Lucas, who was 88, died on Thursday in New Jersey, his nephew Aldwan Lassiter said. Lucas had been in declining health, according to his former lawyer.
Raised in North Carolina, Lucas climbed the ranks of crime in Harlem in the 1960s and 70s, becoming a major drug dealer known for supplying huge amounts of particularly potent heroin.
He said it netted him millions, and authorities seized over $500,000 in cash when they raided his house in Teaneck, New Jersey, in 1975. He was convicted and sentenced to decades in prison, but he turned informant and was released after about five years.
Lucas was quickly arrested again for drug dealing, on a much smaller scale. He served seven more years, getting out again in 1991.
Lucas’ story became the basis for the Ridley Scott-directed American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington as Lucas and Russell Crowe as Richard “Richie” Roberts, a composite of various detectives and prosecutors. The real-life Roberts is a former prosecutor who helped convict Lucas but later became his lawyer and friend, even godfather to Lucas’ son.
Lucas was a fixture on the film set, giving Washington advice on such details as how he carried his gun reports a source.
The movie brought scrutiny of claims in Lucas’ legend, particularly a portrayal of him smuggling drugs in the coffins of US soldiers killed in the Vietnam war.
A co-author of a book about Lucas, Ron Chepesiuk, said he never found any evidence or court records to substantiate the so-called “cadaver connection”. Lucas, however, continued to say in 2008 that he had transported heroin via coffin but only once.
The film’s assertion that Lucas rooted out a lot of law enforcement corruption was also called into question, and a group of former federal drug enforcement agents claimed in a lawsuit that the movie grossly misrepresented the truth and defamed them. That lawsuit was tossed out.
As for Lucas’ unquestioned role in supplying heroin that killed some users, he told The Associated Press in 2007 that he regretted it.
“I did some terrible things. I’m awfully sorry that I did them. I really am,” he said.
Photo credit: 1) Frank Lucas prime. 2) Frank Lucas senior by Luigi Novi. From Wikipedia.