Sometimes what’s missing is more interesting than what’s in plain sight.
Take, for instance, the “Curriculum Vitae” of Daniel Preston, CEO of Luminati Aerospace.
You know who he is, right?
Preston is the self-proclaimed genius — he says his IQ is so high it can’t be measured — scientist, engineer and professional inventor promising to bring the aerospace industry back to Calverton.
But if you’re looking to become informed about Preston’s education, background and experience — the typical content of a “CV” after all — you’ll have to look elsewhere, because the Preston “CV” submitted to the Town of Riverhead by Preston’s attorney is a bullet-point list that’s long on claims and short on details.
But that’s not new. With apologies to Winston Churchill: Preston is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
Former supervisor Sean Walter, who had some kind of bromance with Preston that I never quite figured out, was fond of saying Preston was like Howard Hughes — phenomenally successful but equally eccentric. I think Walter had the initials right, anyway: “You’ve got trouble, my friend, right here in River City.”
Let’s look at what the Preston “CV” says — and what it doesn’t say.
“Accelerated education, attended college at age 12”
Preston, who according to public records was born in August 1970 and grew up in Queens, makes this claim on the “CV” he submitted to Riverhead Town; it’s something he regularly tells reporters and has been published in many different media.
“The last grade I officially graduated from was fifth,” he told one reporter.
What elementary school did he attend that “accelerated” him?
What college accepted him at age 12? How long was he there? Did he attend other colleges? Different former colleagues and associates of Preston have different answers to these questions: NYU. MIT. C.W. Post. Or, “He never really said.”
Preston has said he dropped out of college, never earning a degree. But in interview after interview, he holds himself out to be an aeronautical engineer nonetheless. His bio on the Luminati website says, after “receiving an accelerated college education starting at the age of 12,” he became “a qualified master scientific glass blower” and had “subsequent education in plasma physics and mechanical engineering.”
One article published in September 2015 in a quarterly magazine called “Craftsmanship” takes it a step or two further and makes a statement the author likely didn’t understand the full import of. After writing that Preston “a polymath” was “trained as a chemical and nuclear engineer,” he wrote “Preston gives the impression of someone who lives in a constant state of improvisation.”
Someone who lives in a constant state of improvisation. However that turn of phrase might have been intended, it’s a perfect description of the man.
“Started his first company at age 18, which he sold for $4.6 million at age 22”
Preston’s “first company” was Preston Glass Industries, which according to Luminati’s website, he founded in 1989, after “receiving an accelerated college education starting at the age of 12.” He claims he had become “a qualified master scientific glass blower” — a highly skilled crafter of scientific glass apparatus used in laboratories and glass parts for technology. It’s a profession people enter after education and apprenticeships.
Preston Glass Industries “specialized in the development, design and manufacture of high speed automation machinery for specialty glass products, such as light bulbs, ampoules and cathode ray tubes,” the Luminati website says.
Preston Glass Industries Inc. was incorporated in New York on Dec. 9, 1992. Preston would have been 22 at the date of its incorporation. That’s the age at which he says in his “CV” he sold the company for $4.6 million.
According to public records, Preston Glass Industries’ corporate name was changed to JDS Textiles Inc. less than a year later, on Sept. 9, 1993. That was an odd switch, I thought — from scientific glass to textiles? I tracked down the owner of JDS Textiles, which is still in business. Mark Jordon remembers Preston as “a cocky young kid, a wise ass who was very full of himself.” Jordon said he and his partner at the time became interested in the neon signs Preston was making in a shop in lower Manhattan.
“We put $1,500 or $2,000 into it. But it was like flushing money down the toilet,” Jordon said, so they decided to back away from Preston after a few months. Since they’d already paid to incorporate the business, Jordon said he and his partner decided to change the business name for use in their textile business.
“I haven’t thought about him in a very long time,” Jordon said in a phone interview.
Was the business sold for $4.6 million at any point? I asked. Jordon just laughed. It wasn’t sold to anyone while he had anything to do with it, he said and he couldn’t imagine it being sold to anyone — never mind for that kind of money.
In June 1995, Preston Glass Industries Inc. was once again incorporated in the State of New York. (The name was available for use since the corporation created in 1992 had changed its name in 1993.)
