THERE was no bigger, more notorious drug dealer in 1970s New York than Frank Lucas. He was nefariously brilliant, a hustler and a killer who smuggled incredibly potent heroin into the United States from Vietnam in the caskets and body bags of dead American soldiers.
His nemesis was a triple threat - a former Marine, federal investigator and lawyer from New Jersey named Richie Roberts, who doggedly pursued Lucas and successfully prosecuted him. In a bizarre twist, the two became close friends, and have remained so ever since.
As the cliché goes, it sounds like a movie - and now it is one: "American Gangster," starring Russell Crowe as Roberts and Denzel Washington as Lucas. The movie was shot in New York last summer and will be released in November. Lucas - now a wheelchairbound old man with knuckles of gnarled bone and scabbed, dry legs - and Roberts, now a practicing defense lawyer, sat down with Page Six Magazine to talk about their days of cat-and-mouse, their highly unusual friendship and whether or not people ever really change.
Richie, when did you first become aware of Frank - and the magnitude of what he was doing?
RR: Well, Frank started importing his heroin in the '70s. The quality of drugs on the street - like in an individual glassine envelope of dope, or heroin - was, at that time, 1- to 3-percent [pure]. Frank started putting 10 percent stuff on the street, and people started dying. They were OD'ing. From Maine to Florida, they were OD'ing. And it was coming in at an unbelievable rate; it was truly an epidemic. So the government set up strike forces in Boston, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Philly, maybe Miami, to try and stop this heroin. We thought it was the wiseguys.
Was that belief due to the sheer size and scope of the operation?
RR: Yeah. No one thought anyone else had the organization to do it. Don't forget, Frank set up a pipeline that was unprecedented. It brought in millions and millions of dollars worth of dope. So [this was happening] during the formation of my task force. We were lucky, because we were right in the middle of it and we heard of Frank and the whole crew.
RR: They didn't put this in the movie, but there's always been a rivalry between law-enforcement agencies, to the point of self-destruction. They won't share information; they want credit. But I had a friend in the Drug Enforcement Agency in New York who was telling me things [about Frank]. We used to meet in a gin mill in the city. It was almost like Deep Throat - DEA New York wouldn't share information with me even though I was federal - and the cops were dirty. Everybody was afraid.
I'll give you an example. I used to go to 136th Street and Lenox Avenue, on a Friday - payday - and the local drug dealer would be in his car. And as the junkies were buying their stuff, the police were coming by and getting their share. Most of the time they'd take money, but they also would take drugs and sell 'em. They would sometimes bust drug dealers, steal their drugs and resell them. So you could see it. If you knew what you were looking for, you could see it.
So, who eventually realized that it was Frank Lucas who was responsible for importing all this heroin?
RR: A lot of things happened. Information from New York, our own information from informants, [arresting] Lucas' street dealers. Analyzing dope was probably the easiest way and the most important - it wasn't Mexican Brown. It was coming from Asia.
Frank, where did you get the idea to start importing heroin from Southeast Asia?
FL: Back in that day, you can remember they had a war called the Vietnam War. And every night, there'd be pictures of the soldiers getting high because all the heroin was dirt-cheap. I heard that, I said, "Hell!" I jumped on a plane, went to Bangkok, checked into a hotel for a couple of months - and the rest is history.
And you smuggled drugs in the caskets of dead U.S. soldiers?
FL: No, no, no, no, no. Never gonna tell you - I put nothin' on nobody, OK? I don't touch nothin' dead. We had false-bottom caskets. That's what we put it in.