Weed Racer: The Unlikely Rise and Epic Fall of Florida’s Marijuana-Smuggling Kingpin

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Randy Lanier walks alone and unnoticed through the Homestead-Miami Speedway. The racetrack is quiet. The grandstands are empty. The infield is deserted but for a huddled clutch of millennials and a husky Floridian wearing a view to a grill T-shirt. Next to the garages, Lanier greets a young man named Tim Read. A former Marine, Read is burly and thick-bearded, with a Latin tattoo stippled across his forearm meaning “Brother Through Death.” A prosthesis is fitted to his left knee, the result of an IED blast in Afghanistan. Like the 50 or so others gathered, Read had signed up to drive around the speedway for the day, unhampered by speed limits.

“Tap the brake, let off the brake. It’s called setting the car,” Lanier, who will serve as his instructor, tells him. “It’s been kind of a while since I’ve raced,” he adds. “My circumstances was . . . a little altered for a long time.” Read nods. He does not recognize Lanier, who, at 63, is short and swaggery and speaks with a high-pitched Southern lilt. Neither does Read’s girlfriend. Neither do any of the millennials, nor the man with the joke shirt.

Decades ago, Lanier could not have walked through a racetrack in America without being thronged by admirers. In the 1980s, he had appeared on the professional racing circuit out of nowhere – a young phenom who seemed to materialize ex nihilo in a British-made March race car. Lanier had no pedigree, no formal training – but he was fast. In 1984, his breakout year, Lanier stacked up win after win at tracks across America: Sebring, Laguna Seca, Charlotte. He was outracing some of the era’s best drivers, like Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti. Many of his competitors were backed by long-dominant and deep-pocketed factory teams – Porsche, Jaguar, Ford. Lanier’s March bore a logo from a local theme restaurant. It was as though an unknown chess player had routed the grandmasters.

Lanier’s remarkable ascent drew fans and reporters and race-team scouts alike. He was written up in Sports Illustrated and in newspapers across the country. “It was like a major star coming into your place,” a Florida racing-shop owner remembers. By 1985, Lanier was training for the Indianapolis 500, the most prestigious race in America, then dominated by lions like Al Unser and Rick Mears. Though he had never driven Indy-style open-cockpit cars before, Lanier was ambitious enough to believe he could compete – and perhaps even drink from the winner’s celebratory milk jug. “I had no doubt that I could get around the track as fast as anybody else,” he says. “Didn’t matter who it was. I was a little cocky.”

Certain people sneer at professional racing, as though one were hastily navigating turns in a Whole Foods parking lot. But competing at the highest level requires a violent appetite for speed as well as an understanding of geometry and physics. A driver entering a turn has to calculate the greatest radius, or straightest course, through its apex in order to optimize their speed. This is called “finding the line.” An inelegantly executed turn “scrubs speed,” which loses races. Each turn is different, every track idiosyncratic. A driver must also consider perhaps a dozen other variables simultaneously: cross drafts, temperature, turbulence, the shimmy and juke of other cars, many near enough to touch and constantly shifting. All of this can happen at speeds of more than 200 mph. The margin of error is as thin as the bark of a paper tree. The conscious mind operates too slowly; instinct takes over.

By 1985, the line of Lanier’s racing career was clear: a brash privateer who seemed destined to become one of the era’s great drivers. But sports are parables – always for the spectator, and sometimes for the participant. Racing is a pursuit of limits. A driver must find the outer edge of the car’s performance, as well as their own ability. To push too far is to court ruin. “You can just feel it,” Lanier says of the moment before disaster. “You know the wind’s gonna come.”

