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THOMPSON: Cigarette Racing Team's shady past

November 23, 2019 - 12:00 PM

This is the second 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 excerpt, you can read it here.   

 

When you’re asked by good guys to help them put bad guys in prison…it’s really hard to say, “No.” Whether patriotism leads you to step forward…or perhaps just a sense of doing some greater good…you answer, “Yes!”

That was my rationalization…and ultimately, my decision was easier than I might have thought. Truthfully, I simply didn’t want to leave my friend, Penny, the acting-COO of Cigarette Racing Team, alone - twisting in the wind - with gangsters.

Then, too, the mere thought of calling the Agent-in-Charge of the F.B.I.’s Miami office with “I don’t think I’ll help”…seemed cowardly. Maybe the F.B.I. realizes just how uncomfortable it is to be on the horns of a dilemma.

The F.B.I. told me not to tell anyone…not even family…of what I or anyone else was doing. Not a single word…not even a hint. I understood…but keeping secrets from family and friends isn’t easy. Like any secret…it begs to be told to someone.

At this point, some history - and context - might help you understand how Cigarette Racing Team fell into the hands of mobsters. The Cigarette Racing Team story starts with Don Aronow…a charismatic man with movie star looks…a lot of friends…and at least one enemy.

Aronow made millions with his construction company in New Jersey, and in 1959 at age 32, “retired” to Miami, FL and pursued his passion…powerboat racing. Three years later, he turned his hobby into a money-making business…designing, building and racing boats he made at his boat company….Formula Marine. He sold that company in 1963 - a year later - for a profit.

In 1964, Aronow started another boat company…Donzi Marine. After making that brand an international success…he sold that boat company, too, making even more money. In 1966, he founded another boat company, Magnum Marine, and two years later…you guessed it…he sold it, as well. Cha-Ching…Cha-Ching!

By now, those who bought Aronow’s boat companies insisted on a non-compete agreement. But Aronow wouldn’t be tied up by a technicality…he simply went to another Florida boat builder - Cary Marine - with a design for a new boat that they built for him, and he named it “The Cigarette.”

Then, in 1970, no longer constrained by the non-compete, Aronow founded Cigarette Racing Team…a company he would sell in 1977, and then buy back in 1979…merging it with another boat company he owned - Squadron Marine - to form yet another boat maker…USA Racing Team.

In 1984, a rival Miami boat builder and racer - Benjamin “Barry” Kramer - bought USA Racing Team from Aronow in a deal that gave Aronow land in South Florida, some other assets, a helicopter and - allegedly - an undisclosed amount of under-the-table cash.

Aronow knew President George H.W. Bush, and had built him a Donzi powerboat a few years before when he was vice president. On the strength of that relationship, Aronow entered into a contract with the U.S. Customs Service just before selling to Kramer and was to build a number of Blue Thunders - 39-foot catamarans - to chase and catch drug smugglers.

It only seemed fair, since most drug smugglers were using Aronow’s Cigarette, Donzi or Formula boats to run cocaine and marijuana up the Florida coast.

Of course, Uncle Sam was not thrilled to learn that Kramer was the new owner of USA Racing Team and considered backing out of the deal without Aronow. After all, Kramer was convicted of smuggling and distributing tons of marijuana in 1978.

So, Aronow re-took possession of USA Racing Team…returning the land, helicopter and assets…but allegedly keeping the unreported amount of cash. Kramer lost out and had no  legal recourse…it was one man’s word against another’s.

By the 1980s, Aronow was a legend…rich, successful, flamboyant…a handsome playboy living the dream. But of all the boats he designed and raced…none was more glamorous, more sexy…and more reflective of himself…than those at Cigarette Racing Team. 

Undeniably, Aronow was one of the great designers and builders of powerboats. Over the years, his boats won more than 350 offshore races - more than any other boat builder - and as a racer he was a three-time U.S. champion and two-time world champion.

