Jon Roberts’s life story is so remarkable that when you hear it, you’re bound to think, Why haven’t I heard of this person before?
Unless you saw the 2006 documentary Cocaine Cowboys, you haven’t heard of him—and even if you have seen that doc, you know only half of Roberts’s epic story. For starters, he came into this world not as Jon Pernell Roberts, but as Jon Riccobono—son of Nat Riccobono and nephew of Sam and Joe, notorious Mafia capos with roots stretching to the 1930s, Murder Inc., and Lucky Luciano. As Evan Wright, who cowrote Roberts’s recent memoir, American Desperado, puts it, Roberts “was born a Mafia blue blood.” Schooled in sociopathic ruthlessness by his father, who once murdered a stranger over a traffic dispute in front of a seven-year-old Jon, Roberts took those lessons and expanded them in the course of a bloody criminal career that included a stint as an assassin in Vietnam, an extralegal New York City nightclub entrepreneur, one of the chief American cocaine importers for the Medellín cartel, and an arms smuggler for the CIA (really).
American Desperado details these bullet points on the Roberts résumé, along with hundreds of astounding anecdotes from his life of crime involving a rogues’ gallery of prominent politicians, celebrities, outsize thugs, famous athletes, and iconic entertainers. Roberts owned multiple homes, raised racehorses, dated models and wannabe actresses (including Toni Moon, whose claim to fame is the poster for the forgotten Ryan O’Neal movie So Fine), and, in the late 1980s, escaped “the life” with a slap-on-the-wrist jail sentence and no credible enemies.
Today Roberts is 64 and a free man living in South Florida with his wife, Neomi, and his 11-year old son, Julian. He’s free, but he does have a death sentence hanging over his head: Roberts has stage IV cancer and is in the midst of chemotherapy. That was one impetus for the book and subsequent movie deal (through Paramount, with Friday Night Lights’ Peter Berg slated to direct)—Roberts wants to provide for his son and wife before he dies.
We spoke to him after a chemo session this past fall. He told us about the credo he learned from his father, the movies that get crime right, and waterskiing with Jimi Hendrix.
Early in your memoir, you mention how your father taught you that evil is stronger than good. Was that something he said to you, or did you just formulate it from watching him in action?
Well, you know, you’re a young kid—five, six years old—and you’re not real sure as to where things are going. But then he shows you things. For example, my mother would tell him to take me to school. We’d get in the car and then we wouldn’t go to school. I started to see that his whole belief system and feelings in life were totally different than other people’s. I saw so many different things go down.
Then, after I saw my father kill the guy, and just push the car away, I didn’t believe that he was wrong. You know? Pretty hard.
The guy from that incident was just a random motorist, not a gangster, right?
Right. [On a one-lane bridge] in Jersey. I would see the way my father handled people and what he would do to people. And I never really saw any repercussions come back to him.
There’s another scene early in the book when you’re introduced at a Miami Heat game as one of the “Cocaine Cowboys,” and you get a big round of applause. Why do you think people cheered you like that?
Well, listen: I don’t know what everyone’s told you, but I’m not out here doing this because I want to be the most famous guy in the world. I’m doing this because I want my wife and my son to benefit. But when I go out to the Heat games, Miami being what it is, with all the [hip-hop stars]—they judge who is a real gangster and where they came from. I go in the ’hood, they get down in the street and bow to me. You know, like, Here’s the real gangster.
There’s an unbelievable cast of real-life characters and stories in AmericanDesperado, but if I had to pick one favorite line, it might be this: “I had some good times with Jimi [Hendrix], but he was a disaster on water skis.” Can you tell our readers about that?
Yeah. [Laughs] We used to rent a house on Fire Island every year. Me and my partner Andy would bring our Dobermans out there in the seaplane. Jimi used to come out—he’d come out for one weekend, two weekends, sometimes he’d stay for the whole month, and never leave, because he was so fucked up. He would see us water-ski, and eventually I told him, “Come on, come on, you’re gonna learn how to water-ski.” So after this and after that, he didn’t even hardly know where he was, so he had no problem: “Let’s go do it.” We took him out, aaand, he was, wow—he was something else. He was something else. But, the best music I ever heard.
