The Murder of Speedboat Builder Don Aronow
Miami has had more than its share of sensational crimes. When you are the murder capital of the United States for nearly a decade at least one or two will have interesting stories behind them. But perhaps no murder, at least no murder that was solved, contained more intrigue and mystery than the shooting of speed-boat builder Don Aronow.
THE KING OF THUNDERBOAT ROW
A self-made millionaire by 28, Aronow moved to Miami from New Jersey in 1961 and began racing power boats for fun. By the next year he had formed his first boat company, Formula Marine, and began to race his boats around the world. His first mega success, The Cigarette, gained him worldwide fame and is still the generic name used for any large, high powered speed vessel. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, he became known as the God of speed boating, starting and selling several boat makers and racing teams and creating what was known as Thunderboat Row. This dead-end stretch of NE 188th St in what is now Aventura became the home of nearly every top speed-boat maker and racer in the Untied States. It would also be the last street Aronow saw alive.
As is customary in a world dominated by speed, money and worldwide travel, Aronow had friends ranging from mobster Meyer Lansky to former president George H. W. Bush. His social circles were the wealthy and powerful from all walks of life, both in legitimate and illegitimate businesses. He sold boats to King Hussein of Jordan, Baby Doc Chevalier in Haiti, former President Lyndon Johnson and just about anyone with a lot of money and a love for speed. For better or for worse, many of these people were involved in the drug business.
The combination of his location in the drug-smuggling hub of North America that was Miami and his penchant for making the fastest, toughest boats in the world made him an obvious vendor for the nefarious characters who populated our region. His boats were the vessel of choice for dope smugglers bringing product into South Florida, and Aronow was well aware of his reputation. In order to make up for his contribution to the crime wave, Aronow built a series of boats for the Drug Enforcement Agency and Customs officials called Blue Thunder. These boats were faster and more powerful than the models being used by the drug-runners and were applauded by the government as a valuable tool in the war on drugs. It was no coincidence that among the first riders in the Blue Thunder was then-Vice President Bush himself.
SHOT DOWN ON THE STREET HE CREATED
On the afternoon of February 3, 1987, Don Aronow was in his office on Thunderboat Row when a tall stranger walked in and identified himself as Jerry Jacoby. Jacoby claimed to work for a very rich man who wanted Aronow to build him a 60 foot boat. According to Aronow’s longtime assistant, Patty Lezaca, when Jacoby was asked what he did for this mystery man, he replied, “I’d do anything for him. I’d even kill for him.” As Aronow prepared to leave the office, the tall stranger abruptly left.
The boat mogul drove his white Mercedes a few blocks to the offices of Apache Performance Boats and his former protégé Robert Saccenti. After a brief social meeting, Aronow drove out and was approached by a dark Lincoln Continental with tinted windows. The driver exchanged some words with Aronow, and then shot him several times from the wrist into the jaw and the groin. Bobby Moore, a friend, found Aronow nearly dead a short time later, the engine and air conditioning of his car still running. He dies soon after.
Authorities searched for this mysterious Jerry Jacoby, and came up with little of use. One was a chauffeur, another was an associate of Aronow’s who was not the man in question, and another was in prison in Cuba. Lillian Aronow, Donald’s wife, offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of his killers, but little of use surfaced. Because of the somewhat-shady company that the speed boat magnate kept, the possibilities were endless.
WHEN YOU LIE DOWN WITH THESE DOGS, YOU DON’T WAKE UP
For years after the crime, the Miami-Dade homicide division kept all of its information top-secret. As a result, the public and the media developed a variety of theories as to why Aronow was killed. Some believed it was a jealous husband or boyfriend of one of Aronow’s various mistresses, despite Lillian’s assertions that he was faithful to her for the duration of their marriage. A notorious ladies man, this was not such a far-fetched theory, although most close to the boat builder insist that had he been involved with a married woman they would have known. And they didn’t.
Because of his time in the “construction business” in New Jersey, many assumed that he had strong ties to organized crime. It didn’t hurt, either, that he was close friends with mob financial brain-trust Meyer Lansky. While Aronow’s family insisted he made all of his money honestly, others surmised that he had taken his millions in the early 1960’s and fled to Florida to avoid the Mob. Authorities gave this theory some investigation, but quickly discovered that while he did in fact know many of these people, he was not in trouble with any of them.
Others believed that, because Aronow made such a point of cooperating with authorities, drug dealers were trying to silence him. Did he know what his high-speed boats were being used for? Of course he did. But that knowledge would hardly be enough to convict a drug kingpin. After all, it’s not like George Bush was using his Donzi to run Cocaine from the Caribbean, right? No, the theory was that the feds were using the cash purchases of expensive boats to build a tax evasion case against some of the nation’s biggest drug lords. So, in order to eliminate any complications arising from a boat purchase, said Kingpin would just have Aronow rubbed out. Again, this scenario seemed far-fetched. Since there was only knowledge of one case where Aronow spoke to the government (on a totally unrelated issue), it was unlikely anyone would slit their golden goose to avoid evidence of a boat purchase.
While those theories made for the most sensational and media-drawing cases, the one that held the most weight for detectives was that of Benjamin “Barry” Kramer. Kramer was a rival boat builder and racer who had purchased USA Racing Team from Aronow in 1984. In exchange for the company, Kramer gave Aronow land, assets, a helicopter and some cash. Cash that was, apparently, under the table. When the company was sold, it was in the process of developing Blue Thunder for the federal government. They, of course, believed USA Racing was still owned by Aronow. When the feds found out he had sold the company to Kramer, they began to second guess their contractual arrangement with the company. Kramer, you see, was convicted in 1978 of smuggling large amounts of marijuana and distributing it throughout the United States. Not exactly the sort of guy Uncle Sam likes to do business with. At least not publicly.