He moved freely among world leaders, Hollywood stars, professional athletes, hoodlums…always on everyone’s party A-list. Aronow - like Frank Sinatra - hung with everyone…and always with beautiful women on his arm.

Aronow’s life was a movie. He might have dinner with President Bush on Thursday….dinner with mobster Meyer Lansky on Friday…sell a boat to a Hollywood celebrity on Saturday…fly to Europe and win a race on Sunday. Heady stuff.

Miami in the 1970s and 1980s was a celebrity magnet. Why not? It had great weather…glamour…sex…money…drugs…power…lifestyle. A reporter once asked Willie Sutton - the famous Miami bank robber - “Why do you rob banks?” He replied simply, “That’s where the money is!”

So it was with Miami. Why did bad guys flock to Miami? It was home to everything they wanted.

Sadly, time would run out for Aronow on Feb. 3, 1987. He was shot three times - in the face, chest and groin - while sitting in his Mercedes in front of his office on 188th Street - known as Thunderboat Row - in Miami. It would be nine more years before the world would know the assassin…and who allegedly paid for the hit.

Murders…especially mob hits…were as common as palm trees in Miami during the 1980s. Owners of offshore powerboat companies - like Aronow - were among the targets…and unlike television shows where the cops always solve crimes in clever ways…law enforcement in South Florida in that era rarely found the bad guys.

Four years before Aronow was gunned down, two owners of Signature Marine - Thomas Fitzgerald Adams and Eugene Hicks - were killed in separate murders. Adams was shot during a car chase on I-95 north of Miami in April of 1983…long suspected of financing one of the larger cocaine and marijuana smuggling operations in South Florida.

Hicks was shot and stabbed in the chest five times in his Hallandale Beach home in June 1983. He had a sketchy past, as well, and even served as a witness against two men charged with fatally shooting another man in his own home.

One shooter was convicted, the other acquitted…but both claimed Hicks ordered the hit on the man in his home….though Hicks was never charged. Hicks was aboard a 57-foot yacht carrying eight tons of marijuana in 1978…a conviction for which he was awaiting sentencing at the time of his death.

Hicks and Adams were both friends of Aronow…with their offices 50 feet away on Thunderboat Row. But being a friend isn’t a crime…there was never a charge laid against Aronow his entire life. He was squeaky clean…not even a speeding ticket.

Aronow’s killers? It was alleged that Barry Kramer paid Miami hoodlum Bobby Young $60,000 for the revenge-driven hit in 1987.  Both Kramer and Young were serving unrelated 19-year sentences for drug smuggling in 1995, but in a less-than-squeaky-clean plea deal to get out of Dade County Jail…which was as dreadful as a Turkish prison…both pled “no contest” to separate charges in Aronow’s murder.

When I say the Dade County Jail was like a Turkish prison…I’m not kidding. There weren’t enough beds for inmates, there was no heat or air conditioning…the food was awful and scant…it was a Third World facility. It was so bad that Kramer and Young would do anything to serve time in Federal prison…which looked more like a country club.

Inept prosecutors were so eager to close the Aronow case, they let Young plead no contest to second-degree rather than first-degree murder, and so he didn’t have to testify against Kramer.

Both were shipped off to Federal prisons…even after cohorts tried to literally lift Kramer from the Dade County Jail yard in a wild helicopter escape that ended when the chopper hit prison barb wire fencing and crashed. Young died in Federal prison before completing his sentence...and on his death bed…said he did kill Aronow…but Kramer had nothing to do with it. Kramer remains in prison in Indiana.

Past is prologue…and the chequered history of Cigarette Racing Team’s ownership would live on…along side the world’s leading powerboat brand. The newest owners would be criminals…but they lived like playboys the whole time…and I was there to witness it all.

— This is the second of four excerpts from iNFOnews columnist Don Thompson. Future installments will appear here Saturdays. Find his regular column here on Mondays.

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