A million thoughts raced through Randy Lanier’s head as he cast a fishing line into the azure waters off Antigua, 1,300 miles from South Florida. He had a family back in Davie — a wife, an 8-year-old daughter, and a newborn son. Then he pondered auto racing. He’d been a champion, among America’s best. But now he didn’t know if he could get back into the driver’s seat on an American racetrack again.
But maybe, he thought, it would all work out if he could get his hands on a fake passport. Perhaps he could start a new life in New Zealand. There was no NASCAR down there, but he’d be able to see his kids, race cars, and live a quiet life on the money he had built up being one of the biggest marijuana smugglers of his era.
Then he heard the sound of a helicopter landing not far away. “I thought it was some tourists or something,” he remembers.
But it was the FBI. Soon, he was whisked to a grim courtroom in Illinois. One year after that fishing line was tugged from the water, U.S. District Court Judge James Foreman sentenced Lanier to life without parole for smuggling tons of pot into the United States. But the judge didn’t stop there. He added 40 years for good measure and five for conspiring to defraud the Internal Revenue Service.
“I was ready to do ten years, but they were only willing to give me ten years if I fully cooperated,” he says.“But complete cooperation wasn’t something I wanted to do.”
That was 1988 — the height of the Reagan-era War on Drugs. Lanier spent the next 27 years in jail. He was released just five months ago for unexplained reasons. Now, he spends his days working at America’s biggest flea market — Fort Lauderdale’s Swap Shop — and nights sleeping in a halfway house.
His life as a pot kingpin and internationally known speed demon, as well as his fall, are Shakespearean in both their drama and magnitude. Now, with pot legal in three states and the District of Columbia, there’s an added element the Bard would also have liked: irony.
Does this bother Lanier? Not much.
“All that was a long time ago,” he says, wandering Lauderhill’s glorious jungle of used golf clubs, refurbished lawn mowers, and rusty pipe wrenches. “I don’t do that anymore. It’s not me.”
But when he did do it, he was good, says Mickey Munday, a big-time cocaine smuggler in the ’80s with ties to the Colombian drug cartels. “He was a smart, resourceful guy,” Munday says. “He was able to cut out the middleman and make a lot of money. And with the racecar thing, he was in the spotlight.”
Lanier was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1954 to a draftsman father and a mother who worked as a mental-hospital caretaker. But at age 13, he moved with his family to the sunnier climate of Hollywood, Florida.
Lanier found a totally different scene in Broward County. Marijuana was much more plentiful than in Lynchburg. By age 14, he was puffing joints with buddies on Hallandale Beach. He grew his hair long in 1960s counterculture style. It didn’t sit too well with Pops. “My dad wanted me to get a haircut that summer, so I thought I’d just take off for a little while,” he says. “So me and a buddy decided to take a trip up the East Coast. All we had was a matchbox of weed and 20 bucks between us — and maybe a couple of hits of acid.”
That summer, the rebellious teen hitchhiked all the way to Crystal Beach, Ontario, stopping back home in Lynchburg and a few other cities like Boston and Philly before returning to Hollywood, where he attended Miramar High School.
“I just went to all the rock shows, every single one,” he says, ticking off names of famous bands he saw live: the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, and the 1971 Celebration of Life festival in McCrea, Louisiana, where more than 60,000 people converged along the Atchafalaya River to see Pink Floyd, Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, and a slew of other acts.
Lanier drove there with friends in a lime-green Dodge van outfitted with an eight-track tape player and external speakers. Undercover police nabbed more than 100 people during the festival, but Lanier wasn’t one of them.
By age 15, Lanier was working construction jobs and began selling a little weed on the side. “It was just little, small bags. I figured it was a good way to smoke for free,” Lanier explains. “It was an easy thing to fall into.”
Lanier downplays the amount of pot he moved in those early days, but he seems to have climbed the ranks quickly. By age 17, he was selling ounces. In fact, he was caught with an ounce of pot at school that year, and instead of going through the hassle of suspension, he dropped out to spend more time on his thriving business.
He earned his GED and earned enough on pot sales to make a purchase that would change his life. “I was just a little guy who sold some ounces that turned into pounds that turned into bales that turned into enough to buy a 27-foot Magnum Sport,” Lanier says, referring to a top-of-the-line speedboat that cost him $18,000 back then, which is $92,000 in today’s currency.
“I bought it just to have something to do on the weekends,” he says. “You know, go for a ride, go fish. And then somebody asked me — I ain’t gonna say who — somebody asked me if I’d be interested in doing a run. And I said, ‘Sure, why not?’?”
And so Lanier made his first trip to the Bahamas. He says he picked up about a ton of weed, which would have weighed down the Magnum but still allowed it to travel fast. There was a bit of engine trouble. Then the guy with the marijuana bales was late. But eventually there was the thrill of evading the Coast Guard and returning home to thousands of dollars in cold cash.
