Randy Lanier made his name as a pro driver before the feds busted him for smuggling weed. Photo via Facebook
There are at least 15 people in United States federal prisons serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for nonviolent, marijuana-related offenses. Until quite recently, Randy Lanier was among them.
On Wednesday morning, Lanier, a former pro racecar driver and pot smuggler, was set free in Coleman, Florida. In 1987, he was accused of smuggling a million pounds of marijuana into the US over the course of seven years, and a year later was sentenced to spend the rest of his days behind bars. But on September 15, a district judge named J. Phil Gilbert signed a sealed motion for his release, giving the 60-year-old with a bad hip a taste of freedom for the first time since 1998. But we'll probably never know why.
Across the country, drug reform advocates are looking forward to November 2015, when the feds have promised to grant clemency to thousands of nonviolent federal prisoners who would likely have received different sentences had they been tried today. Many of those seeking sentence commutation will be marijuana offenders like Lanier, as states continue to rebrand the substance as medicine.
Lanier is a country boy who grew up in Davie, Florida. “We called him a redneck because he was always out in the sun and working construction,” says his friend Charles Podesta, who served two years of probation for delivering cannabis with Lanier. “We started off buying lids [ounces] and then some pounds. We never had guns.”
His daughter, Brandie, remembers a dad who always loved horses and fell into auto racing by accident. “He had an old beat-up Porsche that was completely falling apart, and he went to a car show and got a racing license for fun,” she told me. “He entered a race, and literally pieces were falling off of the car. He won the race anyways.”
The feds got on Lanier's case when he started making a name for himself as a driver. He won the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) GT Championship in 1984 on the independent Blue Thunder Racing Team. Then, in 1986, he was named the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year. Given the sport's reputation and high-profile cases involving smuggling among other racing teams in Florida, the government started to wonder how Lanier had the money and resources to compete with—and defeat—major players.
Upon their indictment, Lanier and his partner Ben Kramer were told they'd never see the light of day again. (Kramer, who is a powerboat racing champion related to notorious mobster Meyer Lansky, tried to escape from a Miami prison by helicopter in 1990, but the vehicle crashed.)
To Billy Corben, director of films like Cocaine Cowboys and Limelight and something of an expert on the history of drug prohibition, it's not exactly shocking that Lanier and Kramer teamed up to peddle pot. Florida is a smuggler's paradise, with nearly 5,000 miles of coast and coastal waterways. The trafficking exploits of the Black Tuna Gang, the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, and the entire town of Everglades City were made famous by Corben's documentary Square Grouper.
Although the trade attracted people of almost any stripe, guys with an affinity for fast cars and boats were particularly likely to get involved. Today, the IMSA is even derisively referred to as the International Marijuana Smuggling Association.
“In 80s dollars, maintaining a competitive boat would cost about $500,000,” Corben says. “Who had that kind of money? Every sport in Miami during that era was packed with smugglers.”
Unlike many of Florida's drug merchants, Lanier's organization was linked to at least one homicide. In 1987, an FBI agent tied Lanier and Kramer to six executions. Although Lanier was never charged with anything related to the bodies, Kramer was ultimately convicted of ordering a hit on rival kingpin and powerboat mogul Don Aronow in 1996.
Cheri Sicard, who serves as Lanier's spokesperson, vehemently denies that he was ever involved in any violence. “The alleged subject of murder is a falsehood,” she told me in a Facebook message, declining to comment further.
But why would Lanier get released from prison early if he had nothing to offer in terms of evidence? “The government just doesn't come out and say, 'Let's give this guy a break,'” Corben says of Lanier's release. “We'll probably never know what happened for sure, and I can't even fathom what he could have given the government that would have still been relevant after all these years.”
Jim L. Porter, first assistant US attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, confirmed the release was taking place, but told me via email that he was unable to comment as to exactly why.
No matter the reason, Lanier still has to undergo some steps before he's out from under the government's thumb. He'll move directly into a residential re-entry center. He won't be allowed to drink or own a gun, and he will most likely be drug-tested every week for a year. Still, compared to wasting away in a jail cell, that sounds like paradise.
“This morning, I walked out of federal prison a Free Man," Lanier posted on Facebook via his spokesperson this morning. "Yes! All of your love, prayers, support, and positive energy has caused the Universal Life Force to guide the justice system to reduce my sentence to time served."