The wind came one warm winter morning in Miami. Lanier stopped at a deli to order a bagel. His wife, Pam, a spirited Floridian with a mane of curly brown hair, had just given birth to the couple’s second child at a nearby hospital, and he planned to pick them up later. Waiting for his breakfast, Lanier glanced at the television behind the counter. He recognized the tall gates guarding his own home outside Fort Lauderdale. A news crew was live-reporting from the street; police in tactical gear milled about in the background. At the hospital, the phone in Pam’s room rang. Agents from the DEA and FBI were at the house, the baby sitter watching their daughter warned, with a warrant for her husband’s arrest. Lanier hurried to a pay phone and called his wife. “I’m leaving,” he told her. “I’m not coming to get you.”

Lanier vanished. In his wake was ruin – federal agents soon descended on his wife, father and many of his close friends and family. A voracious pack, they unearthed secrets. Using a backhoe, agents dug up $2 million buried in Lanier’s father’s lawn and hidden in PVC pipes. They found $500,000 in a relative’s basement. They followed lines of accounts to other accounts like divers in a dark sump and found still more money. There were houses and cars and property – and, somehow, even a casino in California with Lanier’s name attached to it. When all the pieces finally merged together, the mosaic was startling. Lanier was not only a prodigy race-car driver – perhaps a generational talent – but, according to authorities, the mastermind of one of the largest drug-trafficking operations in American history.

“I know one thing,” the assistant U.S. district attorney prosecuting Lanier’s case told reporters. “If we see him, we don’t have a car fast enough to pull him over.”

In 1978, Lanier stumbled upon a car-club booth at a Miami auto show. He picked up a brochure and then signed up for a racing class. “I didn’t have a clue – I just fuckin’ drove,” he says. What he did have was a hard-wired feel for high-speed driving and an abnormal risk tolerance. Lanier soon bought his own car – a rattletrap 1957 Porsche Speedster wired with lamp cords – and entered amateur competitions. He hung around tracks, and he studied the other drivers. A well-known instructor taught him some fundamentals: cornering, apexes, skid control. Lanier, the instructor later said, was “one of the best, most talented students I’ve ever had.”

Lanier continued driving the grassroots circuit until, at the 24 Hours of Daytona race in 1982, a friend who worked for Janet Guthrie, one of the first women to compete in professional racing, slipped him a tantalizing bit of information: Guthrie was ill and needed a replacement. Climbing into the Ferrari 512, Lanier drove several practice laps fast enough to impress the team. He and two other drivers kept the car in third place for 18 hours before Lanier destroyed the Ferrari’s gearbox. Still, another team asked him to drive France’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s oldest auto endurance race, a few months later. He and Pam flew in a private jet and stayed in a 56-room château. “That’s when it hit me,” Lanier says. “The lifestyle, the racing – the whole package. I told Pam, ‘This is something I want to be a part of.’ ”

Lanier’s parents were proud blue-collar folks. His father was a stern man – “straight-laced, a country boy” – from a tobacco farm in Virginia. “They didn’t even have running water,” Lanier remembers. “Not prosperous people, but hardworking.” As a child, Lanier fed his grandparents’ pigs and catfished on the James River. In the late 1960s, Lanier’s parents moved him and his four siblings to Hollywood, a small city near Fort Lauderdale. His father worked as a carpenter, his mother as a caretaker in a psychiatric hospital. Lanier acclimated well to the languid beach-hippie culture, growing a ponytail and drifting around acid festivals. After his father demanded a haircut, Lanier hitchhiked to Canada with a bag of pot, four hits of acid and $5. Soon, he dropped out of school and began selling weed – at one point packing the air vents of a Volkswagen Beetle with marijuana and heading off to Aspen to meditate with a guru. “ ’You’re smart enough to do other things,’ ” Lanier recalls his mother saying. “She was giving me good guidance, but I wouldn’t listen.”