“It was all pretty exhilarating for a 20-year-old,” he says. “Kinda like racing.”
But the auto-racing part was still in the future back then. Lanier had to concentrate on growing his business with runs to the Bahamas. The way it worked was this: He was hired by South Florida dealers to make pickups. For his fee, he would take 20 to 30 percent of the load, he says.
Once, he was caught in a tropical depression, and 20-foot waves were hammering his vessel. After leaving the pickup point in the Bahamas, he was forced to anchor near Great Isaac Cay, a small island about 100 miles east of Miami. He stayed there for a day and a half. Going below deck was impossible because every inch of space was taken up by bricks of pot. Then a Coast Guard helicopter showed up and began hovering above.
Despite the waves, he managed to make it to Bimini, 18 miles away, to take cover and prevent the Coast Guard from lending a helping hand. “You don’t really let fear into your mind in a situation like that,” he says. “You try to wait for the weather to break.”
By age 24, Lanier was looking for a hobby. While attending a car show at the Miami Beach Convention Center in 1978, he walked past a booth advertising racing school. He picked up a pamphlet. He learned to drive high-performance cars, earned professional certification, and fixed up a 1956 Porsche Speedster. Then he entered the very public world of racing.
Soon he was competing in the International Motor Sports Association. The South Florida racecar scene of the late 1970s and early ’80s was full of drugs, but the IMSA was tops. Some even referred to IMSA as the International Marijuana Smugglers Association.
Eighty-four-year-old Preston Henn, owner of the Swap Shop where Randy Lanier is now employed, remembers the time well. Henn was a racecar driver himself at the time — a hobby the self-made millionaire tried as a more laid-back alternative to powerboat racing. And hanging around the boat and car racing scene, he became accustomed to chatting with drug dealers.
“Me, I didn’t care what they were doing,” says the plainspoken Henn, recalling that in his powerboating days, “about 70 percent” of those guys were involved in the drug game. With cars, it was “closer to 20 percent.”
In fact, he owned a team that included John Paul Sr., a Harvard grad turned racecar-driving marijuana smuggler. Paul would later be convicted of shooting an informant in the chest and was sentenced to 13 years for attempted murder in 1986.
Henn was also friends with Lanier. Both men competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1980. That year, Lanier also won the Southeast amateur circuit.
As Lanier rose in the racing world, he also skyrocketed in the marijuana business. In 1981, he bought a bigger boat that would allow him to go straight to the source: Colombia. The 65-foot “cigarette boat” could take on 18,000 pounds of pot — which it often did at the docks of Santa Marta, Colombia, 60 miles east of Barranquilla.
The docks were crowded, Lanier recalls. This was a marijuana transit hot spot, and one was able to buy as much as his boat could fit. You could load 200 tons if you had the hold to do it.
Lanier somehow found the time to race in between shipping tons of marijuana. “I was always busy — very busy,” Lanier recalls. He nevertheless decided to form his own team. By doing so, he could put up his own, seemingly unlimited cash flow into winning races. So he hooked up with Texas-born brothers Bill and Don Whittington, two other drivers/pot smugglers, to form the Blue Thunder team.
“Those guys were definitely flamboyant,” coke smuggler Munday recalls of the Whittingtons. “I mean, they had air shows. They didn’t even just do racing.” In 1986, Bill was sentenced to 15 years for smuggling marijuana, and Don got 18 months for tax evasion.
No doubt, Lanier and the Whittingtons put a lot of cash into Blue Thunder. Lanier says he spent so many millions that he stopped keeping track. “I didn’t have a budget, truthfully speaking,” he says. “It didn’t matter to me because the weed business was quite good.”
The pot money put them on par with the big-budget corporate racing teams, and they were able to win. The Blue Thunder team racked up wins, including the Grand Prix Los Angeles, the Grand Prix of Charlotte, Laguna Seca, and the Watkins Glen Grand Prix.
Then came 1984, “my golden year,” Lanier says. That’s when he won the GTP race in Riverside, California, as well as the New York 500 at Watkins Glen International. These wins helped solidify him as a racer to be taken seriously, and two years later, he competed in the Indianapolis 500, finishing an impressive tenth place and winning Rookie of the Year.
By the time Lanier placed his Rookie of the Year trophy on his mantel, his sprawling operation involved dozens of people across the Southeast, Midwest, and Northeast. According to federal prosecutors, thousands of pounds at a time would be smuggled into Florida from Colombia. The product was then loaded onto semitrailer trucks and driven to warehouses across the country. Shipments were huge. “The last shipment I had was about 165,000 pounds,” he says.
But his racing days were coming to a close. “Somebody got arrested in Illinois and then started talking,” Lanier says, describing how his enterprise was brought down.
A few months after the arrest of a small-timer in Illinois, a search warrant was issued, and Ronald Harris Ball, a 38-year-old resident of Pompano Beach, was arrested at his apartment. Ball was accused of running the entire operation, along with his business partner Lanier, who was arrested and somehow freed on bail.
