According to Frank Lucas, he built his drug empire by smuggling 98-percent-pure heroin from Vietnam to the U.S. in the coffins of fallen soldiers.
It’s no wonder Ridley Scott made American Gangster, a movie based on the life of infamous Harlem heroin kingpin Frank “Superfly” Lucas. The depraved details of his ascent into the upper echelon of the 1970s drug trade are as wildly cinematic as they are likely exaggerated. What better medium to tell such a trumped-up tale than a Hollywood blockbuster?
The phrase “based on a true story,” after all, covers a multitude of sins. In the case of 2007’s American Gangster, many in Lucas’ orbit say the film, starring Denzel Washington as Lucas, is largely fabricated. Piecing together the truth of Lucas’ life and his many misdeeds is a daunting task.
The most well-known profile of the man, Mark Jacobson’s “The Return of Superfly” (which the film is largely based on), relies largely on his own firsthand account, which is full of boasts and braggadocio from a notorious “braggart, trickster, and fibber.”
If you’re unfamiliar with Lucas or with the film, here are some of the wildest details about his life (have a few grains of salt handy).
Frank Lucas’ “origin story,” according to the man himself, is that he was inspired to enter a life a crime after witnessing Ku Klux Klan members murder his 12-year-old cousin Obadiah when he was just six-years-old. The Klan’s hit squad claimed that Obadiah had been engaged in some “reckless eyeballing” of a white woman, so they put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Fast-forward a few decades to see the deeply ironic twist. Thanks to his deadly brand of imported heroin, known as “Blue Magic,” Lucas wreaked epic havoc in Harlem.
“Frank Lucas has probably destroyed more black lives than the K.K.K. could ever dream of,” prosecutor Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe in the film) told the New York Times in 2007.
How he supposedly got his hands on this “Blue Magic” is perhaps the wildest detail of all. Jacobson calls it Lucas’ “most culturally pungent claim to fame”: coffins of dead soldiers, coming home from Vietnam, used to stow supposedly 98-percent-pure heroin:
“Of all the dreadful iconography of Vietnam — the napalmed girl running down the road, Calley at My Lai, etc., etc. — dope in the body bag, death begetting death, most hideously conveys ‘Nam’s spreading pestilence. The metaphor is almost too rich.”
To his credit, Lucas says he didn’t put the smack next to the bodies or inside the bodies as some legends have suggested (“No way I’m touching a dead anything,” he told Jacobsen. “Bet your life on that.”). He instead says he had a carpenter buddy flown in to make “28 copies” of government coffins rigged up with false bottoms.
With help from former U.S. Army sergeant Leslie “Ike” Atkinson, who just so happened to be married to one of Lucas’ cousins, Lucas claims to have smuggled more than $50 million worth of heroin into the U.S. He says $100,000 of that was on a plane carrying Henry Kissinger, and that he at one point dressed up as a lieutenant colonel to aide in the operation (“You should have seen me — I could really salute.”).
If this so-called “Cadaver Connection” story sounds like an impossible operation, it just might be. “It is a total lie that’s fueled by Frank Lucas for personal gain,” Atkinson told the Toronto Star in 2008. “I never had anything to do with transporting heroin in coffins or cadavers.” Atkinson fesses up to smuggling but says it was inside furniture, and that Lucas wasn’t involved with making the connection.
How he managed to procure this “Blue Magic” might be a fabrication, but there’s no denying that it made Lucas a rich man. “I wanted to be rich,” he told Jacobson. “I wanted to be Donald Trump rich, and so help me God, I made it.” He claimed to make $1 million per day at one point, but that, too, was later discovered to be an exaggeration. Regardless of the truth of his take, Lucas didn’t get to enjoy the fruits of his labor for very long.
After supposedly hobnobbing with some of New York’s wealthiest and most famous folks in the early 1970s — including the famously reclusive Howard Hughes, if Lucas is to be believed — the famously fur coat-clad Lucas was arrested in 1975, thanks in part to Roberts’ efforts (and some Mafia snitching).
The drug lord’s assets were seized, including just $584,683 in cash, and he was sentenced to 70 years in prison. Lucas later bristled at such a low count, and accused the DEA of stealing from him, according to Superfly: The True Untold Story of Frank Lucas, American Gangster:
“‘Five hundred and eighty-four thousand. What’s that?’ Superfly boasted. ‘In Las Vegas I lost 500 Gs in half an hour playing baccarat with a green haired whore.’ Later, Superfly would tell a television interviewer that the figure was actually $20 million. With time, the story has kept getting longer like Pinocchio’s nose.”
He’d likely still be in prison today, in fact, if he didn’t become a government informant, enter the witness protection program, and ultimately help the DEA nab more than 100 drug-related convictions. One relatively minor setback aside — a seven-year sentence for an attempted drug deal in his post-informant life — he’s been on parole since 1991.
In more recent interviews, Lucas has walked back a bit of the braggadocio, admitting, for instance, that he only had one false-bottom coffin made.
At a glance, it looks like Lucas managed to get through everything relatively unscathed and reportedly enriched. According to the New York Post, Lucas “received $300,000 from Universal Pictures and another $500,000 from the studio and [Denzel] Washington to buy a house and a new car”.
But at the end of the day, beyond the ravages of his famous “Blue Magic,” Lucas is an admitted killer (“I killed the baddest motherf*****. Not just in Harlem but in the world.”), and, with the coffin legend walk back as just one bit of evidence, an admitted liar, on a grand scale. Robin Hood, he is not.
For what it’s worth, Lucas himself says that only “20 percent” of American Gangster is true, but the guys that busted him say that’s also an exaggeration. DEA agent Joseph Sullivan, who raided Lucas’ home back in 1975, says it’s closer to the single digits.
“His name is Frank Lucas and he was a drug dealer — that’s where the truth in this movie ends.”
Enjoy this article on Frank Lucas and the true story of American Gangster? Check out the history of 1970s Harlem in pictures. Want more? Explore the rest of the city in 41 photos of life in 1970s New York.