This is the fourth excerpt from a manuscript about my undercover work with the F.B.I. and the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York from 1999 to 2002.
The efforts of law enforcement and Justice Department professionals - as well as ordinary citizens like me - led to the conviction of members of two mob crime families in a $100-million-a-year money laundering scheme.
While some names have been changed, this story is based on actual events and real people.
If you missed the first three excerpts, you can read them here.
PART ONE: How a regular meeting with a client turned into an undercover investigation for the FBI
PART TWO: Cigarette Racing Team's shady past
PART THREE: Sizing up the owners of Cigarette Racing Team
Miami’s weather in January and February is as beautiful as the people who frequent South Beach. With temperatures pushing the upper 70s and mostly blue-sky days, thoughts of shovelling your driveway easily give way to a reality of swaying palm trees and aquamarine water.
It was one of those Chamber-of-Commerce days when Nick Martinez - sporting wrap-around sunglasses and a toothy smile - came into the executive offices on Thunderboat Row and stood in my doorway.
“The waves on Biscayne Bay are good,” he said matter-of-factly…then asked, “Have you ever gone 100 miles per hour in a boat?”
“No,” I answered, looking up from my computer screen. “But it sure sounds like fun.”
It turns out that fun was considerable understatement. That afternoon I was to meet Lou Johnson…the majority new owner…and I reasoned another chance for a ride in a Cigarette might not come soon.
Nick told me to meet him dockside in ten minutes and he’d have everything ready. We both smiled.
There’s really nothing quite like the sound of an idling Cigarette boat…forget 1960s muscle cars…forget jets...they’re just loud. There is a low rumbling…a deep guttural base…that no stereo speaker can emulate. You sense that what awaits you is the sound and fury nothing short of an erupting volcano.
I ditched my coat, tie and loafers…and slipped on some deck shoes. Nick - not quite yelling - rattled off the boat’s specifications as the boat idled. It was a Cigarette 42 Tiger…42 feet of low-slung speed. It looked fast simply docked. I heard every few words Nick spoke…some almost seemed foreign. I was neither an off-shore powerboat racer….nor a boat owner.
“This baby has twin 1,000-H.P. Hawks motors with Mercury #6 drives,” Nick said. It was one of the last things he said that was understandable. We throttled up and I was soon pinned against the seat…and remaining that way for most of the two multi-mile runs on the bay.
The ride was flawless. Cigarette made the best-riding rough water boats…and the bay’s relatively calm waters were no match for the 42 Tiger…it was like a knife through soft butter. When we idled back into dock, Nick’s smile told me the runs were special.
“Few people have done what you just did, my friend,” he said. “We hit 118 miles per hour….in a boat…a Cigarette.”
When your morning includes a couple of fast runs in a Cigarette boat, you might think the afternoon couldn’t possibly keep up. But a few hours later Martinez and I would go on the ride of our lives…this time in a car.
Lou Johnson flew in from New York at noon, arriving at Thunderboat Row in a limousine at 1:30 p.m. He wore a nicely tailored black suit, black shoes and white shirt…no tie. His thick black hair in a pompadour…he looked more conservative than I had imagined…nothing like Miller.
Penny, Nick and I were just returning from lunch and stood waiting as Johnson crossed the driveway.
“I hate walking past here,” he said, a reference to the spot where Aronow died. “I wish they had whacked him somewhere else.”
He said hello to Penny and Nick, and then shook my hand and smiled as Penny introduced me.
Once upstairs, we talked about the upcoming Miami International Boat Show from the sofas around the coffee table in Penny’s office. Johnson wanted a summary…the details he trusted to Penny, Nick and me.
Johnson had a taste for the good life…and relished the fact that Cigarette Racing Team was raising his social profile…in New York, Miami…everywhere. He reminded us that he was leasing a 120-foot yacht for a party to entertain his guests attending the Miami Show…friends from New York that he wanted to “treat like kings,” he said.
“Of course, you three are invited,” Johnson said. “The Champagne will flow like water…and I have a French chef, too.”
Our meeting broke up about 3 p.m., and as we were walked out of Penny’s office, Johnson asked Nick to come with him across town to call on a boat dealer. He stopped, turned to me and said, “Hey, Don, why don’t you come with us…you should spend time with the guys that sell our boats.”
I nodded in agreement, and we walked to Johnson’s chauffeur-driven limousine.
Once in the limo, we chatted - mostly about family - with Johnson in the right-side passenger back seat, me in the middle and Nick to my left. Suddenly, in the middle of talking about his kids, Johnson noticed a Mercedes convertible in the next lane speeding past.
