Randy Lanier: The Long Way Home
Ex-Racer spent 27 years in prison for smuggling marijuana but he now has a second chance
Pinpointing the moment that Randy Lanier's hitherto-charmed life went to hell: Saturday, August 2, 1986, about 2 p.m.
Lanier, the 1986 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, was having the best run of his 18-race IndyCar career during the Michigan 500 at Michigan International Speedway after qualifying fifth.
He felt a vibration. He pitted, asking the crew to check the wheels and tires. All looked well, they said, and he went back out. A lap or two later, at exactly the race's halfway point, a tire blew. Lanier slammed his red No. 12 Arciero Wines March-Cosworth into the Turn 3 wall at 214 mph. His right leg was badly broken. His hip would never be the same.
As he lay in a hospital bed that night, he didn't know it, but that was the end of his professional racing career. And a whole lot more. Soon, he'd be in prison for the rest of his life. A "natural death sentence," he calls it: You go in wearing handcuffs, come out in a casket.
The fact his sentence was commuted two years ago, and Lanier was released from prison after spending nearly half his life in maximum security, is an answer to his prayers, a miracle for a man who wondered for 27 years if that day would ever come.
This is how it all happened.
Randy Lanier was a professional race-car driver, and a solid one, but he made his living smuggling marijuana. Tons. Hundreds of tons. Certainly he didn't start out that way. As a teenager, Lanier was, like his father, a carpenter. But South Florida is a tough place to work outside; Lanier soon realized he was making more money selling pot to the other construction workers, "and I thought, 'What am I doing pounding nails in the summer on a roof in Florida?'"
Soon he bought a boat big enough to make a run to the Bahamas and come back loaded with marijuana. The boats got bigger, and the loads got bigger, with 20,000 pounds considered a profitable run. Lanier partnered with Ben Kramer, a world-champion boat racer, in 1981. Kramer handled most of the front work acquiring tons of pot; Lanier handled distribution.
In 1983, they took smuggling to the next level. They hollowed out the ballast compartment on a barge in Colombia, packed it with 130,000 pounds of marijuana, then loaded the barge's deck with a legitimate cargo of Venezuelan cement. Later, Lanier floated 165,000 pounds of pot under the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco's harbor.
Exactly how much pot Lanier and Kramer, together and separately, smuggled into the U.S. is anyone's guess. But federal prosecutors figured they could account for more than 325 tons, worth more than $300 million. That is, by most accounts, a profoundly modest estimate. It was a stunningly successful enterprise while it lasted, and even investigators and prosecutors acknowledged quietly that had Lanier and Kramer put the same amount of effort and acumen into a legitimate business, they'd likely be a force in the financial world.
But Kramer was too busy racing boats, Lanier too busy racing cars, and they were paying for it all with pot. Lanier had gone to a car show in 1978 in Fort Lauderdale and happened upon a display for the Sports Car Club of America. He liked what he saw, bought a ragged 1957 Porsche 356, and fixed it up to race.
Soon after, he met the Whittington brothers, Bill and Don, gentlemen drivers who had somehow managed to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1979. Their source of income was universally regarded as questionable, later confirmed when both went to prison in 1987 for smuggling $73 million worth of pot.
The Whittingtons were serious, top-level racers, though, and they took Lanier under their wing and arranged for him to get some tutoring. They called Terry Earwood, who has for years been the lead instructor for the Skip Barber Racing School. Earwood's father, Charlie, was a well-respected SCCA race official.
"My parents were not happy with me, working for the Whittingtons, but I told them I needed the job," Earwood says. "And they sent me Randy, who turned out to be one of the best, most talented students I've ever had," and Earwood has had thousands.
Lanier and his small crew began hitting the SCCA races in the Southeast—and winning. In 1980, he took his Porsche to the SCCA Runoffs and happened to park next to John Paul Sr. 's Formula Ford, which his son, John Paul Jr., was racing. Senior nearly got into a fight with Lanier because he didn't like the way Lanier was doing wheelies on his four-wheeler next to Senior's motorhome. Senior was subsequently regarded as perhaps the most violent, notorious member of the racing drug smugglers after shooting an informant five times, for which he was convicted, among other things. He was released in 1999, then eventually disappeared into hiding—where he remains—after authorities sought to question him in the disappearance of his then-girlfriend.
Two years later, Lanier was at the 1982 24 Hours of Daytona after buying a last-minute seat in a Ferrari 512 BB with Bob Wollek and Edgar Dören, replacing Janet Guthrie, who had caught the flu, when someone knocked on his motorhome door. It was a friend, saying John Paul Sr., who won the race, was outside and asking to meet Lanier, not knowing they had already met two years earlier.