In the early 1970s, South Florida was a fragrant cloudland of marijuana. By age 19, Lanier had earned enough as a local dealer to buy a sleek 27-foot Magnum Sport powerboat. “So I went out and got a load,” he says. Offshore from the Bahamas, Lanier packed 750 pounds of weed into the boat, motored back to Fort Lauderdale and pocketed about $5,000 for his effort. A quick study with an entrepreneurial streak, Lanier bought two more speedboats to smuggle more loads. None of it seemed particularly difficult. You could slip up a canal late at night, then disappear into Florida’s labyrinthine Intracoastal Waterway. “It was a smuggler’s paradise,” he says. “It was like the pirate days.” A few years later, Lanier had three stash houses humming in the bucolic horse country east of Fort Lauderdale and was earning hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“He was dealing drugs since the day I met him,” Pam says. “He liked that fast money. His first big deal, I was graduating from high school, and he drove up to Gainesville to sell something. I kept looking and looking from the stage – and he came in late. He made it!”

Around the same time, Colombian Gold – an exotic new strain grown on the country’s wild Guajira Peninsula – began flooding America’s black market and fueled a boom. The peninsula was soon dotted with more than 100 loading facilities for “motherships,” freighters or fishing vessels capable of transporting bales by the ton to islands near the U.S. Newly flush locals called it la bonanza marimbera, “the marijuana bonanza.” In South Florida, many young men of humble origins recognized opportunity. “I have seen many people that probably could not buy a $200 pickup five or six years ago, and they come out with this big money,” the mayor of Everglades City later declared. “It made outlaws out of a lot of good citizens.”

In 1982, not long before his race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Lanier stood on the deck of a rented house on Melbourne Beach. It was after midnight. Lanier and a high school friend named Ben Kramer wore night-vision goggles, and spotters nearby watched for police patrols. A line of inflatable Zodiac boats, each manned by a single pilot, waited on the beach. Kramer, who had recently been released from prison for marijuana trafficking, had introduced Lanier to traffickers in Colombia. The connection meant a promotion. No longer a middleman distributor, Lanier could buy premium marijuana directly from the source, dramatically improving his profit margin. After arranging the deal, Lanier had bought a Norwegian fishing trawler called Ursa Major, which now floated offshore with 15,000 pounds of Colombian Gold stashed in its hold.

On the beach, Lanier set a blinking strobe light on a dune. Kramer radioed the Ursa captain, Leroy “Slick” Wisser, and the Zodiacs motored into the surf. Out in the Atlantic, the pilots quickly transferred 50-pound bales into their smaller boats. Fully loaded, the Zodiacs navigated back to shore using the strobe light as a homing beacon. On the beach, a human chain of unloaders hauled the bales to a convoy of waiting vans, which ferried them to Lanier’s stash house. The next day, he sold the entire 15,000-pound load for nearly $4.5 million. “That was the beginning,” he says. “It just evolved.”

Lush with money, Lanier and Pam moved into a sprawling five-bedroom ranch house that he outfitted with platinum sinks, a private lake stocked with snook, and a pair of Rottweilers to patrol the grounds. He bought himself a new Porsche, and a Mercedes for Pam. “We lived in a mansion – it looked like Scarface’s house!” Pam recalls. “We had everything we wanted.” It was a long way from the tobacco farm in Virginia. Lanier’s newfound success, should anyone ask, arose from a chain of local jet-ski rental shops.

And yet, opportunity beckoned. By the early Eighties, about three-fourths of the United States’ marijuana supply originated from Colombia; according to a CIA report, a trafficker could earn a return on investment of around 115 percent. In 1982, one of Lanier’s distributors introduced him and Kramer to another Florida smuggler, George Brock. Brock knew a shipyard owner named Eugene Fischer who owned an oceangoing barge, a flat-decked vessel the length of a football field. Together, the men soon hatched an audacious plan. After a team of welders outfitted the barge’s ballast tanks with secret compartments, the vessel sailed for the Guajira Peninsula. “It just kind of fell into place,” Lanier says. “George handled the offloading crew and tugboat captains. Gene had transportation. Ben had procurement. I had the distribution network and logistics.” The barge could hold more than a hundred tons of marijuana – enough to keep an entire city glaze-eyed. Lanier’s bookkeeper dubbed the new enterprise “the Company.”

