American gang buster
Richie Roberts brought down one of New York’s most notorious drug lords. Did the movie get it right?
You may not recognize his name, but you may have heard of his work.
It was the early ‘70s, and pure heroin was being smuggled into the United States via the temporary transport coffins of U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam. Essex County Bureau of Narcotics director Richie Roberts was on the case. His investigation into Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas was about to pull the wizard’s curtain back, exposing a world of police and military corruption that surrounded the heroin narcotics trade.
Roberts eventually received his law degree from Seton Hall University and became a prosecutor in charge of Essex County’s narcotics’ squad in 1971. Lucas eventually was brought down in 1975 thanks to Roberts and Sterling Johnson Jr., a prosecutor in New York City at the time.
The story is the heart of director Ridley’s Scott’s latest film, American Gangster, which was released on DVD February 19 and got some screen time at the Academy Awards for its two nominations. It stars Denzel Washington as Lucas and Russell Crowe as Roberts, with a screenplay by yet another past Oscar winner, Steve Zaillian, who conducted numerous interviews with both Roberts and Lucas.
The CN&R recently spoke to Roberts about being portrayed on film, his views on the current drug trade and levels of corruption, and his unlikely friendship with Lucas.
You have come into a whole new light through the film. I imagine being in a Ridley Scott film is pretty high profile.
Yeah. It’s funny because I’ve never been high profile. I usually ended up high profile, but it’s not been a desire for myself to do that, and I’m not totally comfortable with it. It hasn’t changed my life that much. I am the same way I’ve always been.
What does inspired by a true story mean?
That’s a very good question. It’s the question I’ve never got an explanation for. I think it means that they can say whatever they want to say about you. Because when you sign on, you have to sign what they call “life rights” which basically means they can say things about you that are untrue.
So is the portrayal accurate? Are you satisfied?
I wasn’t totally satisfied. The general theme was accurate. I was concerned about glamorizing Lucas from the beginning. And although Ridley and Russell tried—from what I’ve heard from people here [New York/New Jersey]—I don’t know if they totally succeeded. But other than that, it was a great gangster movie. I love gangster movies.
Was it hard to believe that Frank Lucas’ drugs were being transported in the Vietnam War transport caskets?
It was actually worse than the movie portrayed. They didn’t take the time to make false bottoms. They threw the dope in the body bags. They didn’t want to show that in the film. That was kinda too gruesome.
In the movie it seemed like you were investigating the case and that after the arrest of Frank Lucas you became the lead prosecutor. How is that legally possible?
Let me explain that to you; if you have any background in the law, you know that can’t be. I can’t go out there and make arrest and write reports and then try the case that I’ve been involved with as a detective. The stuff in the film they showed up to that—the guy getting shot who killed the drug dealer, knocking down the door, finding the money—all that was when I was a detective. And I told the writers this, but they do their own thing in Hollywood.
When I became a prosecutor, that’s when I became head of the Bureau of Narcotics. And although I did go out on raids because I enjoyed it, I obviously couldn’t be part of it and then try the case.
Was Frank Lucas difficult to catch?
Sure. First of all, the drug situation was horrible. Unless you were there to see it, you wouldn’t believe it. You wouldn’t believe that the government, any government, allowed this to happen. It was horrible. We wanted to get that high-quality dope off the street.
Our investigation basically concentrated in the New Jersey area where Shorty, Frank’s younger brother, was in charge. I had a contact in [the] DEA in New York. We met serendipitously because DEA didn’t want to assist us. They had their own investigation at the same time. So I knew about Frank, but we couldn’t get him.
We were able to identify all his brothers and the stash pads and everything, but Frank insulated himself. Then we flipped one of the guys we locked up who gave us Frank. I would have loved to have that “Amazing Grace” scene from the movie be true, but it didn’t happen.
It was just that I went to my boss and said, “Look, this is what we have, I’d like to indict Frank.” He said, “You have a weak case. If you lose, you’ll be known forever as the guy who lost Frank Lucas. It will ruin your career.” I [told him] I want to do it, and he backed me up.
