Welcome back to Anthropology Friday, featuring Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. At his height, Lucas’s net worth was, by his account, around 52 million dollars, much of it stashed in off-shore bank accounts and American real estate. But at this point in our story, Lucas was still Bumpy Johnson’s driver.
One evening, Bumpy, Lucas and a few others were eating dinner:
At Well’s, I sat a few booths away from Bumpy. …
The chimes at the door rattled and in came a tall, lanky young man with a shock of red hair styled in a straightened conk. He made his way to Bumpy’s table and then stopped, waiting for permission from Bumpy before sitting down.
Bumpy smiled, just barely, and tilted his head to the side in a gesture that meant “have a seat.” …
The two of them spoke briefly. I wasn’t close enough to hear anything but I could tell it was a friendly, personal conversation. They didn’t look like they were in any kind of business together.
The guy took one sip of his coffee, looked at his watch, and stood up.
“Gotta go. Good to see you, Mr. Johnson.”
Always good to see you. Careful out there, Red,” said Bumpy…
Just like all of Bumpy’s associates, the guy called Detroit Red didn’t speak to me… But I knew him. I knew they called him Detroit Red and I always recognized the bright red hair he had. Years and years later, he would become Malcolm X.
I assume I don’t need to tell you about Malcolm X. He’s pretty famous–even I’ve seen the movie about him.
Bumpy decides to put Lucas in charge of a “numbers” spot, keeping track of gamblers. He explains to Lucas the different kinds of gamblers and how the operation works:
“[This guy] Can’t afford to play more than a quarter a day. But he plays it. He’d skip lunch before he missed playing his number. …
“This is a sensitive operation. It’s illegal–God only knows why–so you have to watch out for the police. Avoid the good cops. Pay off the crooked ones. …
“Spot like this one? Right next to the subway line. Brings in at least a hundred grand a week.”
As crimes go, gambling is pretty mild and makes decent money, but Lucas finds it boring and itches to expand into something more exciting. While watching a news report about American servicemen in Vietnam getting hooked on the local heroin, described as purer and cheaper than the heroin available in the US. Those words stuck in his brain, but Bumpy nixed his idea to go to Thailand and buy drugs straight from the source, bypassing the Mafia. In the meanwhile:
[Frank’s third child] was born in the spring. And by the fall of 1960, I was in a situation that would make it much harder for me to go see him.
I got arrested for conspiracy to sell drugs and sentenced to thirty months in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg… Doing jail time was no big deal to me. But what made it a little complicated was that they had blacks and whites desegregated. Around the time I went into Lewisburg, they’d passed some law that made it illegal to segregate prisoners. So, for the first time in the common areas and in the mess hall, black folks and white folk were together. I’m not so sue that was a good idea back then ’cause, for the most part, blacks and whites in jail were like the Bloods and Crips today.
And at Lewisburg, there were more white boys. We were outnumbered at least three to one, which just added to the tension when they started mixing us up.
I started this whole project hoping to find something on race and prison gangs (unfortunately, my local library didn’t have anything that looked promising on the subject.) Even within the genre of crime stories, it appears that most people aren’t very comfortable discussing racial conflict, but I doubt a stranger who started his memoir with a Klan slaying is any stranger to racial animosity.
With Bumpy’s passing, Lucas became one of the top gangsters in Harlem and could finally pursue his dream of importing heroin directly from Thailand. With military planes flying in and out of the area due to the Vietnam war, it wasn’t hard to arrange for a few more things to be shipped in their holds. The drugs arrive and Lucas arranges for a crew to unload it from the plane:
Doc and his boys moved everything out. They would take it to the second location to prevent the first crew from knowing too much about the operation. I always wanted to have more than one layer to my business proceedings. And with a project like this, it was even more important.
My work was now done. Doc and Glynn would make sure the product was prepared for the streets and sold. I didn’t touch any part of that process. … I was no longer a drug dealer. I didn’t deal with any junkies. I didn’t touch any drugs, and I was several layers removed from the streets. I was an entrepreneur; I simply dealt with supply and demand. Some folks import tea from China, art from Paris, or fabric from Italy. I imported heroin.
Both Mafia bosses and Frank Lucas used this technique of putting multiple layers of employees between themselves and the street-level handling, processing, and selling of the product (or street-level gambling operations, extortion, etc.) The Bosses call the shots, but with enough plausible deniability to make them difficult to prosecute (which is why they are often prosecuted on money-laundering charges, instead.)
With Frank Lucas managing the supply chain, the streets of New York were flooded with cheaper, more potent heroin–leading to thousands of deaths.
For years, I would use this to keep my mind off the guilt of what the heroin was doing to the people in my community. Joseph Seagram made sure the streets had beer, wine, and liquor. And I’m sure he didn’t feel bad about the winos and alcoholics in the street. Down in North Carolina, where I was from, R. J. Reynolds had tobacco fields everywhere. Made sure the streets were flooded with cigarettes… I know R. J. Reynolds didn’t feel bad about folks dying of lung cancer left and right.
I was Frank Lucas. I supplied the streets of Harlem with heroin. It was my profession. And, like war, it came with casualties.
