Thursday, March 14, 2019

Go Fast Boats and German Cars [1]

Don Aronow, the Cigarette King: February 3, 1987

Don Aronow’s life in many ways represents the American dream. The Brooklyn born, youngest son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he left school without completing his education and tried a variety of jobs before joining his father-in-law’s construction company. After creating his own successful construction company, he was able to retire to Miami as a self-made millionaire at the age of 32. In Miami he developed a taste for racing boats, first as a hobby and then he started designing his own boats, which he built into a successful business. Very soon he was touring the world, winning international races and selling his designs. Aronow's boats won over 350 offshore races and he was a two-time world champion and three-time U.S. champion. He had been elected to every powerboating Hall of Fame in existence and he is one of only two Americans to have ever received the UIM Gold Medal of Honor in Monaco.

Because of his success and fame in the world of power-boat racing, Aronow formed a close friendship with Vice President George H.W. Bush, a fellow aficionado. Bush himself had owned one of Aronow’s most famous designs, the Cigarette boat and was instrumental in Aronow’s Blue Thunder catamarans being adopted by the US Customs Service for chasing drug smugglers in the waters off South Florida.

Very soon, Aronow’s business model resembled a perpetual motion machine, with Miami’s Cocaine Cowboys buying his Cigarette boats to outrun the lawmen and the lawmen buying his Blue Thunders to chase them. Aronow was steadily increasing the speed of the go-fast boats he designed while lawmen and cowboys raced to outmaneuver each other. It was the perfect business model. Aronow was well aware that the drug smugglers were as fond of his boats as the lawmen. “We in the ocean-racing fraternity are flattered that the dope runners prefer our kind of boat,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1979, “but when they get caught, we don’t like it. We have torn emotions. A kid who works for me was offered $100,000 to run out to sea one night and resupply fuel for a dope boat. He refused, but it must have been a terrible temptation. Heck, lately we’ve been getting letters from jailbirds still behind bars, asking for complete specs and prices on our Cigarettes.”

The world of off-shore powerboat racing, not to mention the world of cocaine smuggling is a testosterone fueled, competitive environment of rivalry and violence. Aronow’s boatyard was located on 188th Street, Miami, known as Thunderboat Row, home of all the world’s most aggressively famous racing brands: Apache, Cigarette, Formula, Donzi, Magnum, Squadron, Flight, Nova, Pantera, Cougar, Tempest and of course Blue Thunder. George Bush was not the only famous and powerful customer in Aronow’s boatyard, others included ex-President Lyndon Johnson, King Juan Carlos of Spain, King Hussain of Jordan, the Sultan of Oman, Jean-Claud ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier of Haiti, Christina Onassis and the late Shah of Iran.

Aronow’s social circle encompassed more than just monarchs and presidents, many of his friends had less savory backgrounds. Having made his initial fortune in New York’s construction industry, Aronow was undoubtedly well connected with the city’s organized crime families and when he moved to Miami, he became a close friend of Meyer Lansky, the Mafia’s CFO. He also made new friends in the world of off-shore racing; people like Ben Kramer, Augusto Falcon and Salvador Magluta, or Willy and Sal as they were known. All three men were well known and respected as successful offshore racers. Kramer won the world title in 1984 and had his own boat design and building company, Apache Performance Boats. Falcon won the 1986 Offshore Challenge off the Florida Keys; Magluta had won three national championships and was a member of the commission that oversees the American Power Boat Association. All three men also earned billions of dollars smuggling cocaine and marijuana into the United States, using planes and go-fast boats.

In 1984 Aronow sold his USA Racing company, which built the Blue Thunder boats, to Ben Kramer in return for a Bell helicopter, real estate, various assets and some undeclared cash. However, when the Feds discovered the company was now owned by Kramer, a convicted felon, they threatened to cancel the Blue Thunder contract. To save the government contract, Aronow agreed to buy back his company and he returned the helicopter and other assets to Kramer but, it has been suggested, that he did not return the undeclared cash.  Because there was no record of the cash which had been exchanged ‘under the table’, there was nothing Kramer could legally do to recover it.

On the afternoon of February 3, 1987, Aronow, in his white Mercedes, was leaving Kramer’s office at Apache Performance Boats, when he was approached by a dark blue Lincoln Continental with tinted windows. Both cars stopped in the middle of the street and the two drivers lowered their windows. After exchanging a few words, Aronow was shot at least three times; in the face, in the arm and in the groin. He died shortly afterwards. The Lincoln sped away, never to be seen again.

There was endless speculation about the killer. Was it a jealous husband? Aronow was known as an active ‘ladies’ man’. Could it have been a mob-hit? he knew and conducted business with all sorts of unsavory characters. Was he too close to the Feds – might someone have suspected him of snitching?

In the meantime, Kramer had been arrested on new drug charges and was being held in the Federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in South Dade, near the Everglades. In April of 1989, Kramer was waiting in the prison recreation yard for a friend to collect him with his helicopter. Before it landed, Kramer grabbed hold of the right-hand skid while it still hovered above the prison yard. Unfortunately, his weight tilted the machine as it rose into the air, causing the rotors to snag in the prison’s coiled razor wire and bringing men and machine all crashing to the ground, breaking Kramer’s leg.

Finally, after many years of investigation, Bobby Young, a career criminal and a member of the ‘Dixie Mafia’ admitted to being the triggerman in Aronow’s murder. Although Young refused to rat on Kramer himself, Young’s attorney agreed to testify that Young had been hired by Kramer to kill Aronow. Finally, Kramer himself, if only to regain the comforts of a Federal prison, and escape the horrendous conditions of Dade County Jail, pleaded No Contest to the murder of Aronow.

But there still remain a lot of unanswered questions. Why was Aronow really killed, and who was really behind his murder? Who owned the Blue Lincoln? Kramer isn’t talking, why should he? – he’s serving a life sentence with a broken leg and no possibility of parole.

The only certainty that emerges from this story is that ‘Speed Kills’.

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