Font Size

- Aa +

Sat 20 Sep 2008 04:00 AM

Font Size

- Aa +

Who shot Don Aronow?

Involving powerboat racing, mobsters, Presidents and ultimately murder; Don Aronow’s life sounds like an episode of Miami Vice. But who held the smoking gun?

Involving powerboat racing, mobsters, Presidents and ultimately murder; Don Aronow’s life sounds like an episode of Miami Vice. But who held the smoking gun?

On 3rd February 1987, six blinding lightening flashes and their accompanying peals of thunder rolled down North-east 118th Street, Miami, Florida. Unable to weather the hail of bullets spat from his assassin's pistol, Don Aronow, lay dying on a street known throughout the world as ‘Thunderboat Row' - a street he had created; home to nearly every race-boat maker in the Untied States.

As Aronow's lifeblood seeped through the multiple gunshot wounds, a crowd wearing t-shirts bearing the logos of household brands he had founded gathered around: Magnum, Formula, Donzi and Cigarette. But who held the smoking gun?

In 1967 Don jumped his Donzi so high it clipped the skids of the race's press helicopter.

Having survived numerous high speed crashes and crippling injuries during his illustrious racing career, it appears it was the infamous company he kept that led to the murder of one of powerboat racing's greatest names.

Aronow's list of contacts was long and distinguished, including political leaders like King Hussein of Jordan, King Juan Carlos of Spain, the Prince of Kuwait, the King of Sweden, Hiatian despot Baby Doc Duvalier and George H. W. Bush. Flipping the page however, you'd be as likely to come across a list of organised crime bosses, who reigned with terror and dealt in arms and drugs.

Having made a fortune in the construction business in New Jersey, building homes and shopping centres, Aronow hastily ‘relocated' to Florida in 1961. Collecting his children from summer camp, and not returning to the family home, the 34 year-old arrived in Florida with a $2 million ‘retirement fund'.

Given the haste of their departure and the ingrained involvement of the mob in New Jersey's construction industry, rumours circulated on his death of a possible mafia style contract killing. Mike DeCora, a Metro-Dade homicide detective who worked the case discounts the theory however, saying: "We checked out the mob theory. He had friends in New Jersey - quote mobsters unquote - and we talked to them and to the authorities, but he didn't owe anybody anything. He really was a self-made man."

One thing that is certain however, is that while hanging around the marinas of Miami, Aronow's address book quickly filled with names of those with dubious occupations. One new friend was a young attorney named Al Malnik. Malnik is now a multi-millionaire who owns the largest title loan business in the United States.

Using his financial accumen, Malnik has built a multi-layered corporate empire that has reputedly enabled organised crime figures, including legendary Jewish rackets boss Meyer Lansky, to put their money into licit investments.

Discovering a passion for powerboat racing, Don Aronow's fierce drive propelled him to a record two world racing championships, and three American championships before he retired in 1970 - as one of the most successful powerboat racers of all time.

Don's prowess on the track was equalled by his gift as a boat designer. Founding the Formula maruque in 1962, Aronow designed the first 233 Deep-V hull, a 24 foot craft with a top speed in excess of 50 mph. Aronow's stock and reputation rose quickly, aided no doubt by his mega-watt charisma. When The Beatles visited Miami, it was in a Formula with Don at the helm, that they toured the coast.

After just two years of producing Formula, Aronow and Jim Wynn, Don's raceboat driver and naval engineer partner, sold out when they received an offer they couldn't refuse.

But displaying the same predilection in business as his private life for playing both ends off against the middle, Don soon opened a factory next door and started on his next range; Donzi.

The first craft off the line, the Donzi ‘Sweet Sixteen', was an instant hit - famous for its remarkable speed, maneuverability and rough water handling. The same applied to the 28 and 19 footers that followed. By the 1964-65 season, chequers were dropping on Donzi craft as quick as ladies at Aronow's feet.

