Jon Pernell Roberts (June 21, 1948 – December 28, 2011), born John Riccobono, was a noted drug trafficker and government informant, operated in the Miami area and was an associate of Colombia's Medellín Cartel during the growth phase in cocaine trafficking, 1975–1985. After his arrest, he was able to avoid a lengthy prison sentence by becoming a cooperating witness and proactive informant for the federal government. He was the author with Evan Wright of American Desperado.
Roberts was born in New York City to a Sicilian American father and non-Italian mother. His father Nat Riccobono had earlier moved with his brothers from Sicily and made a living through involvement with various shady businesses throughout New York in the late 1940s. After being apprehended by police for kidnapping, Roberts was given an opportunity to expunge his record with military service. Roberts claims to have served with the 101st Airborne for four years in Vietnam, though no records could be found proving his military service. In his book American Desperado, he claims he moved to Miami because both the mafia and law enforcement were after him because he was suspected in the murder of a police officer.
Introduction to the Medellín Cartel
As demand for cocaine increased, Roberts found his Cuban suppliers unable to meet his demand. Through Roberts' girlfriend, he met Mickey Munday. Munday was a trafficker who introduced Roberts to Medellín agent Rafael "Rafa" Cardona Salazar. At first, Munday was apprehensive of Roberts, who had driven up in a black Mercedes Benz, which Munday described as having "drug dealer written all over it". He also stated that Roberts' flashy car and flamboyant lifestyle made Roberts look like "someone I wanted nothing to do with".
Nevertheless, Roberts and Munday began working under the supervision of Max Mermelstein, who had an agreement with Salazar to manage the transportation of cocaine from Colombia to Miami. He then oversaw the delivery of the loads to cartel safehouses in the Miami area. Roberts was able to increase his monthly cocaine business through this direct connection. Mermelstein and Munday established the routes for trips to Colombia, using boats, tow truck companies, safehouses, and airstrips, thereby setting up an effective transportation route for the cartel. Roberts claims to have made over $100 million USD dealing cocaine during this period. He spent $50 million of that money on his extravagant lifestyle. In the book American Desperado Roberts claims he had $150 million in a Panamanian bank, over $50 million invested in real estate and businesses, as well as several million in cash hidden in various safe houses and hiding spaces.
In American Desperado, Roberts describes: "After I made my first big score selling coke to Bernie Levine in California, Danny Mones told me racehorses were a good way to launder money." He and Danny Mones "started Mephisto Stables in 1977".
In Chapter 62 of the book, Roberts recounts a variety of processes by which he used horses to launder money. Additionally, "[He] also learned how to fix races. There were many tricks."
Also in chapter 62, Roberts describes another benefit to horses: "Dealing cocaine had promoted me into high society. Owning racehorses took me into the stratosphere." He recounts prominent people he met through his racehorse connections, such as "Judge Joe Johnson, who hosted horse auctions", and through him, "We got friendly with Cliff Perlman, who owned Caesar's Palace. When I'd go to Caesar's and get comped, everybody assumed it was because of my Mafia connections. No, I was connected to Caesar's Palace by a Kentucky judge." Through the same circle, "We ended up becoming friends with Al Tannenbaum and his girlfriend, Gloria. Al was a guy who'd made it big in stereos."
He describes a particular horse in the epigraph to his book:
- Desperado, the horse that I thought would win the Derby and make me famous as something more than a gangster, was a baby when I got him. He hadn't been trained how to run, but he could already fly on the grass. He had good instincts. He didn't like other horses. You don't want a sociable horse. They stay in the pack. You want a horse who likes to run in front of all the other horses. Desperado was a killer. I named him Desperado because I saw myself in his eyes.
Roberts also describes an honest jockey he had hired, and that jockey's demise:
- At Calder, I had a jockey named Nick Navarro who worked for me. He was one of the good guys. He wouldn't hold horses or charge them or run them on dope. He was very skilled, and when I ran my horses clean, I used Nick.
- One day in 1977 [sic] he ran a race for me at Calder. I walked up to him after he finished. He put his hand up to wave, and there was a powerful explosion. A bolt of lightning came out of the sky and hit him.
Multiple news outlet reports support Jon's recollection, except they fix the date one year later. As they document: on December 28, 1978, jockey Niconar "Nick" Navarro was killed by a direct lightning strike after completing the second race at Calder Race Course. The remaining eight races at the track that day were cancelled.
