Among State's Most Prolific Businessmen, Bruce Bemer's Name Now Tarnished

Hartford Courant
Josh Kovner
April 30, 2017

At the New London-Waterford Speedbowl, he was revered by fans for rescuing the racetrack from foreclosure and funding a seven-figure renovation.

When he acquired Skylark Airpark in East Windsor last year, Bruce Bemer, an accomplished pilot, was praised for promising to keep it a "friendly country airport."

His motorcycle dealership on Hartford's Leibert Road has become one of the biggest in the state, and Bemers Petroleum in Glastonbury, which he took over from his father, John, and mother, Frances, in the early 1980s, has 15,000 customers at last count.

And then there's Bemer Gas & Welding Supplies, and a host of real-estate limited partnerships. Bemer, who owns a Mustang, a Barracuda and other classic muscle cars, even has a place to land his helicopter — in Portland, off Glastonbury Turnpike.

But much has changed for the prolific businessman in recent weeks.

At the Speedbowl, the word "Bemers" has been scoured from the utility trailers, the management team has resigned en masse, and the future of the racetrack, just days away from its early May opening, is in doubt.

Police late last month charged Bemer, 63, with patronizing a trafficked person after he was accused of paying for sex with someone ensnared in a human-trafficking ring. In this case, police said, at least two of the 15 male victims of the alleged ring were under state-funded care, with deep psychiatric disabilities and drug addictions. The alleged ring leader is Robert King of Danbury, a convicted drug dealer and accused pimp who once lived in Manchester, police said. King, arrested last year, is accused of plying vulnerable victims with cash and cocaine.

Arrested along with Bemer in late March was a convicted sex offender from Westport named William Trefzger, 72, who was also charged with patronizing a victim of human trafficking.

The charges and the nature of Bemer's reported association with King — who allegedly maintained a house trailer in Danbury where some of the sexual transactions took place, and also allegedly ferried victims to Bemer's Glastonbury garage — likely shocked those in Bemer's social and business circles.

Bemer told police that he's known King for up to 25 years and that King "has brought him eight to 10 boys for sex, most on multiple occasions ... and that he pays $200 to $250 per occasion," according to arrest documents. These "boys" were men in their 20s, the documents state.

One victim, who was living in a state-funded residence for people with psychiatric disabilities and drug addictions in Danbury, told detectives that King "brought him to see Bemer," the documents state.

The victim said "Bemer took him to his private garage [on the grounds of the petroleum company in Glastonbury] and showed the victim his collection of old cars and motorcycles in the garage," investigators wrote in the arrest warrant.

The victim, who was in denial and struggling to deal with what had happened to him, according to the warrant, acknowledged that he engaged in "what others would call" sexual activity with Bemer that day, the documents state.

Bemer told police that he had stopped patronizing one of the victims because he had gotten "too old," the documents state.

The spirits of racing fans soared after Bemer, a total unknown on the local racing scene with no track-management experience, bought the bankrupt Speedbowl in October 2014 with a winning bid of $1.75 million. He spent a similar amount fixing up the complex and was pledging to spend more.

But the high sprints and the sense of gratitude among fans with strong ties to the Speedbowl collapsed as news of the scandal broke. Social-media posts from racing fans were peppered with words and phrases such as "sick," "unspeakable," "unforgivable" and "beyond disgusting."

Track managers and race-day officials at the Speedbowl were quoted in local newspaper articles as saying that they could no longer work at a venue associated with Bemer. Two of the officials, who are part of a group that resigned from the track, did not return calls from The Courant.

NASCAR quickly announced it was dropping its sanction of the Whelen All-American Series racing program, and of the popular Whelen Modified Tour event scheduled for July 22. While not necessarily a fatal blow for a race track, it means drivers won't accumulate national championship points and will lose NASCAR-sponsored medical insurance any time they race at the Speedbowl. NASCAR had been a draw for casual fans.

Bemer, free on a $500,000 cash bail, is said to be trying to arrange a sale of the track to a hastily formed group of investors, according to published reports.

This sense of desperation would have have been completely foreign to him just a few weeks ago, before his arrest.

Leaving for work from his 11,000-square-foot, $954,000 house on Sherwood Drive in Glastonbury, he was the kind of businessman who moved at his own pace. When he didn't want to budge, he didn't budge. Land records show he pushed back and won an appeal after Portland zoning officials cited him for improperly spreading dirt fill on the nearly three acres he owns off Glastonbury Turnpike — a site that contains a colonial-style house, a garage and a small hangar.

He figured out that Hughes Aircraft had sold him a used helicopter that the company had represented as new. After the chopper had a forced landing at a New York shopping center, he sued Hughes and won a $1.1 million judgment, according to court records. When the city of Hartford wanted to collect property taxes from Bemer and 13 other owners of $55,000 condominiums at the state-owned Hartford-Brainard Airport, he and the rest of the group sued and won, beating back the tax collector, records show.

Shortly after Bemer acquired the 42-acre Skylark Airport off Wells Road in East Windsor in March 2016, he attended a meeting of the local chapter of the Experimental Airplane Association, based at the airport.

Bemer "shared his vision of the airport with us, saying he wants to keep it a friendly country airport — but he will be improving the runway, fuel farm and buildings, and perhaps adding more hangars and a snack bar in the future. We couldn't have hoped for a better outcome," read an account of the meeting in the association's May 2016 newsletter.

The airport is appraised at $1.3 million, and Bemer has also acquired an additional 180 acres of residential land along Wells Road, land records show.

"He's got a side to him that is wonderful," said attorney John Droney III of West Hartford, who is representing Bemer in the criminal case.

Droney said there has been a rush to judgment, before the criminal allegations have been vetted in court.

"Some people know him for his kindness. He's a hardworking guy who still goes to work every day," Droney said.

But Bemer has lost control of his world. Now there are lawyers in New Haven and New Britain, representing three of the alleged victims, who are sorting through Bemer's roster of at least 18 businesses, looking to freeze millions of dollars in assets for civil lawsuits. One of the men was 15 when he was sexually molested, according to court documents.

"We will obtain every shred of that information," said attorney Joel Faxon of New Haven. "I'm confident the judge will order it produced."

Faxon said he feels for the racetrack folks and the others who work for Bemer.

"But this has been a decades-long ring," Faxon asserted. "You wonder — were the victims lured to his possessions, the muscle cars, the helicopter rides?"