Jon Dawson: Remembering 'American Gangster' Frank Lucas
Frank Lucas / image from YouTube
When I started writing full-time for newspapers back in 2007, I was a crime reporter, a feature writer and a music critic. The humor column that would become my bread and butter was yet to materialize, and I spent a lot of time transcribing court decisions and land transfers.
Less than two months later, I was interviewing one of the most notorious crime figures in American history.
I’d written album reviews as a freelancer for roughly a year, but my first major news story was about a gruesome crime story I’d rather not recount. I remember the paper's graphic designer Richard Clark standing behind me as I spoke to the defendant on the phone, who as you might imagine was not happy to be talking to a reporter.
Richard later complimented me on keeping my cool and not letting the accused control the conversation. For someone who’d gone from writing about music to interviewing accused felons, it was a much-needed confidence boost that would pay dividends for what was about to be thrown at me.
My second major story was a profile of Frank Lucas, the real-life crime figure portrayed by Denzel Washington in the then-current Ridley Scott film “American Gangster” (see trailer below).
It’s important to remember 'American Gangster' is a movie and not a documentary, so obviously there would be some condensing to fit a lifetime into a 2-hour, 45-minute movie. But there is one point that must be cleared up for the purposes of this column: The film leads the viewer to believe the Lucas family was based in Greensboro.
"I don't know why they had the family living in Greensboro," Lucas said of the movie. "(None of us) ever lived there."
According to Lucas, he was born in the Bucklesberry community of La Grange. Consequently, I was born and still live in that same community.
Seeing as how Lucas and I were from the same town I thought I’d have a shot at interviewing him. My editor and publisher wanted me to see the movie first, so I was allotted enough money for a movie ticket and requisite popcorn and sent to the movie theater.
I was already a fan of Ridley Scott as a director — especially of his meditative classic “Blade Runner,” but “American Gangster” was a million miles from subtle. The opening scene depicts Lucas handling a collections problem in about as barbaric a way as you can imagine.
As far as violence goes, on a scale of 1 to 10, it was a 100.
When I later interviewed Frank Lucas, I asked if what was depicted in that opening scene actually happened.
“That’s something I can’t talk about,” he said, a phrase that unsurprisingly would come up many times during our conversation.
The Frank Lucas story started in Lenoir County and twisted and turned through Harlem and Vietnam. During the height of the Vietnam War, Lucas used the caskets of fallen soldiers to smuggle pure heroin back into the United States.
Whether he smuggled the drugs via the caskets more than once has never been substantiated.
Depending on who you believe (there is some debate), either Lucas or one of his relatives in the military traveled deep into Southeast Asia to purchase heroin directly from the source, thus cutting out the middle man. Regardless of who actually handled the face-to-face negotiations, Lucas was able to buy heroin wholesale, which allowed him to sell a less-expensive, purer (more addictive) product than his competitors.
According to the film and multiple news outlets, at one point Lucas was earning $1 million per day.
Prior to the “American Gangster” film, a similar story line — using the caskets of fallen soldiers to smuggle drugs out of Asia and into the United States — was used in a 1985 episode of “Miami Vice.” Around the 1:54 mark of the clip posted below, the smuggling scheme is revealed during the Fall of Saigon.
Later in the episode, former Richard Nixon associate G. Gordon Liddy plays "The Seargant" — the man responsible for the smuggling:
Tracking Frank Lucas down was not easy. He had no manager or publicist, and he wasn’t in the book — phone or Face. I’d read somewhere his daughter ran a charity in the southern United States, so I contacted the charity and asked for her. She was very nice but said her father wasn’t doing any interviews.
In a last-ditch effort to justify the money the company paid for my movie ticket, I played the “we’re from the same town” card. Within an hour she called back and gave me Frank Lucas’s phone number.
Everyone in the office was a little shocked I'd acquired his number. I didn't want 20 people gathered around me while I spoke to him, so the publisher was gracious enough to let me use his office. My keen sense of survival kept me from propping my feet up on the desk.
When Mr. Lucas answered the phone, he and his wife were in a grocery store. I have to admit it was a bit surreal to be interviewing the modern day equivalent of Al Capone while he compared fabric softeners.
For the first few minutes, Frank Lucas interviewed me. He had loads of questions about Bucklesberry and La Grange. At some point I jumped in by throwing out the names of a few people around his age that lived nearby.
“Bill Sutton? You bet I remember him,” Lucas said. “His family always brought us some meat when they killed hogs. They were good folks. Is the store still there at Jenny Lind?”.
While it was unquestionably fascinating to interview someone like Lucas, it was important to remember why he was famous. After establishing a thin rapport, I moved on to the “American Gangster” film, specifically a scene depicting a woman overdosing on his heroin while her baby cried nearby.
It was clear he didn't want to talk about it, but he did answer.
"I regret that now and I'm very sorry," he said.
Out of the 15 or so questions I'd prepared, Lucas was reluctant to get into specifics regarding any criminal activity. It may have been a tactic to divert my questions, but the longer we spoke, the more animated he became about North Carolina, and he was very proud of his grandson.
"I own some land down there in the middle of the state … getting into the cattle business," Lucas said. "My grandson has an album coming out. Don't you want to do a write-up on it?"
One thing Lucas was eager to talk about was his relationship with Richie Roberts, the law enforcement officer (now attorney) who brought down his criminal empire.
"Richie Roberts is the best friend I've ever had," Lucas said. "He was truthful when dealing with me; he put my son through college."
What really had my curiosity up was how did Lucas make a living after being released from prison. I wondered how someone with his organizational skills would reinvent themselves when forced to follow the rule of law.
Specifics weren’t part of the equation, but he confirmed he’d made a living the last few decades by importing oil from South America.
"You must have had some seed money left over from the old days to get that business started," I said.
"No, they took it all," he said. "There's ways to make money if you don't mind working."
In several interviews, Denzel Washington said upon meeting Lucas, "after about two minutes he’ll have you working for him,” and he was right. Near the end of my conversation with him, Lucas said he’d be coming back to La Grange soon and wanted me to show him around.
“We’re going to drive around La Grange and you can take me to the old place,” he said.
Lucas died last week at the age of 88. The proposed tour of La Grange never happened, but for at least a year following our conversation, anytime an out-of-state number popped up on my phone I was prepared for him to be calling me from the driveway, ready to start the tour.
Jon Dawson’s columns are published weekly by Neuse News.