Given Aronow's glamorous 100mph hour lifestyle, men wanted to be like him and women... well they just wanted him. It is purported that a secret doorway in the closet at his office led to a suite, complete with en-suite shower, which was used for clandestine meetings with up to as many as three or four admirers a day.When the news of Aronow's murder broke, many suspected a disgruntled husband had pulled the trigger. Aronow's talent for weaving an intricate web of suitors and enemies was not confined to his private life, it was also prevelant in his business dealings.

Donzi was sold almost as quickly as Formula, and Magnum Marine quickly followed suit; but when commisioned to build a 32 foot powerboat by Cary Marine - Aronow came up with a fitting legacy: the Cigarette. Talking of his new craft, Don is quoted as saying, "It was a brute of a boat and was virtually uncontrollable, but it flew in big seas. Ripping through six foot waves at nearly 80 mph in an era when 70 mph was considered fast on flat water. If you could keep the deck pointed upright, nothing could touch it!"

Taking the name for the craft from a famous hijacking boat during the Prohibition era, and the fact the name become synonymous with craft running cocaine and marijuana in the Gulf of Mexico, gave some clue as to the areas in which Aronow conducting business.

It was a brute of a boat; doing 80mph in big seas when 70mph was considered fast on flat water.

As the Miami party scene rocked on the ready availability of illicit recreational substances, and society reeled under the ensuing savagery of the drug wars, South Florida's most notorious smugglers were regularly caught ferrying their powder cargoes in craft that had rolled off the Cigarette production line.

Suspected as a drug-smuggler and money launderer himself, with supposed links to the Genovese Purple Gang of New York and Meyer Lansky's crime syndicate, Aronow's role in marijuana smuggling was reportedly confirmed by Bill Norris, head of the Major Narcotics Unit at the Miami U.S. Attorney's office; the top federal drug prosecution official in south Florida.

As Aronow's list of high-profile international clients continued to grow, the CIA apparently grew interested; they were focussing on his relationship with foreign leaders who liked fast boats. But Aranow was not alone, the rest of the local racing scene was also undergoing scrutiny.

In 1982 the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale ran an expose, listing 13 racing drivers involved in the distribution of drugs. Needless to say, the FBI, the Coast Guard, and the IRS became acuteley interested in Aronow's customers.

In a classic case of running with the hounds and the hares, Aronow became friends with one George H.W. Bush - who became a customer after they reportedly met at a boat show in 1974. Later during his ‘War on Drugs' in 1988, it was Vice President Bush who stated, "I will never bargain with drug dealers on U.S. or foreign soil." However, earlier on 4th January 1984, after delivering a similar speech at the Omni International Hotel in Miami in the morning, Bush met with Aronow at Islamorada in the Florida Keys.

There Aronow waited on a new ‘Blue Thunder' catamaran, a design he had discussed with Bush whilst out fishing the previous year. The pair then left Islamorada for a thrilling ride back to Miami - accompanied by Bush's Secret Service bodyguards riding in Cigarette boats confiscated from drug smugglers!

As the authorities struggled to cope with a new breed of performance craft, they too turned to Aronow to provide them with a craft to hunt and catch the smugglers.

With great pomp and ceremony, the lucrative contract for Blue Thunders at $150,000 a pop was announced - influenced it is said by Vice President Bush.

Surprisingly, these multi-hulls weren't up to the task of hunting down the 80mph+ Cigarette craft designed by Aronow, a company he had sold on some time earlier.

The Blue Thunder contract however did not come without its own headaches for Aronow - and some say it is the circumstances surrounding it that led to his demise. In 1985 Don Aronow sold USA Racing, the company who produced Blue Thunder to Ben Krammer, a race boat driver with a conviction for marijuana smuggling in 1977.

Krammer's first smuggling boat was a secondhand yellow Cigarette he named Mellow Yellow, but after a spell in jail he re-emerged with connections to the Columbian drug cartels.

On his release from prison Krammer approached Aronow for help and was given the plans to build the Apache Warpath, which he victoriously raced in the 1984 World Offshore Powerboat Championships.Given Krammer's ‘colourful history', it is understood the government were somewhat retiscent to continue with the contract, so Aronow bought the company back.