"I was snorting a little cocaine," Lanier recalls, "and I typically didn't let many people into the motorhome, but I said, 'Sure! Tell him to get his ass in here!' So we partied some and have been friends ever since." A long-lasting friendship: After both were sent to prison, they ended up at Leavenworth in Kansas and often walked the yard together.
You might think that meeting would explain a passage from the biography of Desiré Wilson, one of five women to race in Formula 1, whose Porsche had broken early in the Daytona race. She was scheduled to take a turn in the team's Ferrari 512 BB. "Driven by Desire: The Desiré Wilson Story," was written by her husband, track designer Alan Wilson: "Des and I watched as Lanier got ready to take over for Bob, noting how nervous he seemed, shaking, and, at the same time, making little jumps as he stood in the pit. We looked at each other and agreed that he was on something and certainly in no condition to drive a race car. He took over from Bob and on his first lap ran off course and destroyed the suspension."
Lanier today disputes he was ever intoxicated, on any substance, during a race, and he says the Wilsons are mistaken in their account. "I've never been high behind the wheel of a race car," Lanier says. He doesn't deny the motorhome meet-up with Paul, but he said it occurred after the race. He also says he did not drive the Ferrari off the track, and that a broken gearbox caused the DNF. That contention is backed by "Daytona 24 Hours: The Definitive History of America's Great Endurance Race," by J.J. O'Malley, which says, "Lanier missed a shift and terminally damaged the car's transmission."
From that inauspicious debut at Daytona, Lanier sharpened his focus on motorsports. He and the Whittingtons formed Blue Thunder Racing, a name that many later recognized as an in-your-face reference to the hapless Blue Thunder boats specifically built for the federal government to chase down smugglers. But the boats didn't work so well, and soon, not many smugglers were using speedboats anyway—not with barges so plentiful and profitable.
With no real visible means of support—Lanier's cover story was that he made his millions renting Jet Skis on the beach—he began winning and became the IMSA champion in 1984. By then, of course, IMSA was widely referred to as the International Marijuana Smugglers Association. It was no longer a joke.
When the feds finally caught up with Randy Lanier, it wasn't because of his flamboyant racing lifestyle or suspicion about his supposedly million-dollar Jet Ski rental business. "They never paid any attention to that. Never."
Rather, it was because some ambitious investigators and prosecutors in Illinois, flush with the mandate from the Reagan administration's renewed war on drugs, began taking apart the smugglers and sellers the old-fashioned way: They busted a guy with a couple of pounds of pot—which was not Lanier's, he insists—and began working backward. The first guy flipped on the second guy, who flipped on the third guy, and pretty soon, the investigators were talking about hundreds of pounds of pot, then thousands. They arranged for a 600-pound buy in New Orleans, and that led them indirectly to Lanier. He couldn't deny it: There was too much evidence, too many people willing to rat him out to reduce their own sentences.
Which Lanier could have done, too. He was offered a deal to take a 22-year sentence, with probable parole in six or seven years, to turn informant on seven people. He refused. And he got the natural death sentence. Of those seven people, who were not indicted, did any of them thank him?
Lanier thinks about it and says, "I guess one sort of did."
He wonders if he did the right thing back then. "Now, knowing what I know, I might have made a different decision."
Lanier made bail in February 1987 and ran. He went to Monte Carlo, then to the Caribbean island of Barbuda, where two FBI agents arrested him while he was fishing, after eight months on the lam.
Lanier was a multimillionaire, owning shopping centers, multiple homes around the country, restaurants, even the Road Atlanta racetrack, which he says he bought from the Whittingtons in 1985 using two brothers from Texas as the front men and titular owners. After he was arrested, Lanier says the track was sold and he got nothing.
There were boats, planes, classic cars, hot rods. All gone. All confiscated as part of the $40 million fine that went along with his life sentence.
On October 15, 1986, still hurting from his IndyCar crash in the Michigan 500, Lanier was indicted in Fort Lauderdale for laundering money from marijuana smuggling. But that was inconsequential compared to the indictment January 29, 1987, in the Southern District of Illinois for drug smuggling under the new Continuing Criminal Enterprise law. He could be, and eventually was, considered a "drug kingpin," which meant a mandatory life sentence without parole if convicted.
On January 5, 1987, Don and Bill Whittington struck plea deals for relatively short sentences, considering that they were convicted of smuggling $73 million worth of marijuana. Some took that as a sign they were likely cooperating with prosecutors.
On December 21, 1988, Lanier got that "natural death" sentence. "You have before you, Judge, one of the richest men in the United States because of his dealings in drugs," announced the prosecutor.
