"Those motherfuckers just came in," Lucas says now, sitting in a car across the street from the split-level house where he played pickup games with members of the Knicks. For years, he has contended that the cops took a lot more than $585,000 from him. "Five hundred eighty-five thousand, what's that? Shit. In Vegas, I'd lose 500 G's playing baccarat with a green-headed whore in half an hour." According to Lucas, agents took something on the order of "9 to 10 million dollars" from him that fateful evening. To bolster his claim, he cites passing a federally administered polygraph test on the matter. A DEA agent on the scene that night, noting that "$10 million in crumpled $20 bills isn't something you just stick in your pocket," vigorously denies Lucas's charge.
Whatever. Frank doesn't expect to see his money again: "It's just too fucking old -- old and
A few days later, I brought Lucas a copy of his newspaper-clip file, detailing the Country Boy's long and tortuous interface with the criminal-justice system, a period in which he would do time in nearly a dozen state and federal joints. Lucas silently thumbed through dog-eared headlines like COUNTRY BOYS, CALLED NO. 1 HEROIN GANG IS BUSTED; 30 COUNTRY BOYS INDICTED IN $50M HEROIN OPERATION. There was also an October 25, 1979, Post story entitled CONVICT LIVES IT UP WITH SEX AND DRUGS, quoting a Metropolitan Correctional Center prisoner named "Nick," convicted killer of five, whining that Lucas had ordered prostitutes up to his cell and was "so indiscreet about it I had to have my wife turn the other way . . . he didn't give one damn about anyone else's feelings."
One clip, however, did engage Frank's attention. Titled EX-ASSISTANT PROSECUTOR FOR HOGAN SHOT TO DEATH IN VILLAGE AMBUSH, the November 5, 1977, Times story tells how Gino E. Gallina, then a Pelham Manor mouthpiece for "top drug dealers and organized-crime figures," was rubbed out "mob style . . . as many passersby looked on in horror" one nippy evening at the corner of Carmine and Varick Streets.
"You gonna make me out to be the devil, or what? Am I going to Heaven or hell?"
Lucas reckons he must have spent "millions" on high-priced criminal lawyers through the early eighties. Gino Gallina, however, was the only lawyer Lucas ever physically assaulted, the incident occurring in the visiting room of the Rikers Island prison. Lucas had reputedly given Gallina a large payoff to fix a case, $200,000 of which became "lost." Upon hearing this, Lucas, said the Daily News, "leaped across the table in the visitors' pen and began punching Gallina savagely."
Acknowledging that he told Gallina "if I didn't get my money in 24 hours he was a dead man" and asserting that the lawyer "did not deserve to live," Frank still steadfastly maintains he has "no idea at all" about who murdered Gallina.
What Lucas will absolutely not talk about is how he got out of jail, the stuff described in clips like a Newark Star-Ledger piece from 1983 entitled 'HELPFUL' DRUG KINGPIN GRANTED REDUCED TERM, in which Judge Leonard Ronco of Newark is reported as cutting in half Lucas's 30-year New Jersey stretch. This followed the previous decision by U.S. District Court judge Irving Ben Cooper, who "granted the unusual request of Dominic Amorosa, chief of the Southern District Organized Crime Strike Force, to reduce Lucas's 40-year New York prison sentence to time already served."
"I ask two things," Lucas demanded in our first meeting. "One, if they are slamming bamboo rods beneath your fingernails with ball-peen hammers, do not reveal where you saw me; and two, none of that bullshit about being buddy-buddy with the cops. That is out . . . " Then, so there was no mistake, he added, "Don't cross me on this, because I am a busy man and have no time, no time whatsoever, to go to your funeral."
Still, it was hard to let it go. How was I supposed to explain how he wound up serving less than nine years? To this, Frank replied: "I know I have that mark on me. I was always playing games with them. Go back and look -- I never, ever testified against anyone in court. Not once."
Then finally, Frank said, "Look, 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. And you know why that is?
"Because: People like me. People like the fuck out of me." This was his primary survival skill, said the former dope king: his downright friendliness, his upbeat demeanor. "All the way back to when I was a boy, people have always liked me. I've always counted on that."
That much was apparent when I went to the Eastern District federal court to see Judge Sterling Johnson, the former narcotics prosecutor instrumental in putting the Country Boy behind bars.
Frank told me to look up Johnson, whom he calls "Idi Amin." "Judge Johnson likes me a lot. You'll see," he said.
Johnson greeted me with a burnished dignity befitting a highly respected public official. "This is Judge Johnson," he said. When I mentioned the name Frank Lucas, Johnson became notably more familiar. "Frank Lucas? Is that mother still living?!" A few days later, chatting in his stately chambers, the judge told me to call Lucas up.
"Get that old gangster on the phone," Johnson demanded, turning on the speaker.
Lucas answered with his usual growl. "This is Frank. Who's this?"
Johnson mentioned a name, someone apparently dead, likely snuffed by a Country Boy or two. This got Lucas's attention. "What? Who gave you this number?"
