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From Mafia Soldier To Cocaine Cowboy

Originally published on October 30, 2011 4:42 pm

Jon Roberts was born into the Mafia.

His father, Nat Riccobono, and his uncles came to New York City from Sicily and made money by running 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 joined his uncles in the Mafia.

By the time Roberts was 26, in 1978, he was a practiced criminal — committing robberies and dealing cocaine in New York City; but he was getting bored. That's when he moved to Miami and started working with the Colombians, importing cocaine.

"It was organized, it wasn't a slap affair like you saw on the TV with bombs going off," Roberts tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

Roberts, who was featured in the 2006 documentary Cocaine Cowboys, just released a book he co-wrote with journalist Evan Wright called American Desperado: My Life — from Mafia Soldier to Cocaine Cowboy to Secret Government Asset.

Murder In The Mafia And Murder In Vietnam

When Roberts was 7 years old, he witnessed his father commit murder.

"There were mornings when my father would take me to school ... and some mornings he chose not to take me."

On one of those mornings, when Roberts' father decided he was too busy to drop his son off at school, they were in the car heading toward a single-lane bridge when another car began to cross.

"[My father] decided to make the other guy back up, and the other guy must have refused," Roberts recalls. "The next thing I saw was a flash, and he had shot the guy in the head. He told the bodyguard to get in the car, they backed the other car off the bridge, and we just drove on and went about our day."

Roberts says that moment changed him, but it wasn't until he was a soldier in Vietnam that killing became a norm.

"When you see your best friend get stuck in the back with a knife from some lady that's like 30 years old, and you see a little boy like 10 years old shoot your friend, your values change a little bit," he says.

"Nobody really controlled us. And eventually after you do this for a while, you decide you're pretty much your own boss," he says. "And to me it was an education in how to do things."

Miami Lifestyle

Roberts returned from Vietnam to New York with screws and a metal plate in his head — the aftermath of an explosion. By the time he was 20, he was one of New York's biggest nightclub impresarios, rubbing shoulders with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to John Lennon.

But after a business partner turned up dead and an informant told the police Roberts was involved, he hightailed it to sunny Miami. The year was 1975.

"When I first came to Miami, I wasn't smuggling: I was like all the other dealers on the street just trying to make a living, and it got to a point where I had so much business that these people just couldn't supply me," he says.

That's when Roberts shifted from being a drug dealer to a drug importer for the Colombian Medellin cartel.

Importing paid well: By the end of 1976, Roberts says he was moving 50 kilos of cocaine worth $500,000 or more a month. Roberts was living it up: He had half a dozen servants, a Porsche, multiple houses, dozens of race horses and friends in high places, including the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

The U.S. government labeled Roberts the "American Representative" of the Medellin cartel; he became known as "the bearded gringo" on Miami's streets.

Roberts and a few American partners created a highly advanced drug-smuggling system that included secret airfields, listening posts to eavesdrop on Coast Guard communications, and homing beacons for tracking cocaine shipped by sea.

"We ended up getting, up by Tampa, a 450-acre farm and it was all surrounded by trees and we put two runways in there and we put hangars in for the planes to go in," Roberts says.

Their drug-smuggling schemes stymied the U.S. government for nearly a decade.

The End Of The Line

In the late 1980s, one of Roberts' associates ratted him and several other people out to the government. Roberts immediately went into hiding.

For five years, he evaded the police, but they caught up with him in 1992 and charged him with overseeing the importation of billions of dollars of cocaine. Roberts was able to avoid a lengthy prison sentence by becoming a cooperating witness and informant for the federal government.

When he was released from prison in 2000, he says he had no plans. He worked at the old Beachcomber Hotel on Miami Beach and went looking for the money he had hidden in various locations around the city. It was all gone.

That same year, Roberts became a father. Today, he tells NPR's Raz that he wants his son to take away an important lesson from his memoir.