Lanier's heated response: "A person should not have to spend the rest of his life in prison for marijuana."
But he went to prison with that mandate. So did his partner, Ben Kramer, but Kramer would have additional problems. The drug trade in South Florida was becoming so tense, so turbulent; clearly the good times were over. Indictments flew, and deals were cut as informants tried to talk their way out of jail.
The tension reached a peak February 3, 1987. Don Aronow, off-shore boat-racing champion and builder of Cigarette boats and those Blue Thunder boats he constructed for U.S. federal agents to chase down drug smugglers—many of whose boats Aronow built and sold, too—was gunned down behind the wheel of his new Mercedes-Benz 560SL, just outside his office.
Aronow's pals ranged from Jordan's King Hussein to future President George W. Bush, and his murder caused a massive peeing of pants in South Florida. Was his murder drug-related? The Colombia cartel? Gangsters? A jealous husband who had gotten wind of his unabashed popularity with women?
Several authors wrote books about the crime, with the best being "Speed Kills" by true-crime writer Arthur Jay Harris, who covered the case. No one trusted anyone else, including the media. According to Harris, one writer finally got a detective to sit down for an off-the-record, no-notes, no-recording background interview about the drug business. Midway through, the detective heard a loud "click"—the writer's hidden recorder had reached the end of its tape. The interview ended with prejudice.
"Marijuana smuggling was a gentlemanly business in the 1970s, when Lanier and Kramer got into it," Harris says. But in the 1980s, "the business became bloody."
What does this have to do with Randy Lanier? Plenty. From the outset, the leading suspect in the Aronow murder was Kramer, who, along with his father, built and raced Apache boats in competition with Aronow. Kramer eventually was found guilty of hiring a hitman to kill his archrival, though it mattered little because Kramer was already in prison, like Lanier, sentenced to life without parole.
Lanier was never remotely connected to the murder, but his self-professed nonviolent past was tainted by the bombastic Kramer, who filmed himself touring Colombian marijuana ranches. But the connection to Kramer didn't stop there.
Those who knew Ben Kramer had an idea he would not serve out his life-without-parole sentence quietly. And they were not surprised when, on April 17, 1989, Kramer tried to escape from prison in Miami. He apparently arranged to have a stooge named Charles Stevens take helicopter flying lessons, then fronted Stevens $35,000 to buy a 37-year-old, two-passenger Bell helicopter and $60,000 for a Piper Aztec that Kramer would fly to Colombia as soon as he escaped.
At a predetermined time, when Kramer was in the exercise yard, Stevens flew the helicopter into the yard and hovered while Kramer ran to it and grabbed one of the skids. Stevens tried to take off. But his student-pilot lessons did not include what to do when a 200-pound man is hanging from one side, and the helicopter crashed in the prison yard. Both men were injured, the pilot the worst, with two broken legs to Kramer's one.
What does this have to do with Randy Lanier? Federal authorities learned the former racer was contemplating an escape of his own, possibly one similar to Kramer's ill-advised attempt. "I was young," Lanier says. "I had no intention of spending the rest of my life in jail."
Lanier says he made plans but never acted on them, but that was enough for him to be hit with an additional charge of attempted escape. And that landed him in solitary confinement for years—23 hours per day in a tiny cell, with one hour to walk around in what amounted to a chain-link cage. Solitary was followed by years of hourly mandatory reporting.
"Anytime I was outside my cell, wherever I was or whatever I was doing, every hour on the hour, I would have to find a guard and say, 'Randy Lanier reporting in,'" he says. "The guard would radio, 'I have eyes on Randy Lanier.' Same thing next hour and the next."
Make no mistake: Lanier's 27 years were not done in a country-club prison. In the late 1990s, the worst of it all occurred at the Federal Correctional Institution in Florence, Colorado, at the hands of a group of guards who called themselves the Cowboys. Seven of the guards were indicted in 2000 for appalling systematic abuses that, said the indictment, included "kicking prisoners in their backs and stomping their testicles." It was, Lanier recalls, "just brutal."
Food was uniformly terrible; medical care was mostly theoretical. Lanier suffered from a bad hip, possibly due in part to injuries suffered in his IndyCar crash in Michigan, and it took years for him to get a hip replacement.
Lanier's last stint in prison was done at the United States Penitentiary in Coleman, Florida, near Ocala. Among the more than 3,000 prisoners: Gangster Whitey Bulger, portrayed recently by actor Johnny Depp in "Black Mass;" Leonard Peltier, the Native American activist imprisoned for killing two FBI agents in a 1975 shootout in South Dakota; Tijuana cartel leader Benjamin Arellano-Félix; convicted Somali pirate Gabul Abdullah Ali; and Lanier's old drug-smuggling partner, Kramer. It's a frightening, desolate place. At night, from miles away, you can see the glow of the orange sodium lights that ring Coleman. "I went years without seeing the stars," Lanier recalled. "It's never dark in prison."
