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THOMPSON: Sizing up the owners of Cigarette Racing Team

November 30, 2019 - 12:00 PM

This is the third 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 two 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

                      
I could sense two irrefutable histories the very first time I walked along Thunderboat Row - offshore powerboat racing and drug trafficking - and both sometimes involved the same men.

It was the Summer of 1999 and my friend, Penny Field, Cigarette’s acting-COO, led me through the front door…pausing to point out the exact spot where founder Donald Aronow was killed a dozen years before.

We walked upstairs to Penny’s office…once Donald Aronow’s. It was cavernous…with three sofas and a couple of chairs surrounding a massive coffee table on one end. An executive desk with two uncomfortable chairs meant to discourage long sit-downs and a conference table for eight on the other end.

The walls were covered in photos, trophies and Cigarette memorabilia. As we sat down, Penny said, “There’s no boudoir,” alluding to an alleged false wall in the office that supposedly hid Aronow’s bedroom for afternoon liaisons with girlfriends.

“I’d get some sleep if I could find that wall,” Penny said, smiling at her own cleverness.

We had similar senses of humour…and in the coming months and years…our ability to laugh would counter temporary bouts of high anxiety and mild paranoia. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York put Field in place at Cigarette earlier that year to follow the money. She and I were there to gather evidence.

As far as anyone would know - except Penny - for the next 29 months, I was simply the company’s marketing consultant…helping put together and execute Cigarette’s strategic marketing plan.

That afternoon, I would meet Bobby Miller - a minority owner in Cigarette - from Chicago, IL.

I had met the primary owner - Lou Johnson - from Staten Island, NY, two weeks earlier...the same day I took my first ride in a Cigarette boat. I hoped that my meeting with Miller would be less unsettling than my meet-up with Johnson.

Penny had warned me about Miller…but was less cautionary about Johnson. Yet, the very afternoon I met Johnson…I saw him pummel another man with his fists. Much later I would learn Johnson was a member of the Lucchese crime family…one of the five families that controlled organized crime in New York.

This was an era of leveraged business deals…some Wall Street mavens and future felons found incredible ways to get rich…and often gain control of closely held corporations. The F.B.I. reasoned - rightly so - that past crooks are most often future crooks.

Even so, it was an odd feeling…the F.B.I. and the Justice Department focused on the company’s owners' criminality as its dedicated employees built the world’s top brand of luxury powerboats. Indeed, the boat craftsmen never knew that crooks owned the company.

Besides, ownership and management at Cigarette Racing Team had been nothing less than a revolving door since Aronow’s death…literally more than a dozen different owners. So, the workforce was blind to ownership…it didn’t matter who was in the executive offices. After all, the boat builders knew that ownership had little effect on what they did day to day.

Before Penny and I left for lunch, she gave me the fifty-cent tour. We strolled past scores of skilled craftsmen and artisans…mostly middle-aged…all of them Cuban. Laser focused on their work, only occasionally would someone look up…nod and perhaps smile. Most looked as if they were cutting the Hope Diamond.

These were the artisans who painstakingly crafted each and every detail of the custom Cigarette boats shipped to distributor boat sellers worldwide. Nothing was left to chance or overlooked in the Cigarette boatyard. Each boat was like a fingerprint…unique.

A few months later, Penny would open the boatyard on Sundays at the request of the Cuban workers. They wanted to bring their spouses, children and extended families to show them the masterpieces they made five and a half days a week. To this day, I’ve never known employees anywhere more eager to get to work and more reticent to leave every day.

After lunch, I met Nicolas Martinez, who worked his way from a low-level electrician’s apprentice job on the shop floor to lead Cigarette’s design and production team just ten years out of high school. A tall, thin and tanned Cuban, Nick looked even younger than his 28 years, but a brief conversation convinced you…this man lived for Cigarette Racing Team.

I liked Nick…and what he stood for…passion and hard work mattered. He was an American success story...the son of Cuban immigrant parents. By 2005, Martinez would become executive vice president with minority ownership in a Cigarette Racing Team free of hoodlums. Nick was well thought of by fellow Cubans when I first met him…and today he is legend.

