Did They Drive Over The Line?

Former racer John Paul Sr. and his Indy 500-driving namesake face serious charges in a drug case
May 26, 1985

The story of John Lee Paul Sr. is resonant not only with the unmuffled thunder of racing cars but also with reports of the crackle of gunfire, a mysterious underground chamber and the rustle of greenbacks in quantities to boggle the mind. Paul once was a racing driver, and a good one. He has a son, John Jr., who's a racing driver, and an even better one. Indeed, young Paul is in the field for Sunday's Indianapolis 500. But the crucial drama of their lives will be played out far from the arena of exhaust fumes and checkered flags.

According to John Sr., who is known around sports car racing as the "old pirate," his bio goes like this: He was born Johan Lee Paul in the Netherlands in 1939, and he hustled for food on the streets during the Nazi occupation. He came to America when he was 15 and lived with his parents in Muncie, Ind. He attended Ball State University and won a scholarship to Harvard, where he washed dishes on his way to a master's degree in business. By the time he was 32 he had made millions in mutual funds. In 1970 his wife left him, taking his 9-year-old son along with her to Indianapolis. He bought a 56-foot sailboat and roamed aboard it, twice crossing the Atlantic solo. After settling in the Caribbean for a while, he emerged in South Florida and added to his fortune through real-estate deals.

The more public aspects of his life were evident to all. He took up sports car racing and in 1979 won the SCCA Trans-Am championship in a Porsche. He had won the World Endurance Championship in 1978, and he would do so again in '80, also in Porsches. He wasn't a particularly fast driver but was consistent and determined, and he was teamed with fast co-drivers, among them John Paul Jr.

He also competed on the IMSA Camel GT circuit, operating as JLP Racing out of Lawrenceville, Ga., near Atlanta. His transport rig was black, which generally matched his mood. He was short and scruffy and wore a beard, granny glasses and an intense scowl. He was known for his independence and volatile temperament and the wrangles that resulted. "Maybe I'm a little too tough at times," he has said, "but I grew up in a tough world."

When Paul brought John Jr. into racing, it was only as a gofer, with the chance to become a race driver. The kid was tall and thin, with long dark hair. He was quiet and mannerly, so humble he sometimes seemed hangdog—he also gathered a lot of speeding tickets.

Junior was the dutiful son, almost to a fault, it would seem. He performed his menial chores diligently and, like the rest of the JLP crew, jumped when Senior barked. He got the bite, too, because Paul was a martinet about his son's driving-education program. Yet Junior always responded with "Yes, sir" and "No, sir." He began his racing in open-wheel Formula Fords and began winning right off. Soon he was a sensation in a variety of high-powered machinery. Co-driving with his father, he won the first IMSA GT race he entered, in a Porsche 935 at Lime Rock Park, Conn. in 1980. The Pauls drove together three more times that year, winning once and finishing second twice; they also placed ninth at Le Mans, with a third driver. John Sr. finished second in the IMSA GT series; Junior, who did not enter every race, was fourth. Junior also raced in Venezuela. He went from 22nd to second in the first lap of one race, and fans called him Mad Dog.

In 1981 John Jr. earned nine pole positions and led in each of the 18 GT races he entered. But his inexperience and youthful exuberance showed; he crashed twice and won only twice, losing the championship to Brian Redman, a veteran sports car driver.

In 1982 JLP Racing had two of the fastest cars in the world, both painted baby blue: the JLP Porsche, a hybrid with a special chassis that shone at endurance events, and an explosive Lola-Chevy for the sprints. Together, the Pauls won five races, including both Daytona and Sebring; as a solo act, John Jr. won nine of 18 to become—at 22—the youngest champion in IMSA history.

Because the team didn't have a major sponsor, it's likely that JLP Racing's expenses exceeded the purses it won by hundreds of thousands of dollars. "When I first went down to Atlanta, I was in awe of the operation," says Junior. "I never really asked my dad how much money he spent. I just didn't feel it was appropriate."

John Sr. won a separate title for his performance in races of six hours or longer that year, and after the final race he announced his retirement as a driver.

Five months later the "old pirate" was a fugitive, charged with attempted murder and attempted kidnapping. The victim, Stephen Carson, in return for immunity from prosecution, had testified before a federal grand jury about a marijuana smuggling operation that he, Carson, had been part of. Three months later, Carson was shot in the chest, abdomen and leg at a boat-landing in Crescent Beach, Fla. That was on the night of April 19, 1983. Carson told police that as he returned from fishing, John Sr. approached him with a gun in his hand and ordered him into the trunk of his car. Carson claims that when he ran, Paul fired five times, then fled when Carson's fishing companion began shouting.

