Lucas at the Big Apple Con, November 15, 2008
September 9, 1930 |
La Grange, North Carolina
|Conviction(s)||1976; sentenced to 70 years but released in 1981 upon serving 5 years. Convicted again in 1984 released in 1991 after he served a term of seven years.|
|Occupation||Retired drug trafficker/smuggler|
Frank Lucas (born September 9, 1930) is an American organized crime boss, and former heroin dealer, who operated in Harlem during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was particularly known for cutting out middlemen in the drug trade and buying heroin directly from his source in the Golden Triangle. Lucas boasted that he smuggled heroin using the coffins of dead American servicemen, but this claim is denied by his South East Asian associate, Leslie "Ike" Atkinson. Rather than hide the drugs in the coffins, they were hidden in the pallets underneath as depicted in the 2007 feature film American Gangster in which he was played by Denzel Washington, although the film fictionalized elements of Lucas' life for dramatic effect.
Lucas was born in La Grange, North Carolina and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina. He claims that the incident that sparked his motivation to embark on a life of crime was witnessing his 12-year-old cousin's murder at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, for apparently "reckless eyeballing" (looking at) a Caucasian woman, in Greensboro. He drifted through a life of petty crime until one particular occasion when, after a fight with a former employer, he fled to New York on the advice of his mother. In Harlem, he indulged in petty crime and pool hustling before he was taken under the wing of gangster Bumpy Johnson. Lucas' connection to Johnson has since come under some doubt; he claimed to have been Johnson's driver for 15 years, although Johnson spent just five years out of prison before his death in 1968. According to Johnson's widow, much of the narrative that Lucas claims as his actually belonged to another young hustler named Zach Walker, who lived with Johnson and his family and later betrayed him.
After Johnson's death, Lucas traveled around and came to the realization that, to be successful, he would have to break the monopoly that the Italian Mafia held in New York. Traveling to Bangkok, Thailand, he eventually made his way to Jack's American Star Bar, an R&R hangout for black soldiers. It was here that he met former U.S. Army sergeant Leslie "Ike" Atkinson, a country boy from Goldsboro, North Carolina, who happened to be married to one of Lucas' cousins. Lucas is quoted as saying, "Ike knew everyone over there, every black guy in the Army, from the cooks on up."
When interviewed for a magazine article published in 2000, Lucas denied putting the drugs among the corpses of American soldiers. Instead he flew with a North Carolina carpenter to Bangkok and:
|“||We did it, all right...ha, ha, ha... Who the hell is gonna look in a dead soldier's coffin? Ha ha ha. . . .We had him make up 28 copies of the government coffins . . . except we fixed them up with false bottoms, big enough to load up with six, maybe eight kilos . . . It had to be snug. You couldn't have shit sliding around. Ike was very smart, because he made sure we used heavy guys' coffins. He didn't put them in no skinny guy's . . ."||”|
— Frank Lucas
However, Atkinson, nicknamed "Sergeant Smack" by the Drug Enforcement Administration, has said he shipped drugs in furniture, not caskets. Whatever method he used, Lucas smuggled the drugs into the country with this direct link from Asia. Lucas said that he made US$1 million per day selling drugs on 116th Street though this was later discovered to be an exaggeration. Federal judge Sterling Johnson, who was special narcotics prosecutor in New York at the time of Lucas' crimes, called Lucas' operation "one of the most outrageous international dope-smuggling gangs ever, an innovator who got his own connections outside the U.S. and then sold the narcotics himself in the street." He had connections with the Five Families, holding an enormous monopoly on the heroin market in Manhattan. In an interview, Lucas said, "I wanted to be rich. I wanted to be Donald Trump rich, and so help me God, I made it."
Lucas only trusted relatives and close friends from North Carolina to handle his various heroin operations. Lucas thought they were less likely to steal from him and be tempted by various vices in the big city. He stated his heroin, "Blue Magic", was 98-100% pure when shipped from Thailand. Lucas has been quoted as saying that his worth was "something like $52 million", most of it in Cayman Islands banks. Added to this is "maybe 1,000 keys (kilograms), (2,200 pounds), of dope on hand" with a potential profit of no less than $300,000 per kilo (per 2.2 lb).
This huge profit margin allowed him to buy property all over the country, including office buildings in Detroit, and apartments in Los Angeles and Miami. He also bought a several-thousand-acre ranch in North Carolina on which he ranged 300 head of Black Angus cattle, including a breeding bull worth $125,000.