In early 1983, the barge sailed up New York’s East River and docked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a then-ruinous shipyard prowled by feral dogs. Lanier sat in a rental car parked near the entrance, eavesdropping on radio traffic with a police scanner. Glancing up, he saw an NYPD patrol car in the rearview mirror. “Hold up – we got company,” Lanier whispered into the radio. The police car pulled past him and turned around. It drove by again – then continued down the street. “All clear,” Lanier radioed.

His team on the barge cut through the ballast tanks with acetylene torches, revealing a pungent vision: 130,000 pounds of Colombian Gold stacked two stories tall. The scheme was simple but ingenious. In Guajira, welders had sealed the bales under steel plates; the secret compartments were then filled with seawater so that a curious customs official would find only brine. Once Lanier’s welders had finished cutting open the tanks, another team hauled the bales out and loaded them into waiting tractor-trailers. Soon, the last truck pulled out of the Navy Yard’s gate and disappeared down a dark Brooklyn street, bound for Lanier’s distributors.

He was ebullient. At the time, there were few, if any, traffickers brazen enough to smuggle drug loads of that size into the U.S. Lanier had moved the barge like a chess piece, advancing it from Colombia through several overseas ports to mask its point of origin, and then into one of the busiest harbors in America. The route, the timing – it was like racing a track. “You’re hitting your lines, hitting your apexes – you’re in the zone,” Lanier says. That night, he and Kramer rented a private room in a Manhattan restaurant to celebrate. To commemorate their new status as 100,000-pound-class super-smugglers, Lanier bought personalized hats for the entire crew: The 100 Club.

Lanier returned to Florida and, itching to make his name, began pumping drug money into a professional racing team. He bought two March racing cars and a warehouse to maintain them. He hired an ex-Formula One crew chief and a team of mechanics, and boldly christened the outfit Blue Thunder. Still, amateurs with more wealth than talent were known to quickly flame out on racetracks. At the start of the 1984 season, one observer noted, “Nobody gave the privateer effort of the Whittington Bros. and Randy Lanier driving a March 84C much of a chance.”

The team debuted as Blue Thunder at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Lanier and co-driver Bill Whittington came in two laps behind the winner. Then they entered the Riverside Grand Prix in Los Angeles, facing off against legends like Fittipaldi and Al Holbert. Near the end of the race, Lanier took the lead but blew a tire and screamed into his pit on a bare rim. After the repair, he fought back through the field and caught up with Holbert, who was leading – then passed him, winning by five seconds. “Two weeks after,” Lanier recalls, “I went to Laguna Seca and won. Then I went to Charlotte and won.”

Lanier kept winning. At the Grand Prix in Portland, Oregon, he won in a dramatic finish after the lead driver’s car ran out of gas on the last lap. Then he won the Michigan 500 and the New York 500. At the end of the season, Lanier was crowned both the season’s Camel GT Champion and its Most Improved Driver. “Little-known Randy Lanier shocked the racing world,” a sportswriter trumpeted. At the awards banquet, an astonished driver approached one of Lanier’s crew and remarked, “I don’t know where the hell these Blue Thunder guys came from, but they’re the only race team where everyone on the pit crew wears a Rolex.” Between races, Lanier and his partners had also smuggled in another barge load, this time carrying about 75 tons of Colombian Gold.

“It was a golden year for me – racing, smuggling,” Lanier says. “I had just made tens of millions of dollars. Cash is rolling in. I felt on top of the world.”

Lanier began spending money the way he raced. He bought a fleet of exotic cars and three vacation homes in the Rockies, wrapping himself in an increasingly opulent cocoon. He and Pam flew to races in private jets and hosted lavish parties, filling their houses’ hot tubs with Dom Pérignon. “Crazy, wild times – Learjets, bales of weed, drawers full of money,” Pam recalls. “I was snorting coke in the Jiffy John and disappeared with our interior decorator.” For his daughter’s birthday, Lanier paid to truck in a circus elephant. The drug money flowed in such volumes that Lanier and Kramer had to launder a lot of it. Using a web of overseas accounts, they routed millions to a front company that started construction on a 100,000-square-foot casino called the Bell Gardens Bicycle Club, in California. “We was all spending money by the millions,” Lanier says. “When we built it, it was the largest card casino in the U.S.”

