Frank Lucas, "American Gangster" Kingpin, Dead At 88

By Paul Gaita 06/04/19

The infamous former drug kingpin died of natural causes.

Frank Lucas
Photo via YouTube

New York drug kingpin Frank Lucas, who oversaw a sprawling international network of heroin smuggling in the 1970s, died on May 30, 2019 at the age of 88.

Lucas, whose life and crimes served as the inspiration for Ridley Scott's Oscar-nominated 2007 drama American Gangster, claimed to be the chief architect of the "Golden Triangle" operation, in which heroin was smuggled from Southeast Asia in the coffins of U.S. servicemen killed in Vietnam. 

Though the veracity of the scheme was questioned on numerous occasions, Lucas enjoyed a lavish lifestyle in the mid-1970s before federal agents and New York police shut down his empire in 1975. Lucas spent seven years in federal prison before earning his release by turning state's witness for another drug sting.

He would remain in the public eye as a quasi-mythical figure, thanks in part to a 2000 article for New York Magazine that detailed his colorful outlaw past. The article would serve as the basis for Scott's film, though its depiction of Lucas' life was criticized by the agents who pursued him in the 1970s and even resulted in a defamation lawsuit.

Born in La Grange, North Carolina in 1930, Lucas made his way to Harlem, where a string of crimes, including the alleged murder of a dealer—which he claimed and then later denied—reportedly brought him to the attention of gangster Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson.

Under Johnson's tutelage, Lucas said that he assembled his own drug operation, which broke the Mafia's grip on heroin distribution by buying opium directly from growers at the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos and bribing Army soldiers to ship the processed heroin to the United States.

As New York Magazine noted, the heroin—a potent brand known as "Blue Magic"—was sold in New York City and Newark, New Jersey, and claimed numerous lives. Richard M. Roberts, the New York City detective and attorney played by Russell Crowe in Gangster, said that "Frank Lucas has probably destroyed more black lives than the KKK could ever dream of."

Lucas lived extravagantly from the proceeds of his drug empire, which reportedly netted him $1 million a day, and was seen in the company of such public figures as Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Diana Ross. His taste for opulence drew the attention of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and New York Police Department, which convicted him on federal and state drug charges in 1975.

Sentenced to 70 years in prison, Lucas would only serve seven after informing on fellow dealers and officials on his payroll.

He returned to prison on new drug charges in 1984, and after his release in 1991, worked tirelessly on promoting his "Original Gangster" image through the New York article, the Scott movie—for which he was a paid consultant—and a 2010 autobiography. Jay-Z also recorded a 2007 album, American Gangster, which was inspired by Lucas' exploits. 

He tangled with the law one final time in 2012 for reportedly lying about federal disability payments.

"All you got to know is that I am sitting here talking to you right now. Walking and talking, when I could have, should have, been dead and buried a hundred times," Lucas said in the New York article. "And you know why that is? Because people like me." 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.