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‘American Gangster’ is more fiction than fact

“The picture is 1 percent reality and 99 percent Hollywood,” says federal Judge Sterling Johnson Jr.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In “American Gangster,” which is “based on a true story,” Denzel Washington — as the ‘70s drug lord Frank Lucas — confidently marches deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia as the Vietnam War rages in the background. He is looking for drugs.

Later, we see police break open the caskets of Vietnam casualties flown back to the States, searching for the heroin Lucas has audaciously hidden beneath the corpses. Then Lucas is shown as the dope dealer-turned-reformer as he exposes legions of corrupt police.

Except none of the above ever happened.

The Harlem kingpin’s infamous “cadaver connection” — a pipeline of top-grade Southeast Asia heroin smuggled in GI caskets — has always been at the center of his considerable and enduring mythology.

But it turns out that the casket story is just that — a myth. And after revelations that “American Gangster” fabricates Lucas’ role in rooting out police corruption, the film’s credibility could be damaged just as the Oscar race launches with nominations on Tuesday.

“Everybody always thought the caskets (carried heroin) — even I thought it,” says federal Judge Sterling Johnson Jr., who as special narcotics prosecutor was instrumental in Lucas’ arrest and trial.

“The picture is 1 percent reality and 99 percent Hollywood,” Johnson says. “Frank was illiterate, Frank was vicious, violent. Frank was everything Denzel Washington was not.”

Class-action lawsuitOn Wednesday, several former Drug Enforcement Agents who investigated Lucas filed a class-action lawsuit against General Electric Co.’s NBC Universal claiming the film defames them and grossly misrepresents the truth. Produced by Brian Grazer and directed by Ridley Scott, the film has grossed more than $129 million at the box office and won largely positive reviews. ( is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

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Johnson says Lucas wasn’t capable of securing a drug connection from the infamous Golden Triangle. Instead, it was Leslie “Ike” Atkinson, a sometimes supplier for Lucas, who was recently released from prison after serving more than 30 years.

Atkinson has said he shipped drugs in furniture, not caskets.

“It is a total lie that’s fueled by Frank Lucas for personal gain,” Atkinson said by e-mail. “I never had anything to do with transporting heroin in coffins or cadavers.”

Author and journalist Ron Chepesiuk is currently working on a biography of Atkinson and co-authored “Superfly: The True, Untold Story of Frank Lucas, American Gangster.” He blames the media for allowing Lucas’ story to go unchecked.

Chepesiuk says his research found no evidence or court records to substantiate the cadaver connection, “the biggest hoax in the history of the international drug trade.”

The story of Lucas’ supposed connection first flourished on the streets, and was widely spread in a 2000 New York magazine article by Mark Jacobson. His article was the basis for the movie.

“The magazine piece is a presentation of this guy’s story and that’s what he had to say,” Jacobson says.

Even Lucas, now 77 and living in New Jersey, now claims he only smuggled heroin through coffins once. “I had a false-bottom coffin made.”

‘They wanted a white boy’New Jersey police detective Richard “Richie” Roberts (played by Russell Crowe) is elevated to Lucas’ foil in the film. Though Roberts, now a defense attorney, did play a role in the prosecution of Lucas, on screen he’s a composite of many detectives and prosecutors.

“They wanted a white boy,” Lucas says of Roberts character.

Lucas is shown to turn informant, specifically against corrupt police officers. A legend at the end of the movie claims three-fourths of New York’s Drug Enforcement Agency were convicted thanks to Lucas’ cooperation.

On Wednesday, former DEA agents Jack Toal, Gregory Korniloff and Louis Diaz filed their lawsuit, represented by Dominic Amorosa, a prosecutor in the 1975 federal case against Lucas.

“(Lucas) was my informant for years,” Toal says. “He never mentioned any crooked DEA agent or cop.”

A DEA spokesman in Washington, Garrison Courtney, confirmed that no agents were ever charged with wrongdoing in the case.

A Universal Pictures spokesman, Michael Moses, has said the lawsuit is “entirely without merit” and that the film “does not defame these or any federal agents.”

The day before the lawsuit was filed, a spokesperson for the studio gave a statement to The Associated Press stating: “Universal Pictures has every confidence that the material facts are conveyed truthfully in ’American Gangster,’ from abundant research with direct sources and from the public record.”

Grazer, who bought the story and shepherded the project for years, declined to be interviewed for this article.

‘I never testified on nobody’Lucas can only recall informing on a police detective he called “Babyface,” but denies informing on other gangsters or drug dealers: “I never testified on nobody,” he said.

Prosecutors involved in the case have contradicted that. Roberts, who prosecuted the superseding indictment in New Jersey, says of Lucas’ insistence that he didn’t inform on fellow dealers: “Absolutely not. He gets mad every time I tell the truth.” (Roberts and Lucas later became friends and Roberts is even the godfather to Lucas’ youngest son.)

Toal says those Lucas informed on were “unanimously” criminals: “He never talked about a dirty cop or a DEA agent. He never gave up anybody like that. It was 100 percent drug dealers.”

Lucas’s sentence of 70 years was reduced to five years after his informant work. Once released, Lucas was quickly arrested again for drug dealing, but on a much smaller scale. He served seven more years and got out of jail in 1991.

Lucas remains full of vitriol for the Special Investigations Unit, which he calls “nothing but a shakedown.” Many SIU detectives were indicted in the ‘70s following an investigation in which NYPD detective Bob Leuci went undercover among his colleagues, though there’s no evidence that Lucas’ collaboration had anything to do with the charges.

Leuci’s story has already hit the big screen. Robert Daley’s book about Leuci, “Prince of the City,” was turned into the 1981 film of the same title by Sidney Lumet.

But Lucas’ legend has only grown since “American Gangster” was released, leaving some — like Roberts — to wonder if they’ve helped glorify a villain.

“I’m glad this over,” Roberts says. “I’ll tell you that.”