At its worst, though, Lanier said he never gave up hope. Eventually he adapted, thanks to reading every book he could get his hands on and adopting the basic principles of meditation and yoga that he continues to practice. Near the end, Lanier was so trusted that the prison asked him to volunteer as a companion to suicidal inmates, to talk to them, to help them deal with inevitable depression.
So how did Randy Lanier get out? It's a little murky, with the details sealed. Part of it, of course, is that with the national push to decriminalize marijuana possession, even legalize it, the court in Illinois figured 27 years was enough. But there's more to it, and it may involve some of those property confiscations the government might not want to make public.
The bottom line: Lanier walked out of prison in Coleman, Florida, on October 14, 2014, a free man at the age of 60.
He went back to familiar turf—Fort Lauderdale—and began learning about cellphones and Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian. He went to work for Preston Henn, enormously wealthy owner of the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop, a 14-screen drive-in movie theater by night, a massive third-world flea market by day.
Henn used to race boats and sports cars, winning the 24 Hours of Daytona with drivers A.J. Foyt and Bob Wollek in 1983, and the next year his Porsche 956 finished second at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, driven by John Paul Sr. and Jean Rondeau. The next year his Porsche 962, driven by Foyt and Wollek, won the 12 Hours of Sebring. Lanier often drove for Henn.
But why did he hire Lanier upon his release from prison?
"Why not?" Henn responds. "I was crazy enough to hire John Paul Sr. when he needed a job after he got out of jail."
Actually, that didn't last long, as Paul, living in a rental home that Henn arranged for, became paranoid one night and took an ax to all the cable TV equipment, including the cables and boxes outside, because he was convinced authorities were spying on him.
Working for Henn, Lanier would rise at 4 a.m. and be on the job at 5, as vendors began arriving to stake out the best spots. He drove a $625 Hyundai that previously served a hard life as a rental car. He wore a white short-sleeved shirt ($2), blue slacks ($4), and a tie ($1), all from Goodwill.
Lanier spent the days driving around in a golf cart, covering the nearly 90-acre flea market, putting out fires, stopping fights, and looking for fake designer-label merchandise—lawsuits by companies such as Coach and Louis Vuitton have cost Henn millions. The Vuitton suit was settled at the last minute, but not before much of Henn's closely guarded financials were disclosed. According to the Sun Sentinel newspaper: Preston and Betty Henn, his wife of more than 40 years, "like to play video poker at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood and legally deducted their gambling losses of $27 million in 2011."
The work was hard, but Lanier was happy. He lived near the beach, had a girlfriend, Jaime, and a rescued dog, an abused, skin-and-bones stray when he literally wandered into Jaime's apartment; in six months, she had that dog looking ready for Westminster.
Lanier tried to turn his back on racing but failed, managing to jump back into the pool with a ride in a BMW in an endurance race in Ohio. The fire was relit.
Then, on Father's Day this year, Lanier left the apartment he shared with Jaime and her dog. He visited with his children and grandchildren. When he got home, he found Jaime upstairs, in bed. She had just begun taking Xanax and apparently mixed it with some wine.
"I gave her CPR until the ambulance came, but she was gone," Lanier says, in tears. "Jaime was gone."
She was just 38. There was a quiet little memorial for her on the beach, and a 21-word obituary in the Palm Beach Post. And then it was just Randy and Jaime's dog.
"God doesn't give us more than we can handle," Lanier says. But sometimes He comes damn close.
Lanier knows that life, what he has left of it, goes on. He hooked up with a racing team that fields a Porsche 997 in sports-car races, and he also filmed a pilot for a TV series called "Back on Track," that would feature him and other athletes as they attempt a comeback, and he is working on race sponsorship. He has become a motivational speaker, and he's pretty good at it.
Lanier left the Swap Shop and works in the afternoons as a drug- and alcohol-abuse counselor. And like all race-car drivers, he's looking for more seat time, and he's getting it: He sold the Hyundai, bought a used Honda Accord, and in his spare time, he is now probably America's most overqualified Uber driver.
"I've learned how precious every day is," he says, "especially since Jaime died. I want to honor her, and all the people who have helped me, by being the best man I know how to be. It was a blessing to get a second chance. I want to make the most of it."
Color archive photography by Dan Boyd. From the Miami Herald, April 1 © 1993 McClatchy. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of this content without express written permission is prohibited.