Feature Articles

June, 2010
American Gangster Revisited

      By Ron Chepesiuk

This is an excerpt from Ron Chepesiuk�s new book: "Sergeant Smack, The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson., Kingpin, and his Band of Brothers.". The book is available for purchase from, as well as, and through local book stores.

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Special to
[Excerpted from
"Sergeant Smack, The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson., Kingpin, and his Band of Brothers."

Sargent Smack - cover
Sergeant Smack
by Ron Chepesiuk

     FRANK LUCAS, THE drug trafficker whom Hollywood has made famous as The American Gangster, has done more than any other individual to propagate the cadaver-heroin connection hoax. Along the way, Frank Lucas has not only distorted Ike Atkinson� story but has literally stolen parts of his life. Lucas has been able to do this because in 2000 he got lucky and emerged from obscurity when New York Magazine, a major print publication, wrote a long article about him. The article made the old gangster appear to be the second coming of the Black gangster from the 1970s "blaxploitation" movie era.

     Written by Mark Jacobson and titled "The Return of Superfly," the article profiled Lucas�s life story entirely from Lucas�s point of view and allowed him to portray himself, in the words of Jacobson, as New York City�s "biggest, baddest heroin kingpin in the original O.G. in chinchilla." "Superfly" made many boasts in the article: that he was the first Black drug dealer to become independent of La Cosa Nostra and that he was the Black gangster who established the Asian heroin connection, which allowed him to sell "Blue Magic, a special type of heroin that, he boasted, was the purest smack on the street. Lucas told New York Magazine that Ike Atkinson was related to him because Ike married one of his cousins, which made him "as good as family."

     Lucas said he went to Bangkok and visited Jack�s American Star Bar where he learned that "Ike knew everyone over there, every Black guy in the Army, from the cooks on up." As the New York Magazine article progressed, Lucas�s claims about his Asian experience got more outlandish. Lucas, supposedly independent of Ike, managed to transport heroin "almost exclusively on military planes to the eastern seaboard bases."

Frank Lucas - The American Gangster
Frank Lucas - The American Gangster
     "Superfly" met a mysterious English-speaking, Rolls Royce-driving, Thai-Chinese man with the sobriquet of "007" a "fucking Chinese James Bond 007," who took Lucas to the Golden Triangle where, during his first trip, he purchased 32 kilos for $4,200 a kilo. On the way back, "Superfly" and 007�s men, "Bruce Lee types," according to Lucas, "fought off bandits hiding in the trees."

     Lucas claimed to be so clever and bold that he was able to transport heroin via a plane used by Henry Kissinger, U.S. President Richard Nixon�s Secretary of State. As "Superfly" explained to Jacobson: "I mean who the fuck is going to search Henry Kissinger�s plane?"

     But how did Lucas get his heroin back to the U.S.? It was "Superfly�s" most controversial claim, comprising a mere paragraph of the article, but it helped to parlay the former drug trafficker to notoriety as the man behind the so-called cadaver-heroin connection.

     Not only that, but Lucas also dragged Ike into his claim to infamy. According to Lucas�s fabrication of history, Lucas and Ike Atkinson brought over a carpenter from North Carolina who made 28 copies of government coffins, whatever they are, and fixed them with false bottoms so each coffin could contain six to eight kilos of heroin. Lucas tells his New York Magazine biographer that the coffins had to be snug because "you could not have shit (heroin) sliding around. Ike was very smart because he made sure (that) we used heavy guys coffins. He didn�t put them in no skinny guy�s."

     How big of a drug dealer does Lucas claim to be? According to "Superfly", he could sell his "Blue Magic" on 116th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue in the evening and by 9 p.m. all of it would be gone. Superfly would have a million bucks, which he then packed in his beat-up Chevy, which he called Nelly Belle, and then drive to his home in New Jersey.

     THE NEW YORK magazine profile made for a helluva read, but that should have been the extent of its impact. In another month or two, many of the magazine�s readers, no doubt, would have had just a dim recollection of the article. But "The Return of Superfly" caught the attention of some big wigs in Hollywood with imaginations as fertile as Superfly�s. Universal Studios struck a lucrative deal with Lucas, Jacobson and Richie Roberts, the former New Jersey state detective then prosecutor who helped put Lucas in jail in 1976 and later became his friend.

     It was a big break for Lucas who, despite claiming to be a legend and the biggest, baddest drug trafficker in New York during the early 1970s, was reportedly on welfare.

