How the Mafia Owned and Finally Murdered Cigarette Boat King Donald Aronow
By Thomas Burdick and Charlene Mitchell
Simon and Schuster. $22.95. 384 pp.
If you came away from reading "Blue Thunder" with the idea that all of south Florida is controlled by the mob, it would be understandable. You also could be forgiven if you had the notion the current occupant of the White House had been snookered into serving the mob's purposes too..
That's what the authors, in essence, want you to believe. And, if you are ignorant about politics, drug smugglers and the efforts to combat it in south Florida, as most of us who do not live there surely are, you could find their case smoothly persuasive. But if you do live in south Florida and know a little about those things, you could find this book to be irresponsible, reprehensible, outrageous or laughable, perhaps all of the above.
The book is built around the murder of Donald Aronow, who designed, built and raced the world's fastest speedboats. Aronow, a friend of kings and presidents -- including George Bush when he was vice president -- was gunned down in his car as he was leaving one of his plants in Miami in February 1987. Thomas Burdick arrived in Miami a few months later to write an article about the murder for Playboy. The article never appeared, but Burdick remained, not only to write a book but to attempt to solve the case himself.
That's why, after the first 100 pages, the subject of this book ceases to be Donald Aronow and becomes Thomas Burdick, master detective and unraveler of mob mysteries.
Drug smuggling, of course, is at the core of this story. The speedboats that Aronow designed became the principal method of bringing drugs into south Florida from ships lying offshore. To stop them, the government needed boats equally fast. Not surprisingly, they turned to Donald Aronow to build them (the implication is that George Bush, then heading the government's campaign against drugs, landed the contract for his friend). But Aronow turned his company and the government contract over to other owners, who just happened to be the biggest marijuana smugglers in south Florida. Not surprisingly, when the expensive government boats -- called Blue Thunder -- were delivered, they turned out to be less than dependable and few smugglers have been brought to justice because of them.
Although the publisher of "Blue Thunder" would like readers to believe otherwise, this information is not new. It was reported in the Miami Herald last winter.
But Burdick goes several steps beyond the newspaper coverage. Not only does he place Aronow firmly in the Mafia, he also ties a former judge, a former state attorney, the former police chief of Miami Beach and many others to the mob. He even fingers two mob hit men from Illinois as the killers, and when Metro-Dade homicide detectives charge somebody else with the murder, he hints that the cops may be in the service of the mob too.
It could be that Burdick is right about all of this, but he makes his case as much with gossip, innuendo and speculation as with fact. And reaction to "Blue Thunder" in south Florida calls into question not only his reporting skills but also his fairness. At least two prominent former public officials whom Burdick ties to the mob have issued statements claiming that Burdick never even made an attempt to talk with them.
When Miami's Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter and author Edna Buchanan found herself quoted throughout the book and thanked in the acknowledgments, she proclaimed herself "horrified." Burdick presented himself to her using the name Thomas Mitchell, she said, led her to believe that he was seeking only background information, never used a tape recorder or took notes, asked her to hypothesize about people and situations, then quoted her as if she were stating fact.
"I never dreamed I'd be quoted," she said.
After reading the book in galleys, she tried to have her name and the quotes attributed to her removed, she said, but the publisher told her that it was too late.
Burdick not only made many errors in the book, said Buchanan, he also conveniently left out information that didn't agree with his theories.
Edna Buchanan is a real journalist, one of the best. But don't be surprised if Thomas Burdick suddenly discovers that she's really tied to the mob.
The reviewer is an investigative reporter and the author of a true crime book, "Bitter Blood."