Fearing a cancellation of his government contract, Aronow bought back USA Racing but Kramer lost out on the deal. The generally-believed story among those on Thunderboat Row is that Aronow returned the land, assets and helicopter, but kept the undocumented cash. This left Kramer with no legal recourse to claim his losses, and few other options. Miami-Dade investigators looked hard into Kramer, who had again been indicted on drug charges shortly after the Aronow killing, but could not make any leads stick. The case became a long, drawn out whodunit.
OH WHAT A BEAUTIFUL MORNING!
In May of 1988 in Oklahoma, Metro-Dade detective Mike DeCora was investigating a tip from federal authorities that claimed to have a shooter in the Aronow investigation. A man in custody for drug charges had told many inmates that he was the one who had shot the speed-boat king. His name was Robert Young, a career criminal who was also wanted in Florida in connection with the death of “Dixie Mafia” character John “Big Red” Panzavecchia over a drug deal gone bad. A couple of years later, Young also shot Army Vet Craig Marshall in a dispute over a sailboat, although Scott survived the incident. Young was arrested but skipped out on his 6-figure bond in Broward County. In April of 1988, a federal grand jury in Oklahoma indicted Young in a drug-trafficking case. It was there where investigators found he may be the shooter they were looking for.
Among his other aforementioned contributions to society, Young had also once been convicted of smuggling drugs to Cuba. He was caught and thrown in prison, only to be released in 1984 in a bold political move by the then-Presidential hopeful Jesse Jackson. Along with Young, 21 other Americans were freed as well as 26 Cuban political prisoners. Among those not freed: Young’s partner in his ill-fated dope-smuggling trip Jerry Jacoby.
It is not known whether this was the same man who walked into Aronow’s office the day he was killed, but it has long been suspected that there were two shooters involved in the crime. Police began to build a case against Young, but they knew someone else had to be involved.
BEN KRAMER: ANOTHER CLASS ACT
And then came Marvyn Kessler. Kessler had represented Young in the mid-80’s for some of his countless violations of the criminal codes. By 1989, however, Kessler was unable to continue serving his client as the attorney himself had recently been found guilty of a drug-conspiracy charge. His co-defendant in the case: Ben Kramer.
Kramer, as well as being a speed boat aficionado, was also a big-time drug dealer. He was convicted, along with Kessler, in 1989 and sent to a federal correctional facility in South Dade. It was there that he attempted one of the most noteworthy escapes in Miami history, standing out in the middle of the athletic field and being picked up by an old Bell helicopter. The chopper, unfortunately, hit a snag on the prison’s barbed wire fence and crashed. Kramer was taken back into custody. No word whether this was the same helicopter he had once sold to Aronow.
Kessler told authorities he would testify that Kramer implicated himself in the 1987 Aronow shooting.
WEAK CASE, WEAKER DEFENDANTS
On June 12, 1990, Robert “Bobby” Young was formally charged with the murder of Don Aronow. At the time, authorities refused to state whether they had plans to implicate or arrest anyone else, as they remained as tight-lipped as they had throughout most of the case. Because he was already serving time for the “Dixie Mafia” murder and the Craig Marshall shooting, prosecutors took their time in building the case.
In 1993, the State of Florida indicted Kramer who, like Young, was serving a life sentence for his drug conviction. Because of his escape attempts, however, he got to serve his time in Dade County Jail rather than the more pushily accommodated federal facility. His indictment was the most heavily guarded in the history of the Dade County Courthouse, inviting dogs, federal agents, aviation support and bomb searches. Wisely, Kramer did not attempt to escape.
In October 1995, after 5 years of investigation and case-building, Bobby Young finally pled No Contest to second-degree murder, sparing him the possibility of a death sentence and, more importantly, keeping him from having to testify against Kramer. Young may have been a lot of things, but a rat he was not. The deal also allowed for the defendant to possibly be out of prison before he died. Young received 19 years for the crime, running concurrently with the time he would serve for his federal convictions. That sentence, however, would not begin until the 17 years he got for his murder and abduction charges were over.
Even without Young’s testimony, prosecutors still believed they had a strong case against Kramer. But as time went on, it began to weaken. Marvyn Kessler’s testimony, mainly which Young admitted to killing Aronow on Kramer’s orders, was ruled inadmissible as attorney-client privilege. Statements Young had made to Metro-Dade police were also ruled inadmissible because he had not had a lawyer present. The rest of the case was based on testimony from inmates and phone conversations, not exactly an air-tight conviction.
I GUESS GREEN BOLOGNA SANDWICHES JUST AREN’T FOR EVERYONE
Fortunately for prosecutors, the horrid conditions in Dade County Jail eventually forced Kramer’s hand. Perhaps it were the sub-freezing temperatures, or maybe it was the lack of bedding, or even beds for that matter, but after several years at DCJ Kramer finally agreed to plead No Contest, as Young had, and received 19 years. Years he could spend, mercifully, in a real prison rather than Dade’s downtown facility. His attorney, Jose Quinon (yes, the same Jose Quinon who was sleeping with Humberto Hernandez’s wife while he was on trial) said it was not an admission of guilt. But for the Aronow family, it gave them some closure.
For ten years, it seems the most sensational and drawn-out murder case in Miami history has been exactly that: History. But some say there is more out there that we do not know and probably never will. Two guys who already were spending most if not all of their lives behind bars pleading to a crime nobody could solve? Seems a little too convenient. Most associated with the case are happy with the results, and that is likely enough for any casual observer. Will we ever know what really happened that February day in 1987? Thanks to a couple of No Contest pleas, probably not. But in a world populated by boat racers, drug dealers, mobsters and world leaders, anything is possible. And, more importantly, anything is possible to cover up.
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"The Murder of Speedboat Builder Don Aronow"