"I want him to realize that I went about doing things the wrong way," he says. "That's not to say to you that if I had my life to live over again that I would have changed it, but that what I did was wrong."

Roberts lives with his wife, Naomi, and his son Julian in Florida. He has fourth-stage terminal cancer.

"I've talked to my son and I don't know if I'm going to live a month, a week, I don't know what I'm going to live," he says. "But I wanted him to take away from this that he's got to go a different path than I went in life."

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Our book today reads like a film, an over-the-top, totally implausible action film, except in the case of Jon Roberts, all true. He was born the son of a mobster. At 17, he was committing war crimes in Vietnam. In his 20s, Roberts became one of New York's most important nightclub impresarios, and by his 30s, one of the biggest cocaine smugglers in America.

Jon Roberts tells his story in a new book he co-wrote with journalist Evan Wright. It's called "American Desperado." And when I talked with the two of them, Jon Roberts said he was thrown into the world of violence early on. One morning when he was just 7 years old, his father was supposed to be driving him to school.

JON ROBERTS: And there was this bridge, which one car at a time can fit across, and that's it. And we pulled up to the bridge and there was a guy about maybe a quarter of the way into the bridge, and my father decided that we were late and he wanted to get going, whatever he had on his schedule. And he just pulled onto the bridge and decided to make the other guy back up.

The other guy must have refused. The next thing I saw was a flash, and he had shot the guy in the head. He told the bodyguard to get in the car. They backed the other car off the bridge, and we just drove on and went about our day.

RAZ: You say in the book, seeing that changed you. I think that must be an understatement. I imagine it would have changed anybody. You were just a kid and your father murdered somebody in cold blood.

ROBERTS: When I saw this happen, and it affected me in a way that it really didn't affect me. It happened, and that was it. I didn't have any bad dreams about it. I woke up the next day and I was more anxious to hang out with my father than I was to go to school.

RAZ: You eventually spent several years as a teenager in and out of trouble and you wound up in the army. And a big part of this book early on describes your experiences in Vietnam. You said that for me, Vietnam was extraordinary. You could - there were no rules. You could kill people. I mean, is that the way you thought of it?

ROBERTS: That's the way I thought of it, and that's the way it was presented to me. Nobody really controlled us. And eventually after you do this for a while, you decide pretty much you're your own boss. And to me, it was an education in how to do things, and it made it a lot easier. I saw all the things in life, which made my further life easier for me.

RAZ: Jon, you have described yourself as a sociopath, but clearly, you understand - understood that the things that you did over there were wrong. I mean, you were killing women and children.

ROBERTS: Well, maybe to you, they're wrong, but I don't know if you were there or not and I don't know what you saw.

RAZ: Well, I'm saying...

ROBERTS: Maybe to you, in your opinion, you think what I did was wrong, but when you see your best friend get stuck in the back with a knife from some lady that's like, you know, 30 years old and you see a little boy like 10 years old shoot your friend, your values change a little bit.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. I'm not questioning whether it was right or wrong in the context at the time. But you say in the book, the sickest part of it was we enjoyed it. In other words, you're implying that you shouldn't have enjoyed it.

ROBERTS: Well, you get pretty sick over there. I mean, imagine to live in, you know, in a jungle all that time, not coming in contact with normal people, not speaking the language that these people speak. And in a way, you know, I don't want to sound sick now, but as, you know, it just became enjoyment.

RAZ: Do you - did you ever have nightmares about what happened there? Did it ever come back with you? Or were you able to, as you were when you were 7, go to sleep at night and move on?

ROBERTS: No. I had nightmares. My wife - we have an extra bedroom in the house. There were many nights I would sweat profusely, turn, toss, and she couldn't even bear to sleep in the bed with me.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Evan Wright and Jon Roberts. They co-wrote the book "American Desperado: My Life-from Mafia Soldier to Cocaine Cowboy to Secret Government Asset." Jon Roberts, you ended up in Miami in the mid-1970s and you soon got involved in drug smuggling with the Colombian cartel, the Medellin cartel. How did that happen? How did you get involved with them?