Albert San Pedro, a Cuban gangster in Miami, was an obviously unhinged individual, yet he had several politicians and influential people in his pocket in the 1980s. How did that happen?
When the Cubans, the refugees, and everybody started coming over here, they went into a particular piece of Miami, which is called Calle Ocho. They made this their Little Havana. And the most powerful Cubans—because the Cubans believed in force—that’s who they got to run that city for them. Albert was one of them, and he had clout. He was a very paranoid, brutal man who had deals all over. He bought his own aunt’s house next door, and burned it to the ground because he wanted to expand his own house. So that gives you an idea of what he was like. He was not a very stable man. Unpredictable.
Speaking of unpredictable, is it true that the cougar you kept in your house once attacked the legendary jockey Angel Cordero Jr.?
From the back, yeah. We bought a cougar when it was a little baby. I built a cage that adjoined the house, and we used to let her go in and out of the bedroom by herself. She grew to be 150 pounds. My house backed up to the farm where we trained the horses, so I used to have the jockeys come up before a big race and stuff. They all wanted to see the cougar, but I warned them, “She’s gonna think that she’s bigger than you, so don’t turn your back, because she will try to take you down.” And that’s exactly what happened with Angel. [The cat was declawed at the time, and Cordero was not seriously injured.]
You had your hand in so many different enterprises, but until your 1986 arrest, you avoided significant jail time. How did you manage that?
Well, in New York, I had a connected lawyer. A Jewish kid who was the clerk of the main judge in Bergen County. In Miami, I was partners with Danny Mones, and he was an attorney—a very, very corrupt attorney. He was raised by Meyer Lansky’s stepson. They put him through college. Every year, Danny would buy a table at the University of Miami; they would have [an “honorary dinner”] for the judges of Dade County and Broward County. Danny would buy a table, and I would have to chip in. But that pretty much ensured you that, you know, Okay, what do you have? [As in, legal issues.] This is what I have. Okay, don’t worry about it. And it would be taken care of.
What movies or TV shows about crime get it right, in your opinion?
I like Goodfellas and Casino. As far as TV shows, I watched The Sopranos for a while because it was very entertaining. The terminology that they used was pretty much the terminology you used in the street. I watched this new show Boardwalk Empire, and I really didn’t know much about that crew at all. The other show I watched which I used to really like was called The Gangster Chronicles.
If your ex Toni Moon reads this book, how much of it will be new to her? How much will she know?
Oh, she knows everything.
Yeah, but she’s another one that [in my opinion] turned out to be a real piece of garbage. Soon as the money stopped coming her way, you know—it’s my fault. Everything is my fault. Even though I built her a second house, I left her a bunch of horses, and, you know, you just find out in life, man, you’re by yourself.
What do you want people to take away from this book?
I want my son to realize that [he] is not me. My son is not prepared to spend ten years in a jail cell. He will have every chance in life to get ahead with what I’m preparing and doing for him. And I can’t twist his arm, put his head in, and make him drink it, but I certainly can try to make him understand what it’s about. I hope to benefit, monetarily wise, to where he’s comfortable, and my wife is comfortable. I want to give them some kind of peace in their minds, which obviously I will never be able to give to myself.
What’s the status of your current illness?
I have stage IV cancer, terminal cancer. I’ve been fighting it for two and a half years. I went in the hospital and they told me I was never gonna get out, to make all the preparations. I [used to] constantly work out—I was 180 pounds, and I went to 120, I could hardly get out of bed. Finally I said, “Either I’m gonna get the fuck out of the bed and beat this, or they’re gonna take me.” And I just started taking little walks. It’s not by any means in remission. But … I’m here. But [the cancer] is everywhere. I don’t have a rectum anymore. My glands are gone. My lungs, my kidneys…. Most people there don’t even understand how I’m walking around. That’s the big joke in the hospital—how I could still be alive.
Willpower goes a long way, huh?
It’s all in your head, and—listen, I think I stated it in the book, but I believe in the devil more than I do God. Staying in that hospital and seeing five and six-year-old little kids going through what I’m going through has given me more belief. What did they do wrong? Maybe I deserve it, but they sure don’t.