After his dazzling performance in 1984, Lanier decided to mount a bid at the Indianapolis 500 – a mythical Shambhala aspiring drivers must ascend to achieve immortality. Lanier had no experience in Indy cars, and the race’s average speed was orders of magnitude faster than anything he had driven before. But in 1985, Frank Arciero – a legendary figure known for picking talented rookies – signed Lanier as a driver. Soon, Lanier was funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into training, equipment testing and track time. The money was an equalizer, leveling the field – at least in part – against more experienced drivers. “I wanted to race the biggest race in the United States,” Lanier says. “I didn’t see no limits.”

The Company also began planning to smuggle the barge into the U.S., Lanier recalls, this time carrying their largest shipment yet – a staggering haul of 83 tons, worth about $55 million. At the same time, though, Lanier was growing increasingly worried about law enforcement. He spotted two men parked by his driveway, and others seemed to trail Pam and him at local restaurants. “I saw people that I thought was watching me,” Lanier says. “I’d never use the same phones twice.” Then, a week before the Indy 500, his doorbell rang. It was the brother of his distributor in Louisiana – and he had a dire message. “My brother got arrested, and he’s cooperating,” he told Lanier. “The FBI has you under surveillance.” At that moment, the Company’s barge was 10 days off the coast of New Orleans.

Despite the risk, Lanier and his partners decided to forge ahead. “We were so committed – so much money, so many people involved,” he says. “So much had been spent on racing and the casino and the homes in Colorado. I had to smuggle to keep up.” Lanier ordered the tugboat captain to change course from Louisiana. The barge would now transit the Panama Canal, and then sail north through the Pacific toward a harbor they had previously used in California. It would be, Lanier hoped, his final load. “My plan was to get out of the game and live a good life. I wanted to continue racing,” he says, adding, “I was probably just getting greedy.”

A week later, Lanier sat inside his trailer at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, trying to clear his mind. It was the most important race of his career. Then he walked out to the track, where his pit crew made final adjustments on a sleek March 86c the color of a cherry tomato. Pam looked down nervously from a VIP suite, while some 300,000 fans watched in the stands. The Indy 500 was thrilling – but also perilous. Dozens of drivers and their mechanics had died since the race’s inception.

Lanier positioned his car just behind Formula One driver Fittipaldi. Knight Rider star David Hasselhoff, his hair spritzed in a resplendent plume, crooned the national anthem. At the green flag, Lanier gunned down the front straightaway. He set the car up a whisper from the crash wall for the first turn, a 90-degree blind curve. On the back straightaway, Lanier neared 200 mph. A blizzard of hot-dog wrappers floated down from the stands; the fans blurred by in a technicolor smear; the March rattled violently in the lead cars’ turbulence. But the speed clarified. He forgot about the FBI. He forgot about the millions at stake. There was only this moment, present without past or future – consciousness freed of self and time amid the thunderous roar on the ovoid track.

Lanier moved up to number five, with drivers Mears and Bobby Rahal battling for the front. Mears’ car appeared in Lanier’s rearview. He tried to pass, but Lanier blocked him. Seizing opportunity, Rahal slipped by them both and, 20 laps later, took the checkered flag. Lanier came in only nine cars behind – a stunning performance. He was the only rookie to finish, and he had also clocked the fastest speed in history during prequalifying laps, shattering Michael Andretti’s previous record. At the awards banquet afterward, Lanier – a boy from rural Virginia, virtually anonymous just a few years back, now seated among giants – accepted the Indy 500’s Rookie of the Year award.

More than a thousand miles away, the Company’s barge slowly sailed south toward the Panama Canal. This is the last one, Lanier thought to himself. If I get away with this one, I’m done. Just race.

