Crime’s ‘Mr. Untouchable’ Emerges From Shadows
The 74-year-old man who used to be Leroy Nicholas Barnes, owner of 60 pairs of custom-made shoes, 27 full-length leather coats and more than one Mercedes-Benz, wears baggy Lee dungarees these days and drives to work in a used car he bought five years ago.
With his slight limp and mostly bald pate, he seems the antithesis of his former persona as Mr. Untouchable, the dashing Harlem heroin dealer who posed 30 years ago on a magazine cover in a blue denim suit and a red, white and blue tie.
Mr. Barnes’s posture of smug invulnerability so affronted President Jimmy Carter that he ordered his attorney general to, as they say, prosecute Mr. Barnes to the fullest extent of the law.
The Justice Department did just that. And in 1977, Mr. Barnes — a former addict with a junior high education who made a fortune flooding black neighborhoods with heroin and swaggered around as an invincible outlaw — was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
“He was the No. 1; he had charisma,” said Sterling Johnson Jr., a federal judge and former special narcotics prosecutor in New York City. “Have you been in the presence of Bill Clinton when he walks down the street? That was Nicky Barnes.”
While Mr. Barnes, widely known as Nicky, languished behind bars, though, his former cronies, his wife and his girlfriends began cavorting, he said, squandering the criminal enterprise that had made them all millionaires. So much for honor among thieves. Mr. Barnes felt betrayed.
“They had a sleeping lion, a caged lion,” he recalled, “and they woke him up.” And so Mr. Barnes roared, so ferocious a government witness that scores of drug dealers were convicted. He was released into the federal witness protection program in 1998.
And then he disappeared.
Years ago, a former associate predicted how difficult it would be for Mr. Barnes to adjust to a life of anonymity if he ever turned informer and was granted a fresh identity.
“If he runs a Laundromat in Dubuque or a grocery store in Slippery Rock, that’s one thing,” the associate said. “But the man has a tremendous amount of charisma and intelligence. I don’t think he’s going to be innocuous anywhere.”
For nearly a decade, though, Mr. Barnes says, he has managed to seamlessly insinuate himself into mainstream America, this time untouchable by those he incriminated and the friends and families of foes he murdered.
“A lot of people think I’m dead,” he says. “The anonymity that cloaks middle America is the life I’m comfortable with, and what I want to be.”
Last weekend, though, Mr. Barnes surfaced briefly, and pseudonymously, to promote a new book about his old life in the feral 1970s, “Mr. Untouchable,” written with Tom Folsom. This summer, he will appear in a documentary with the same name and later this year a movie, “American Gangster,” is to be released. It stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as Mr. Barnes, but, to his exasperation, focuses on his chief rival in Harlem’s heroin trade, Frank Lucas.
The dapper Nicky Barnes that audiences will see bears little resemblance to the man he says he has become, a grandfather who puts in solid 40-hour weeks at an undisclosed job, who lives in a white neighborhood in an undisclosed state, and who matter-of-factly takes home doggie bags from restaurants.
“Nicky Barnes is not around anymore,” he said. “Nicky Barnes’s lifestyle and his value system is extinct. I left Nicky Barnes behind.”
Money is a common denominator between his lives past and present. Once he made so much that he worried about how to dispose of it. Now, he says he needs more to survive.
“I live within my paycheck,” he said. “I want to get up every day and get in the car and go to work and be a respected member of my community. And I am respected. I know I am. I’m not looking in the rear view mirror to see if anyone is tailing me anymore. I don’t turn on the blender when I’m at home so I can talk. That is not a part of my life. Sure, I’d love to have more money, but I am not willing to do anything but go to my job to get it.”
Except sell some of the secrets of his old life.
He agreed to be interviewed, but not photographed, by The New York Times, as he was for its earlier magazine cover, somewhere in middle America. He would not divulge much about his new identity.
His mission, he insisted, was not some late-life effort to stroke his ego, seek vindication or arrange redemption. He just wants to make a buck off his autobiography.
“Ego? That’s not what I need, not with gas at $3,” he said. “I need bank, and this is my only way to get it.”
The millions he made and squandered, he said, are gone.
“I miss it,” he said. “There was glamour, money, influence, attractive women. I didn’t have any financial concerns, and I do have them now. I’m concerned about being able to retire at some point comfortably. That’s my principal concern.”