     Having a movie made about his life must have seemed like a dream even for a hard-bitten old drug dealer like Frank Lucas. Mega Hollywood star Denzel Washington portrayed him in the movie, which had international distribution and reportedly grossed more than $180 million. "Superfly" got to wear his sunglasses, looking bad for interviews with mainstream media publications (New York Post, New York Times), hip hop magazines and web sites (for example,, and and television networks (Black Entertainment Television, History Channel and Dateline NBC).

     The American Gangster movie is based on Jacobson�s article, but it stretched his story even more. For instance, it glossed over the fact that Lucas was a big-time informant who had to seek refuge in the Federal Witness Protection Program to avoid potential violent repercussions for snitching on his criminal colleagues. At the movie�s end, Hollywood had transformed him into a good snitch who turned in only corrupt law enforcement officials. In doing so, the movie presented a totally boldfaced lie at the end of the movie by stating that Frank Lucas�s and Richie Roberts�s "collaboration led to the conviction of three-quarters of New York City�s Drug Enforcement Agency." The truth�not one law enforcement official was ever arrested because of the collaboration of Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts. "Superfly" only snitched on his fellow gangsters.

     What kind of informant was Frank Lucas? Jack Toal, a retired DEA agent had a chance to work with Lucas in the late 1970s after he decided to inform. "He was good at giving up lower level people on the street," Toal recalled. "He did everything by phone and never left the prison. He was in prison at the MCC (Metropolitan Correction Center) in Lower Manhattan and was kept there for a long time. He was good. Here Frank was in the Witness Protection Program, but was able to convince people on the street that he would never give them up."

Lesley 'Ike' Atkinson
Lesley "Ike" Atkinson
Ike appeared as a character in the movie�as Lucas�s cousin Nate who is living in Bangkok. Nate is portrayed as a "gofer" for Frank Lucas in the movie and improbably introduces Superfly to the Chinese general in the Golden Triangle who supplied him with heroin. I say improbably because no way would Ike�or any drug trafficker, for that matter�give up his heroin source. Neither would any big time dealer�and Lucas claims to have been one�risk life, limb and bankroll to go blindly into the wilds of the Golden Triangle and buy his heroin supply. Only in Hollywood!

     As the plot of American Gangster unfolds, one could almost hear the wheels in the minds of the movie viewer grind. How is big, bad Superfly getting the heroin into the country? As the movie reached its climax, Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe, inspected a military plane carrying the corpses of dead GIs from the Vietnam War that had landed at a Newark, New Jersey, airbase. Roberts opened a casket and the shocking truth�as Hollywood spins it�is revealed. Much to the horror of the audience, our hero has uncovered packets of heroin in the coffins of the dead GIs, exposing what we know as the cadaverheroin connection.

Lesley 'Ike' Atkinson
Lesley "Ike" Atkinson

     IT�S A GOOD story, one that, as we have seen, a suppliant unblinking vmedia has fueled. Since the American Gangster movie was vreleased on November 2, 2007, anybody surfing the Internet will find hundreds of articles about the cadaver-heroin connection. As of July 9, 2008, when one entered "cadaver connection Frank Lucas" into either the Yahoo and Google search engine, you got 12,700 and 30,500 hits respectively on the topic, even though, as we have read, the connection never happened. Similarly, when you plugged in "cadaver connection Ike Atkinson" in the Google and Yahoo search engines, one got 605 and 502 hits respectively.

     That a large part of Lucas�s story is suspect is not something the corporate media in America wanted to hear, once they realized the money they could make from American Gangster. Media outlets like NBC Dateline, Black Entertainment Television and the History Channel bought and promoted Frank Lucas�s story hook, line and sinker. Brad Davis, a producer for Dateline NBC, called me in September 2007 and asked if I wanted to be interviewed for a segment that would examine the criminal career and life story of Frank Lucas.

     The segment was to air a few days before November 2, 2007, the date American Gangster opened in movie theaters across North America. I suggested four other sources to the Dateline producer, two former federal prosecutors and two former DEA agents, all of whom, like myself, were well-familiar with Lucas�s story and his claims to criminal fame. I informed Davis that all my recommended sources had bquestions about various Lucas claims. But he assured me: "That�s all right. We want to get the true story of Frank Lucas."

     Davis sat us all down for two-hour plus interviews in which Dateline NBC got a close up look at Frank Lucas from our perspective and had the opportunity to examine some of his claims. But a few days before the program was to air, the producer called and informed me that none of us would appear on the show because the segment had been cut down to half an hour from the originally scheduled hour. The only people who appeared on the Dateline episode were the stars, Denzel Washington and Russel Crowe, with the real Frank Lucas, Richie Roberts and Mark Jacobson. They were the �experts� who talked about Lucas�s story and reinforced the official movie story line. The producer assured us that Dateline would do another, more in-depth program about Lucas at a later date. That never happened.