Drug trafficking, like racing, is a pursuit of timing – but also of luck. Several months after the Indy 500, Lanier sat in a rental car by a harborside gravel yard near San Francisco when a frantic message burst over the radios. During the long sea voyage, salt water had leaked into one of the barge’s compartments, causing marijuana bales to decompose and emit methane. An acetylene torch had triggered a fire, and two of the welders were dead, likely from methane asphyxiation. The barge was in danger of exploding. Almost 22,000 pounds of Colombian Gold, Lanier realized, had to be abandoned. At a warehouse nearby, he and the crew worked through the night counting and weighing the remaining bales and loading them onto trucks. Later, he and his partners would have the stricken barge, carrying the two dead men wrapped in tarps, scuttled and sunk to the bottom of the ocean.

Lanier returned to Florida, soon to be fabulously wealthy but stricken with paranoia. He hid out in a condo rented under a fake name. He used pay phones and snuck out the back exits of stores. Federal agents, he believed, trailed him everywhere. In January 1986, Pam went to the hospital to give birth to the couple’s second child, a baby boy – Lanier had to sneak in to hold his newborn son. Flowers and balloons overflowed the room, gifts sent from race-car drivers and drug dealers alike. Lanier slipped out of the hospital, intending to pick them up once Pam had recovered.

A few days later, he was standing in the deli near his condo when he saw the news on the television screen: Indy race-car driver Randy Lanier has been indicted on federal drug-trafficking charges. “I paid for my bagel, packed my shit and got the fuck out of town,” Lanier says.

Slipping out of Florida in a semi’s sleeper cab, Lanier hid out in rural Pennsylvania. He then flew to London, using a fake passport, and soon met up with Maria de la Luz Maggi, a young woman with whom he had become romantically involved in Florida. With millions still stashed away in overseas accounts, Lanier paid for luxury hotels and gambling trips to Monte Carlo. He weighed his options: perhaps starting over in Spain or even racing again under an assumed name in New Zealand. The drug money, he believed, could build an entirely new life – despite the formidable law-enforcement net closing around him. After arresting Lanier’s associate in New Orleans, FBI agents had been steadily working up the Company’s distribution chain. At the same time, an unrelated case in London had further unraveled their operation. In 1983, six armed robbers had stolen three tons of gold worth $40 million from a Brink’s-Mat warehouse – the largest heist in Britain’s history. The case had remained unsolved for years, but Scotland Yard detectives eventually turned up an accountant in the British Virgin Islands they suspected of laundering money for the robbers. Hoping for leniency, the accountant had confessed that he also handled drug money for “10 or more large-scale, U.S.-based” drug operations – one of which included Lanier’s secret bankrolling of the Bell Gardens Bicycle Club. In Florida, meanwhile, federal agents had seized Lanier’s house, and Pam had taken a job cutting fruit in a local grocery store to support the couple’s two children.

Leaving Europe, Lanier and Maggi flew to Antigua, where he had a 60-foot Hatteras fishing boat waiting. They planned to relax for a few weeks, then sail the boat to Spain. Early one morning, the ship’s captain – Lanier’s old smuggling partner Wisser – steered the Hatteras into a small harbor. A large gray ship pulled in behind them. “They’re probably going to check our papers,” Wisser warned. The Antiguan ship suddenly dispatched a small boat filled with armed men. Lanier watched the boat speeding closer. “Put the Zodiac in the water,” Lanier ordered. He jumped in and sped away, leaving Wisser and Maggi behind.

At the dock, Lanier sprinted away. He was barefoot and wearing only swim trunks, and as he scrambled up a tall hill covered in spiky palmettos his feet began to bleed. Behind him, a convoy of jeeps roared down the road. Lanier clawed his way higher. Below, soldiers jumped from the jeeps and aimed rifles at him. Lanier looked up. He was near the top – so close. “Stop!” they yelled. “We will shoot.” He stopped. Slowly, Lanier limped back down the hill in his baggy shorts.

