Frank Lucas (September 9, 1930 – May 30, 2019) was an American drug trafficker who operated in Harlem during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was known for cutting out middlemen in the drug trade and buying heroin directly from his source in the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia. Lucas boasted that he smuggled heroin using the coffins of dead American servicemen, but this claim is denied by his Southeast Asian associate, Leslie "Ike" Atkinson. Rather than hide the drugs in the coffins, they were hidden in the pallets underneath, as depicted in the feature film American Gangster (2007) in which he was played by Denzel Washington, although the film fictionalized elements of Lucas' life for dramatic effect.
Lucas at the Big Apple Comic Con in 2008
|Died||May 30, 2019 (aged 88)|
Cedar Grove, New Jersey, U.S.
|Occupation||Former drug trafficker/smuggler|
|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.|
|Criminal charge||Drug trafficking|
Lucas was born in La Grange, North Carolina, and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina. He was the son of Mahalee (née Jones; 1909-2003) and Fred Lucas. He said that the incident that sparked his motivation to embark on a life of crime was having witnessed 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 City 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 claimed 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, who was from Goldsboro, North Carolina and 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 New York 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 (DEA), has said he shipped drugs in furniture, not caskets. Whatever method he used, Lucas smuggled the drugs into the United States 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 the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for the City of 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." 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
American Gangster (2007)
Lucas' life was dramatized in the Universal Pictures crime film American Gangster (2007), in which he was portrayed by Denzel Washington. Lucas was often on set during the filming providing advice, on how he carried his gun, for example.
In an interview with MSNBC, Lucas expressed his excitement about the film and amazement at Washington's portrayal, though he admitted only a small portion of the film was true, much of it fabricated for narrative effect. In addition, Richie Roberts criticized the film for portraying him in a custody battle while in real life Roberts never had a child; he also criticized the portrayal of Lucas, describing it as "almost noble".
Judge Sterling Johnson, Jr. 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 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. McMahon noted the intertitle at the end of the film was "wholly inaccurate", in that Lucas' cooperation did not lead to the convictions, and admonished, "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 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 his being the right-hand man of Bumpy Johnson, rising above the power of the Mafia and Nicky Barnes, and being the mastermind behind the Golden Triangle heroin connection of the 1970s. Ron Chepesiuk, a Lucas biographer, said there was no evidence to confirm Lucas' claim that he once (in 2008, and not frequently, as some sources had suggested) used coffins to ship heroin. Associated Press entertainment writer Frank Coyle noted, "[T]his mess happened partially because journalists have been relying on secondary sources removed from the actual events."
- American Gangster, Season 2, Episode 5, featured Lucas.
- The Gangland episode "American Gangster" (November 1, 2007) features Lucas, Nicky Barnes, and The Council drug syndicate.
- Lucas was featured in the third episode of the first season of the Netflix documentary series Drug Lords, in which he told his side of the story.
Lucas married Julianna Farrait-Rodriguez (née 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 a matching hat for which she paid $40,000 cash.
Farrait was also jailed for her role in her husband's criminal enterprise, and spent five years in prison. After she was released, the couple lived separately for some years, and Farrait moved back to Puerto Rico. However, they reconciled in 2006 and were married for more than 40 years.
Farrait was arrested again in May 2010, and sentenced to five years in prison for attempting to sell two kilograms of cocaine to a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informant at a hotel in Puerto Rico.[better source needed]
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 a website, Yellow Brick Road, containing resources for the children of imprisoned parents.
- "U.S. Jury Convicts Heroin Informant". The New York Times. August 25, 1984. Retrieved 2008-04-09.
- "Drug Dealer Gets New Prison Term". The New York Times. September 11, 1984. Retrieved 2008-04-09.
- Janelle Oswald (2007-12-09). "The Real American Gangster". voice-online. Archived from the original on 2011-05-15. 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.
- "The Return of Superfly" Archived 2006-05-25 at the Wayback Machine New York, 14 August 2000.
- "American Gangster True Story - The real Frank Lucas, Richie Roberts". Chasingthefrog.com. Retrieved 2011-07-02.
- "Is 'American Gangster' really all that 'true'?". CNN. January 22, 2008 -- Updated 1856 GMT. Archived from the original on March 3, 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-24. Check date values in:
- "Frank Lucas, Between Issues" Metro Magazine, 8 November 2007.
- Lucas, Vernon (1 June 2010). "Standing in the Shadows of Street Legends". Xlibris Corporation – via Google Books.[self-published source]
- https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/VHRJ-WD8 accessed 8/11/14
- Mayme Hatcher Johnson. Harlem Godfather: The Rap on my Husband, Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (when ed.). Oshun Publishing Company, Inc.; First edition (February 29, 2008). pp. 159, 221, 248. ISBN 0-9676028-3-1.
- Chepesiuk, Ron (January 17, 2008). "New Criminologist Special - Frank Lucas, 'American Gangster,' and the Truth Behind the Asian Connection" Archived 2013-08-22 at the Wayback Machine.
- Jacobson, Mark (2007-10-25). "A Conversation Between Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes - Money 2007 - New York Magazine". New York Magazine. Retrieved 2011-07-02.
- Jayson Rodriguez (November 6, 2007). "Real 'American Gangster' Frank Lucas Talks About Hanging With Diddy's Dad, Possible Sequel". MTV. Retrieved 2008-02-24.
- Ron Chepesiuk and Anthony Gonzalez (2007). "The Raid in Teaneck". pub. Archived from the original on February 20, 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-24.
- Cruz, Alicia (May 24, 2010). "Julianna Farrait, wife of ‘American Gangster" Frank Lucas, arrested for trying to sell cocaine" Archived 2012-05-20 at the Wayback Machine. newjerseynewsroom.com.
- Jailal, Sarada (February 25, 2008). "The daughter of American Gangster Frank Lucas speaks at Ambler" Archived 2012-03-17 at the Wayback Machine. The Temple News.
- "American Gangster lawsuit dismissed". ABC News/Reuters. February 18, 2008.
- "Frank Lucas, the drug lord who inspired American Gangster, dies aged 88". The Guardian. June 1, 2019.
- Bradley Davis (October 26, 2007). "Breakfast with the real 'American Gangster'". Inside Dateline. MSNBC. Archived from the original on February 2, 2008. Retrieved February 2, 2008.
- Susannah Cahalan (November 4, 2007). "GANGING UP ON MOVIE'S 'LIES'". New York Post. Retrieved October 7, 2008.
- Coyle, Jake (January 17, 2008). "Is 'American Gangster' really all that 'true'?". Toronto Star.
- "DEA agents sue over 'American Gangster'". WPRI. Archived from the original on February 8, 2008.
- "Frank Lucas, the drug lord who inspired American Gangster, dies aged 88". The Guardian. June 1, 2019.
- "Frank Lucas". American Gangster. October 31, 2007.
- Reporter, Daily Mail (February 29, 2012). "Wife of 'American Gangster' Frank Lucas jailed for five years for plotting to sell cocaine". Daily Mail.
- Davis, Bradley (October 26, 2007). "BREAKFAST WITH THE REAL 'AMERICAN GANGSTER'". Inside Dateline. MSNBC. Archived from the original on February 2, 2008. Retrieved February 2, 2008.
- Daniel Kreps: Frank Lucas, ‘American Gangster’ Drug Kingpin, Dead at 88. Rolling Stone, 2019-05-31
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Frank Lucas.|
- 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