In the company of a lawyer, Paul turned himself in on June 27 of that year. He declined to reveal where he had been for the two intervening months, pleaded not guilty at his arraignment the next day and after 10 more days in jail was released on $500,000 bond. But he failed to appear for his trial, scheduled to begin Dec. 12, and remained a fugitive for 13 months, until Jan. 11, 1985. Working with the FBI, Swiss police apprehended Paul that day outside a Geneva bank where he had an account under an alias. According to sources close to the investigation, John Sr. is thought to have two Swiss bank accounts involving staggering sums—possibly as much as $100 million. Currently he is fighting extradition.

While Paul was on the lam, the charges had multiplied. It was the state of Florida that had brought the attempted murder and attempted kidnapping charges. A federal grand jury sitting at Jacksonville handed up an indictment against him and seven other persons. It was unsealed shortly after John Sr. was arrested in Switzerland. Now he was named as the "organizer, supervisor and manager" of a smuggling ring that brought 50 tons of marijuana into the U.S. from Colombia between 1975 and '81, and he was charged not only with drug trafficking but also racketeering and attempted bribery of a grand jury witness. The pot allegedly was moved through the Bahamas and unloaded mostly along the east coast of Florida and in Louisiana bayous. The operation allegedly used a number of vessels and facilities, from Paul's yacht Argonaut to assorted shrimp boats, tugboats, cabin cruisers and, on land, rental trucks, 18-wheelers and storage warehouses.

In a separate 17-count indictment handed up by an Atlanta grand jury on Oct. 16, 1984, John Sr. was charged with laundering a total of $467,000 in currency. Yet another Paul, John Sr.'s father, Lee J., was indicted on four of those counts. According to John Jr., his grandfather is "outside the country."

In 1982, according to the indictment, John Paul Sr. abandoned the Colombia route. Under the name John Drew, he put $47,000 down on a 596-acre farm in Georgia and built an underground chamber 200' X 40', and 20 feet deep, covering it wit $125,000 worth of steel beams, bridge planking and turf. He also purchased a $32,774 generator and $33,000 worth of grow lights. But the seeding of this suspected underground marijuana farm never took place. The FBI believes Paul had used the chamber as a hideout.

Five of the other seven men indicted in Jacksonville are fugitives. The remaining two face trial on June 3. One is John Paul Jr. He's married now and the father of a 6-month-old daughter. John Jr. is charged with being "employed by and associated with" the marijuana enterprise. If convicted, he could face a total of 50 years in prison and an $80,000 fine.

John Jr. surrendered to U.S. marshals in Jacksonville on Jan. 22, and after three days of incarceration—"shuttled around between jails in Florida swamps, which they do just to keep you isolated, I guess, with my legs and arms shackled"—he was released on $125,000 bond, paid by Phil Conte, owner of the IMSA team on which he now races. He pleaded not guilty on Jan. 29 and two days later set a track record for the Daytona 24-hour race. In five races in the Conte Racing March-Buick sports car this year, young Paul has set three track records.

It was a long winter for John Jr. When the indictment was made public, he quickly offered to resign from both his IMSA ride with Conte and his Indy Car ride with Shierson Racing. The Shierson Indy Car was sponsored by Domino's Pizza, which is owned by Tom Monaghan, owner of the Detroit Tigers. Paul's offer to resign was accepted by Shierson Racing. His identical offer to Conte's IMSA endurance racing team was flatly rejected. "I'm an ex-marine," said Conte. "I never deserted my country, and I'll never desert a friend. Normally in this country, a person is innocent until proven guilty." Conte's company, C.G.I. Industries, makes electrical switchboards in Paramount, Calif., an industrial suburb of Los Angeles. The team is unsponsored but supported by Buick, which supplies its powerful V-6 turbo engines.

Paul got his present Indy 500 car, a new March-Cosworth owned by Sherman Armstrong, a Winchester, Ind. industrialist, on May 4. Willy T Ribbs, the gifted and rapidly rising black driver who had been concentrating exclusively on sports car and GT racing for the past two years, had tested in the March-Cosworth at the Speedway but decided to wait until he was better prepared for the imposing task of driving in the 500.