Preston became involved with new partners in the new company: Surendra Karnavat and his wife Nalini, who owned a gemstone company in Manhattan called Diastuds, founded in 1984.
According to court papers, the Karnavats owned two-thirds of Preston Glass Industries Inc.
In a phone interview last month, Karnavat, now living in India, said he invested and lost $500,000 to $1 million in Preston Glass Industries.
Preston and the Karnavats were directors and officers of the company. Preston, who was also an employee of the company, owned a registered patent on a method of manufacturing electrodes. He had assigned the patent to his father, John (a figure in the background in many of Preston’s business concerns, including Luminati).
On March 16, 1997, Preston entered into an agreement with Preston Glass Industries giving the company exclusive right to use the patent Preston had registered in 1995, “well before his employment by [Preston Glass] Industries,” according to the decision of the court.
The patent agreement was conditioned on Preston being employed full-time by Preston Glass Industries and receiving a minimum salary of $72,000 per year.
Six weeks after signing the agreement, Preston had resigned from the company, according to court papers. Preston and the Karnavats became embroiled in a bitter dispute over rights to the patent — a dispute that landed in court when Preston Glass Industries sued Preston and his parents. The action was brought in Supreme Court, New York County in May 1997.
The court case continued through a trial that took place in April 2000. The court ruled in June 2000 that Preston owned the patent in dispute because the March 1997 patent agreement terminated when Preston resigned from the company the following month.
All of this transpired years after the purported sale of the company for $4.6 million when Preston was 22, as he claims in the “CV.” If Preston, born in August 1970, sold Preston Glass Industries when he was 22, as stated in the “CV”, the sale would have taken place some time between August 1992 — when Preston turned 22 — and August 1993.
But as seen in the court filings in Preston Glass Industries Inc. v. Daniel E. Preston, Jo-Ann Preston and John Preston et al., Preston, according to his own pleadings in the case, still had an ownership interest in Preston Glass Industries at least as of 1997.
Karnavat said he never sold or transferred his shares in the company to Preston or anyone else. To his knowledge, the company was never sold, Karnavat said. Like Jordon, Karnavat laughs at the idea that the company was sold $4.6 million.
According to online records of the N.Y. Department of State, Preston Glass Industries Inc. was dissolved on Sept. 23, 1998.
On Oct. 6, 1998, Preston Glass Company Inc. filed a certificate of incorporation with the State of New York. It was dissolved on June 26, 2002.
In one article, Preston told a reporter he sold Preston Glass Industries to PerkinElmer “for a hefty sum.” PerkinElmer came into existence in 1999, the result of a corporate merger. A spokesperson for the company said last week he could not verify information concerning any acquisition of Preston Glass Industries.
“His second company became a prime contractor for 15 of 16 Department of Defense Agencies”
Again, Preston’s “CV” doesn’t even name the company. We know it, however, to be Atair Aerospace Inc.
According to Luminati’s website and a “fact sheet” distributed at a press event last year, Preston founded Atair Aerospace in 2001.
Atair Aerospace Inc. was incorporated in Delaware on Nov. 23, 2001.
In a story he’s repeated to numerous news outlets, after purportedly selling Preston Glass Industries, Preston took up skydiving and was injured when his parachute didn’t function properly. While he was recuperating, he researched parachutes and designed a better one.
According to a June 13, 2008 article in the Chicago Tribune, “While recovering from his accident, Preston said, he had a lot of time to think. He scoured the globe until he located a parachute designer in Slovenia, with whom he partnered and opened Atair Aerodynamics’ U.S. division to produce high-performance parachutes for extreme sports.”
The parachute designer in Slovenia, though, denies that account.
Stane Krajnc founded Atair Aerodynamics in Slovenia in 1992. It’s a family business still operating in Škofja Loka under the leadership of Krajnc’s son, a mechanical engineer and designer.
“When he started with Atair Aerodynamics USA, we were not his partners,” Krajnc wrote in an email. “He used Atair Aerodynamics brand name without our permission.”
Nevertheless, Preston’s company became for a time a U.S. dealer for the parachutes Atair Aerodynamics designed and manufactured, Krajnc said.
Preston, by his own account, built Atair Aerospace into a $22 million company, becoming “a prime contractor for 15 of the 16 Department of Defense agencies.”
