Frank Lucas, 'American Gangster' Drug Kingpin Depicted by Denzel Washington, Dead at 88

Frank Lucas, the Harlem drug kingpin immortalized in Ridley Scott's 2007 film American Gangster, died Thursday according to his nephew Aldwan Lassiter per Rolling Stone. Lucas was 88.

Lassiter said Lucas died of natural causes. TMZ reports that Lucas' brother said Lucas died in New Jersey while being transported to a hospital for an unknown health issue.

Lucas is credited as the architect behind the infamous "Golden Triangle" gambit of the early 1970s where he claimed to have imported heroin from Southeast Asia in the coffins of U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam.

frank-lucas_getty-Johnny Nunez : Contributor
(Photo: Johnny Nunez / Contributor, Getty)

"Who the hell is gonna look in a dead soldier’s coffin," Lucas told New York in the 2000 article "The Return of Superfly."

"We had him make up 28 copies of the government coffins ... except we fixed them up with false bottoms, big enough to load up with six, maybe eight kilos," he said. After the release of American Gangster, in which Denzel Washington portrayed the drug kingpin, Lucas' coffin claim came into question.

Born in North Carolina, Lucas moved to Harlem after witnessing the Ku Klux Klan murder his cousin, which he said sparked his career in crime. He went on to become a protégé to Harlem mob boss Bumpy Johnson, who died of a heart attack in 1968. After that, Lucas took over as Harlem's drug kingpin, fronting what became one of America's biggest heroin empires.

“I bought Harlem, I owned Harlem, I ran Harlem,” Lucas said, bragging that his "Golden Triangle" scheme allowed him to cut out the Mafia as the middle man and smuggle in drugs directly. He claimed that his empire made $1 million per day at its peak — and he lived to prove it, often donning a $100,000 floor-length chinchilla coat and matching $25,000 hat, as made famous by the time he wore it to the Ali-Frazier boxing match in 1971.

His presence at the famous fight as well as his conspicuous spending habits drew the attention of authorities like detective Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe in American Gangster.

After the Drug Enforcement Agency and the New York Police Department ended Lucas' reign in 1975, he received a 70-year prison sentence. Later, he turned state's witness and provided evidence that was good enough to make dozens of drug-related arrests and released from prison in 1981 after serving a reduced sentence.

Three years after that, he was arrested for a drug deal that violated his parole and spent seven more years behind bars.

“There are a lot of people that love him and a lot of people that hate him,” Roberts said of Lucas after Lucas received probation in 2012 for stealing more than $17,000 from the federal government, NJ.com reports. “He’ll always have the stigma of heroin distribution. Let’s face it, a lot of people died because of what he sold.”

"He also did good by helping put a lot of people behind bars. It was a hell of a run," Roberts said.

Lucas' wife, Julianna Farrait-Rodriguez, was also convicted of drug-related charges. She first spent five years in prison in the '70s; in 2010, she received another five-year sentence after attempting to sell cocaine in Puerto Rico.

"Some call us the black Bonnie and Clyde because we have always stuck by one another," Farrait-Rodriguez said in 2011.

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In recent years, Lucas was confined to a wheelchair after a car crash.

In addition to Farrait-Rodriguez, TMZ reports that Lucas is also survived by his seven children.

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