“What’s all this about?” he asked as the police handcuffed him.

At Lanier’s trial, two dozen members of the Company testified against him. Many were longtime friends from South Florida. Charles Podesta, his bookkeeper, was particularly damaging. He detailed Lanier’s rise from midlevel distributor to kingpin; he explained coded entries in his ledger detailing tens of millions of dollars of drug transactions. “It might be easier . . . if you think of me as a bank,” Podesta told the jury. According to the prosecution, Lanier and his partners had trafficked more than 300 tons of marijuana into the U.S. and had overseen a smuggling empire that covered almost a dozen states and employed hundreds. Lanier alone had earned an estimated $68 million. At the end of the trial, the jury convicted him, Kramer and Fischer of drug trafficking, fraud and running a continuing criminal enterprise. (Brock had fled the country and remained a fugitive.) Judge James Foreman ordered the government to seize $180 million of their assets, the largest federal forfeiture in U.S. history, and then sentenced all three men to life imprisonment.

“You have caused a lot of heartache and ruined a lot of lives in this country,” he admonished Lanier.

Lanier was held in several medium-security prisons and then moved to Leavenworth federal penitentiary – and he plotted to escape each one. “They can’t hold me in these fuckin’ places,” he thought. “I’m gonna get out.” Using a contraband phone, he conspired with a helicopter pilot to spirit him from the exercise yard. A prison official, alerted to the plan, summoned Lanier to his office. “If you think you’re landing a helicopter in this prison,” he warned, “I’m shooting you, and I’m shooting your helicopter down.” In another facility, Lanier had planned to escape inside a vending machine. Facing life without parole, often called a “natural death” sentence, he had little to lose.

After the escape attempts, Lanier was transferred to the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, where he was held in a solitary-confinement unit. His cell contained a tiny metal sink and a metal bed. He was allowed out once a day, for an hour, to pace around a small cage. He had no contact with anyone but guards. A poisonous rage bloomed in all that empty space. Lanier’s friends had quickly traded loyalty for lenient sentences. His once-great drug empire was in ruins. His racing career was over. The government had seized his assets, while also sentencing his father to prison for burying Lanier’s money in his lawn. After tracing his dizzying web of offshore accounts, U.S. marshals had even seized the Bell Gardens Bicycle Club.

In the solitary void of Lanier’s small cell, the passage of weeks and months became fluid. There was no clock, no sunlight, no way to tell day from night. In the metal mirror fastened to the cell wall, Lanier’s image appeared fuzzy and indistinct, as though he were slowly disappearing. A year passed. “What has my life become?” he thought.

In 2005, Lanier was moved to a lower-security prison outside Orlando. He was graying and middle-aged, resigned, no longer an escape risk. His old smuggling partner Fischer was also there. Fischer stayed in the prison’s law library for hours, researching legal precedents that might overturn his sentence. Lanier tried not to think about his own conviction; he took up chess and painting. He tried meditation. He covered his cell-door window with paper and sat cross-legged on the bed. At first, the practice was a struggle. Over time, though, a little bit of his bitterness seemed to slip away. An understanding slowly emerged: “I am bound with hatred. I have to forgive.” With that awareness came a kind of liberation. “There is no time,” he thought. “I just am.”

Fischer continued with his appeals. All were dismissed – until 2010, when he filed a novel lawsuit against the government. After seizing the Bell Gardens casino, the U.S. marshals had continued to operate the club and earned millions more in profits than the original forfeiture judgment against him. The government, Fischer alleged, owed him the difference.

In July 2012, after reviewing the case with Justice Department attorneys, a federal judge allowed Fischer to walk free from prison.