ROBERTS: Well, what happened when I first came to Miami, I wasn't smuggling. I was just like, you know, all the other dealers in the street just trying to make a living. And it got to a point where I had so much business that these people couldn't supply me, and I started importing it rather than selling it because there was a much better profit in it and it was a much cleaner business than having to go out in the street and worry about your money and everything else.

RAZ: In the book, you say that by the end of 1976, you were moving 50 kilos of coke or more a month. That's worth about - worth then about half a million dollars. You were clearing up to 30 percent of that in profit. You were living like a king in Miami at the time. I mean, you had, what, six servants, a Porsche, several houses, race horses. And you eventually hook up with the notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. What was your role? What were you in charge of in Miami?

ROBERTS: I would make the arrangements to bring the drugs. In other words, I would say we had a truck over here. I'm using a truck; it was a plane. And that plane would know where to go to pick up 1,000 kilos and bring them back to the United States. And it was organized. It wasn't a slap affair like you saw on the TV with bombs going off. The less violence there was around you, the better your business could be because it brought less heat to you.

RAZ: In the book, Jon, you describe how you and one of your partners, a man named Mickey Munday, right?

ROBERTS: Yes, that's correct.

RAZ: How you went to these extraordinary lengths to smuggle drugs into Florida, and he was almost like a MacGyver kind of figure.

ROBERTS: Yes, he was. He was a MacGyver figure. He could, you know, take a plane and he could describe to you from the first screw you would put into the plane to the last screw to build the plane. You know, he would do all the mechanical work. He was just amazing.

RAZ: I mean, you bought helicopters and found sites to land airplanes carrying cocaine on federal land.

ROBERTS: Yeah. We did that in the beginning, but that was just until we ended up getting up by Tampa a 450-acre farm, and we put two runways in there and we put hangars in for the planes to go in, and we stopped landing on the federal preserve and we were landing there. But Mickey's operation here, you have to understand, was like only 500 kilos. I was working with a man by the name of Barry Seal. And Barry was bringing 1,000 to 1,200 kilos at a time back for me.

RAZ: Evan Wright, when you think about your role as a journalist, I wonder whether you have concerns. I mean, the subject of your book, Jon Roberts, is somebody with a very checkered past. He's served time in prison. He's been charged with battery and grand theft. And, of course, there's murder in his background. Did you ever worry - or do you ever worry that you might be glorifying some of that?

EVAN WRIGHT: I, you know, as a journalist, I don't worry so much about glory. I worry more about the facts. And what I did in this book, which is kind of unusual, is I extensively footnoted it with my own research, which at times even challenges Jon's account. As far as the glory, you know, we live in a culture where the top entertainment is "The Sopranos" and, before that, movies like "Goodfellas." So I thought Jon had an important story to tell. And near the end, I explored Jon's relationship with his son and his attempts to be a good father.

Jon, what do you want your son - he's now 11 or 12 years old?

ROBERTS: Eleven.

RAZ: Eleven. What do you want him to take away from this book when he eventually reads it?

ROBERTS: I want him to realize that I went about doing things in the wrong way. That's not to say to you that if I had my life to live over again that I would have changed it, but that what I did was wrong, which he already knows. I've talked to him. I don't know if you know it or not, but I'm dying. I have four stage terminal cancer. So I've talked to my son.

And, you know, I don't know if I'm going to live a month, a week, or what I'm going to live, but I wanted him to take away from this that he's got to go a different path than I went in life.

RAZ: That's Jon Roberts. He is the subject of a book he co-wrote with journalist Evan Wright. It's called "American Desperado: My Life-from Mafia Soldier to Cocaine Cowboy to Secret Government Asset."

Jon Roberts, Evan Wright, thank you so much.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.