Frank Lucas, the drug kingpin who inspired ‘American Gangster, is dead

Frank Lucas, the drug kingpin who inspired ‘American Gangster, is dead

Lucas ruled the heroin trade in Harlem in the early 1970s by working around the Mafia

Frank Lucas, the brash New York drug kingpin whose life was depicted in the popular movie American Gangster, died Thursday, May 30, in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. He was 88.

Born and raised in rural North Carolina, Lucas moved to New York as a teenager, and became involved in an array of street crime. He rose to the top of the New York drug world in the late 1960s. Lucas said he was mentored by Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, the legendary Harlem gambling boss.

In order to break the Mafia’s stranglehold on heroin sales in Harlem, Lucas developed a direct pipeline from the so-called Golden Triangle area of southeast Asia. In this way, Lucas could acquire large amounts of heroin much more cheaply than buying it from Mafia sources.

Lucas in the 70s.

In his heyday in the early 1970s, when he was earning $1 million per day from selling his “Blue Magic” heroin, Lucas spent his profits freely, investing in real estate around the country. His profligate ways were perhaps best exemplified by the $125,000 chinchilla coat and matching hat he wore to the 1971 Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier championship fight. (Other sources say the coat and hat cost only $60,000.) His high profile at that event contributed to the increased attention he received from authorities.

His empire collapsed with a raid at at his Teaneck, New Jersey, home in 1975. Authorities found $584,000 in cash in the house, as well as keys to several Cayman Islands safe deposit boxes. Lucas was convicted on federal and state drug charges and sentenced to seventy years in prison. He served only five years, though, because he became a state’s witness, helping authorities to bring down dozens of other drug dealers and corrupt police officials.

However, Lucas was arrested on a drug charge again in 1984 and went back to prison until 1991.

In his later years, Lucas frequently expressed regret for his criminal life, especially the damage caused by heroin. He told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2013:

“I probably did more damage than I did good. I probably did, and that’s a fact. At that time, I wasn’t aware of what I was doing. All I knew is, I was making big dollars. A bad business was a good business. It was a horrible business, put it that way. I was in the heroin business … the worst you can get. You can’t get no lower than that, and I was in it. Up to my head. If you wanna put that I was a no good son of a bitch, be my guest. ’Cause that’s what I was.”

The 2007 film American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington as Lucas, tells the story of Lucas and detective Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe. Although popular with moviegoers and earning two Academy Award nominations, the movie drew the ire of some members of law enforcement who said it was an inaccurate depiction of real events. Those issues were examined closely by Christian Cipollini in a 2018 Mob Museum blog post.

Lucas, who died of natural causes, is survived by seven children.

Geoff Schumacher is The Mob Museum’s senior director of content. Contact him at gschumacher@themobmuseum.org.