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Breakfast with the real 'American Gangster'

By Bradley Davis, NBC News Producer

When you meet Frank Lucas, it's hard to fathom that this 77-year-old man in a wheelchair was once among the most feared gangsters on the New York streets in the 1970s.  But once you get him talking, the former kingpin quickly shows his charming but domineering personality, as he orders everyone in sight to do his bidding.  (Of course, the orders that he'd give back in the day may have involved a bit more violence than getting him an egg sandwich for breakfast, as he asks his son to do this morning).

Photo: Michael Sofronski / Polaris file

I recently interviewed Frank for an upcoming edition of Dateline NBC with Matt Lauer airing this Sunday at 10:30pm.  It's a first look at the new Universal picture, "American Gangster," starring Denzel Washington as Lucas and Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the New Jersey cop-turned-prosecutor who doggedly pursued him.  Matt interviewed the film's stars, and I talked with the real-life Lucas and Roberts.

The stories intertwined in the film reflect the ways their own lives came together in the 1970s.  After convicting Frank on a series of narcotics charges, Roberts and other law enforcement officials were able to persuade him to cooperate with their investigation of the drug trade.  He eventually became an informant in more than 100 narcotics cases.  In return, Lucas -- who had been given a 70-year sentence on narcotics charges -- only served five years in prison. (He would serve a additional seven years in a later case).  It's a sore spot for Lucas that he refuses to discuss, perhaps out of fear that his own enemies might still lurk to seek their revenge for ratting them out.

Richie Roberts is able to shed a bit more light on what happened.  The two men, once arch nemeses, are now friends.  Richie, once his prosecutor, is now Frank's defense attorney and even the godfather to his young son.  He says that Lucas is not the same man that he put behind bars and he "wouldn't be associated with him" if he were.  While not excusing any of the horrific crimes Frank committed, he says Frank was indeed a very valuable witness who ultimately helped law enforcement in immeasurable ways in those other cases.  When he took Frank to trial, a moment came when he realized he could get him to turn. 

Richie Roberts:  We had a witness-- a mother whose son OD'd.  And she testified and... there were nine defendants left when she testified.  The others had pleaded.  So, there were nine lawyers, nine defendants.  The courtroom was full of-- of normal celebrities-- the usual celebrities.  And-- she got up there and told her story.   How she saw him in the bathroom... with the needle in his arm.  Good kid-- dead.  And she told that story and there wasn't a dry eye in the courtroom.  And the judge asked are there any questions from the defense.  No one said a word.  Frank came out-- you know, into the holding cell at that time.  And-- his lawyer came to me and said, "Frank wants to talk to you."  So, I went in and it was, you know, not much bigger than between you and I.  A little cot.  And I sat on one end.  He sat on the other.  And he had his head in his hands and his eyes were teary, as were mine.  And he said-- words to the effect, "I never thought of it that way."  And when he said that, I felt that should we a conviction and we could work with him.  And that's what happened.

Frank Lucas exudes a distinctive charisma even though he's been physically weakened by time on the street and behind bars.  I talked with him about the film, "American Gangster," which he had only just seen days before our interview.  He was gushing about the movie and Denzel Washington's performance, saying he was "amazed at the way he had (him) down."  Although Lucas was well known in the criminal underworld of New York and among law enforcement in the '70s, the new film is bringing him a tidal wave of press attention.  He appears to be relishing it, although it wasn't enough to get him to come to the movie's premiere at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.  He reportedly circled the block in his car that night before deciding not to make an appearance.  Was he afraid of retaliation by any of the criminals he testified against?  Or was he afraid of the crowd and the spotlights?

A vivid storyteller, he has quite a riveting one to tell -- a criminal twist on Horatio Alger.  This semiliterate African-American man grew up in the south, came to New York and built a drug empire unlike any other in the late '60s and '70s, beginning his life of crime in the '50s as the protegee of Harlem gangster Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson.  When Johnson died in 1968, Lucas took over his drug operation and expanded it.  The key came when he was able to corner his own supply of heroin in the so-called "Golden Triangle" of Southeast Asia, where numerous American soldiers had become addicted to heroin during the Vietnam War.

Utilizing a military connection, he and his crew designed a disturbing scheme to get the heroin in the United States--smuggling bags of dope in the coffins of dead U.S. soldiers being flown back from Vietnam.  The infamous operation became known as the "Cadaver Connection" (a nod to the Italian mafia's well-known French Connection that came to light in the 1960's).  Drug abuse, racial strife, and the Vietnam War...all of these hot-button issues of the late '60s and '70s would crystallize together to form the backdrop for the Frank Lucas story.

Lucas is eager to talk about the movie, but when it comes to his crimes, he can be circumspect.  Because there is no statute of limitations on murder, he says, he "won't talk about killing" and "knows nothin' about that."  He was never convicted of murder himself, although law enforcement has attributed a number of homicides to his gang, who were dubbed "The Country Boys." 

Frank's eyes light up, however, when he discusses his daughter, Francine Lucas-Sinclair.  Francine was only three years old when federal agents raided the Lucas home in New Jersey in 1975, arresting her father.  It took her years to come to terms with her family's criminal past, as both of her father and mother Julie Lucas served time in prison on narcotics charges.  Taking lessons from her own experience, Francine has established a website, Yellowbrickroads.org, with resources for the children of imprisoned parents. She's determined to help other children handle the turmoil and anxiety that she faced herself growing up. Lucas expressed to me how proud he was of his daughter.  He says he supports her "to the hilt" and wants people to know about all the hard work she's doing to raise this awareness.

Listening to him, it's a bit difficult to believe this proud family man was once the cold-blooded "American Gangster," but as Richie Roberts says, "he could charm the pants off anybody."

Read the full transcript and see video from the Dateline special on "American Gangster" here.