“American Gangster,” the highly profitable 2007 film that grossed a reported $255 million and claimed to portray the true-life story of Frank Lucas, the 1970s Harlem gangster, has long since gone to DVD. The controversy surrounding the movie, however, is hanging around like a bad cold.
A group of retired DEA agents and New York Police Department cops have sued NBC Universal, the producers of “American Gangster,” claiming that they were defamed in the movie’s closing credits, which asserted that the narcotics cops involved in the Lucas investigation were corrupt. A federal court ruled against the plaintiffs, but they have appealed. A decision is expected soon.
Now, in another lawsuit filed last October 22, a group of nine retired DEA special agents and three NYPD officers are suing Frank Lucas; New York Media LCC, the publishers of New York Magazine; journalist Mark Jacobson; and Grove/Atlantic Inc, the publishers of a book by Jacobson, which included a profile he had written about Frank Lucas for New York Magazine and was the basis for movie. The lawsuit charges that Lucas libeled the 12 former law enforcement officials by asserting that they stole “9 to 10 million” dollars during the search of Superfly’s home in Teaneck, New Jersey, in 1975.
In his August 2000 New York Magazine profile titled “The Return of Superfly,” Mark Jacobson wrote: “Those motherfuckers just came in,” Lucas says now sitting in a car across the street from the split level house where he played pick up games with members of the Knicks. For years, he had contended that the cops took a lot more than $585,000 from him. ‘Five hundred and 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.”
According to the law officers’ complaint, Lucas’ assertions in the “Superfly libel” were “intentionally and knowingly false,” and he knew that his false assertions would be published in New York Magazine. Further, contends the lawsuit, NBC Universal Inc. and Grove/Atlantic should have known that Lucas’ statements were false and libelous.
Did Frank Lucas libel the DEA and NYPD? What happened in Lucas’s New Jersey home? Did the authorities really rip Superfly off for $9 or 10 million? In my February 2008 article for the Global Politician titled, “One Journalist’s Experience With the Media Elite: Gangsters, Cadavers and Misinformation,” I reported how the media refused to report on some of the bogus claims of Frank Lucas. Among other fabrications, Lucas did not help convict members of “New York City’s Drug Enforcement Agency” for corruption. He was not legendary Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson’s right hand man. And he certainly did not establish the Asian heroin connection.
That article didn’t discuss what happened in Lucas’s house that cold January in 1975, but Superfly’s claim that the authorities ripped him off for “$9 or 10 million” is another figment of his fertile imagination. My investigation of that raid is included in two of my books. Here are the facts of the bust.
The raid on Lucas’s house was conducted by a task force consisting of ten agents from Group 22 of the DEA and ten NYPD cops attached to the Organized Crime Control Bureau (OCCB). The raiding party was acting on a tip from two Gambino crime family soldiers who are arrested on drug trafficking charges. The soldiers revealed that one of their biggest customers for heroin was a prominent and flamboyant Black drug dealer named Frank Lucas, who liked to call himself “Superfly.”
As law enforcement prepared for the raid, Frank “Superfly” Lucas was enjoying the quiet suburban life at home in Teaneck after long nights on the streets of Harlem peddling his heroin. Business was booming and he had more money that he could launder and hide. On this January night, however, Superfly’s world was about to be turned upside down. After descending on Lucas’s house, a part of the 20-man strike force fanned out and surrounded the house. It was normal police procedure. “We used to say to each other when we went on a raid: ‘take your baseball glove with you,’” recalled Joe Sullivan, then a young DEA agent with three years experience and a member of the strike force. “People inside the house would rush up to the attic and throw out drug, handguns and money out the window if they heard the agents at the door announcing their authority. It was a common headache for us.”
The strike force banged on the front door: “This is the police! Open up! We have a search warrant.” The task force could hear panic and rapid movement inside and then a female screeching: “where’s the money!" We got to get rid of it.” One of the people inside began to bound up the stairs. Sure enough, the task force members outside the house watched as bags were thrown out the window.
Finding evidence was surprisingly easy. There was no guns and dope, but scattered throughout the house were bags of what Sullivan called “chump change,” paper bags stuffed with “street money” in mostly $1 to $20 bills, with the occasional $100 thrown in. Obviously, the money had not been counted, and the task force knew that the evidence would strengthen the charge that the owner of the house was involved in a criminal conspiracy to sell drugs. ” Lucas had no means of employment and a jury would think; ‘what does this guy do?’” Sullivan explained. “’He does not work, but he’s got all this money in the house.’”