Another rumour has it that certain untraceable funds made as part payment for the company were not returned, and this put Krammer firmly in the frame with a motive for revenge. Both Aronow's son and wife strongly contest this theory.

The waters were further muddied a few months after Aronow was gunned down, when three Special Agents of the FBI visited another business on Thunderboat Alley.

There Mike Brittain at Aluminum Marine Products was continually questioned over the merger of the Aronow's company USA Racing, with Krammer's Super Chief South company - but not a word about the murder.

In 1990 Jack Kramer and Ben Kramer were collectively found guilty on more than 50 counts of federal money laundering charges. Ben had already been sentenced to life imprisonment, without parole, for having imported half a million pounds of marijuana.

Bush had thus given a prime contract in the waging the war on drugs to one of the leading drug-smuggling and money-laundering crime families in the U.S.! Hence conspiracy theories of a ‘clean-up' operation, at the time of Aronow's death and the Iran-Contra affair abound.

George Morales, the champion power-boater, would later testify before Congress, that at the same time as he had been winning races and smuggling drugs into Miami, he had been smuggling arms to the Contras in Nicaragua at the behest of the CIA - who were then flying his planes back to Fort Lauderdale loaded with cocaine. According to The Miami Herald, Aronow, on the day of his murder, was working on shipping two boats to Manuel Noriega.

The years of speculation regarding who held the smoking gun in the Aronow slaying seemed to be finally laid to rest in 1994. Krammer, who had been moved to a maximum security prison, following an audacious escape attempt that invoved landing a helicopter in the prison yard, pled ‘No Contest' to charges that he ordered the death of Aronow for the sum of $60,000. Another felon serving time, Bobby Young, admitted to being the triggerman in the black Lincoln Town Car for a reduction in his sentence.

That's not to say the conspiracy theories have been laid to rest however, neither prisoner actually pleaded guilty, and both were unlikely to see the light of day again anyway - so some believe they took the rap for others.

There is one final theory that is well worth considering. The family maintain to this day that Don Aronow was a straight-up, clean as they come businessman, who ran everything by the book.

Some therefore suggest, if that was the case, maybe Aronow was silenced to prevent mob bosses being taken down by the IRS, in the same way Al Capone was. If his books were completely ligit, it would have produced a paper trail that would have left a lot of people explaining away a lot of ‘undeclared income'.

Given the people Aronow may have come into contact with in Miami at that time, anything is possible. What we do know, is that whatever went on behind the scenes, Donald Joel Aronow was a powerboat racer, designer and builder extraordinaire that few can hold a candle to; his name and those he consorted with are inked in the pages of the powerboat history - the good, the bad and the ugly.

Postscript: Don Aronow founded companies such as Formula, Donzi, Magnum and Cigarette, but he owned these companies for a short period of time before selling them. This article makes no inference that the current owners of these companies are involved in any wrongdoing whatsoever.

One of the first on the scene as Aronow lay dying, was an Apache employee who took Aronow's gold Rolex Presidential that he'd won in a race. He later melted the watch down and sold the gold for $600 after failing to find a buyer.

"You could put together a top drug-running racing boat for around $65,000. A 35 to 40 footer, fully equipped with twin 454-cubic-inch MerCruiser engines, outsized 350 to 400-gallon fuel tanks, sophisticated navigation and radio gear; the works." A quote from an interview with Don Aronow in a 1971 issue of Sports Illustrated.

While racing with his fearless navigator ‘Knocky' House for seven years, Aronow only failed to finish in two races; the 1967 Gateway Marathon to the Bahamas when their boat exploded and the 1968 Miami-Nassau when the boat caught fire.

Aronow jumped his Donzi 15 so high in one race, that the deck clipped the skids of a press helicopter. Don broke the silence by saying "What are you gonna do when we get to Morro Bay?" House replied, "Get in the shower. I just soiled my pants." Don replied, "I get the shower first. I own the boat."