"Red Top!" Johnson said, invoking the name of Lucas's beloved chief dope cutter.
"Red Top don't got my number . . ." It was around then that Frank figured it out.
"Judge Johnson! You dog! You still got that stick?" Johnson reached under his desk, pulled out a beat cop's nightstick, and slapped it into his open palm loud enough for Lucas to hear it. "Better believe it, Frank!"
"Stop that! You're making me nervous, Judge Johnson!" Lucas exclaimed before gingerly inquiring, "Hey, Judge, they ever get anyone in that Gallina thing?"
Johnson laughed and said, "Oh, Frank. You know you did it."
Smiling through Lucas's denials, Johnson said, "Well, come down and see me. I'm about the only fly in the buttermilk down here."
After he hung up, Johnson chortled, "That Frank. He's a pisser."
"You know, when we were first investigating him, the FBI, DEA, they didn't think he could pull off that Southeast Asia stuff. They wouldn't let themselves believe an uneducated black man could come up with such a sophisticated smuggling operation. In his sick way, he really did something."
The memory clearly tickled Johnson, who quickly added, "Look, don't get me wrong: Frank was as bad as they come. You should never forget who these people really are. But what are you going to do? The guy was a pisser. A pisser and a killer. Easy to like. A lot of those guys were like that. It is an old problem."
A couple of days later, eating at a T.G.I. Friday's, Lucas scowled through glareproof glass to the suburban strip beyond. "Look at this shit," he said. A giant Home Depot down the road especially bugged him. Bumpy Johnson himself couldn't have collected protection from a damn Home Depot, he said with disgust. "What would Bumpy do? Go in and ask to see the assistant manager? Place is so big, you get lost past the bathroom sinks. But that's the way it is now. You can't find the heart of anything to stick the knife into."
Then Frank turned to me and asked, "You gonna make me out to be the devil, or what? Am I going to Heaven or hell?"
As far as Frank was concerned, his place in the hereafter was assured after he joined the Catholic Church while imprisoned at Elmira. "The priest there was getting crooks early parole, so I signed up," he says. As backup, Frank was also a Baptist. "I have praised the Lord," he says. "Praised Him in the street and praised Him in the joint. I know I'm forgiven, that I'm going to the good place, not the bad."
But what did I think? How did I see it going for the Country Boy beyond this world? It was a vexing question, as Sterling Johnson said. Who knew about these things? Frank was a con man, one of the best. He'd been telling white people, cops and everyone else, pretty much what they wanted to hear for decades, so why should I be different? It was true: I liked him. I liked the fuck out of him. Especially when he called his 90-year-old church-lady Hulk Hogan-fan mother, which he did about five times a day. But that wasn't the point.
Braggart, trickster, and fibber along with everything else, Lucas was nonetheless a living, breathing historical figure, a highly specialized font of secret knowledge, more exotic, and certainly less picked over, than any Don Corleone. He was a whole season of the black Sopranos -- old-school division. The idea that a backwoods boy could maneuver himself into position to tell at least a plausible lie about stashing 125 kilos of zum dope on Henry Kissinger's plane -- much less actually do it -- mitigated a multitude of sins.
In the end, even Lucas's resounding lack of repentance didn't seem to matter. About the only flicker of remorse I'd seen from him occurred following a couple of beers we had with one of his brothers, Vernon Lee, who is known as Shorty.
A bespectacled man now in his early fifties, Shorty followed Frank to Harlem in 1965. "We came up from Carolina in a beat-up car, the brothers and sisters, Mom and Dad, with everything we owned, like the Beverly Hillbillies." From the start, Shorty knew what he wanted. "Diamond rings, cars, women. But mostly it was the glory. Isn't that what most men really dream of? The glory."
Then Shorty reached across the table and touched Frank's hand. "We did make a little bit of noise, didn't we?" Shorty said. To which Frank replied, "A little bit."
Later, sitting in the car, Frank watched his brother make his way across the frozen puddles in the late-afternoon light and sighed. "You know, if I'd been a preacher, they would have been preachers. If I'd been a cop, they'd have been cops. But I was a dope dealer, so they became dope dealers . . . I don't know . . . if I'd done right."
After a while, Frank and I stopped in for another beer. The surroundings were not plush. Frank said, "Shit . . . from King of the Hill to dumps like this."
The Knicks game was over, so we sat around for a few hours watching The Black Rose, an old sword-fight movie with Tyrone Power and Orson Welles. Welles is a favorite of Lucas's, "at least before he got too fat." Then, when it was time for me to go, Lucas insisted I call him when I got back to New York. It was late, rainy, and a long drive. Frank said he was worried about me. So, back in the city, driving down the FDR, by the 116th Street exit, I called Lucas up, as arranged.
"You're back, that's good," the Country Boy croaked into the phone. "Watch out. I don't care what Giuliani says, New York is not so safe. You never know what you might find out there." Then Frank laughed that same chilling haint of a laugh, spilling out the car windows and onto the city streets beyond.