John Jr. is undesirable to image-conscious owners and sponsors because of not only the impending trial but also a previous conviction. That had come on Jan. 10, 1979, six months after his father had brought him to Atlanta. According to police, Paul Jr. and one Christopher Schill, then 27, were loading equipment onto a pickup truck on the bank of a canal in the Louisiana bayous after dark. Patrolling customs agents had heard them from a highway, and during questioning, one smelled marijuana on their clothing. Soon thereafter, John Sr. was apprehended on the water in a 42-foot boat named Lady Royale. According to police, there was marijuana residue on the boat, and $10,000 in John Sr.'s possession. A truck rented to John Sr. under the alias John Davis was found nearby. It contained 1,565 pounds of marijuana. The Pauls and Schill pleaded guilty to marijuana possession charges. Each was placed on three years' probation and fined $32,500. Word of the case was a mere whispered rumor in the pits until it was reported in AutoWeek by Steve Potter in May 1983.

John Jr. made his debut in Indy Cars in '83 after John Sr. agreed to pay owner Rudy Van Der Straten, a Belgian count, $400,000 to enable his son to campaign a Team VDS Indy Car. John Jr. crashed in practice for the Indy 500 two weeks after his father became a fugitive. He spun, and his car hit the wall almost head on. "My left ankle fragmented like cobblestones," young Paul says. "It was Friday the 13th, of all days." Two months later, Paul won the Michigan 500 with a daring last-lap pass of CART champion Rick Mears, who crashed on the last turn trying to repass. Young Paul was an overnight sensation again.

John Sr. had anted up only about half of the promised $400,000, but John Jr. won $260,494 in prize money for Team VDS, so Van Der Straten was satisfied.

In 1984, without his father's money behind him, John Jr. had a rougher time of it. He was hired to drive for five different Indy Car teams, at $5,000 per race, but in equipment of varying quality. His best race was the season's final at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He passed Mario Andretti and Danny Sullivan in one swoop on the first lap and led for 10 laps, ultimately finishing third.

Indianapolis has been an emotional—and physical—obstacle course for John Jr. He sat out '84, too, after crashing again during practice, bouncing off both the outside and inside walls in Turn 4. "Knocked me for a loop," he says. "A CAT scan showed bleeding in my head."

And this year had been going poorly until he qualified on Saturday. First, there had been the media attention. His March-Cosworth started out fast but got slow, with handling problems. A new crew chief—the redoubtable Huey Absalom—was hired to replace George Bignotti, and John Jr. started to regain the lost speed. He had three chances to qualify Saturday and aborted the first two. First the car popped out of gear, then he called off an unstable 203-mph run himself. Absalom told him the car would handle better at 205, if he could get it there on his final chance. His 206.340-mph run put him 24th in the field. "I hadn't been able to go through Turn 1 with my foot all the way down," he said. "This time I braved it out." Cameras clicked, the crowd cheered and his eyes teared over as he held his daughter, Alexandra Lee, up before him.

Discussing the charge on which he awaits trial, Junior says, "If I sat here and asked if you're interested in buying a bale of pot, even if I didn't have one, I'm guilty of conspiracy and I'm a marijuana trafficker. It's kind of a shady law.

"I've never been caught with any pot. Not even in '79. The IRS and everyone else says that they're not really interested in me; they're trying to pressure my dad more than anything else. I think they're also just trying to get me to incriminate the others, to firm up their case against them."

John Sr. probably will be tried first on the attempted kidnapping and attempted murder charges, then the other drug-related charges. Life imprisonment is among the possible penalties, along with forfeiture of money linked to drugs and up to $690,000 in fines. After that he could face the IRS.

Young Paul's respect—and love—for John Sr. has not wavered. "I still can't believe my dad would try to shoot anyone," he says.

"Theirs is the strangest relationship I've ever seen," says John Jr.'s attorney, John Nuckolls.

"I wouldn't be racing if it weren't for my dad," says young Paul. "He put 150 percent into the operation, and in return for his support I was expected to do what I was told. I'm willing to bet that most people would have done the same.

"I never thought I'd be able to win an Indy Car race—or ever get the opportunity to. If I'd known the things then that I know now, it would be a lot different. It's a crazy sport. I sure am glad to have been a part of it."

PHOTOUPI/BETTMANN NEWSPHOTOSJohn Sr. was IMSA champ in 1982 (top, left) but by '83 was in leg-irons. John Jr. is in the eighth row for this year's Indy. PHOTODAN BIANCHI[See caption above.] PHOTOGEORGE TIDEMANN[See caption above.] PHOTOHAL CROCKERIn 1981, John Sr. (right) supervised his son's early education in driving open-wheel race cars. PHOTOHAL CROCKERPère et fils shared in the victors' spoils after co-driving a 1982 race. PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNJohn Jr. found out what it's like to be all fenced in with nowhere to go when his car broke down at this year's Miami Grand Prix. TWO PHOTOSGEORGE TIDEMANNJohn Jr. fitted himself into the Indy field with a qualifying average of 206.340 mph.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)