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Pick of the day: Geriatric ex-gangsters

Sometimes, there are subjects journalists and filmmakers can't resist. One of them is organized crime. Lately, it seems the only thing better than a live gangster is an old one. The more he looks and sounds like Jerry Stiller, the better.

I say this after reading a piece by Gus Garcia-Roberts about screenwriter Brett Tabor and his search for Max Mermelstein, the son of a Brooklyn store owner-turned-smuggler who pioneered the cocaine pipeline from MedellĂ­n to Miami.

Mermelstein reminded me a little of Joe DeFede, another geriatric ex-organized crime figure who retired to Florida with his wife Nancy. The couple was the subject of a New York Times story in April.

Must be something in the air.

Mermelstein holds a much larger place in the history of drug trafficking. He fell into the trade after helping relatives and friends of his Colombian wife sneak into the country. One of those friends, Rafael Cardona Salazar, was a member of the Medellin drug cartel. After Mermelstein witnessed Salazar murder an associate, he felt bound to Salazar and went to work for him.

Mermelstein was later arrested and became a government informant. He entered witness protection, along with a record number of relatives. His wife eventually divorced him and left witness protection, along with his daughter and two stepchildren. Years later, Mermelstein also quit witness protection and ended up supervising custodians and janitors at a residential complex in central Florida. He took in a battered employee, becoming a father figure to her.

He later followed her and her new husband to Kentucky. He spent his final years there going to strip clubs, flea markets and the Long Horn Steakhouse, where he was known as Papa. He died in 2008.

The Post's own Jeff Leen wrote an appreciation for Mermelstein. While working at the Miami Herald investigating drug cartels, Leen was the only reporter to ever interview Mermelstein.

As my colleague Theresa Vargas noted a few weeks back, these men come off as sympathetic characters, at least now that their bad deeds are ancient history and they are beset by the indignities of old age.

On big and small screens, gangsters have already decamped to the burbs and hit the shrink's office. If these two stories are anything to go by, the next stop is likely to be a Sunbelt retirement community.

By Annys Shin  | May 20, 2010; 9:26 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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Comments

"As my colleague Theresa Vargas noted a few weeks back, these men come off as sympathetic characters, at least now that their bad deeds are ancient history and they are beset by the indignities of old age."

No one who has ever stood in the drug ward of a public hospital and watched an addict shiver their life away in a multiple spasams of pain will ever view a coacaine smuggler with any degree of sympathy.

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | May 20, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

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