He has in the past maintained — as reported in numerous media outlets, including this one — that he sold Atair in 2008 (sometimes he’s said 2009) and had a five-year non-compete agreement that forced him out of the aerospace industry.
In fact, his separation from Atair followed another court case — brought in September 2009, in which Atair Aerospace Inc. accused Preston (then a minority shareholder) of fraud. The case was settled out of court the following year. The details of the settlement were not made public. (See prior story)
Atair Aerospace continued in operation after Preston’s departure until at least December 2015.
In the “CV” just filed with the town, Preston now omits any mention of sale of Atair Aerospace.
“First company to design and manufacture wing suits.”
The “CV” doesn’t say which company was the first to design and manufacture wingsuits, but certainly implies it was a Preston company.
The “CV” also doesn’t say when this company designed and manufactured wing suits.
Krajnc, owner of Atair Aerodynamics in Slovenia, said Robert Pecnik, of Croatia, co-founder of BirdMan International, was the designer of the first wingsuit sold commercially. He referred me to a website detailing the history of wingsuits. “Preston is not mentioned there,” he noted.
The website says Pecnik designed a wingsuit that he began selling commercially in 1998. Details are lacking about the timing of Preston’s alleged skydiving accident that set him on his quest to design a better parachute. But he did not incorporate Atair Aerospace until November 2001.
“He then founded a chocolate/alcohol company during his 5-year non-compete.”
Preston’s story, repeated multiple times to multiple media, says when he sold Atair, he had a five-year noncompete agreement. So in 2009 he turned his attention to making chocolate.
Why not? His family, he says, has century-old roots in cacao farming in the Dominican Republic. According to his Cacao Prieto website, as well as multiple interviews given to various media, Preston’s great-grandfather established cacao plantations in the Dominican Republic just before 1900.
With time on his hands after selling Atair, Preston became interested in his family heritage, his story goes. Never one to do anything in a small way, apparently, he ended up vastly expanding his family’s farming operations (by 2,000 hectacres) and improving farming practices.
According to Cacao Prieto’s website, “the Prieto family owns Coralina Farms which provides all of the cacao for Cacao Prieto’s chocolates and spirits. Coralina Farms is also the center for long-ranging experiments in self-sustainable and organic farming methods.”
In a 2012 interview Preston said his project in the Dominican Republic was “monumental.”
“We are clearing 300,000 coconut trees that are too old to be productive and replanting with 2 million cacao trees,” he said. “We are building a city for 1,600 employees, schools, churches, a saw mill, a brick factory, large scale biochar, compost and vermiculture operations, setting up germplasm repostories for the genetic preservation of the countries rare cacao breeds, building laboratories for invitro cultivation of cacao, etc.”
One would think that a project of that magnitude would have gotten some media attention. But the only place where Preston’s fantastical cacao farm appears online, aside from its own website, is on that of a “Dominican Cacao Alliance.”
The “Dominican Cacao Alliance” holds itself out as association of independent farmers. Its website lists 22 members — farms with names like “La Zebra” and “King Cacao.” But only two of the listed members link to active webpages — the rest say “coming soon.” One of them is “Coralina Farms,” which Preston says his family has owned for 100-plus years. The other seems to be an authentic plantation.
At the bottom of every page of the Dominican Cacao Alliance website is a footer labeled “visit our other sites,” where three sites linked to Preston are listed: Cacao Prieto, Cacao Biotechnologies and Brooklyn Cacao.
“The alcohol company, whose leading product is Widow Jane bourbon, was sold for the highest multiple ever paid in the alcohol history.”
Preston says in the process of growing cacao beans, he became fascinated with their fermentation process and invented a means of distilling alcohol from cacao “sweatings.”
He started with rum derived from cacao. Then he got interested in bourbon.
And so, Widow Jane bourbon was born. It’s not clear how or why Preston set his sights — and took his name from — the Widow Jane mine in upstate New York. It may be as simple as, well, it made for a good story — and Preston certainly seems to enjoy a good yarn.
Widow Jane is the name of a limestone mine in Rosendale, New York, a region that produced the limestone that built the giant metropolis to its south.
The mine, a historic site, is located on an estate owned by a tiny nonprofit organization, the Century House Historical Society.
