Book Excerpt: The Man Who Saved Jimi Hendrix from the Mafia

In 'American Desperado,' drug trafficker Jon Roberts recounts Jimi Hendrix's mob kidnapping and water skiing mishap

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America Desperado
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Jon Roberts, the convicted cocaine trafficker who masterminded the Medellin Cartel's rise in the 1980s and the importation of as much as 15 billion dollars worth of cocaine for them, told a few stories that strained credulity when we first sat down for the interviews that would form the basis of our book, 'American Desperado' (Crown, published November 1st, 2011). Among them, he claimed that as a young New York Mafia soldier in the late 1960s – nearly a decade before he got into the "cocaine industry," as he refers to it – he rescued Jimi Hendrix from a kidnapping attempt. The tale seemed patently absurd until I began to look into the twisted history of the New York club scene in the late 1960s. Based on research and interviews I conducted, it turns out that not only does Roberts' story appear to be true, he solves a mystery that has intrigued Hendrix biographers for more than three decades.

Shortly after Hendrix's death in 1970, members of his inner circle revealed that about a year earlier, just after Woodstock, Hendrix had been abducted by Mafia gunmen and held in upstate New York in a dispute involving a recording deal. One version of the story named his abductors as "John Riccobono." As it happens, that was Roberts' name in the late 1960s (before he changed it and fled a murder investigation for which he was a prime suspect). As "Riccobono" he had served as point man in a successful Mafia effort to take control of Salvation, a top Manhattan nightclub. According to independent research for our book, far from kidnapping Hendrix, Roberts and his Mafia partner Andy Benfante, helped rescue him two times – not just from a bungled, amateurish kidnapping plot, but from an ill-advised rock star foray onto water-skis. 

As Roberts relates it in 'American Desperado':

When you run a nightclub, you will always get heat from the cops. The liquor license gives them an automatic reason to come into your place and snoop. Within a year of getting into the business, Andy and I started to draw real heat – not from the New York cops, who could always be bought, but from the FBI. Two incidents made them nosy about us.

The first was the kidnapping of Jim Hendrix. Jimi and I were never great friends. He was so far gone, I don't think he was truly friends with anybody. Jimi was a bad junkie. Jimi had people around him all the time, too. He was suffocating from these hangers-on. After we met at Salvation, he came to our house on Fire Island so he could get away from it all. We'd make sure nobody would bother him except for his real friends. Jimi really liked [blues guitarist] Leslie West, and one night the two of them played our living room all night long. Jimi had to shoot speed in his arm to keep up with Leslie. That's how good Leslie West was. A few times, we took Jimi water-skiing off the back of my Donzi. He liked getting out and doing things physically, even when he was stoned.

He nearly drowned one time. Jimi's out there – no life vest on – and he falls off the skis. He's in the water thrashing around. I swing the boat past and throw him the rope. It's floating a couple feet from his hands, but he's waving his arms like crazy. Suddenly, I'm wondering if he can even swim. Andy has to jump in the water and swim the rope over to him, because Jesus Christ, if this guy dies while out with us, what a headache that would be.

I had some good times with Jimi, but he was a disaster on water skis.

I got involved in Jimi's so-called kidnapping after he was grabbed by some guys out of Salvation. Later on some people accused me of being involved in kidnapping him. They said I was involved with kidnappers who tied Jimi to a chair and forced him to shoot heroin. Please. Nobody would have had to force Jimi to shoot anything. Just give him the heroin and he'd inject it himself. It was Jimi going out searching for drugs that got him into trouble. Andy and I were the ones who helped get him out of it.

Jimi had people who would usually buy dope for him. But sometimes he'd get so sick, he'd come into our clubs looking for drugs on his own. One night two Italian kids at our club – not Mafia but wiseguy wannabes – saw Jimi in there looking for dope and decided, "Hey, that's Jimi Hendrix. Let's grab him and see what we can get."

These guys were morons. They promised Jimi some dope and took him to a house out of the city. I don't know if they wanted money or a piece of his record contract, but they called Jimi's manager demanding something. Next thing I knew the club manager called me and said Jimi had been taken from our club by some Italians.

It took me and Andy two or three phone calls to get the names of the kids who were holding Jimi. We reached out to these kids and made it clear, "You let Jimi go, or you are dead. Do not harm a hair of his Afro."

They let Jimi go. The whole thing lasted maybe two days. Jimi was so stoned, he probably didn't even know he was ever kidnapped. Andy and I waited a week or so and went after these kids. We gave them a beating they would never forget.

Here I was, the Good Samaritan, but unfortunately, when Jimi was grabbed, some of his people contacted the FBI. Even after he was safely returned, the FBI started poking around our business. This later led them to tie Andy Benfante and me to the murder of Robert Wood. That one good deed for Jimi Hendrix was resulted in me having to flee New York for Miami. Who knows? If it hadn't been for me saving Jimi Hendrix, I might never have hooked up with the Medellin Cartel and Pablo Escobar in Miami and started in the cocaine smuggling business. Wherever you are Jimi, thank you.

Reprinted from the book 'American Desperado' by Jon Roberts and Evan Wright.  Copyright © 2011 by Jon Roberts.  Published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc.