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News may be the first draft of history, but I’ve always viewed the past as a vault, ajar and beckoning with secrets that resonate in current events.
That’s how I managed a front-page story on the quadricentennial of Henry Hudson’s visit to what became his namesake river in 1609. I discovered not only that the first known murder in New York was recorded in the ship’s log, but also that the case against the accused killer amounted to an early example of racial profiling (he was an Indian). In the account I quoted, the suspect was never identified by name. The victim was barely mentioned.
Last week, I wrote another article about a previously unreported death. This time, the subject had died only seven years ago. But his obituary became front page news on Sunday for several reasons: he had died of natural causes, which, given his volcanic lifestyle, was anomalous; he had been prominent for years, yet died unnoticed; and his name was Nicky Barnes.
In the 1970s, Leroy Nicholas Barnes was the notorious de facto incarnation of Ron O’Neal in Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1972 film “Super Fly.” Mr. Barnes was the flamboyant dope peddler who flooded Harlem and other black neighborhoods with heroin, led cops on frivolous 100 m.p.h. car chases and redefined bling.
He cavalierly posed in 1977 for a New York Times Magazine cover article that, in effect, validated his folkloric moniker as “Mr. Untouchable” and challenged the authorities not only to arrest him — which they had already done repeatedly — but to imprison him for life.
His smug catch-me-if-you-can arrogance 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 year in a wide-ranging drug conspiracy case and a judge sentenced him to life in prison.
I covered Nicky Barnes in the 1970s. I also knew his chief rival, Frank Lucas. These guys could be shrewd and witty when they wanted to be. They were self-made men. They justified their careers by insisting that they were satisfying a popular demand, and that if they didn’t, someone else would. They survived only because they brutally eliminated their competition.
I interviewed Frank Lucas several times in the mid-’70s — including in the Times cafeteria — for a possible book. He was larger than life, though perhaps not quite as big as his ego and his imagination. He told spellbinding stories about stashing heroin in the false bottoms of coffins being shipped to the United States from Vietnam, and about the bloody burlesque of a Harlem heroin dealer and his Country Boys crew.
A number of publishers told me that no one would want to read a book about a boastful black dope peddler. A generation later though, Mr. Lucas’s notoriety was magnified in a New York magazine article by Mark Jacobson, which in 2007 became a book and movie called “American Gangster,” starring Denzel Washington as Mr. Lucas and Cuba Gooding Jr. in a small role as Mr. Barnes.
Mr. Lucas loved it. Nicky Barnes didn’t. He was so appalled at being eclipsed that he struck pre-emptively.
Mr. Barnes had, indeed, been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1978, but by the early 1980s he could no longer reconcile life in the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., with his former high life in Manhattan. Feeling betrayed by his former cronies, including the mother of his two daughters, he turned government informer. In 1998, he was released into the federal witness protection program and given a new identity.
A few months before the film and book about Mr. Lucas were released, Mr. Barnes agreed to emerge from the anonymity of his government-granted protective persona for an interview with me to promote both “Mr. Untouchable,” a book he wrote with Tom Folsom, and a documentary by the same name.
Our interview almost ended before it began when he was delayed by a freak snowstorm. We met in a motel, then went to dinner. His bravado had largely evaporated. He told his neighbors he was a bankrupt businessman. He worked at a Walmart. After the meal, he asked our waitress to pack his leftover grilled salmon in a doggy bag.
“In the old days,” he said meekly, “I would’ve been embarrassed.”
Frank Lucas died last month. When I read his obituary, prepared in advance by Robert McFadden, I wondered: Whatever happened to Nicky Barnes?
The United States Marshals Service does not release progress reports on the convicts-turned-informers like Mr. Barnes whom it safeguards in its witness protection program. I called Sterling Johnson Jr., a federal judge and former special narcotics prosecutor in New York City. “Nicky? He used to call me all the time,” the judge said, “but I haven’t heard from him in years.”
Several other former prosecutors said the same. Finally, one confirmed Mr. Barnes’s death, as well as the year and the cause. Mr. Barnes’s daughter, who remembered me from the 2007 interview, also confirmed his death.
If we had reported Nicky Barnes’s death promptly, chances are it would have appeared on the inside obituary page, like Frank Lucas’s. But Nicky got the last laugh. Unlike Mr. Lucas, the news about Mr. Untouchable’s ultimate vanishing act landed on Page One.
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