The grisly murder of speedboat champion Don Aronow is an irresistible “Miami Vice”-style story that practically defines the go-go years of South Florida in the ’80s. It’s got everything: drug runners, fast boats, mobsters, Palm Beachers, a cameo appearance from then-Vice President George Bush and a mysterious, gangland-esque contract hit that wasn’t solved for years.
What took moviemakers so long?
It was announced last week that John Travolta has signed up to play Aronow, a world champion speedboat racer who designed the first modern cigarette boat and ran a legendary Miami boatbuilding empire favored by both cops and crooks. The movie, “Speed Kills,” will begin filming in May in Miami Beach and Puerto Rico, according to online site Deadline.
“I like biopic films,” Travolta, who recently played lawyer Robert Shapiro in the acclaimed TV miniseries “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” told Deadline. “They are fascinating to me, and real-life characters are always interesting to play. This is a great story.”
It’s also a story in which our former paper The Miami News played a small role.
Four days before he was slain, the News took a photograph of Aronow only steps from the spot where he would roll down the window of his white Mercedes-Benz and be raked by gunfire. The photo was for an upcoming article about Miami boat designers. The News asked him if drug cartels had ever purchased any of his high-speed craft.
“I suppose they have,” he told the News in a final interview hours before he was murdered. “It’s hard to tell … you can have your suspicions.”
Suspicions and rumors began almost immediately after Aronow, 59, was gunned down on Feb. 3, 1987 in the industrial area known as Powerboat Alley near Aventura. Witnesses heard several shots. Shell casings from a .45-caliber automatic littered the ground. A bullet pierced the side of his car. A Lincoln Continental that had pulled alongside Aronow’s Mercedes was seen fleeing from the scene.
People wondered if drug kingpins were after Aronow — after all, his rep as smuggling’s boatbuilder supreme led him to develop the Blue Thunder, a speedier 39-foot catamaran for the U.S. Customs Service and Drug Enforcement Administration to intercept cartel vessels. Descriptions of the killing as a gangland-like hit also raised the specter of Mafia connections.
Aronow, a guy with “macho style,” didn’t keep a low profile. He lived large on Miami Beach and traveled in heady circles — then-Vice President Bush was a friend and so was retired Miami mobster Meyer Lansky. Jordan’s King Hussein was a customer, as were Spain’s King Juan Carlos, Ringo Starr, Haitian strongman Baby Doc Duvalier, the Shah of Iran, and former President Lyndon B. Johnson. He even owned a horse that raced in the Kentucky Derby.
The wealthy Aronow was no stranger to Palm Beach, either, where he and his former model wife were friends with islanders such as Kleenex heir James Kimberly. They stayed at Kimberly’s El Vedado house and attended the annual Coconuts New Year’s Eve party. Palm Beachers described him to the Post as “hearty” and “sort of a back slapper.”
Even with a $100,000 reward, police were stymied for years trying to find Aronow’s attacker. The Miami Herald published a list of theories: There was a mystery man who had stopped by Aronow’s office and acted strangely just before the ambush killing. There were rumors of a jealous husband: Aronow was a “high-performance ladies’ man,” as the Herald put it. People speculated that he was Mobbed up or had absconded with Mob money. Or he knew too much about drug smuggling operations and was silenced.
The most credible theory involved boat racer Ben Kramer, who bought one of Aronow’s boatbuilding companies but could not keep it. Reports said the U.S. Custom Service wouldn’t work with Kramer because of a previous drug smuggling conviction. Aronow bought the company back and Kramer reportedly lost money. The assumption was that Aronow’s murder was payback over the botched deal.
Eventually, police began pulling the threads together and found their killers already behind bars on other drug-related convictions. In 1995, hit man Bobby Young bragged in jail to shooting Aronow for a reported $60,000 and took a plea deal. A year later, testimony from a jail informant led to Kramer, long suspected by police, who admitted to orchestrating the Aranow murder. Young later died in jail. An appeal by Kramer in 2010 failed.
In yet another twist in a very twisty saga, Kramer claimed that he only took a manslaughter plea for Aronow because it would get him transferred from what the Herald called “squalid conditions” at Dade County Jail. Kramer was a man who definitely didn’t like lockups: In 1990, while incarcerated on drug charges, he arranged a daring escape from a Dade federal pen exercise yard in a helicopter. But the helicopter crashed and Kramer broke his leg, according to online accounts.
As Travolta said: A great story.
If done right, Don Aronow’s achievement-filled life and tragic end could make quite a compelling movie, too.
Source material for this story came from The Miami News, The Miami Herald, The Palm Beach Post, The Palm Beach Daily News, The Associated Press, Wikipedia and the websites Jalopnik, Motorboat And Yachting and MiamiBeach411. Staff researcher Melanie Mena also contributed to this report.