Miami Herald

August 29, 1987

RACER ARRESTED

LYNNE DUKE And STEPHEN J. HEDGES Herald Staff Writers

 

International powerboat racing champion and boat builder Benjamin Barry Kramer was ordered held without bond Friday on charges that he ran a criminal enterprise that distributed more than half a million pounds of marijuana nationwide.

In a two-count federal indictment handed up in Southern Illinois, Kramer, 33, was charged with running a continuing criminal enterprise in at least 11 states, including Florida, between 1980 and June of this year. That charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. Kramer also was accused of conspiracy to distribute marijuana.

The Illinois indictment claims that Kramer distributed at least four large marijuana shipments, worth $305 million wholesale, in New York, San Francisco and New Orleans between 1983 and 1986.

Friday afternoon, federal agents swarmed into Kramer's Fort Apache Marina, 3025 NE 188th St., sealing it off until they can determine who owns the nearly 200 boats stored there. Kramer's property will be seized under a sealed warrant issued Friday. Agents also seized the property at Fort Apache Marine, at 2800 N. 30th Ave., Hollywood, a boat repair facility where the molds for Kramer's high-powered offshore boats are stored.

Kramer was arrested Thursday at his Williams Island residence as he prepared to leave for a powerboat race in Bay City, Mich. His boat, named Apache, was seized in Bay City.

Kramer appeared before U.S. Magistrate William Turnoff Friday, who ordered him held until a bond hearing Monday.

"We consider him to be an extreme risk of flight," assistant U.S. attorney Dan Cassidy said. "We consider him to be an extreme danger to the community."

Kramer, convicted of marijuana smuggling in 1978, will be tried in Benton, Ill.

Known as a brash and impatient man and a superb skipper, Kramer rose to powerboat prominence while associated with Robert Saccenti, a boat builder and the protege of the late Don Aronow. Kramer and Saccenti won the 1986 United States Open Class Offshore Powerboat Racing Championship and the 1984 world title.

Aronow was gunned down Feb. 3 just after visiting Kramer and Saccenti's Apache Performance Boats. Aronow's own company, USA Racing Team, is nearby. Kramer's lawyers said their client was not involved in Aronow's death, which is unsolved.

"There's no indication that I received whatever that he's involved in the Aronow case," attorney David Bogunschutz said.

Lt. Jerry Burgin of the Metro-Dade police homicide unit said he could not comment on who is or isn't a suspect.

FBI agents in Illinois came across Kramer's alleged smuggling operation while on the trail of race car driver Randy Lanier of Davie. Now a fugitive, Lanier failed to appear in court after his Jan. 23 indictment on a marijuana smuggling charge. Lanier is one of several unindicted co-conspirators in the Kramer indictment.

At the time of his arrest, Kramer was under investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service and New Scotland Yard.

Dubbed Operation Man, the investigation has targeted marijuana smuggling and money laundering schemes in Britain's Isle of Man, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the tiny European principality of Liechtenstein.

The Illinois indictment returned Wednesday pressed DEA and IRS agents into action, DEA spokesman Jack Hook said. When agents learned that Kramer's associates were liquidating his assets -- estimated at $15 million -- they moved to seize them, Hook said.

Most of the vessels at Fort Apache Marina are owned by boaters who pay monthly storage fees. Agents began an inventory Friday, telling owners their boats would have to stay ashore until at least noon Monday.

One owner, Andrea Pardes, was miffed that her weekend of boating was ruined.

"This is real cute, you know that?" she said. "Just wait till the innocent victims can't get their boats."

Kramer purchased the property for his marina with the help of Don Whittington, a Broward race car driver who pleaded guilty last year to drug and tax evasion charges, Hook said. Whittington helped Kramer negotiate for the purchase, he said.

The Fort Apache Marina, which has slips and dry storage for about 200 boats, was built with $3.6 million from Kramer's smuggling operation, Hook said. He allegedly hid his company's ownership behind shell companies, Hook said. Kramer allegedly set himself up as the renter of Fort Apache Marina and, Hook said, and then paid himself $60,000 a month rent.

Saccenti, Kramer's partner, could not be reached for comment.

Paul Teresi, the agent in charge of the DEA's Fort Lauderdale office, said, "Our information does not indicate that he is associated with this particular block that we are seizing."

Apache Performance Boats, located at 3161 NE 188th St, was not seized.

Kramer's father Jack speculated his son's arrest was meant to put the squeeze on someone else.

"This is from something that happened back in 1978 and 1979," Jack Kramer said. "I don't know why they've done this."

Operation Man has resulted in 15 indictments thus far, Teresi said, including that of Elton Gissendanner, the former director of the Florida Department of Natural Resources. Gissendanner was indicted June 22 on an extortion charge that claims he accepted $80,000 from a convicted smuggler in exchange for recommending that convict receive probation. Gissendanner pleaded not guilty.

DEA agent Teresi said the Kramer investigation is continuing.

BEN KRAMER: BOAT CHAMP, LIFESAVER IS REIGNING U.S. open class offshore powerboat champion, winning the title last September in a race that began at Government Cut off Miami Beach.

SAVED throttleman Bob Saccenti's life after a crash Sept. 9 in Rochester, N.Y., that nearly killed Kramer himself.

WON the 1984 offshore powerboat open class world championship.

IN MAY 1986, he helped save Hollywood restaurateur Joe Sonken, whose car plunged off a dock into the Intracoastal Waterway near the Gold Coast Restaurant. Kramer and a restaurant bartender dived into the water and freed Sonken from his car, pulling him to shore.