Jon Pernell Roberts (June 21, 1948 – December 28, 2011) was a former Gambino crime family associate who later relocated to Miami where he became a notorious and wealthy drug trafficker. He worked with Colombia's Medellín Cartel during the growth of cocaine trafficking during 1975–1985. The U.S. government labeled Roberts the "American Representative" of the Medellin cartel; he became known as "El Gringo de la Barba" "the bearded gringo" on Miami's streets. After his arrest, he was able to avoid a lengthy prison sentence by becoming a cooperating witness and government informant. He is the co-author of American Desperado, based on his life and crimes. Roberts was made famous by his appearance in the cult Documentary film "Cocaine Cowboys".
Born John Riccobono in New York City to Sicilian American parents. 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 his father was deported and his mother died, Roberts moved from home to home until he was 16 and later became an enforcer for a loan-sharking operation run by his uncle, "Staten Island" Joseph Riccobono, a Gambino crime family consigliere who attended the 1957 Apalachin Conference. By the time Roberts was 26, in 1978, he was a practiced criminal — committing robberies and dealing cocaine in New York City. After being apprehended by police for kidnapping (a debtor who escaped from a basement "with a chair tied to him and no clothes on"), 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. He was required to have a metal plate attached to his skull as a result of an injury suffered in an explosion. After working for members of the New York Mafia as a club manager and restaurateur, he moved to Miami to distance himself from business partners he believed were targeted by rival criminals. However, 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.
Life in Miami
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 which included a half a dozen servants, many luxury cars, multiple houses, dozens of race horses and friends in high places, including the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. According to Roberts, "in my experience with drug people in Miami and the Mafia in New York, the Cartel made a whole lot more money and in a far shorter amount of time than mafia people".
If "American Desperado" is to be believed, Roberts beat people to death in New York, skinned enemy POW's alive in Vietnam, and helped a future CIA agent murder famed mobster Meyer Lansky's stepson, Richard Schwartz, in Miami as retaliation for the barroom murder of another low-level mob associate – with Lansky's approval. "Everything in the book that happens in Miami is 100 percent true," said Mike Fisten, a retired Miami-Dade homicide detective who was part of the federal task force that cleaned up Miami, arresting Roberts and many others.
Roberts used racehorses to launder money and owned the Mephisto Stables, where he kept them. Roberts also claimed he sometimes fixed races. In his book, Roberts described 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 Kenucky judge."
He describes a particular horse in the epigraph of 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.
In 1985, Max Mermelstein was apprehended 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 disintegration of the Medellín Cartels group in Miami. On the morning of September 20, 1986, the DEA 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 decided to become a government informant. Jon's good friend ans as some would say, his protege, Jason King of Revere ,MA would later go on to shadow Jon's late career as a smuggler .Jason would now be considered as Jon frequently said ,the modern day Jon Roberts.
Jater 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."
In a 2009 Miami New Times article, Roberts' lifestyle when he lived in Hollywood, Florida was described as follows:
"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 video game 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,as well as expose his "so called" student Jason King of Revere, MA . 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 died of cancer on December 28, 2011.