But after hearing his options — either snitch and get ten years or don’t snitch and get life — he took off. Boarding a Learjet, Lanier hightailed it to France and hid out in Monte Carlo, where he stayed in luxury hotels and played blackjack in casinos.
But he had to make one last trip to Antigua, where he owned some property. That turned out to be a mistake.
After the fishing trip, the helicopter landing, and the arrest, federal agents delivered him to U.S. District Court Judge James Foreman’s Illinois courtroom. Lanier’s trial lasted three months, involved 64 witnesses, and produced 10,500 pages of transcripts. At the end of it all, Foreman put down the hammer: life in prison without parole for running a “continual criminal enterprise,” the highest drug charge possible.
“To get a sentence like that, it’s because you don’t cooperate — they wanted to make an example of him,” says Munday, who himself got a ten-year sentence in 1990.
After the sentencing, the Sun Sentinel published a scathing editorial: “District Judge James Foreman wisely ignored the defendant’s plea that no one should receive so harsh a penalty for smuggling marijuana. Lanier was being too modest. He is not just another pot dealer. According to the prosecution, his cut of the proceeds over a period of years was an estimated $68 million. In passing sentence, Foreman emphasized the heartache that this immensely lucrative and illegal activity had caused and the lives that the drugs he imported had ruined.”
Lanier’s daughter, Brandie, now 34 years old, was living in Colorado on January 1, 2014, the day marijuana was legalized for recreational use in that state.
Ironically, she recalls, her father had spent 25 years in various federal prisons for pretty much doing what hundreds of so-called “marijuana millionaires” were preparing to do — sell pot to the masses. “I made a legal purchase, and as soon as I talked to my dad the next time, I told him about it,” Brandie says. “He laughed. He thought it was great.”
But Brandie had a different take: How could her father still be locked up for something she just legally bought in a store?
“That’s really when the injustice of it hit me,” she says. “I always knew that his sentence wasn’t right, but when they legalized in Colorado, it just really hit me.”
Brandie was 7 years old when her father was sent to prison. Her memories of him consist mainly of riding horseback and water-skiing — the outdoorsy stuff her father did with her when he wasn’t on the track or at sea. In fact, Lanier owned properties in Colorado back then, and they’d often visit the state. Those properties were taken away — and, of course, might be owned by legal marijuana sellers.
For a long time, Brandie didn’t realize the magnitude of her father’s sentence — she just saw things suddenly change. For example, there was that time, back when Brandie was 8 years old, that her mother was afraid to open the iron gates of her family’s sprawling Davie home out of fear the feds would storm in.
“I had to go to school, so my mom hoisted me over the gate,” Brandie recalls. “My grandfather, luckily, was six-foot-two, and he came to help me over the fence and then take me to school.”
And then, after the arrest, the family had to leave the home and settle in much more modest living conditions in Jacaranda.
In high school, Brandie wrote a letter to Bill Clinton, asking him to release her father. She also wrote to Oprah Winfrey. Neither replied. Still, she kept visiting her father — about twice a year, sometimes more — and kept up with the appeals process.
It’s unfortunately not uncommon for children of incarcerated parents to fall by the wayside, but Brandie’s mother was able to step up and get a job teaching mentally disabled children and provide a stable life for her kids. Eventually, Brandie went to Florida State University and moved to Colorado to teach elementary school.
Meanwhile, she saw her father shuffled among federal prisons in Illinois, Colorado, and eventually Florida. She awaited appeals that lasted more than two decades. None managed to secure a release for Lanier.
Finally, in 2014, Lanier’s attorneys struck a deal that freed Lanier. The details, though, are a mystery. They are sealed by the court, and Stephen Ross Johnson, Lanier’s lead attorney, says, “I really can’t say what the circumstances of the deal were. Doing so would violate the terms of the deal.”
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On October 14, 2014, Lanier was released from the Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, Florida. His children — Brandie and her younger brother, Glen, a 28-year-old who lives in Fort Lauderdale and declined to comment for this article — were there to greet him upon his exit. Brandie took two months off work to spend time with her father.
“It was just surreal to have him finally out, just completely surreal,” she says.
These days, Lanier is very much aware of the irony of his lengthy time spent behind bars. “It’s just a shame that the Reagan drug war locked up so many men for marijuana for such a long time,” he says. “I think it’s cruel and unusual punishment to give people life sentences for marijuana. Doesn’t matter to me how much marijuana — it’s a plant. And people are serving life sentences and dying in prison for a plant.”
That’s pretty much what he told Judge Foreman back in 1988 in Illinois — a state where medical marijuana is legal. Still, Lanier isn’t bitter.
“I’m just grateful to be here and out in this world where I get to plant my feet on the soil and enjoy freedom,” he says. “Life is beautiful. It really is — and you gotta enjoy it every day.”