Back in her office, Penny predicted that I would be underwhelmed with the owner I had not met. Despite her heads-up, when I met Bobby Miller, I found him more boorish than Johnson…without a modicum of class…a bully and a perfect boob…destined to be caught.

Later, as I wrote notes for the file, I thought both men - Miller and Johnson - could have walked right out of “Goodfellas.” They seemed less like mob crime bosses or kingpins…and more like henchmen with money. Still, Johnson seemed like a genius alongside Miller.

About 2 p.m., Miller showed up and was walking on the pier where so many Cigarette boats had thundered past. When we saw him from the second-storey window, Penny said, “You might as well go down and meet him.”

“How about you?” I asked.

“I’ve heard his bullshit before,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “I need to make a couple of calls. Don’t worry, he’ll fill any lapses in conversation.”

As I approached Miller on the pier, I said, “Hello,” and attempted an introduction and handshake. He allowed himself a sideways glance…seemingly sizing me up…but directed his attention instead on the 42-foot Cigarette Tiger idling up the canal to dock.

I always dressed well my entire business career…more for myself than others…tailored Italian suits and shirts and shoes…and distinctive hand painted ties. Finally, Miller looked back at me…perhaps he noticed my fashion sense…my confidence.

“Real alligator shoes…$2,500,” he proclaimed out of nowhere, lifting his left shoe toward me. One might have thought a name and handshake more appropriate…I know I did. But, his expensive shoes weren’t well cared for…not recently polished…and his insecurity showed.

In fact, his expensive linen pants and sport coat didn’t reflect so much the wrinkled comfort of cool linen as a slept-in look. He wore a loud, partially unbuttoned shirt and a too-large gold chain around his neck. I would find over the next two years…whatever Miller wore…regardless of quality and cost…he looked like ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag.

Miller talked like a Chicago tough guy…even ordering lunch. His diction though was more bada-bing bada-boom New Jersey Italian. I felt like I was with a sinister Joe Pesci in “My Cousin Vinny” every time we talked for more than two years.

Miller - who was about 10 years younger - finally turned and faced me…offering a hand shake meant more to intimidate than greet.

“So, you…Thompson, right?” Miller asked. “The marketing whiz, eh?”

Almost every time Miller spoke it came out as a question…whether by design or not.

“Just call me Don,” I said. “And yes, I’m the marketing whiz.”

I could see Miller respected boldness…subtlety would be lost on him.

He nodded in agreement with an expression of mild acceptance. I would have to walk a fine line with Miller…I would see him shift from friend to foe with others in an instant…and I needed him to be a “friend.” Fortunately, he was an easy read…entirely predictable.

“Hey, Penny told me I’d like you,” he said. Then, he turned…motioning me to follow, and said, “C’mon Donnie, let’s go strategize with Penny.”

It would be a long afternoon.

I would see Miller and Johnson again just a few days before the Miami International Boat Show - an annual gathering in February of wealthy boat enthusiasts from all over the world - and for nearly a decade Cigarette was one of the show’s stars.

The owners sat in on the morning’s staff meeting as we readied for the show. Penny ran meetings like a benevolent dictator…it was well-organized and we breezed through scores of last-minute check-offs. Johnson asked a couple of reasonable questions…and I could see Miller’s insecurity quotient rising. Feeling as though he had to say something…Miller suggested that he select the models to work the Cigarette booth.

“These girls should be sexy…like our boats,” Miller offered. “I think…”

Penny interrupted, quickly passing photos to Miller of the six models she had selected.

“We’re all set,” Penny said. “They’ve been trained and know exactly what to say and do…right Nick?”

“Absolutely,” Nick responded.

Johnson sensed Miller’s feeling of being left out and suggested that Miller choose girls to host a party aboard a yacht at Miami Beach Marina the first night of the show.

“Done,” said Miller, enthusiastically.

I shot Penny a glance…we both wore Mona Lisa smiles and we would later laugh as it turned out we imagined the same thing…prostitutes and a police raid.

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

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