The story of the locally famous widow made good marketing material and made its way to the Widow Jane website and Widow Jane labels. They state that the whiskey is made with “pure limestone mineral water from the Widow Jane Mine, Rosendale NY.”
But it’s not, according to the owner of the mine. The Century House Historical Society trustees published a letter to the editor in the local paper explaining to local residents that it had nothing whatsoever to do with whiskey and that it had no commercial relationship with Preston. (See comment section of this article.)
Laura Moriarty, Century House Historical Society board vice president, said in an interview last year that the group tried to get Preston to stop using the Widow Jane name.
“We pointed out to him that he was using our brand and we were uncomfortable with him using our name,” Moriarity said.
“He grew very hostile,” she said. “He had his lawyer write to us. We’re a really small and struggling volunteer-run organization,” Moriarity said.
The group decided not to pursue its objection to Preston’s use of the name. It didn’t have the money to get involved in that kind of legal dispute, Moriarity said.
Preston sold Widow Jane last year. The “CV” says the company “was sold for the highest multiple ever paid in the alcohol history [industry?].” Incredible, right?
He doesn’t disclose the terms of the deal, but it seems he was not always so excited about the sale price. The group that contracted with Preston to buy the liquor company sued last year to force him to close the deal, claiming he tried to back out of the deal because he believed the company had been undervalued, according to a complaint filed in the Delaware Chancery Court. In court papers, Preston denied he was motivated by a higher bid and instead accused the buyers of intentionally misleading him about how it would manage the business and the brand. The suit was later settled on undisclosed terms.
“Luminati’s business plan is to establish itself as a major force in the global aerospace industry, focusing on cutting edge, high-technology, large scale aerospace manufacturing”
In October 2015, after his stultifying noncompete agreement ended and he was free to pursue his creative genius in the aerospace field he loves so much, Preston bought the former Skydive Long Island site at EPCAL, where he said he would manufacture unmanned aerial vehicles capable of perpetual stratospheric flight with the aim of bringing the Internet to unserved areas of the globe. He had a Fortune 250 backer, he said.
Preston introduced his “dream team” to town officials, who in turn granted his company the exclusive right to use the town’s 10,000 foot runway at the former Navy site in Calverton.
He would return Long Island’s aerospace industry — and Calverton in particular — to its “glory days,” he said.
Since November 2015, Luminati’s Fortune 250 backer — by several accounts, Facebook — had pulled out. According to one former Luminati engineer, Preston announced that development to a staff meeting that spring, though it didn’t become public until more than a year later. Key members of Preston’s “dream team” left the project.
In June 2016, Preston gathered officials and media at the former Skydive hangar to view a demonstration flight of a solar-powered plane he said he developed. A German company later objected, issuing a press release alleging that it, not Luminati, had designed and built that plane. Preston told me he had made so many changes to the plane built in Germany that it was effectively a new aircraft and he had a retraction letter from the German company. But he never produced it, despite repeated requests.
At the June 2016 event, Preston announced a partnership with Seamax America, which had an amphibious aircraft on display at the Luminati event that day. Preston said he would be in “full production” of the Seamax plane at EPCAL by Halloween. He said he would be moving his manufacturing operation to larger quarters at EPCAL, because the old Skydive hangar was just too small. He would be moving into the Plant Six building, he said.
Luminati did move into leased space in the Plant Six building, but never began production of the Seamax plane. Seamax America had a contractual dispute with the parent company in Brazil and the collaboration never came to fruition.
Luminati made renovations to the building without obtaining the required town permits, prompting the town building inspector to issue a stop-work order in December 2016, and it occupied the building without the required certificate of occupancy.
Despite those outstanding, unremedied notices of violation and the stop-work order, the Town of Riverhead inked a letter of intent with Luminati in April last year, agreeing to sell the town’s remaining vacant land at the EPCAL site (the area and location to be determined) for $40 million.
Despite those outstanding, unremedied notices of violation and the stop-work order, and despite the fact that Luminati had no certificate of occupancy for the building, Luminati in June 2017 held yet another press event, this one inside Plant Six to herald the “grand re-opening” of its manufacturing plant and announce (again) the return of the glory days of aviation to Calverton. More than 100 people, including town officials, attended that event.
