Special to The Chicago Syndicate by Ron Chepesiuk
Hollywood has been hard at work molding the image of former 1970s Harlem drug trafficker Frank ¨Superfly¨ Lucas into the prototype of the modern American gangster. The image of the Lucas character, played by Denzel Washington, has some shades of Edgar G. Robinson´s Little Caesar and Al Pacino´s Scarface, but while ruthless, the character is also African American, entrepreneurial, independent and even visionary. As part of the creation, Universal, the movie´s maker, would have us believe that Lucas was so entrepreneurial and independent that he became the first black gangster to break free of La Cosa Nostra´s iron grip on the American heroin trade and develop his own independent heroin trafficking network.
In the 2000 New York magazine article upon which the ¨American Gangster¨ movie is based, author Mark Jacobson wrote that if he (Lucas) really wanted to become "white-boy rich, Donald Trump rich," Lucas thought, he'd have to ´cut out the guineas (Italian American mafia). He'd learned as much working for Bumpy (Johnson) , picking up "packages" from Fat Tony Salerno's Pleasant Avenue guys, men with names like Joey Farts and Kid Blast.¨
Jacobson quotes Lucas as saying, ¨I needed my own supply. That's when I decided to go to Southeast Asia. Because the war was on, and people were talking about GIs getting strung out over there. I knew if the shit is good enough to string out GIs, then I can make myself a killing."
In the movie, the Italian American mafia is represented by the character Dominic Cattano. Played by Amand Assante, Cattano works out a deal in which Superfly becomes the white Mob´s major supplier of potent Number 4 heroin from Southeast Asia. At the end of the ¨historic¨ meeting, Lucas dramatically tells his wife: ¨ They (the Mob) work for me now.¨
So how accurate is Hollywood´s depiction of the Lucas--La Cosa relationship? Not very. It´s one of many inaccuracies that make the movie largely a work of fiction. Frank Lucas did not have any independent source of Asian heroin, and he was never in any position to dictate business terms to the Mob. In fact, for most of his career, Lucas got his smack the old fashion way: from La Cosa Nostra.
First some historical background. From the 1950s through the 1960s, the old reliable French Connection dominated the heroin drug trade. It was an efficient network in which Corsican gangsters transported the morphine base from the poppy fields grown in Turkey to Marseille, France. The morphine base was then refined into heroin and smuggled into the U.S., the connection´s biggest market, via Sicily, Italy, and Montreal, Canada.
It was efficient network that, according to the U.S. government reports, accounted for as much as 80 percent of the heroin smuggled into the U.S. By the early 1970s, however, international law enforcement was having great success against the French Connection and taking down its key mobsters. Meanwhile, the U.S persuaded the Turkish government to tighten surveillance of the country´s poppy fields, purchase the poppy crop from its farmers and institute procedures to encourage crop substitution. By 1972, the French Connection was in shambles.
Up until law enforcement began having success against Lucas, he, like other New York city heroin dealers, was getting his heroin supply from La Cosa Nostra. My research shows that Lucas did not come to Bangkok, Thailand until about 1974. Joe Sullivan a retired DEA agent who worked drug cases in East Harlem in the 1970s, recalled: ¨The French Connection was in the process of being dismantled and the supply was tight and expensive,. All the big drug traffickers, including Lucas, was getting their heroin supply from the Italians. Lucas was getting it for about $200,000 a kilo.¨
It didn´t mean that Lucas wasn´t making a lot of money in getting his heroin from the Mob. As Sullivan revealed.¨They (La Cosa Nostra) trusted their foreign contacts and were satisfied with bringing their heroin into the country. But the Italians thought it beneath them to whack the heroin, mix it, put it in glassine envelopes and hawk in the street. They preferred to sell their heroin to the black dealers. A few black dealers, such as Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes, became successful controlling the drug business on the street while insulating themselves from the actual distributor.¨
When this author asked Lucas if he had ever worked with the Italian mob, the mere suggestion was enough to set off the old drug trafficker. ¨I was not going to have no fucking fat guy leaning back in the chair, smoking a $20 cigar and bragging how he had another nigger in Harlem working for him,¨Superfly roared. ¨I don´t play that game. The Italians were charging $50,000 to 75,000 a kilo, and I was getting it for $4,000 a kilo (from Asia). My junk traveled from the Mekong Valley to the Ho Chi Minh trail to the U.S.¨
The historical record, however, suggests that for most of Superfly´s criminal career it was otherwise. In June 1974, Lucas went to trial with 12 others for conspiracy to traffic heroin. It was just seven months before the authorities raided his home in Teaneck, New Jersey, and busted him for good. And still at that late date, no mention is made in the court records and in the press of any Asian connection in his drug trafficking plan. That didn´t happen until 1977 when Lucas was in prison and got busted again for trying to keep his heroin network operating.