Lucas rubbed shoulders with the elite of the entertainment, politics, and crime worlds, stating later that he had met Howard Hughes at one of Harlem's best clubs in his day. Though he owned several mink and chinchilla coats and other accessories, Lucas much preferred to dress casually and corporately so as not to attract attention to himself. When he was arrested in the mid-1970s, all of Lucas' assets were seized.
|“||The properties in Chicago, Detroit, Miami, North Carolina, Puerto Rico — they took everything. My lawyer told me they couldn't take the money in the offshore accounts, and I had all my money stored in the Cayman Islands. But that's BS; they can take it. Take my word for it. If you got something, hide it, 'cause they can go to any bank and take it.||”|
— Frank Lucas 
Arrests and releases
In January 1975, Lucas' house in Teaneck, New Jersey was raided by a task force consisting of 10 agents from Group 22 of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and 10 New York Police Department detectives attached to the Organized Crime Control Bureau (OCCB). In his house authorities found $584,683 in cash. He was later convicted of both Federal and New Jersey state drug violations. The following year he was sentenced to 70 years in prison. Once convicted, Lucas provided evidence that led to more than 100 further drug-related convictions. For his safety in 1977, Lucas and his family were placed in the witness protection program. In 1981, after 5 years in custody, his 40-year Federal term and 30-year state term were reduced to time served plus lifetime parole. In 1984, he was caught and convicted of trying to exchange one ounce of heroin and $13,000 for one kilogram of cocaine. He was defended by his former prosecutor Richie Roberts and received a sentence of seven years. He was released from prison in 1991.
Depictions in media
Lucas' life was dramatized in the 2007 Universal Pictures crime film American Gangster, in which he was portrayed by Denzel Washington. The film grossed more than $US127 million, and was met with generally positive reviews. In an interview with MSNBC, Lucas expressed his excitement about the film and amazement at Denzel Washington's portrayal, though he admitted to several news outlets that only a small portion of the film was true, and that much of it was fabricated for narrative effect. In addition, Richie Roberts criticized the film for portraying him in a custody battle while in real life he never had a child; he also criticized the portrayal of Lucas, describing it as "almost noble".
Sterling Johnson, Jr., a federal judge who served as a special narcotics prosecutor and assisted the arrest and trial of Lucas, described the film as "one percent reality and ninety-nine percent Hollywood." In addition, Johnson described the real life Lucas as "illiterate, vicious, violent, and everything Denzel Washington was not." Former DEA agents Jack Toal, Gregory Korniloff, and Louis Diaz filed a lawsuit against Universal saying that the events in the film were fictionalized and that the film defamed them and hundreds of other agents. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed by U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon. While McMahon noted that the intertitle that appears at the end of the film was "wholly inaccurate", in that Lucas' cooperation did not lead to the convictions, and admonished that "It would behoove a major corporation like Universal (which is owned by a major news organization, NBC) not to put inaccurate statements at the end of popular films", she stated that the film failed to meet legal standards of defamation because it failed to "show a single person who is identifiable as a DEA agent".
Many of Lucas' other claims, as presented in the film, have also been called into question, such as being the right hand man of Bumpy Johnson, rising above the power of the Mafia and Nicky Barnes, and that he was the mastermind behind the Golden Triangle heroin connection of the 1970s. Ron Chepesiuk, a biographer of Frank Lucas, deemed the story a myth. Associated Press entertainment writer Frank Coyle noted that "this mess happened partially because journalists have been relying on secondary sources removed from the actual events."
Lucas married Julianna Farrait, a homecoming queen from Puerto Rico. The two often bought each other expensive gifts, including a coat for which she paid $125,000 and another $40,000 cash for a matching hat. Farrait was also jailed for her role in her husband's criminal enterprise, spending five years behind bars. After she came out of prison they lived separately for some years, and Farrait moved back to Puerto Rico. However, they reconciled in 2006, and have been married for more than 40 years.
Lucas fathered seven children, including a daughter, Francine Lucas-Sinclair, and a son, Frank Lucas, Jr. Lucas-Sinclair entered the witness protection program with Lucas in 1977 and has since started up a webpage, Yellow Brick Road, containing resources for the children of imprisoned parents.
Lucas is confined to a wheelchair due to a car accident that broke his legs.
- "U.S. Jury Convicts Heroin Informant". The New York Times. August 25, 1984. Retrieved 2008-04-09.
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- Janelle Oswald (2007-12-09). "The Real American Gangster". voice-online. Retrieved 2008-03-08. "She spent five years in prison for aiding her husband's narcotic smuggling trade. Having to get used to the public life again after living like a 'ghost' since her release, the making of her partner's life on the big screen has brought back many memories, some good and some bad."
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- Ron Chepesiuk and Anthony Gonzalez (2007). "The Raid in Teaneck". pub. Archived from the original on February 20, 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-24.
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- Susannah Cahalan (November 4, 2007). "GANGING UP ON MOVIE'S 'LIES'". New York Post. Retrieved October 7, 2008.
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- Davis, Bradley (October 26, 2007). "BREAKFAST WITH THE REAL 'AMERICAN GANGSTER'" MSNBC.
- Frank Lucas Foundation
- Mayme Hatcher Johnson. Harlem Godfather: The Rap on my Husband, Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (when ed.). Oshun Publishing Company, Inc.; First edition (February 29, 2008). p. 248. ISBN 0-9676028-3-1.
- Dateline NBC Producer describes sitting down for breakfast with Frank Lucas
- Susannah Cahalan, "Ganging up on movie's lies", New York Post, November 4, 2007
- American Gangster movie site