one another in drug wars much like what we see happening in Mexico today. Our modern wars were started by Joaquin Guzmán, while the wars from the 80s were started by Griselda Blanco, the Godmother. In both cases, there was peace until the guilty party decided they wanted a bigger piece of the pie.

In Guzmán’s case, he had Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, the man in charge of the Ciudad Juárez border crossing points, murdered along with his wife as they visited a Culicán shopping mall. This was, somewhat ironically, in September 11, 2004.

As for Griselda Blanco, she had two Cubans killed on July 11, 1979 at the Dadeland Mall in Miami. As a woman, she had to be more vicious than the other Colombians, and the list of murders attributed to her numbers somewhere around 250.

Griselda was associated with the Medellín Cartel, though even they kept her somewhat at arm’s length. She was just too violent, and they eventually turned on her because she had Marta Ochoa killed so she wouldn’t have to pay back the Ochoas for some money she owed.

The other famous member of the Medellín Cartel, of course, was Pablo Escobar. I just finished a book about him, called  Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden, the same man who wrote Black Hawk Down. In Killing Pablo, Bowden doesn’t concern himself so much with the Cocaine Wars as he does the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar.

Escobar is commonly seen as the leader of the Medellín Cartel, though, in the documentary Cocaine Cowboys, both John Roberts and Mickey Munday, who imported something like $2 billion worth of coke for the cartel, say it was really Fabio Ochoa who ran it. Whichever is true, Pablo is the most famous and, according to Bowden’s account, was something of a linchpin for the organization. When he was killed in December of 1993, the Medellín Cartel effectively ceased to exist, supplanted by their rival, the Cali Cartel.

Bowden spends the first part of the book giving something of a capsule biography of Escobar, how he started as a street thug, mainly stealing cars. When the cocaine trade came along, he jumped at the chance. He had a thing for teenage girls, even though he was devoted to his wife and family. He was particular about his bathrooms. Every one of them in every house he lived in—after he acquired his money—was the same. He was chubby and fancied himself a man of the people.

But he became so powerful that he was, in effect, the dictatorial leader of Colombia. Toward the end, when the government, with the help of the United States, started closing in on him, he employed the use of car bombs and even blew up an airliner. This wasn’t long after the Lockerbie bombing, too, so this kind of thing was fresh on people’s minds. He subjected Colombia, and Medellín in particular, to a terrorist campaign, and many aspects of what he did reminded me of Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders.

While I read this book, it occurred to me that this aspect of crime is often overlooked in fiction. Sure, we can see the horror on the nightly news, but in our crime fiction, we overlook the underside of crime itself. Consider one of Griselda Blanco’s hitmen named Cumbamba. His trademark was that he would drain his victims of all their blood and break their bones so he could fold their bodies up and put them in boxes for disposal. These were violent people, and Griselda was responsible for the majority of the murders that took place in Miami between the years 1979 and 1982 or so. When she left, the murder rate dropped considerably. And when you consider Miami was the murder capitol of the world with a Time magazine article called “Paradise Lost” written about it, that’s saying a lot. There were 641 homicides there in 1982, and 25% of them involved death by machine gun fire.

There was lots of money involved, though. The Medellín Cartel imported 80% of the cocaine used in this country in those days. Mickey Munday transported over 38 tons of coke from Colombia to the US, and became a partner with Jon Roberts. These two were major movers in those days, and Mickey in particular seems to wonder why the Colombians wanted to ruin things by going to war with one another.

It’s the same thing the Mexican cartels are doing now. It’s all about control. He who dies with the most toys, wins. Joaquin Guzmán spent an estimated $2.5 million to escape from a maximum security Mexican prison in 2001 and, like his Medellín predecessors, is regularly listed in Forbes as one of the richest men in the world. He has lost at least one of his children, his son Edgar, to the drug wars.

I would say that most of these cartel leaders, whether Mexican or Colombian, are aware they probably won’t die of old age. But, if you look at the lives of most criminals, that’s how it is. They would rather live fast and hard and die young than do what the rest of us do and plod through life a step at a time. The late David Mac, author of the book When Money Grew on Trees, believed that certain people were just born to be criminals, and perhaps that’s true. Criminals fascinate me, and they’re why I’ve chosen to write crime novels from their point of view: it’s an effort to understand something I would never do. Stephen King wouldn’t do some of the gruesome things in his books, and I certainly have no desire to be some kind of kingpin.

But I think we need to step back occasionally and remember the dark underside of all this. As a society, we’ve chosen to make certain things illegal. And while we can argue about some of them, others are pretty much universally accepted as wrong, such as murder. Say what you want about the drugs, but when people get killed over the proceeds, folks sit up and take notice.

In Miami during the cocaine wars, bodies were showing up everywhere. Assassinations were taking place on city streets in broad daylight. If you watch Cocaine Cowboys, you’ll hear the people interviewed talking about how the Colombians would kill everybody in sight to get one person that they really wanted. One of the quotes goes something like, “If there were kids there, they’d kill them. If you owned a bird, they’d kill the bird. If you had a goldfish, they’d kill the goldfish.”

A friend of mine once said that even crime novels are fantasies. I disagreed at the time, mostly because I was talking about fantasy as a genre and my inability to write a fantasy story that satisfies me. But I’ve given it thought since then, and he’s right: as crime novelists, we find ways for our heroes—or antiheroes—to kill people and get away with it. I make a statement in Pipeline that Crockett and Tubbs were serial killers with badges, and it’s true. But we have to bend the punishment of these killings, either because our character needs to get away with it or he’s one of the “good guys” and is part of an ongoing series, such as Elvis Cole. He’s killed several people, though I do have to be fair and say Robert Crais keeps those killings to a minimum.

Sometimes, though, it can’t be helped. We want to evoke a reaction in our readers, and there’s no better way to do it than by having somebody die. And if that somebody is important to the main character and the reader, all the better.

It’s a walk on the dark side, but it sure is a lot of fun.

Later,

Gil

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