October 14, 2007
The Raid in Teaneck is the prologue from Ron Chepesiuk and Anthony Gonzalez's book, Superfly: The True Untold Story of Frank Lucas, American Gangster. (A major movie about Lucas entitled American Gangster and starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe will be in theaters beginning Nov. 2, 2007.) The book investigates Lucas's life and criminal career and the claims to fame the movie makes about him. This includes Lucas's relationship with legendary Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson, his connection to La Cosa Nostra, the money he made in the drug trade and the development of the Asian drug pipeline. Lucas's life as a government informant is also examined. Beginning Oct. 25, 2007, Superfly can be purchased from the web site franklucasamericangangster.com. A documentary is also available.
The law enforcement raid came on a crisp, cold night in late January, 1975, without a high profile. No involved planning. No SWAT team. No large show of force. No TV cameras. There was plenty of man power, though: a task force consisting of 10 agents from Group 22 of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and 10 New York Police Department detectives attached to the Organized Crime Control Bureau (OCCB).
The task force felt confident that it would face little resistance and certainly no bodyguards wanting to disrupt the raid and cause trouble. After all, it was the personal residence of the drug dealer and his family lived with him.
Group 22 had been investigating the Gambino crime family of East Harlem for some time, and now the long hours and hard work were about to pay off. In 1975 the Gambino family was one of the five families that ruled the powerful Italian American mob, La Cosa Nostra, and controlled organized crime in New York City.
The Gambino godfather, the "Boss of all Bosses," was the 5'7" hawk nosed, unassuming legendary mobster and close friend of popular crooner, Frank Sinatra, named Carlos Gambino. Four years before, after Carlos's wife died of cancer, Uncle Sam tried to deport him to Sicily in Italy, but the godfather's lawyers convinced the court that their client had heart trouble and would not survive the trip. The deportation was stopped, but the OCCB put Gambino under constant surveillance, some would say harassment; they even parked a car round the clock in front of his home.
Under Gambino's leadership, his family became involved in large scale drug trafficking. The police, however, arrested two Gambino soldiers on drug trafficking charges, and, facing the prospect of long prison sentences, they began to sing like the proverbial canary. 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."
The informants' information allowed the authorities to obtain a search warrant, which authorized the raid that was about to begin on Lucas's house at 933 Sheffield Road in Teaneck, a small comfortable suburb in New Jersey. With a population of about 42,500, Teaneck had the distinction of being the first town in America where a white majority had voluntarily voted for the integration of the community's schools. But tensions flared in Teaneck in the late 1960s, as African-Americans moved into town, and whites began fleeing for parts Caucasian.
The racial tension did not bother Frank "Superfly" Lucas, who enjoyed the quiet suburban life after long nights on the streets of Harlem peddling his heroin. Business was booming and he had more money than he could spend and hide. Moreover, he had beaten a big rap that could have sent him to prison well into the next century.
On this January evening, however, Superfly's world was about to be turned upside down. The strike task force knew that Lucas had a gardener, but the lawn looked in bad shape. A silver Mercedes Benz and baby blue Thunderbird were parked in front.
After descending on Lucas's house, several members 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,'" Joe Sullivan, then a young DEA agent with three years' experience, recalled with a laugh. "People inside the house would rush up to the attic and throw drugs, 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 task force banged on the front door. "This is the police! Open up! We have a search warrant." The strike 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 bounding up the stairs. Outside the house, strike task force members watched as bags were thrown out the window.
When the task force barged through the door, they saw a big black man dressed in sweatpants and a sweatshirt shuffling cautiously towards them. The team identified the man from a mug shot as Frank "Superfly" Lucas. He looked as if his life had just flashed by him. "Let's see the warrants, officers," Lucas drawled in a strong southern accent.
Joe Rollo, a NYPD supervisor, handed the warrant to Lucas. "We're going to search your house," Rollo said. "We want everybody to go and wait in the dining room."
Lucas, two kids and a woman, who looked like a nanny or housekeeper, obeyed the order A few minutes later, they were joined by Julie, Lucas's petite, 28-year Puerto Rican wife, who had tried to sneak downstairs undetected. The team allowed Julie to go to the kitchen to get some milk for the kids. One officer followed her just to be sure she did not grab a gun. Julie turned around and snapped: "Why the hell are you following me? Where the hell can I go?"
Lucas barked in a deep, booming voice: "Calm down, woman! You're making too much noise." Julia was pretty, to be sure, sexy, in fact, and some of the task force members watched as she returned in a huff to the living room with the milk.
The house inside was larger than it appeared from the front. Lucas had built some extensions, including a huge playroom with a pool table, a ping pong table and a bar. In the master bedroom was a large closet containing shelves about 18 to 20 feet long. Joe Sullivan peaked inside the closet and was dazzled by a rainbow of colors: at least 200 pairs of lilac, purple, lime green shoes….alligator shoes, snake skin shoes, platform shoes…. "I had never seen anything like that in my life," Sullivan recalled. "I was a poor kid from Queen's (New York), who was lucky to wear one pair of shoes to school. Lucas had more shoes than he needed in a lifetime. It really said something about the guy."
