Ken Burnstine's Record is BrokenSoon after arriving in South Florida in 1970, I heard of an intriguing figure named Ken Burnstine. He had a semi-Ivy League background (three years at Penn) and had initially done well as a real estate developer. The round building at Oakland Park Blvd. and U.S. 1 was named Kenann, after Ken and his then-wife Ann. Burnstine had been president of his synagogue, and he was an excellent pilot who fancied World War II airplanes. He owned a B-26 bomber and a P-51 fighter, the latter painted garishly in the colors of several famous fighter outfits. One of his hobbies was air racing. He also had a gun range in his home and kept a pet lion in his yard.
People who knew those facts of Ken Burnstine’s life also heard something else. He was a drug runner. I heard that the first time I ever heard his name. The rumors were reinforced by the fact that he owned an aviation company and his planes kept crashing, loaded with dope. Leased them out, he said, can’t help what people do with them. Nobody believed that line and wondered why he wasn’t taken down. Years later Gaeton Fonzi wrote in this magazine that Ken Burnstine survived as a drug runner because he was useful to the government, doing work with his aircraft supporting CIA efforts in Latin America.
Eventually the government did take him down, and he quickly turned informant, a job he liked even better than drug running. He died in an air racing crash in 1976. There were rumors for five years that he had faked his death and had been seen in Europe. Gaeton Fonzi blew up that story with his three part series – “Ken Burnstine is Still Dead.” Fonzi thinks Burnstine’s plane was sabotaged. He thinks he was killed because he was the key witness in a big drug trial scheduled for just weeks after his death. Dozens of local people, targets of an FBI probe, might have gone to jail if he lived.
We think of Ken Burnstine this month because his record for getting away with bad deeds for years has been broken. Shattered in fact. Ken Burnstine was widely known almost from his arrival in Florida in the early 1960s, His flamboyant style and wild life and addiction to deals made him quite a figure in South Florida and elsewhere. But it took 15 years for him to come crashing down. Literally crashing down. Scott Rothstein did the same thing in just a few years.
This time last year I had barely heard of Scott Rothstein. At least, I don’t think I had, and if I had it was overhearing people wondering where the man had come from. One day nobody seemed to know him; the next, he was everywhere, rich, generous, a serious political player. His law firm had grown from nothing to big, overnight. That just did not happen, even in South Florida. The first time I really came to know the name was last spring, when we prepared our “50 Most Important” story. The last time we did that story, just a few years ago, Rothstein’s name never came up. This time it did, although with a lot of surrounding mystery. He had unquestionably become a player, but how? Like Ken Burnstine of yore, everybody seemed to be suspicious of his success. There was a sense that he, like Burnstine, would crash.
Last month it happened. The story has been breaking day by day, and in terms of money involved, it is much bigger than Ken Burnstine’s tale, if perhaps not quite so sinister. And there is one other difference. Ken Burnstine was important enough that he (or rather, his airplane) made our cover in the early 1970s. But the first time we did a study of important people, in 1976, there was no Ken Burnstine on the list.
Of course, he was dead. Still is.