One defendant in that 1974 trial was prominent Italian American mobster Ralph Tutino, aka ¨The General.¨ Lucas, Tutino and the other defendants were accused of involvement in a heroin smuggling conspiracy. The prosecutor identified Tutino as the principle heroin supplier, and Lucas, along with Robert Stepeney, another heroin drug dealer, as the major distributors.
According to the indictment, La Cosa Nostra mobster Antonio DeLutro delivered a package of about 11 pounds of heroin to Anthony Verzino in November1973 and received, as payment, $250,000 in two installments. Then in December 1973, Mario Perna, and Ernest Maliza, two other La Cosa mobsters, delivered a package containing 22 pounds of heroin to Lucas at the Van Cortlandt Motel in the Bronx. As these transactions clearly show, Lucas was getting his dope from La Cosa Nostra.
Tutino, who lived in the Bronx but had his headquarters in East Harlem, was a big-time heroin trafficker during the French Connection´s heyday. When the authorities busted the French Connection in 1972, many La Cosa Nostra godfathers who had thrived in the old days were now having trouble finding sources of heroin supply. But not Tutino. The authorities suspected him of having a direct connection to Mexican and Asian suppliers.
Lew Rice, a former DEA agent, interrogated Lucas when he decided to become an informant after facing 70 years in jail. According to Rice, after being busted for heroin trafficking, Lucas readily acknowledged to Rice that La Cosa Nostra was his major source of supply. ¨Lucas told me he was getting his heroin from Tutino, The General,¨ Rice recalled.
Lucas´ relationship with La Cosa Nostra could only be described as a rocky marriage of convenience, for Superfly, according to DEA sources, was constantly in deep financial trouble with La Cosa Nostra. He even owed two well-connected mafioso from the Gambino crime family $300,000 and only managed to avoid ending up buried in cement because the two Gambino crime family mobsters were arrested and carted off to jail in 1974.
The mobsters faced the prospect of long prison sentences, so they began singing like the proverbial canary. They revealed that one of their biggest customers for heroin was a prominent and flamboyant black drug dealer named Frank Lucas, who liked to call himself "Superfly." The informants' information allowed the authorities to obtain a search warrant, which authorized the raid on Lucas's house on Sheffield Road in Teaneck, New Jersey, in late January, 1975. This was the beginning of the end of Frank Lucas´s big-time criminal career, thanks to La Cosa Nostra.
Leslie Ike¨ Atkinson, a former U.S. army master sergeant and prominent black American drug dealer of the 1960s to mid 1970s, not Lucas, was the one who pioneered the Asian heroin connection. It is Atkinson, DEA sources confirm, who supplied Superfly with his Asian heroin, making him, not Lucas, deserving of the title, ¨American Gangster.¨
Atkinson, whom the DEA dubbed ¨Sergeant Smack,¨ got a close up look at Lucas´ dealings with La Cosa Nostra. In a recent interview, he remembered the time he was imprisoned in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in the mid 1970s and two members of the Italian American mob paid him a visit. ¨´Frank Lucas said to come see you,´ one of the gangsters told me. ´He did what?´ I said. The mobsters said: ´Frank owes us $80,000 and he said you would take care of it.¨ Atkinson laughed. ¨Frank actually thought he could send two wise guys to me and I would pay off his debt."
Atkinson recalled another occasion when he went to New Jersey to pick up some money Lucas owed him. When he arrived at his destination, Lucas had men posted outside his residence. Superfly was in deep trouble with the Mob again.
So, yes, La Cosa Nostra did come to Frank ¨Superfly¨ Lucas. But it was to collect money owed him, not to get its heroin supply.
Investigative journalist Ron Chepesiuk is a consultant to the History Channel´s ¨Gangland¨ series and the co-author and co-producer of the book and DVD titled SUPERFLY: THE TRUE-UNTOLD STORY OF FRANK LUCAS THE AMERICANGANGSTER
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