Frank Lucas (born September 9, 1930) is an American 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 was the son of Mahalee (née Jones 1909-2003) and Fred Lucas. 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 . . ." ”
Lucas' January 1975 federal mug shot.
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.
Depictions in mediaLucas' 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."