I told this to the screenwriter and he looked at me like I was crazy. He said, “We can’t put that into the film, that’s not exciting … we’ll fix it up, don’t worry about it.” And that’s why you have the end shootout where 100 people die.
Was it like a house of cards falling with Frank?
Yeah. I think after Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes were busted and their organizations were broken up, that was the end of those kinds of drug tribes. Now you have a rise of a different kind with the bloods and crips and M13s and all the crazy gangs which are controlling the drug market. But it’s not like it was.
When you brought down, Frank how much did he assist you in the police corruption cases?
Well, here’s where I’m going to destroy your illusion. I hate to do it, but I gotta tell you the truth.
When we flipped Frank he told me a lot of stuff. Most of his stuff was in New York. I turned him over to the U.S. Attorneys Office. This was another objection I had with the film—it made it sound like Frank only wanted to give up cops.
What I said to Frank was, “You give up every single thing that you did, every dime bag that you sold from day one until the last kilo. It has to be everybody. If you lie one time, the deal’s off, you’re going to spend the rest of your life in jail.” So, he gave up everybody, drug dealers from all over the world.
He was afraid that he’d be marked as a snitch if that was in the movie, and the filmmakers kinda downplayed it for him. Look, he still could be killed. There are people here who would still like to kill him just because he was a snitch.
How does corruption compare today to the time of Frank Lucas?
Now you’re talking to a defense attorney don’t forget; there’s a lot of stuff going on that shouldn’t. I still believe that the vast majority of police are honest. But there are some that aren’t.
Look, you got cops making fairly low salaries and they’re after guys who are driving around in Maseratis, throwing around $100 bills like they’re dimes. So the temptation is there.
There’s no Frank Lucas or Nicky Barnes walking around. No one has been able to get that big—they’ve been brought down. DEA has gotten more sophisticated. FBI has become involved. It’s not as bad as it was.
Do you think this film is a cautionary tale for corruption now and in the future?
I don’t think the film was strong enough on that. I mean, it showed Frank Lucas as this black business man who pulled himself up against all kinds of adversaries. And Denzel played him as this black businessman who worked his way up through the white mob and was very smooth with his suits. That’s not the way it was.
I hope it’s cautionary but believe it or not, in New Jersey, in Newark, they are selling, I don’t know if you know this but the packets of heroin have a brand name on them. And I’ve seen two recently, one says Frank Lucas and one says Blue Magic, so it hasn’t been cautionary for the drug dealers.
You had a contract out on your life. They left that out of the theatrical release but it’s in the director’s cut. Do you know why?
I have no idea. Time constraints? I thought it was pretty important for me.
Mind if I ask you how much it was for?
We caught the guy who got the contract but I don’t remember. Either $50[,000] or $100,000.
Is that a good price? That’s very strange to have a worth assigned to …
Oh, I’ve had contracts put out on me before, when I worked organized crime. I never heard the number before, but I’ve been told, “Take a vacation, so-and-so wants to put a bullet in the back of your head.”
Did that ever bother you?
No. You know, I was nuts. I was crazy. And I always had the feeling that if they want to kill you, there not going to tell you that they’re going to kill you. You’re not going to hear about it. It’s just going to happen. So it didn’t really intimidate me.
Like I said, I kinda lived on the edge. It was exciting.
In Frank’s case do you think justice was served? What do you think justice is?
Justice is served when the common good is achieved. That’s not so easy to do, as I’m sure you know. We were lucky enough to get everyone else in [Frank’s] organization. When he finished cooperating, we had to go before two judges, a federal judge and a state judge. The government asked that Frank be released. I think he had done eight years or something like that.
Do I think justice was served? He did do great work with tremendous results. But, in the deepest part of my soul, no I don’t think he should have gotten out.
What is your current relationship with Frank?
It’s not what it was. He’s charming and smart as well as being a stone killer. He became and was very humble and nice to be around. But when the movie started, he kinda morphed back into the old bad Frank Lucas. And I kinda morphed back into the narc. Our relationship is not the same. We’re still friends, but not the way it was.