Speed Kills: Who killed the Cigarette Boat King, the fastest man on the seas?

· Arthur Jay Harris
48 reviews

About this ebook

Now on Netflix, #5 most watched movie on the site in its first week: 

Speed Kills, the movie adaptation, screen-credited as based on the book Speed Kills, by Arthur J. Harris

John Travolta plays Ben Aronoff, a fictionalized Don Aronow.

Everybody liked and loved Don Aronow. He was powerboating's favorite, best-known, and most flamboyant racer and boat builder, the brilliant creator and designer of the famous Cigarette go-fast boats that broke speed records on the water. In everything he did, he consistently pushed the limits, always at full throttle, testing himself. In ocean races, in the worst of conditions, he was at his best. A competitor described him:

"We'd be taking a terrible pounding and I'd be almost beaten down to my knees when Don would come alongside and grin from ear to ear, then take off. God, he was so demoralizing."

That was what won him two world championships. It also carried over to his reputation of being not only a ladies' man, but whose girlfriends were often married.

Don was the living sales pitch for his boats - he sold magic. For the price, you could be more than you could ever imagine yourself as. You could be Don Aronow.

Who bought from him? Well-off businessmen in middle age crisis - and the CIA and the Israeli Mossad - kings, presidents-for-life - and George Bush. If you're thinking James Bond, so was he - he named one of his winning boats 007.

He was also Miami incarnate - everything great and dark and impenetrable and fascinating about the place.

He was Bond - except he played on both sides of the law. You probably never would have known about Cigarettes had dope smugglers not preferred them. Nobody could catch them in them.

Then came the Reagan-era Drug War, and Bush got Don a high-publicity federal contract to build patrol boats that were faster than those he'd sold to the smugglers. They were named Blue Thunder. The Miami Herald wrote:

The man who designed the roaring Cigarette speedboats, favorite vehicle of oceangoing drug smugglers, has built a better boat, one that will snuff the Cigarettes.

Watch out dopers. A crack of Blue Thunder, faster than a shiver, stable as a platform, is about to become the state of the salt-watery art on the side of the law.

What did the smugglers think?

Because then Don quietly and bizarrely sold his company with the contract to the biggest pot smuggler on the East Coast, Ben Kramer. It was a quintessential Miami moment - maybe the Miami moment of all time. Why did he do that?

At the time, the public didn't know what he did. Years later, NBC News broke the story. Said Tom Brokaw:

By the time drug agents on the trail put it all together, the Kramers and the government were already partners. That's right, the boats the Customs Service uses to catch drug smugglers were built for Customs by convicted drug dealers who used laundered drug money to buy the boat company. And you thought you'd heard everything.

Actually, the feds had found out and made Aronow undo the sale. But a year later a grand jury was poised to indict Kramer, and subpoenaed Don to testify. The day before he would have, he was murdered in broad daylight.

Nobody saw the shots - but they heard them, and then the high-pitched whine of his shiny white Mercedes sports coupe, the gas pedal floored by his dead foot - full throttle. And they saw the shooter's black Lincoln Town Car get away.

Somebody was afraid of what he was going to say. The cops concluded it was Kramer - and everyone who thought that was right. But actually, Kramer seemed the least affected by what Don probably would have testified to - and his absence didn't stop two grand juries from indicting Kramer, and two trial juries from convicting him.

Were the waters deeper than that?

Ratings and reviews

48 reviews
Sean O'Donovan
February 9, 2014
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Darrell Hartanto
December 24, 2013
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About the author

In addition to Speed Kills...

Who killed Adam Walsh (and is he really dead?) The search for the truth behind the crime that launched "America's Most Wanted"
A two-book series (with a separate Single Edition, a condensation of both books)

What if almost everything most everyone thinks about the Adam Walsh case is wrong?
Here is the case's conventional knowledge:

In Summer 1981, drifter Ottis Toole stole Adam from a mall in Florida and killed him, say police and Adam's parents, John and Reve Walsh. Although Jeffrey Dahmer became a suspect and was then living nearby, he couldn't have done it because his M.O. wasn't children as young as Adam, 6.

But ten years of book research shows that most of this case's long-accepted basic facts are dead wrong:

Seven independent witnesses, their names found in police investigative files, identified Dahmer as who they saw at the mall either with or close by to Adam.

There is a problem, never before reported, with the identification of the child who was found and said to be Adam.

After more than 30 years, this case has never come to trial -- and it never will because the case files are inexplicably missing their most essential forensic documents:

A medical examiner identified the found child as Adam strictly by its teeth, but Adam's dental records, which he used for matching and was handled by three official agencies, is gone; there was never any forensic dental report; and worst, there was never even an autopsy report. That, especially, should never happen. As a result, prosecutors will never be able to establish in court that the child who was found is, in fact, Adam Walsh.

And most shockingly, it is extremely unlikely that the found child is Adam.