He said he received no subsidy from the government for his cooperation. (His profits from the book might yet be diverted to his victims under the Son of Sam law in New York.)
Mr. Barnes is still on probation, which means he has to submit to a monthly urine test for drugs. He must regularly show his pay stubs to federal marshals and account for any expense over $500.
A former altar boy, he converted to Islam in prison. There he earned a bachelor’s degree and taught fellow inmates math in a language they could understand: “Suppose you stick up someone and get away with X...” Nowadays, he doesn’t believe in much, he says, but neither drinks nor smokes and plays by the government’s rules.
“I look over my shoulder,” he said. “I worry. I want to fly under the radar.”
He lives in a middle-class neighborhood. So many of his neighbors are white that Mr. Barnes, who has not undergone plastic surgery, did not worry they would be watching when his criminal career was profiled recently on Black Entertainment Television.
“Everybody gets up, gets in their cars and goes to work,” he said of his neighbors. “There’s nobody with 20 pounds of heroin in their car.”
He watches basketball on television and loved “Little Miss Sunshine.” He has started writing rap lyrics and looks forward to spending time with his grandchildren. He can coolly recount drug deals with the Mafia and what he says were police payoffs.
But raise the right subject and, in a flash, Mr. Barnes can rip off the mask of frumpy respectability and transmogrify into a spitting, expletive-spewing image of the old days. Ask him, for example, whether he was ever framed by law enforcement.
“This case right here! This case right here!” he explodes. “The Constitution doesn’t allow prosecutors to convict people because they’re doing something morally wrong. Yeah, I was a drug dealer and I was doing everything they said I was doing. But they didn’t catch me at it. I’m not saying I was innocent. I’m saying with all I was doing they could not get a conviction without a contrivance.”
Mr. Barnes said federal agents eavesdropping on his associates had mistakenly transcribed “payroll” as “kilo.”
He remains furious that while he was imprisoned some of his former confederates consorted with his wife and girlfriends. But hadn’t he been a womanizer himself?
“The issue was the bond that we had among us,” he replied. “Don’t evaluate my moral character and start splitting eyelashes.”
His autobiography is dedicated to Guy Fisher, a former associate serving a life sentence in federal prison, with this unambiguous message: “When you finish the last page, I want you to look up, see where I put you and ask yourself, was it worth it? Ask yourself that every day until you die.”
Mr. Barnes’s story, indeed, is much more about revenge than redemption. He is a captivating conversationalist, but not a particularly sympathetic character. He unabashedly, though not necessarily proudly, admits to destroying lives, peddling heroin, committing murder, contributing to police corruption and informing on his confederates.
He was doomed to die in prison until he agreed to cooperate. After that, Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former United States attorney, was among those who intervened to get him out of prison and into witness protection.
Is there anything worse than being an informer?
“Being in prison for the rest of your life,” Mr. Barnes said sharply. “I’d rather be out as a witness than be in there and what they characterize as a stand-up guy.”
“I’m out,” he said. “They’re in.”
In the new documentary, one former associate, Frank James, urges Mr. Barnes to deliver a positive message to black youth and to admit that what he did was wrong. “Frank is right,” Mr. Barnes said. “I knew it was wrong then. I did it for money.”
He said he opposed the legalization of drugs, not because that would be bad for business, but rather because making them readily available would kill more blacks. “It would increase the number of addicts in the inner-city community,” he said.
He was matter of fact, though, in discussing how he would react if someone sold his family drugs. “It’s not that person’s fault,” Mr. Barnes said. “Let’s say I launched a crusade and killed 10 drug dealers. The user would find an 11th.”
Mr. Barnes said his two daughters, who were raised in foster care after he was imprisoned, knew about his former life. His grandchildren do not.
A female friend doesn’t know about his past either. “I don’t think I could tell her, she wouldn’t understand,” he said. “That’s how I know it won’t be a long-term thing. For it to be a long-term thing, I think I would have to be able to tell her the truth about my past, and I can’t.”
After dinner in a crowded restaurant, it was time for Mr. Barnes to return to his life of mundane routines and aging secrets. He politely asked the waitress to pack up his leftover grilled salmon. She handed him a foam container.
“In the old days,” he acknowledged, “I would’ve been embarrassed.”