How I Found Out Nicky Barnes Was Dead

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News often is the first draft of historical past, however I’ve at all times considered the previous as a vault, ajar and beckoning with secrets and techniques that resonate in present occasions.

That’s how I managed a front-page story on the quadricentennial of Henry Hudson’s go to to what grew to become his namesake river in 1609. I found not solely that the primary identified homicide in New York was recorded within the ship’s log, but in addition that the case towards the accused killer amounted to an early instance of racial profiling (he was an Indian). In the account I quoted, the suspect was by no means recognized by title. The sufferer was barely talked about.

Last week, I wrote one other article a few beforehand unreported demise. This time, the topic had died solely seven years in the past. But his obituary grew to become entrance web page information on Sunday for a number of causes: he had died of pure causes, which, given his volcanic way of life, was anomalous; he had been distinguished for years, but died unnoticed; and his title was Nicky Barnes.

In the 1970s, Leroy Nicholas Barnes was the infamous de facto incarnation of Ron O’Neal in Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1972 movie “Super Fly.” Mr. Barnes was the flamboyant dope peddler who flooded Harlem and different black neighborhoods with heroin, led cops on frivolous 100 m.p.h. automotive chases and redefined bling.

He cavalierly posed in 1977 for a New York Times Magazine cowl article that, in impact, validated his folkloric moniker as “Mr. Untouchable” and challenged the authorities not solely to arrest him — which they’d already completed repeatedly — however to imprison him for all times.

Mr. Barnes posed for the quilt of The New York Times Magazine in 1977, an act of defiance that offended President Jimmy Carter and precipitated the Justice Department to step up efforts to prosecute Mr. Barnes.CreditAlex Webb/Magnum Photos

His smug catch-me-if-you-can conceitedness so infuriated President Jimmy Carter that the White House ordered the Justice Department to double down on its pending prosecution of Mr. Barnes. A jury convicted Mr. Barnes later that yr in a wide-ranging drug conspiracy case and a choose sentenced him to life in jail.

I coated Nicky Barnes within the 1970s. I additionally knew his chief rival, Frank Lucas. These guys might be shrewd and witty after they needed to be. They have been self-made males. They justified their careers by insisting that they have been satisfying a well-liked demand, and that in the event that they didn’t, another person would. They survived solely as a result of they brutally eradicated their competitors.

I interviewed Frank Lucas a number of instances within the mid-’70s — together with within the Times cafeteria — for a doable ebook. He was bigger than life, although maybe not fairly as massive as his ego and his creativeness. He instructed spellbinding tales about stashing heroin within the false bottoms of coffins being shipped to the United States from Vietnam, and concerning the bloody burlesque of a Harlem heroin seller and his Country Boys crew.

A lot of publishers instructed me that nobody would need to learn a ebook a few boastful black dope peddler. A technology later although, Mr. Lucas’s notoriety was magnified in a New York journal article by Mark Jacobson, which in 2007 grew to become a ebook and film known as “American Gangster,” starring Denzel Washington as Mr. Lucas and Cuba Gooding Jr. in a small position as Mr. Barnes.

Nicky Barnes, ‘Mr. Untouchable’ of Heroin Dealers, Is Dead at 78June eight, 2019

Mr. Lucas cherished it. Nicky Barnes didn’t. He was so appalled at being eclipsed that he struck pre-emptively.

Mr. Barnes had, certainly, been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1978, however by the early 1980s he may not reconcile life within the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., together with his former excessive life in Manhattan. Feeling betrayed by his former cronies, together with the mom of his two daughters, he turned authorities informer. In 1998, he was launched into the federal witness safety program and given a brand new id.

A number of months earlier than the movie and ebook about Mr. Lucas have been launched, Mr. Barnes agreed to emerge from the anonymity of his government-granted protecting persona for an interview with me to advertise each “Mr. Untouchable,” a ebook he wrote with Tom Folsom, and a documentary by the identical title.

Our interview virtually ended earlier than it started when he was delayed by a freak snowstorm. We met in a motel, then went to dinner. His bravado had largely evaporated. He instructed his neighbors he was a bankrupt businessman. He labored at a Walmart. After the meal, he requested our waitress to pack his leftover grilled salmon in a doggy bag.

“In the outdated days,” he mentioned meekly, “I’d’ve been embarrassed.”

Frank Lucas died final month. When I learn his obituary, ready upfront by Robert McFadden, I questioned: Whatever occurred to Nicky Barnes?

The United States Marshals Service doesn’t launch progress stories on the convicts-turned-informers like Mr. Barnes whom it safeguards in its witness safety program. I known as Sterling Johnson Jr., a federal choose and former particular narcotics prosecutor in New York City. “Nicky? He used to name me on a regular basis,” the choose mentioned, “however I haven’t heard from him in years.”

Several different former prosecutors mentioned the identical. Finally, one confirmed Mr. Barnes’s demise, in addition to the yr and the trigger. Mr. Barnes’s daughter, who remembered me from the 2007 interview, additionally confirmed his demise.

If we had reported Nicky Barnes’s demise promptly, chances are high it could have appeared on the within obituary web page, like Frank Lucas’s. But Nicky acquired the final chortle. Unlike Mr. Lucas, the information about Mr. Untouchable’s final vanishing act landed on Page One.

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