     One must conclude that my Dateline experience was a classic example of the sorry state of the American media and how it no longer makes any effort to distinguish between news and entertainment. But that was just the beginning. In the following weeks, other media jumped on the bandwagon and showed itself to be cheerleaders for the film that Universal was claiming to be based on a true story.

     The History Channel did a program for its new Gangland series that did not seriously examine any of Lucas�s claims and essentially parroted the official story line . That is understandable. After all, Universal owns the History Channel. Black Entertainment Television (BET) followed suit with a puff profile for its popular American Gangster series and was awarded with access that led to a special hour-long "Making of America Gangster" feature that followed the airing of its Lucas profile.

     BET and the History Channel interviewed me for segments about Lucas that was to appear in their American Gangster and "Gangland" series respectively. During the two, two-hour interviews, I spent some time debunking the cadaver-heroin connection. I explained that Ike, who, by the way, was not Lucas�s cousin, had nothing to do with it and ow he, not Lucas, was the American drug trafficker who pioneered the Asian heroin connection. None of the information I provided in the interviews made it out of the cutting room.

     Indeed, since Universal announced that it was making the American Gangster movie, the media had all but collaborated in the falsification of Lucas�s story and the distortion of gangster history. The most egregious example is the media�s laziness in investigating Lucas�s link to the so-called cadaver-heroin connection. Unbelievably, no journalist checked out the authenticity of the conspiracy by asking Lucas tough, probing questions like: Who was involved in the drug smuggling scheme? How did the cadaver-heroin connection work? How were you able to implement such a complex scheme when you did not have any military experience?

     Today, DEA agents who investigated Lucas and the Asian drug connection and whom I have interviewed dismiss the notion that Frank Lucas could engineer such an elaborate drug distribution network as defying common sense. For the cadaver-heroin connection to function,

Lucas, who was never in the U.S. military and did not live in Asia, needed a reliable heroin connection in Thailand and then had to find a way to smuggle the heroin to Vietnam and the mortuary office at Tan Son Nhut where the bodies were sent home to the U.S. There, Lucas would have had to recruit and bribe members of the military to place the heroin inside the coffins or actual corpses. Next, he would have needed to corrupt the entire transportation system from the mortuary to the U.S. Once the bodies arrived in the U.S., more corrupt military personnel would be needed to remove the heroin from the bodies.

     Could a drug trafficking system like this have functioned at the height of the Vietnam War? It would have been relatively easy for them to check it out. Instead, since Frank Lucas and the American

     Gangster movie revived interest in the cadaver-heroin connection, the media has been content with publishing hundreds of articles that have treated its existence as fact. The Associated Press (AP) was one media source that initially followed in lock step with the conspiracy�that is, until it decided to investigate some of Lucas�s claims more closely. The investigation was prompted by John McBeth, a veteran Asia-based journalist who reported from Thailand in the 1970s and was familiar with the conspiracy rumors. McBeth complained to the AP about the inaccuracy of a story published in November, 2007. To AP�s credit, it did take a second look. In its initial story, the AP concluded: "To get the drugs back to the States, Lucas established the infamous �cadaver connection,� hiding the heroin in the caskets of dead soldiers."

     In the follow-up article that appeared in January 2008, Jake Coyle, AP Entertainment writer, wrote; "The Harlem kingpin�s infamous �Cadaver Connection��a pipeline of top-grade Southeast Asia heroin smuggled in GI caskets�has always been at the center of his considerable and enduring mythology. But it turns out that the casket story is just that�a myth." In this follow up article, Lucas back-tracked big time, conceding in an interview with Coyle that he may have used the cadaver-heroin connection only once.

     Coyle explained to me why the media has gotten it so wrong on the American Gangster story: "This mess happened partially because journalists have been relying on secondary sources removed from the actual events." McBeth concluded that "the cadaver heroin connection was basically an urban legend that developed a life of its own because the journalists who wrote that stuff did not give it the common sense test, possibly because they had no idea of the geography of Southeast Asia. It�s quite simple: the bodies of dead servicemen came out of Saigon; the heroin supplied to Lucas came out " out of Thailand. So how could the heroin have gotten into the coffins?"

# Ron Chepesiuk ( is an award winning freelance journalist and Fulbright Scholar to Bangladesh and consultant to the History Channel�s "Gangland" television series. He is the author of several true crime books, including "Drug Lords: The Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel" and "Gangsters of Harlem." His next book, Sergeant Smack: The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and His Band of Brothers, will appear as an e-book in late April and print book in late June. Go to

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