Following the publication of Mark Jacobson’s New York Magazine article “The Return of Superfly,” former heroin kingpin Frank Lucas became one of the most fabled gangsters of all time. The article was solely based on Lucas’s own accounts of his criminal career. His story eventually attracted the attention of Hollywood and was adapted into the 2007 biopic American Gangster. The film’s marketing campaign sold the story as being based on a true story. What many aren’t aware of is how Lucas has changed key details of his story over the years, or that many of his claims have been challenged and outright debunked.
Author Ron Chepesiuk has been warning the public about Frank Lucas’s penchant for twisting the facts for some time now. His book Gangsters of Harlem, released months before American Gangster hit theaters, pointed out glaring holes in Lucas’s story. His latest book, Sergeant Smack: The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and His Band of Brothers, soundly dismantles the Frank Lucas myth by telling the true story of former Army Master Sergeant Ike Atkinson. Planet Ill recently conducted a Q&A with Mr. Chepesiuk that answers the million dollar question: Just who is the real Frank Lucas?
Planet Ill: What exactly does Frank Lucas hope to accomplish by lying?
Ron Chepesiuk: Well, Lucas is in a bind that he really can’t get out of. When he did the interview for that famous New York Magazine article, I don’t think Lucas thought anything big like a movie deal would follow. If you read that article, you can see that Lucas’s claims get more outlandish as it progresses—fighting ninja-like characters in the Golden Triangle, putting heroin on Henry Kissinger’s plane, making coffins to move heroin from Asia to the U.S. etc. He was feeding Mark Jacobson, the author, bullshit because he never ever imagined a movie would result from the article. Jacobson is a good writer but not an investigative journalist and didn‘t check out Lucas’s bullshit claims. Jacobson played stenographer to Lucas’s fantasies. So today, Lucas is a lot like Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. The more he talks about his story, the longer the tale gets.
Planet Ill: How many times has he changed his story over the years?
Ron Chepesiuk: Lucas has had three chances to re-invent himself”: The New York magazine article, the movie and now his autobiography, Original Gangster. In the autobiography he doesn’t even mention Ike Atkinson. Can you believe that? He also now downplays his role as a snitch who helped root out police corruption, a smart move since the DEA sued him for lying. There is more, but you get the picture.
Planet Ill: Have any elements of his story remained consistent?
Ron Chepesiuk: He has been consistent about his early life and how he got to New York City from North Carolina and his relationship to gangster Bumpy Johnson. But no one has stepped forward to verify Lucas’ early history and I have not found out any sources who can. Of course, before she died, Bumpy Johnson’s wife, Mayme, called out Lucas for lying about his relationship with her husband.
Planet Ill: Why did Mark Jacobson not do any fact checking on the story Lucas told him?
Ron Chepesiuk: Good question that I would someday .like to ask Jacobson. Of course if Jacobson had checked out the facts, there might not have been the movie, American Gangster. He did make a lame attempt by interviewing distinguished judge Sterling Johnson, who erroneously verified Lucas’ role in cadaver-heroin connection, although he later retracted what he said. I think a part of it was that Jacobson was mesmerized by the story of ninjas, 007, Kissinger… and was intimidated by Lucas, who can be a bully in interviews. Jacobson could also have been on deadline and not have time.
Planet Ill: Why does Frank Lucas persist when it is quite obvious that his story is largely a fabrication?
Ron Chepesiuk: As I said, Lucas was stuck with what he said for Jacobson’s New York Magazine article. It got Lucas the movie deal, but with time he has become more and more of a fraud in the eyes of the public.
Planet Ill: Is any of Frank Lucas’s story true? Which elements can be verified?
Ron Chepesiuk: Well Lucas did have a working relationship with Ike, although Lucas has excised Ike from his memoir. Lucas did go to Bangkok but it was Ike who brought him there. Lucas did get some heroin from the Golden Triangle, but he got it from Ike who established the Asian heroin pipeline to the U.S. The half truths add up to one big lie. About the only thing that is definitely true is that Lucas was good friends with Joe Louis, the great heavyweight boxer. It appears that Lucas did treat Louis right.