Lanier soon followed the path pioneered by his old friend. In late 2014, Lanier’s lawyer and the government’s attorney filed a succession of motions, all sealed, in federal court. Then, one day in September, Lanier was summoned to the counselor’s office for a phone conference. Sitting down, he listened as the judge presiding over his case explained that he would be granted time served – and released in 30 days. (The Justice Department has refused to comment on the agreement.) “I come out of the counselor’s office, and it’s like I’m living this dream and all of a sudden I wake up,” he says. “I’m going to be part of life out there.” On October 15th, after 27 years in prison, inmate #04961-069 passed through a gauntlet of metal detectors leading to the discharge building. Word of Lanier’s release had spread and a cortege of lifers escorted him until they could go no further. Around 8:30 a.m., on a bright, clear morning, Lanier walked through the penitentiary’s front door and down the sidewalk to the parking lot, where Pam and his two grown children were waiting for him.

On a luxuriantly warm winter night in Fort Lauderdale, Lanier grips a one-third-pound Angus burger piled with bacon and cheese. Pam sits beside him at the restaurant table, along with their son’s twin toddlers, who gleefully wreak havoc on anything within reach. Lanier approaches the soda dispenser. Tall and stainless steel, the machine is fronted with a digital screen. He stares at it, perplexed. A young boy cuts by him, fingers expertly fluttering over the digital buttons, then darts away. Almost three years free, Lanier is still jangled by the velocity of modern American life – a fairy-tale hypersomniac in a Vegas casino. At Walmart, he’ll get trapped in the aisle, overwhelmed by the endless options.

“He’s like a child,” Pam says. “He’s been locked in a cage. Solitary confinement. I don’t know how he didn’t lose his mind.” At the table, Lanier munched on his burger and gazed at his grandchildren. “I wonder if they’ll like go-kart racing,” he asks after a moment.

After his release, Lanier lived in a halfway house and drove for Uber, which he pronounces You-ber. In the back seat, his passengers tapped away on their phones, oblivious to their driver’s provenance. Lanier eventually moved into his own apartment, a dilapidated one-bedroom furnished with secondhand furniture – but it was his. The front door opened wide to a constellated night sky. A side table held his racing trophies. He continued to paint and meditate. Federal prison had cultivated a kind of mindfulness with more ruthless efficiency than any Zen master. “After a couple decades, just seeing the bark on a tree is like, ‘Look at this design.’ I’m in awe of everything I see,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Man, I’m here – I’m free!’ ” Behind him, though, lay a field of ruin, like a racetrack strewn with crash debris. He had sundered his family. His wealth was gone. His prime driving years, when he might have refined his talent enough to become one of the most celebrated race-car drivers of his time, were squandered in federal prison.

“I begged him to get out,” Pam recalls. “He was addicted to racing, he couldn’t stop. He told me it was like shooting heroin. He was too flashy. The way he was racing and spending money, it cost millions.”

“I have no regrets, but I do have remorse,” Lanier says. “I left Pam with a seven-day-old baby. I left my seven-year-old daughter. I have remorse for getting my father tangled up. I have great remorse for going down the path I did.” And the two dead men? “Accidents happen,” he says, growing quiet, trying to choose his words. After a long pause, Lanier adds, “I lived and learned from my mistakes and only want to do good for people.”

A few days later, Lanier arrives at the Homestead-Miami Speedway for his weekend instructing job. By the pit garages, Tim Read, the former Marine, folds his large frame into a silver Corvette, adjusting his prosthetic leg under its steering wheel. Returning from Afghanistan, he had suffered flashbacks and severe nightmares; racing seemed to offer solace. From the pit lane, Read accelerates onto the racetrack with a dozen other drivers in a deafening roar. The Corvette disappears around a turn, then shoots into the back straightaway. Read speeds past one car, then another, with Lanier guiding him from the passenger seat.

“Drift out. Brake. Turn in,” he says, as though reciting a mantra. On the back straight, the empty grandstands flash by in a blur. The engine begins to hit the upper register. There is no clock. In a turn, Read jabs the gas and the Corvette slides dangerously toward the infield grass – but Lanier grabs the wheel and steers it back. “Be gentle,” he warns. “Once the balance of the car is upset, you lose time.”

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