“Son of a bitch,” he said out loud, before shouting to Danny - his driver - a well-worn movie line, “Follow that car!”
Johnson leaned forward on the edge of his seat as if it might help the pursuit. Nick looked at me with concern…but appeared too afraid to ask what was going on. I shrugged…as clueless as he…we watched Danny weave in and out of heavy traffic to catch up to the Mercedes.
We chased the car for a few miles before making a right turn into a drive with a fancy gate that slowly opened for the Mercedes.
“Quick, quick…get through the gate,” Johnson shouted. We followed the convertible…passing maybe eight or ten mansions…all on deep water with boats. The Mercedes pulled into a wide driveway of a huge Mediterranean-style home…Johnson told Danny to pull in behind him. Johnson flew out of the limo before it stopped and ran to the Mercedes just as the driver was opening his door.
Johnson grabbed him by the shirt - a man 10, maybe 15 years older - and pulled him close. Johnson was shouting…cursing him…the guy looked shocked. Johnson slapped the man’s face as he held him by the shirt…open handed slaps back and forth…maybe six times.
The man tried to talk…but Johnson hurled him to the driveway and straddled him. He was still shouting as he fell to his knees, still straddling him, and began hitting him with his fists…again five or six times. We hadn’t really heard Johnson’s words as we sat in the limo, but Nick turned to me, his eyes wide with an expression just short of horror…hoping for some sort of explanation.
“Don’t ask,” I whispered, drawing him close to me so that Danny - still behind the wheel - would not hear me. “And don’t say anything...to anyone.”
Johnson left the man on the driveway, bleeding from a terrific beating. Disheveled…Johnson got back into the limo…the victim’s blood spattered on his white shirt. Johnson broke the silence as we drove out of the gated community.
“He owes me some money,” Johnson said, checking his fists, but offering nothing further.
“Danny, let’s drop Don and Nick off at the office,” Johnson said a couple of minutes later, adding, “I can’t go anywhere looking like this.”
There was silence for the remaining ride…until we got out of the limo.
Johnson simply said, “I’ll see you guys tomorrow, okay?”
“You bet,” I said. Nick said nothing…and stood frozen as the limo drove away. I grabbed Nick by the arm, and though I didn’t really believe my own words, said “Don’t worry about it.”
The first day of the Miami International Boat Show went well…thousands visited the booth…ogling the boats and the beautiful girls. Miller and Johnson hung out in the booth’s by-invitation-only area…reserved for celebrities and wealthy potential boat buyers.
Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez - the 28-year-old catcher for the Texas Rangers and the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1999 - was there touting Cigarette boats and signing autographs. He owned one Cigarette and was awaiting his second boat.
The only incident happened early on when Miller’s hair-trigger temper flared with the owner of a audio-visual company providing the sound system and music for the booth. The man - perhaps 35 years old - said something Miller didn’t like…and Miller slapped him. Pudge and Johnson separated the two and tried to calm Miller. I suggested to the sound guy that he leave… “Everything will be okay,” I said, again not sure I was right. Penny would later pay the guy double for the job…better than a lawsuit.
Later that afternoon, Penny and I met at my hotel…we spent an hour-and-a-half comparing notes on what we heard and saw the past few days. We noted everything the owners said and did…when they arrived and left. As the owners grew to trust us, they took and made phone calls…and we noted those, as well.
Just after 7 p.m. we left the hotel for the marina…15 minutes away. The party had started at 6 p.m….and it was dark when we arrived.
Two armed off-duty uniformed Miami police officers checked our invitations against our photo IDs before letting us walk down one of the long piers stretching out into the water. We could see the well-lit mansions on fashionable Fisher Island across the bay.
Nearing the yacht, I looked at the bow, and saw what Penny had not yet seen. I turned to Penny as we walked, and said with obvious sarcasm, “You’re going to love this.”
As we passed the bow…we looked up to see two young women…completely naked. As we boarded, a couple of men in their 50s lounged with other women on the ship’s stern. These young women were naked as well, except for high heels. All were laughing as one of the girls lit a Cuban cigar with a twenty-dollar bill. All were drinking Dom Perignon…one of the older guys from a bottle. It was 7:30 p.m., and it would only get worse.
Miller - it seemed - had done his best.
— This is the last of four excerpts from a manuscript by iNFOnews columnist Don Thompson. Future installments will appear here Saturdays. Find his regular column here on Mondays.