I’m telling you, I felt like we crossed every river in Asia on our way. From the Ruak River to the Mekong, we trekked out on foot for miles and miles. ….
And across the land, there was nothing but poppies–everywhere. I was in complete shock.
Now, when I say there was nothing before me but poppy field, you really have to understand what I’m trying to tell you. I’m talking about land the size of all five boroughs in New York City combined. And there was nothing but the poppy seed plants–the plant that heroin is made from–stretching from one end to the other. I looked up and noticed that the entire field was covered with dark netting. The netting made it impossible to see the fields from the sky so that traveling military planes wouldn’t know what was going on there. But the sun could still shine through…
I asked my guide how the area had become the headquarters for heroin… In the 1960s, there was an anticommunist group of Chinese people who had settled near the border of China and Burma. They ended up getting support from the American CIA… The Hmong people traded in heroin, an with the CIA tuning a blind eye to their illegal activities, the region exploded. …
According to Wikipedia:
While the CIA was sponsoring a Secret War in Laos from 1961 to 1975, it was accused of trafficking in opium (an area known as the Golden Triangle). …
During its involvement, the CIA used the Meo (Hmong) population to fight Pathet Lao rebels. Because of the war against Pathet Lao rebels, the Hmong depended upon poppy cultivation for hard currency. The Hmong were very important to CIA operations and the CIA was very concerned with their well-being. The Plain of Jars had been captured by Pathet Lao rebels in 1964, which resulted in the Laotian Air Force not being able to land their C-47 transport aircraft on the Plain of Jars for opium transport. The Laotian Air Force had almost no light planes that could land on the dirt runways near the mountaintop poppy fields. Having no way to transport their opium, the Hmong were faced with economic ruin. Air America was the only airline available in northern Laos. “According to several unproven sources, Air America began flying opium from mountain villages north and east of the Plain of Jars to Gen Vang Pao’s headquarters at Long Tieng.”
The CIA’s front company, Air America was alleged to have profited from transporting opium and heroin on behalf of Hmong leader Vang Pao, or of “turning a blind eye” to the Laotian military doing it. This allegation has been supported by former Laos CIA paramilitary Anthony Poshepny (aka Tony Poe), former Air America pilots, and other people involved in the war. … However, University of Georgia historian William M. Leary, writing on behalf of Air America, claims that this was done without the airline employees’ direct knowledge and that the airline did not trade in drugs.
Finally Lucas get a bit sloppy, shows off a bit too much wealth, and more than just crooked cops (who had long known about his business and been extorting him for money) come down on him. His house is raided and they find nearly $600,000 in cash (Lucas claims there was far more, but they stole it, including the key and subsequently contents of his safe deposit box in the Cayman Islands.) He was sentenced to 70 years in prison, but for providing evidence that lead to 100 other drug-related convictions, he was placed in the Witness Protection Program. His sentence was was soon reduced to five years plus lifetime parole.
After some more in-and-out with the legal system, he was released from prison in 1991.
Testimony during one of the trials from a grieving mother whose son overdosed on heroin began to make Lucas realize that he couldn’t just wash his hands of the results of his “business.” Tired of prison and the drug trade, Lucas was faced with the prospect of finding legal ways to make money:
As soon as I got out, my brother Larry asked me about working with him on an oil deal. He knew a man who was trying to import oil from Nigeria to Texas.
“He’s got a great connection,” said Larry. “He’s just trying to raise money.” … “Nothing illegal here, Frank. He just needs investors. Everything’s on the up and up.” …
I met with the guy and I was impressed with him right way. I agreed to start doing some fund-raising for him and try to get his oil business off the ground. Even though I wasn’t in the drug game anymore, I still knew people with money. I ended up raising close to a million dollars in three months… ‘The profits from the oil business started coming in quickly. It wasn’t big money. It was nothing like I’d experienced years before… But I did pull in about a hundred grand every few months. And I did it legally–for the very first time in my entire adult life.
Lucas soon found other ways to make money, like turning his life’s story into a book and then a movie.
At the memoir’s end, he approaches the premier of the movie about his own life, considers for a few minutes, and turns away:
In some small measure, my absence from the premier [of the movie about him] was out of respect to the many people, in Harlem and beyond, who suffered from the heroin industry that I helped to expand. …
Today, I write this book and outline all my successes and my failings in honor of every single person affected directly or indirectly by the evils of the heroin trade. … I’m seventy-eight years old today and I still have a lifetime of regret.
And every single word in this book is dedicated to those I impacted in any way.
Does he mean it? I suppose that is between him and God. Can a man of no conscience develop one? Can a man with psychopathic disregard for the lives of others (and his own) become a loving husband, father, and son? And can a man redeem himself for such crimes?
And from a societal perspective, what should be done with people like Lucas? Is there some alternative scenario where he didn’t enter a life of crime? Lucas certainly didn’t enter crime because he lacked the intelligence or talents necessary for other occupations, but because he was far too ambitious for the honest employment options open to him. Even if better jobs had been available, would he have wanted to pursue them, or would all of those years of school and training have been too tedious beside the allure of immediate money?