When the positive ID of the found child as Adam was made, it was done quickly and announced hastily. But photographs and documents recently released in public records show that the found child has a top front tooth grown in almost all the way. That is much too far to match Adam. In his famous "Missing" picture, taken only a month before he vanished, Adam had neither top front tooth. His best friend last saw him a week or two before he disappeared, and he still didn't have them. After that, one front tooth did erupt. When the found child was discovered, Adam had been gone two weeks but the medical examiner said that he (Adam, he said) had been dead probably for all that time. Teeth don't keep growing after death.

In the space of up to two weeks, the time after his friend last saw him and when he disappeared, top front teeth just don't grow that fast, from eruption to in almost all the way.

If that's not Adam, who is it? And could Adam, incredibly, be alive?

FLOWERS FOR MRS. LUSKIN begins with a flower delivery to the best house in the best part of Hollywood, Florida. Inside, Marie Luskin was cautious; her husband Paul used to send her flowers but those days had ended more than a year before when she filed for divorce. She thought it was safe to open the door just enough to accept the pot of azaleas.

She was wrong. The delivery was a ruse; the man pointed a gun at her and demanded her money and jewelry. When he left, she fell to the floor, bloodied, thinking he'd hit her with the gun.

Over 40 years, Paul's family had built a business called Luskin's from one store in Baltimore into a chain of consumer electronics stores in Florida. Coming of age, Paul was taking it over, to run. He'd already made his first million, and he and Marie were living a life their friends admired. But between them all was not well. Then Paul's high school girlfriend moved to town with her husband, and sparks rekindled. When Marie discovered it she threw Paul out of the house. For a moment it looked like they would reunite. She asked Paul to move back in at the end of the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest sale day of the year. But that was a ruse, too. That day at the store, her attorneys served him the divorce.

Marie's attorneys were aggressive. Accusing Paul's parents of shielding his assets, they asked the judge for everything he--and his parents--had. A year later, it looked like Marie would get it all.

The divorce was overwhelming and compound stress. Three times Marie had him arrested for not paying his very high support payments exactly on time; the judge had frozen his assets, and his dad had asked him to leave his high-paying job because he couldn't concentrate both on it and the divorce. Marie's attorneys wanted Paul's mom to testify for days about the business's finances, but because she had a blood clot that stress could loosen and become lethal, Paul's family asked them to lay off her. They refused. Not long after came the flower delivery.

The Feds indicted Paul for attempted murder-for-hire. They told the jury:

A Luskin's employee called his brother in Baltimore who was a mob guy, who got someone to come to Hollywood to kill Marie. Although she thought the gunman hit her with the gun, he really shot her--his bullet grazed her head. Paul was convicted and sentenced to prison for 35 years.

In prison, Paul married his high school girlfriend. To me, they protested so insistently that there was no murder-for-hire that it seemed something was truly wrong. I eventually found there had been a murder plot--but the real question was, who had asked the Luskin's employee to call his brother in Baltimore?

Testimony said "Mr. Luskin" ordered the murder; the prosecutor naturally assumed that meant Paul. But there was a better case that "Mr. Luskin" was Paul's dad. As a result of his son's divorce he lost his whole business, owed Marie $11 million he didn't have and was facing jail for contempt of court for not paying her, and so had to leave the country.

At the story's turning point, "Mr. Luskin" had to choose between two untenable outcomes: the death of the elder Mrs. Luskin or the younger. But prosecutors also were forced to make a tragic choice. Without certainty of which "Mr. Luskin" it was, did they choose the wrong one?

UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT begins with a night 911 call from a woman gasping her last breaths. When police arrived at the house they found her dead, stabbed, and her husband, infant, and father-in-law all shot point-blank. They would survive.

Minutes later, a man also called 911, a gunman had released him from a robbery at the same house. He said he knew of no violence before he left. Yet he was the only one who the gunman hadn't tried to kill. Police instantly suspected him.

That night and long after, police tried to shake the man, Chuck Panoyan, who insisted he didn't know who the gunman was.

Police guessed right. A tip led them to the gunman, and that led to a trip Panoyan took to see him. Both were arrested, and prosecutor Brian Cavanagh won a death penalty indictment against them both.

But in pretrial, Panoyan's attorneys unraveled Cavanagh's case against their client. No longer certain Panoyan was guilty, Cavanagh reached No Man's Land: his choice was to let the jury sort it out, or admit he was wrong about Panoyan for now three years.

Cavanagh's dad Tom was a retired NYPD lieutenant who'd had a double murder he couldn't solve, then at another precinct a suspect confessed. Tom recognized it had been coerced and quietly asked his detectives if they could prove it wrong. When they did, the case became famous for police integrity. A TV movie renamed Tom's character: Kojak.

Years later, son Brian was at a similar turning point. Like his dad, he would not leave it to a jury to unscramble. He moved to release Chuck Panoyan from jail. But Panoyan had to tell his story: he'd lied to police because the gunman had threatened to kill his family if he spoke up. Once before, the gunman had killed a small child and went to prison
Who was the only one could make Panoyan comfortable enough to talk? The old man, the real-life Kojak, Tom Cavanagh.

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