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Feature Articles


December 2007
Frank Lucas and "American Gangster"
— the Myth and the Reality

By Ron Chepesiuk and Anthony Gonzalez


Ron Chepesiuk and Anthony Gonzalez are co-founders and co-owners of Street Certified LLC, a media company specializing in true crime books, documentaries and new media products.
Ron Chepesiuk is also author of:
  • Gangters of Harlem (www.gangstersofharlem.com/)
  • Drug Lords (www.ronchepesiuk.com/)
  • Black Gangsters of Chicago (www.blackgangstersofchicago,com/)

    Their book and DVD about Frank "Superfly" Lucas
    can be purchased at www.franklucasamericangangster.com/

  • * * *

         It is surely one of the most dramatic scenes in gangster film history. The movie is the blockbuster, "American Gangster," which opened in theaters U.S. wide last November 2, and is based on what Universal Studios, the film’s producer, claims is a true story. As the movie reaches its climax, audiences wonder: how has Frank Lucas done it? How has he smuggled his heroin supply into the U.S. from Southeast Asia?

         Then the movie’s hero, Richie Roberts, the character based on the real-life assistant New Jersey state prosecutor of the same name, who prosecuted Lucas, inspects a military plane, which is carrying the corpses of dead GIs from the Vietnam War and has landed at a Newark, New Jersey airbase. After an intensive search for the heroin, Roberts finally opens a casket and the shocking truth is revealed. Much to the horror of movie characters and audience alike, our hero has uncovered kilos of heroin in the coffins of the dead GIs and exposed what has become known in drug trafficking history as the "Cadaver Connection."

         It’s a great story, one that a suppliant, unblinking media has fueled. Surf the Internet and you will find hundreds of articles discussing as fact how Lucas used the coffins carrying to America the corpses of dead GIs—and most likely the corpses themselves—to smuggle heroin to the streets of America. The reality— It never happened. There is no evidence that coffins carrying dead GIs were used in such a manner. Many prosecutors and law enforcement officials have had their suspicions, but criminals are not convicted on suspicions but on evidence. The authors research reveals that not one trafficker has ever been convicted of trafficking heroin from Southeast Asia via the Cadaver Connection.

         That is one of many fabrications and falsehoods that Universal Studios, together with media outlets like Dateline NBC, Black Entertainment Television and the History Channel, have propagated since the movies release. That’s the conclusion drawn from our investigation of Frank Lucas’s life and criminal career, which has resulted in a book and documentary, both titled "Superfly: the True, Untold Story of Frank Lucas, American Gangster" (see www.franklucasamericangangster.com/). Our conclusion-– many of Lucas’s claims to fame are bogus, and "American Gangster," the movie, is largely the figment of Hollywood’s fertile imagination.

         Let’s look at the movie’s major claims that, with Hollywood’s help, are making Lucas a gangster legend:

         Frank Lucas’ and Richie Roberts’ "collaboration led to the conviction of ¾’s of New York City’s Drug Enforcement Agency." Or at least that’s the statement scrolled across the screen at the end of "American Gangster." But that claim is outrageous and has made Universal a target of a possible class action lawsuit by DEA agents who helped to bring Lucas down. Another reality check--not one DEA agent was ever convicted of corruption in the Frank Lucas investigation. Not one.

         Why Universal made such a mendacious statement is a mystery, but it’s irresponsible and the studio should retract it. Dominic Amorosa, the federal prosecutor who helped convict Lucas in September 1975, has written a letter to Universal on behalf of Greg Korniloff, a retired DEA agent who was the case agent on the Lucas investigation. In the letter, Amorosa notes that Universal "may have the right to dramatize actual events, but this right does not extend to destroying the reputations of honest and courageous public servants by deliberately misrepresenting the facts."

         So was Lucas really an informant who just snitched on corrupt law enforcement officials and who, as he claims, never took the stand against any real gangsters? As Amorosa, the federal prosecutor who should know, explained: " Lucas’s cooperation, which was admittedly substantial, was aimed at other narcotics dealers, not law enforcement officers." One retired DEA agent who worked with Lucas recalled for the authors the time when Superfly was looking to cooperate. "I was working in the Southern District of New York at the time," he recalled. "Frank was always phoning the DEA from prison and saying he wanted to cooperate. Finally, one of the prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office said to me: ‘do you want to talk to this guy?’ I said: ‘Fine with me.’ So Frank and I forged a working relationship, and it led to a number of busts." In an interview, Richie Roberts said that Lucas’ "conviction and cooperation afterwards totally destroyed the heroin connection between Southeast Asia and the U.S. It led to the arrest and convictions of over 150 major players."

         The fact is-- Lucas did take the stand. Lew Rice, a retired DEA agent who worked in New York City during the 1970s, debriefed Lucas during his investigation of Leroy Butler," another big-time Harlem heroin drug dealer who was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison." Rice did confirm that Superfly took the stand as a government informant. "It is really an open book," he explained. "He did it in only one case that I know of and that involved Leroy Butler, another big-time drug dealer."

         At the end of "American Gangster," Denzel Washington, who plays the Frank Lucas character, makes Lucas appear as a victim of the corrupt system, and we are left with the impression that the American Gangster should get medal for his work in cleaning up the New York City law enforcement.

