The Legacy of Al Winters
Part One of Two
New Orleans enters 2014 without Albert “Al” Winters Jr., 71, a towering, low-key prosecutor with a booming voice and a storied career.
Winters died last June 28 from lung cancer.
He was best known for prosecutions of organized crime figures, such as Carlos Marcello in 1982, and major drug traffickers, including Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cocaine cartel. Winters also prosecuted rogue cops, murderers and corrupt public officials.
“If there ever was a legend to come out of that office – it’s Al Winters,” says former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten (2001-’12).
During 33 years as a federal prosecutor then five years as a prosecutor in Jefferson Parish, Winters shunned only the limelight.
“He hated press conferences,” Letten says.
“He never aspired to political office,” says state prosecutor Tommy Block, who tried two murder cases with Winters at the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office. “He didn’t try and use his position as a springboard. He was just about getting the job done.”
In the 1980s, U.S. Attorney Harry A. Rosenberg (’91-’93) wrote, federal prosecutors in New Orleans assumed a “primary role in investigating and prosecuting Colombian cocaine rings within the United States.”
Winters was at the forefront, as a special prosecutor reporting directly to the U.S. Department of Justice at Washington then as an assistant U.S. Attorney in New Orleans.
He once prosecuted notorious smuggler Adler “Barry” Seal on drug trafficking charges. In 1986, Seal was machine-gunned to death outside a halfway house at Baton Rouge. Winters and another federal prosecutor linked three Colombian “hit” men and Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel to the murder of Seal, a government informant.
Winters and a fellow prosecutor in Miami broke the case during a de-briefing of estranged Medellin smuggler Max Mermelstein, reputedly the only American on the powerful cartel council. Mermelstein said that from 1981 to ’85 he supervised the importation of 56 tons of cartel cocaine into the United States and the transfer of $300 million in drug sales back to Colombia. In his book, The Man Who Made It Snow, (Simon & Schuster, 1990), Mermelstein says he provided Winters with detailed information on the Mac-10 and silencer used to murder Seal, noting cartel members test-fired the weapon in Mermelstein’s Florida home. Winters dispatched ATF agents to the residence. The slugs were still in the wall. Ballistics tests on the bullets fired at Seal matched the ones on the slugs found in the wall.
Mermelstein then told Winters how Pablo Escobar initially ordered him to kidnap Seal and bring him to Colombia or kill him in the U.S. Mermelstein stalled. The cartel purportedly put a $3 million bounty on his head and sent a trio of Colombians to kill Seal. They were soon arrested.
In 1987, Mermelstein testified for the feds at the Seal murder trial in Lake Charles. State prosecutors were seeking the death penalty with help from Winters and the feds. “Al Winters prepared me for the trial,” Mermelstein recalled, adding: “Winters was a careful man … he sent a small army of investigators to verify what I had told him. He even checked the long-distance calls from the public phone I had used in a mall to call Colombia.”
The Colombians on trial – Miguel Velez, Luis Carlos Quinter-Cruz and Bernardo Antonio Vasquez – were found guilty of first-degree murder.
During the sentencing phase, another “living legend,” defense attorney Sam Dalton of Jefferson Parish, used testimony by DEA and FBI experts to convince a jury that Seal “needed to die” for importing enough cocaine to cause an estimated 21 overdose deaths in the U.S. Dalton also argued the .45 caliber bullets that tore through Seal’s body was “more humane” than state execution in Louisiana’s electric chair. The jury spared the Colombians; they were sentenced to life at Angola prison without parole.
Federal witness Mermelstein, who helped prosecutors with a raft of cartel cases, was sentenced to two years in prison.
After the trial, The Man Who Made It Snow would sometimes visit Winters at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans.
“Max would show up unannounced – always unannounced – wanting to talk with Al,” Kathy English, Winters’ former secretary told this magazine. “He spent a lot of time hanging out in my office. He was in Witness Protection; I couldn’t make him sit outside in the waiting room with everybody else.”
Mermelstein, a heavy smoker, once took out a cigarette. English says she told him not to smoke. The witness protested. She told him a new U.S. Attorney (Harry Rosenberg) banned smoking in the office. Mermelstein persisted. “I said, ‘Max! You can’t smoke in here!’” English recalls.
Winters saw Mermelstein that day, she says.
“Al always talked to Max,” she says. “Al always found time to talk to people who had to talk to him, whether they were in Witness Protection, the U.S. Attorney General’s Office or it was the mail clerk.”
Winters was involved in numerous cases by the time he retired from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in April 2006. His name wasn’t always on the court record, English says. Sometimes, Winters would sit in pre-trial meetings between prosecutors and criminal defendants – at the defendant’s request, she says. “They knew if Al was sitting in there it was going to be done the right way – by the book.”
Veteran criminal defense attorneys interviewed remembered Winters as a straightforward prosecutor, well prepared and tough, but fair. “I loved dealing with him from a defense standpoint because he was a straight-shooting, no bullshit kind of guy,” says Ron Rakosky, a 40-year veteran criminal defense attorney. Few cases go to trial in state or federal court and integrity is considered critical to lawyers negotiating a plea agreement.
“He was a man of his word,” Rakosky says, adding he believed Winters showed him all the evidence the prosecution had collected against his client before trial.
“You didn’t see him go to trial often because he had people tied up six ways to sundown before he indicted someone.”
Defense attorney John Reed, another admirer, says Winters represented a “vanishing breed” of experienced prosecutors.
Joseph R. McMahon Jr., chief of the juvenile division of the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office graduated with Winters from Loyola Law School in 1966 and helped get him hired as a federal prosecutor in ’73. McMahon lured him out of retirement to litigate cases for the D.A in May 2006.
No case was too small for Al Winters.
He accepted a six-month assignment to the parish juvenile court without complaint. He prosecuted traffic violations of juvenile drivers, ages 17 and younger. Winters said he didn’t see many juveniles at federal court, McMahon recalls. “One day, he says: ‘I’m coming from prosecuting the Medellin cartel to a kid going 30 miles per hour in a 20 mile-per-hour zone!’ – and he laughed.”
Al Winters, gruff prosecutor of mobsters and violent drug traffickers, then returned to work, eager to help young parish attorneys address the alleged excesses of juvenile motorists. “He enjoyed working with young people,” McMahon says. “And he did whatever had to be done.”
Al Winters is survived by his longtime companion, Mary Jane Lattie.