The letter of intent required the town and Luminati to begin negotiating a “definitive agreement” for the sale of EPCAL and if the “definitive agreement” was not agreed to “in principle” within 30 days of the execution of the letter of intent, either party would have the right to terminate the letter of intent.
Despite that provision, negotiation of the “definitive agreement” dragged on for months — during which time Luminati simultaneously searched for and negotiated with prospective financial backers — even though then-supervisor Walter said in a March 2017 interview, prior to signing the letter of intent, that Luminati had investors to bankroll the project and he would not sign the letter of intent until he was satisfied with their authenticity and ability to finance Preston’s startup.
In July 2017 billionaire businessman John Catsimatidis announced he had “a great deal of interest” in the Luminati project, looked forward to “completing the necessary due diligence and working with Luminati and its CEO Daniel Preston to bring the project to fruition.”
Negotiations between Preston and Catsimatidis continued for months — and the town continued to negotiate the terms of the “definitive agreement,” intermittently setting and then extending deadlines for the completion of the negotiations. Along the way, the town board flirted with the idea of canceling the letter of intent, but never mustered the three votes needed to do so.
Town officials said they learned in early December that Catsimatidis was out of the deal and a week later, Triple Five Ventures entered the scene. Triple Five, owned by the Ghermezian family, is a development company that built and manages the two largest indoor shopping malls in North America. They have many other ventures and development projects.
At its last meeting of 2017 — the last meeting at which the outgoing supervisor and unabashed Luminati advocate Walter would have a vote — the town board voted 3-2 to accept a contract of sale with Calverton Aviation and Technology, a newly formed company owned by Triple Five Realty-I and Luminati Aerospace. A crowd of angry residents filled the meeting room that night, demanding that the board put aside the resolution to allow the new town supervisor and new councilwoman — who had opposed the Luminati deal during their campaign and would take office Jan. 1 — to have a say in the outcome. Those demands fell on deaf ears, though, as Walter and then-councilman John Dunleavy were joined by Councilman James Wooten in a vote to approve the contract.
It should be noted that the letter of intent specified that purchaser would be Luminati Aerospace or a wholly owned subsidiary of Luminati Aerospace. The agreement approved in a split vote at the last meeting of 2017 does not comply with this requirement.
Nevertheless, the contract was approved, with one condition. In an urban renewal zone like EPCAL, the town can sell or lease property without a public bid in — and below fair market value — in order to spur economic development. But first, the purchaser must be determined a “qualified and eligible sponsor” under state law.
And that is what led to this moment, when the Town of Riverhead is considering whether Calverton Aviation and Technology is “qualified and eligible” to develop the 1,644-acre site where Grumman once designed and tested fighter jets for the U.S. Navy.
The “intended development plan” attached to the contract says Luminati Aerospace will be one of the businesses that will occupy the site. Other companies to “support Luminati’s operations” are also expected to locate there, as well as “businesses that can benefit from the use of the runways” and the FAA.
The purchaser, according to the “intended development plan,” will build 1 million square feet of commercial and industrial space, with construction to begin within 18 to 24 months of obtaining the required approvals and will take about five years. Primary emphasis will be on the development of aviation, technology and supportive uses, the plan says.
Over the past year, I’ve had conversations with many, if not most, of the people who came with Preston to Calverton, wooed by the idea of doing something that had never been done before. I’ve spoken with dozens of people across the country and around the world — Preston’s former engineers and designers, scientists and fabricators, assistants and investors, collaborators and prospective partners. Some were people I tracked down, following lead after lead. Some were people who contacted me. Most could not speak on the record because of nondisclosure agreements they said Preston had insisted upon — but their accounts were all eerily similar.
As I said at the outset, sometimes what’s missing is more interesting than what’s in plain sight. What I couldn’t write here is even more interesting than what I have been able to recount. And that’s very frustrating, to say the least.
I sent Preston’s lawyer a list of questions asking for the details missing from the “CV”. I re-sent them. And I’ve called and left messages. He did not afford me the courtesy of a reply.
For the sake of the future of Riverhead, I hope town officials press him for answers.
Preston’s Triple Five partners have plenty of money and know how to build things, but ultimately, fulfilling the development plan for the EPCAL site rests with the character of Daniel Preston and his ability to deliver on his promises.
And that’s something, as we have seen, that this man who “lives in a constant state of improvisation” has trouble doing.