Counting the money made the raid seem like it had lasted a lifetime. And it did not help matters that agents who had surrounded the house brought in more of the green stuff in the bags that Julia had tossed through the window.
In looking for evidence, the task force divided into teams of three. One member looked for drugs, money and guns. A second agent took notes when evidence was found and recorded the seizure in a notebook. A third agent acted as a witness. As agents found money, they brought it into the center of the living room. Several task force members made a big circle around the pile of money. Everybody was in plain view and able to observe each other.
If an outside observer had encountered the scene, he might have thought that the authorities did not trust its task force to do the honest thing. Actually, the authorities were just protecting themselves against the potential charge off corruption. In April 1970, New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay had formed the five-member Knapp Commission to investigate charges of corruption in the NYPD. In the public hearings that began in October 1971, the public heard shocking testimony from dozens of witnesses, including Police Commission Howard R. Leary, corrupt policemen, victims of police shakedowns and whistle blowers like Frank Serpico and Sergeant Davd Durk. The 1973 movie, “Serpico,” which starred Al Pucino in the lead role, made Frank Serpico famous.
One of the Knapp Commission witnesses was Waverly Logan, a member of the Preventive Enforcement Patrol, an elite unit of 20 black and Puerto Rican patrolmen with the specific assignment of reducing crime. Logan testified that he took $1,500 a month in bribes and that policemen in Harlem routinely paid off informants with heroin in return for such stolen goods such as cigarettes and whiskey. The NYPD subsequently dismissed the former policeman for taking a $100 bribe.
On November 19, 1971, New York City established the OCCB to centralize organized crime enforcement. The objective-- to combat potential corruption problems and to unify under the Bureau all operations of enforcement prone to corruption, such as vice, narcotics and organized crime. Still, law enforcement remained under intense scrutiny. “The Knapp Commission hearings forced law enforcement in (New York City) to be extra careful about how we investigated crime,” Sullivan recalled.
It took the task force several hours to count the money, Meanwhile, the street wise Lucas knew it was best to stay quiet, and he looked on impassively. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, the strike force told Lucas the money they had counted totaled $584, 683. The gangster nodded; he did not appear to have a problem with the count. “We have enough evidence to arrest you,” Rollo told Lucas and then read him his Miranda rights.
With the Lucas handcuffed and in tow, the strike force began streaming out of the house. To their surprise, outside waiting for them were the number two and number 3 officials in the DEA’s New York office: Frank Monastero, Deputy Director, and Jim Hunt, head of enforcement. It was not a high profile bust, so something important must be up to get those two suits out of bed late at night.
It was now biting cold outside and the strike force could see their breath, but the two DEA officials stopped the strike force and gave them explicit orders. “I want you to line up and turn around and search the man behind you,” Monastero instructed. “I’ll start by searching the first man in line.”
Some of the men laughed, as I they thought their bosses were joking, but Sullivan was not one of them. He felt insulted. Here the strike force had spent hours taking extraordinary precautions in collecting and counting Lucas’ dirty money and the suits upstairs still did not trust them. The pat down revealed that no one had as much as a nickel in their pockets, but years later, Sullivan recognized the procedure as the best move his bosses could have made. It provided irrefutable proof that the raid was clean.
The next day, though, Lucas had a chance to talk to his lawyer, and he began to change his tune. Now he said that the money count was not right; in fact, a lot of it was missing. The strike force had ripped him off, Superfly complained to the press. Twenty-five years later, Lucas perpetuated that lie in Jacobson’s profile for New York Magazine.
At the time Lucas was living in obscurity, reportedly on welfare, and probably did not think the many tall tales of the drug trade he spun for Jacobson would have any public interest after they appeared in New York Magazine. But Lucas got lucky when Hollywood discovered Jacobson’s New York Magazine profile and the rest is history.
What the lawsuit charges is true: Jacobson did “not adequately and reasonably” investigate the facts of Lucas claim” prior to publication of his New York Magazine article. It would have required “truckloads’ to remove 9 to 10 million in money from Lucas’ house. No law enforcement official involved in the raid at Teaneck was ever arrested or convicted for stealing money from Lucas’ house. Lucas even conceded that the figure of 585,000 “sounded correct’ in terms of how much he had at the time at the house. So those are the facts, but whether the court will decide in the plaintiffs’ favor isn’t certain.
Ron Chepesiuk, a South Carolina journalist and Fulbright Scholar is the author of “Drug Lords; the Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel” (www.ronchepesiuk.com/). He is currently working on a book about terrorism and drug trafficking.