         Was Richie Roberts really the law enforcement official who almost single handedly brought Frank Lucas down? No way. Lucas was first arrested not by Roberts and the Newark, New Jersey detectives he worked with, but by the DEA. Further, the United States Attorney’s Office from the Southern District of New York, not Roberts’ office, first prosecuted Lucas. Roberts became part of the Lucas investigation in New Jersey after the three hard working Newark detectives (Benjamin Abruzzo, Eddie Jones and Al Spearman) made the case. Richie Roberts, in fact, was a minor figure, in the total scheme of the investigation.

          Was Frank Lucas really Bumpy Johnson’s right hand man? Lucas has made the claim, and given the time that has passed since Bumpy dropped dead of heart attack in 1968 at age 62, one could guess that few—if any people—are still around to contradict Lucas’ claims about his association with Bumpy. Guess again. Mayme Johnson, Bumpy’s widow is alive, doing great and is mad as hell at Lucas. She is devoting her time of late to debunking the claims of the American Gangster by collaborating with writer Karen Quinones Miller to write an autobiography in which she calls Frank Lucas a liar and says her late husband never really trusted Lucas. The authors have a website (www.harlemgodfather.com) that they are using to turn Superfly into Humpty Dumpty. Lucas claims that Bumpy literally died in his arms, an act that symbolically would make him the successor to Bumpy as the "Harlem Godfather." The newspapers that carried the news of Bumpy ‘s death in Well’s restaurant make no mention of Frank Lucas being present. We have interviewed law enforcement officials who worked during Bumpy Johnson’s era, and they do not remember Frank Lucas, let alone someone with his name serving as Bumpy’s right hand man.

          Did Frank Lucas go to Bangkok and establish the Asian heroin connection, which allowed him to deliver to the streets of America the purest heroin ever seen? Actually, Lucas has changed his story over time. Initially, he told writer Mark Jacobsen, who penned the 2000 New York magazine profile of him upon which the movie "American Gangster" is based, that he had a middleman in Bangkok. He couldn’t recall his name but gave him the sobriquet of 007. In the movie, however, it is a character named Nate, ostensibly Lucas’s cousin, not a 007, who takes Superfly to see the Chinese general so he can jumpstart the Asian heroin pipeline.

         The character Nate is based on the real life Ike Atkinson, a major drug dealer based in Bangkok who was co-owner of Jack’s American Star Bar. Atkinson, a former U.S. army master sergeant, was able to use the U.S. military to move thousands of pounds of heroin to the U.S. between about 1968 and 1975. We have interviewed both Atkinson and Lucas. Atkinson denies being Lucas’s cousin and says it was he who brought Lucas to Bangkok and from whom Superfly got his heroin. Atkinson’s claims were verified in interviews with DEA agents based in Bangkok from the early to the mid 1970s who investigated Atkinson’s organization.

         Lucas spun the "007" story for both Jacobson and the authors in their interview with him. Nonsense, said Atkinson. Lucas’s 007 source was really an associate named Luchai Rubiwat and that Lucas got much of his fabled story about the Asian connection by hanging around his bar in Bangkok and listening to American GIs and others in the bar. After interviewing Atkinson, we went back to Lucas to hear what he had to say about Atkinson’s comments. The 007 story has not been heard of since.

         So did Lucas become so big that La Cosa Nostra had to come to him to get their heroin supply? If you believe that, then let us sell you some stock in Barry Bond’s future. It’s true that in 1972 the French Connection, which La Cosa Nostra operated, was dismantled, and Asia, as well as Mexico, became more important in the drug trafficking scheme of things. New sources of heroin supply did open up, since La Cosa Nostra no longer had a monopoly.

         But the DEA sources tell us that Lucas was constantly in deep financial trouble with La Cosa Nostra. He even owed two well-connected Mafioso $300,000 and only managed to avoid ending up in a dumpster because the two mobsters were arrested and carted off to jail. Ike Atkinson recalled the time two members of La Cosa Nostra visited him in jail in Atlanta. "At the time. Frank was dead broke and he expected me to help him out (financially) with the Italians (mobsters)," Atkinson recalled. "When I was in the penitentiary this Italian mobster came to see me. He said: ‘Frank owes us $80,000 and he said you would take care of it."

         Was Lucas the prototype of the new breed of Black gangster: urbane, articulate, entrepreneurial and, the gangster persona aside, the possessor of a strong moral code that stressed personal responsibility and loyalty to family? In reality, Ike Atkinson, Nicky Barnes, Frank Matthews and Robert Stepeney and other Black gangsters from Lucas’ era were more representative of this prototype.

         Sources say that Lucas is a near illiterate and, as a drug lord, he had a hard time figuring out how much a stack of his hard earned drug money was worth. To catch our drift, compare the manner and persona of Washington’s character in "American Gangster" with that of the Frank Lucas who has appeared on the History Channel, Black Entertainment Television and NBC Dateline.

         So the story of Frank Lucas, American Gangster is largely a myth and the creation of the Hollywood spin machine that is expert at creating American heroes and anti heroes. The real irony of the Frank Lucas—American Gangster phenomena: We would not be discussing Frank Lucas if that 2000 New York magazine article had not rescued Frank Lucas from obscurity and the welfare rolls. As someone once famously said: "Only in America."


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