Planet Ill: Why does the media continue to entertain his antics in light of all the inconsistencies in his story, especially now that all of these things are common knowledge?
Ron Chepesiuk: It is really amazing how the press has shied away from checking out Lucas’s story. American Gangster was a big event and some enterprising journalists could have made a big splash with some serious investigation. It is also a reflection on the state of media today. Part of it was collusion. NBC, the History Channel and Universal are part of the same conglomerate. So they were more interested in doing infomercials to pimp the movie than doing serious analysis.
I don’t know if, as you say, “it is common knowledge today.” Hollywood is a powerful myth making machine. Even today, a lot of people think Tony Montana of the Scarface movie was a real person. A lot of people still don’t want to believe that Lucas’ story is bogus. They believed the myth and would feel stupid if they had to change their opinion.
Planet Ill: Can anything about Frank Lucas’s early years in North Carolina be verified?
Ron Chepesiuk: As I said, no one has stepped forward to verify Lucas’ recollections of his early life. We are talking about 60 to 70 years ago so many people are dead, but surely someone could have stepped forward. He tells the dramatic story of how his cousin was lynched by the Klan. I could find no record of it. Besides I learned in my research that, contrary to popular perception, there were almost no lynchings in North Carolina during the period of Lucas’ adolescence. Retired law enforcement officials who knew Bumpy Johnson and with whom I talked can’t recall Lucas. In his autobiography, he doesn’t have dates or use real names. That’s smart. It makes it hard to check out his story.
Planet Ill: How do those who know Frank Lucas characterize him? What is the general consensus?
Ron Chepesiuk: Well, I’ve talked to several people from the 1970s eras, including former drug dealers and invariably the word they use to describe Lucas is “liar.” Those who were there at the time know that Lucas’ story is bogus. They are also amazed that he has been able to get away with it. Also, there is little respect for Lucas because contrary to the Hollywood story line Lucas was a big-time informant who snitched on his fellow gangsters and not law enforcement. I haven’t really found anyone that trusted Frank Lucas or has a positive view of him.
Planet Ill: Does Frank Lucas care about how his lies affect the lives of others?
Ron Chepesiuk: I think that all Lucas really cares about is the bottom line. I understand that Lucas won’t give interviews or make public appearances unless he gets paid. He’s got some prearranged public service gigs were he goes out into the community and speaks about the evils of drugs and tries to encourage young people to stay away from drugs. I understand he’s even wanted money from community service groups to appear. His handlers can try to scrub his image but Lucas still has the mentality of the old time gangster from the 1970s.
Planet Ill: Why has Frank Lucas not answered any of his detractors? Have we really heard much from or about Lucas in the wake of the release of American Gangster?
Ron Chepesiuk: Lucas has responded. There are some clips on You Tube and he has given some interviews where he has not been challenged and his answers probed. The Wall Street Journal did an article on Ike Atkinson where the reporter actually went to Lucas and asked him to respond to Ike Atkinson’s comments about Lucas’ claims being bogus. Lucas said Ike was full of crap and suggested that the Wall Street Journal reporter go to DEA to find out who’s telling the truth. The reporter did and a retired DEA agent revealed that when Lucas was arrested and interrogated by the DEA he never mentioned anything about the Asian connection. Further, the DEA agent confirmed that Ike was The Man in the Ike-Lucas drug trafficking relationship.
Planet Ill: When all is said and done, who is/was Frank Lucas?
Ron Chepesiuk: Lucas was a prominent dealer on 1970s New York-New Jersey scene but there were several other ones as well. My research show Lucas was not Bumpy Johnson’s right hand man and he played a minor role in Bumpy’s organization. Ike Atkinson, not Frank Lucas, pioneered the Asian heroin pipeline to the U.S. Lucas worked with the Italian American mafia contrary to what the movie and he claims. There was no smuggling of heroin in coffins and/or the cadavers of American servicemen who died in Vietnam. Lucas was big snitch who turned in his fellow gangsters and not cops. When Hollywood, the media and Denzel Washington are all pimping a movie, it’s pretty hard to combat the myths they create. But my new book, Sergeant Smack (www.ikeatkinsonkingpin.com), I think, does that.
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