Mermelstein acted as high-level trafficker working under cartel member Salazar and with the Munday transportation group. He was apprehended in 1985 by Miami Police as a multi-kilo dealer. Mermelstein was implicated by a California trafficker who gave information to the DEA in return for a lighter sentence; this trafficker was busted along with John DeLorean during a 25-kilo cocaine sting. Mermelstein then turned state's witness against the Medellín Cartel and supplied information that lead to the dismemberment of Medellín in Miami. On the morning of September 20, 1986, a little over a year after Mermelstein's arrest, the DEA (in conjunction with local and federal authorities) raided sites across Florida used to store and transport cocaine by Munday and Roberts. Roberts was arrested and then went on the run, becoming a fugitive living in Colombia and other parts of the world. He was later apprehended and became a cooperating witness and proactive informant for the federal government.
Later years and death
According to his ex-wife and various other sources, Roberts used his past to gain trust within the criminal community and report their activities to the authorities in order to maintain his prison-free status. Others have also accused Roberts of being a confidential informant; one of the Fort Lauderdale police officers who arrested him in 1997 for stalking an ex-girlfriend, possession of a firearm, and resisting arrest with violence testified he "found out later he's been a snitch or something. He was a CI [confidential informant] for somebody."
Former mega-smuggler Jon Roberts, who flooded Miami with $2 billion worth of cocaine in the '80s, naps away his days in a quiet lakefront Hollywood home. But soon, if what he says is true, a book, a high-octane movie, and videogame contracts will again make him a player. But he doesn't want you to know this. He's worried this article could spoil the publicity for his book deal. When I told him last week this story would be published, the craggy, gray-mustached ex-gangster vowed, "You will never write another word in this town again... I will go on TV and tell them everything in your article is bold-faced lies. I hope you get hit by a truck, you little scumbag."
"The outburst is in character with Roberts' gangster-flick biography, which he described in an on-the-record interview before changing his mind about publication".
In 2011, Garcia-Roberts interviewed Roberts' American Desperado co-author Evan Wright for a Miami New Times article (coincidentally dated one month before Roberts' death). In the article, titled "American Desperado: Co-Author Evan Wright on Coke Cowboy Jon Roberts' Memoir", the two authors discuss the book as well as their impressions and experiences when interviewing Roberts. For example, they share that Roberts was not completely reformed in his later days:
Garcia-Roberts: In the book, you write that Jon--who as a felon is not allowed to have guns--showed you silencers he kept buried in his backyard. One of his dogs regularly killed other dogs and cats in the neighborhood. Were you ever afraid during your time staying with Jon in Hollywood?
Wright: Jon doesn't live in Hollywood anymore, and he's very sick, so I think I can say this. My most uncomfortable moment came when I was doing an interview, and he gets a call. He says, "Oh, that's my police friends. They're selling me some unmarked guns."
- Roberts, Jon; Wright, Evan (2011). American Desperado. Crown Publishing Group. ISBN 9780307450425. Missing or empty
- "From Mafia Soldier To Cocaine Cowboy". All Things Considered. October 30, 2011.
- Corben, Billy (director); Spellman, Alfred (producer) (2006). Cocaine Cowboys.
- Jon Roberts and Evan Wright (November 1, 2011). American Desperado. Crown. ISBN 978-0-307-45042-5.
- "Florida Annual Report: Mephisto Stable, Inc.". November 19, 2011. Retrieved May 15, 2012.
- "Obituaries: Alvin Tanenbaum, 63, Electronics Executive". The New York Times. June 26, 1991. Retrieved May 15, 2012.
- "Jockey Killed by Lightning". St. Petersburg Times. December 29, 2012. Retrieved May 15, 2012.
- Post Wire Services (December 29, 1978). "Jockey Killed by Lightning". The Palm Beach Post. Retrieved May 15, 2012.
- Garcia-Roberts, Gus (June 25, 2009). "Jon Roberts: Cracked Cowboy: Threats, violence, and kilos of coke are just the start for this cocaine cowboy". Miami New Times. Retrieved May 12, 2012.
- Gus Garcia-Roberts (November 23, 2011). "American Desperado: Co-Author Evan Wright On Coke Cowboy Jon Roberts' Memoir". Miami New Times. Retrieved May 12, 2012.
- "Desperado at twilight". Sun-Sentinel. December 29, 2011.
- Garcia-Roberts, Gus. "Jon Roberts, Smuggler in Cocaine Cowboys, Dies", Miami New Times, Miami, 29 December 2011. Retrieved December 29, 2011.