Finding evidence was surprisingly easy. There were no guns or 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 strike task force knew that the evidence would strengthen the charge that the house's owner 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 as if 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 Julie had tossed through the second floor bathroom window.
Julie became agitated again when asked the obvious question: "I didn't throw any god damn money out of the window," she insisted.
In looking for evidence, the strike 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 the agents found money, they brought it into the center of the living room. There, several task force members made a big circle around the pile. Everybody was in plain view of all the others present, and they were 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 corruption charges 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 Sgt. David Durk and Frank Serpico, who later became famous as model for the character in the 1973 movie, Serpico, starring Al Pacino in the lead role.
One of the Knapp Commission witnesses was Waverly Logan, a member of the NYPD's Preventive Enforcement Patrol, an elite unit of 20 black and Puerto Rican patrolmen with the specific assignment of reducing crime. Logan testified he took $1,500 a month in bribes and that police officers in Harlem routinely paid off informants with heroin in return for such stolen goods as cigarettes and whiskey. The NYPD subsequently dismissed the former policeman for taking a $100 bribe.
On Nov. 19, 1971, New York City established the OCCB to centralize organized crime enforcement. The objective: Combat potential corruption problems and 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 strike task force several hours to count the money in Lucas' house. Meanwhile, the streetwise gangster knew it was best to stay quiet, and he looked on impassively. Julie fell silent, resigned to the fact that the evening would not have a happy ending.
Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, the strike task 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. Julia was also arrested for obstruction of justice. Throwing the money out of the window had not been the brightest of moves.
With Lucas and Julie handcuffed and in tow, the strike task force began streaming out of the house. To their surprise, outside waiting for them were the number two and number three officials in the DEA's New York office: Frank Monastero, the deputy director, and Jim Hunt, the 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
Both of them were no-nonsense type of guys. Reserved and always impeccably dressed, Monastero had served as an Internal Revenue Service inspector for several years before joining the DEA's predecessor, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, where he worked in Internal Affairs. The burly Hunt was a World War II veteran who had survived German machine gun nests on the beaches of Normandy in France. Jesuit educated, Hunt was a good amateur boxer and a graduate of Fordham University. "I remember Hunt as an intellectual tough guy," Sullivan recalled. "He liked to mix expletives with choice six syllable words that you had to look up in Webster's dictionary."
It was now biting cold outside, and the strike task force members could see their breath. But the two DEA officials stopped them and gave 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 and thought their bosses were joking. Sullivan, though, was not one of them. He felt insulted. Here the strike task force had spent hours taking extraordinary precautions in collecting and counting Lucas's dirty money and their bosses upstairs still did not trust them. The pat down revealed nothing; no one had as much as a nickel in his pockets. Yet, years later, Sullivan recognized the procedure as the best move his bosses could have made. It provided irrefutable proof that the raid was squeaky clean.
The next day, 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 the money was missing. The strike task force had ripped him off, Superfly complained to the press. It had to be as much $10 million, he later told Mark Jacobson, the journalist who would make Lucas Hollywood material and famous as the mythical embodiment of the black-American gangster.
"Five hundred and eighty-four thousand. What's that?" Superfly boasted. "Shit. In Las Vegas I lost 500 Gs in half an hour playing baccarat with a green haired whore." Later, Superfly would tell a television interviewer that the figure was actually $20 million. With time, the story has kept getting longer like Pinocchio's nose.
Today, Joe Sullivan and other DEA agents who investigated Lucas say anybody willing to look objectively at the details of the raid on Lucas's New Jersey residence can see that nobody ripped off $10 million, let alone $20 million. Strict precautions were in place and imagine trying to move and hide that huge amount of money.
Lucas has always been adamant that the strike task force stole his money, so some DEA agents suggest a different explanation. Maybe someone close to Superfly, who had access to his home, stole the money. It's an explanation that Superfly, a gangster who has claimed to be the biggest, smartest and baddest dope dealer in the history of the planet, would not want to hear.
Our investigation into Lucas's legendary career follows. It reveals a lot of things that Superfly, nearly a quarter of a century removed from the scene of his crimes, does not want to hear, nor does he want the public to know, given the Hollywood movie that will make him famous.
Ron Chepesiuk is the co-founder of Street Certified Entertainment, a media company specializing in true crime and gangster books and documentaries and new media products. He is also a Fulbright Scholar and investigative journalist specializing in true and organized crime, who has authored 23 books and more than 3,500 articles. His true and organized crime books include Drug Lords: the Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel, Gangsters of Harlem: The Gritty Underworld of New York's Most Famous Neighborhood, and Black Gangsters of Chicago. He is currently serving an expert consultant to the History Channel's "Gangland" documentary series.
Anthony Gonzalez is the co-founder of Street Certified Entertainment. He has also directed numerous, music videos for rap artists, produced and directed the documentary, "Hell Up in East Harlem," and served as an assistant director for several documentaries, including a best-selling one about Guy Fisher, a legendary organized crime figure from Harlem, and "The Larry Davis Story," a HBO Urban World film festival documentary winner.