For Lucas, the inevitable came on January 28, 1975, when an NYPD/DEA strike force, acting on a tip from two Pleasant Avenue guys, staged a surprise raid on his house in a leafy neighborhood of Teaneck, New Jersey. In the ensuing panic, Julie Lucas, screaming "Take it all, take it all," tossed several suitcases out the window. The cases were found to contain $584,000 in the rumpled bills Lucas refers to as "shit street money." Also found were keys to Lucas's Cayman Islands safe-deposit boxes, property deeds, and a ticket to a United Nations ball, compliments of the ambassador of Honduras.
"Those motherfuckers just came in," Lucas says now, sitting in a car across the street from the split-level house where he played pickup games with members of the Knicks. For years, he has contended that the cops took a lot more than $585,000 from him. "Five hundred eighty-five thousand, what's that? Shit. In Vegas, I'd lose 500 G's playing baccarat with a green-headed whore in half an hour." According to Lucas, agents took something on the order of "9 to 10 million dollars" from him that fateful evening. To bolster his claim, he cites passing a federally administered polygraph test on the matter. A DEA agent on the scene that night, noting that "$10 million in crumpled $20 bills isn't something you just stick in your pocket," vigorously denies Lucas's charge.
Whatever. Frank doesn't expect to see his money again: "It's just too fucking old -- old and gone."
A few days later, I brought Lucas a copy of his newspaper-clip file, detailing the Country Boy's long and tortuous interface with the criminal-justice system, a period in which he would do time in nearly a dozen state and federal joints. Lucas silently thumbed through dog-eared headlines like COUNTRY BOYS, CALLED NO. 1 HEROIN GANG IS BUSTED; 30 COUNTRY BOYS INDICTED IN $50M HEROIN OPERATION. There was also an October 25, 1979, Post story entitled CONVICT LIVES IT UP WITH SEX AND DRUGS, quoting a Metropolitan Correctional Center prisoner named "Nick," convicted killer of five, whining that Lucas had ordered prostitutes up to his cell and was "so indiscreet about it I had to have my wife turn the other way . . . he didn't give one damn about anyone else's feelings."
One clip, however, did engage Frank's attention. Titled EX-ASSISTANT PROSECUTOR FOR HOGAN SHOT TO DEATH IN VILLAGE AMBUSH, the November 5, 1977, Times story tells how Gino E. Gallina, then a Pelham Manor mouthpiece for "top drug dealers and organized-crime figures," was rubbed out "mob style . . . as many passersby looked on in horror" one nippy evening at the corner of Carmine and Varick Streets.
"You gonna make me out to be the devil, or what? Am I going to Heaven or hell?"
Lucas reckons he must have spent "millions" on high-priced criminal lawyers through the early eighties. Gino Gallina, however, was the only lawyer Lucas ever physically assaulted, the incident occurring in the visiting room of the Rikers Island prison. Lucas had reputedly given Gallina a large payoff to fix a case, $200,000 of which became "lost." Upon hearing this, Lucas, said the Daily News, "leaped across the table in the visitors' pen and began punching Gallina savagely."
Acknowledging that he told Gallina "if I didn't get my money in 24 hours he was a dead man" and asserting that the lawyer "did not deserve to live," Frank still steadfastly maintains he has "no idea at all" about who murdered Gallina.
What Lucas will absolutely not talk about is how he got out of jail, the stuff described in clips like a Newark Star-Ledger piece from 1983 entitled 'HELPFUL' DRUG KINGPIN GRANTED REDUCED TERM, in which Judge Leonard Ronco of Newark is reported as cutting in half Lucas's 30-year New Jersey stretch. This followed the previous decision by U.S. District Court judge Irving Ben Cooper, who "granted the unusual request of Dominic Amorosa, chief of the Southern District Organized Crime Strike Force, to reduce Lucas's 40-year New York prison sentence to time already served."
"I ask two things," Lucas demanded in our first meeting. "One, if they are slamming bamboo rods beneath your fingernails with ball-peen hammers, do not reveal where you saw me; and two, none of that bullshit about being buddy-buddy with the cops. That is out . . . " Then, so there was no mistake, he added, "Don't cross me on this, because I am a busy man and have no time, no time whatsoever, to go to your funeral."
Still, it was hard to let it go. How was I supposed to explain how he wound up serving less than nine years? To this, Frank replied: "I know I have that mark on me. I was always playing games with them. Go back and look -- I never, ever testified against anyone in court. Not once."
Then finally, Frank said, "Look, all you got to know is that I am sitting here talking to you right now. Walking and talking -- when I could have, should have, been dead and buried a hundred times. And you know why that is?
"Because: People like me. People like the fuck out of me." This was his primary survival skill, said the former dope king: his downright friendliness, his upbeat demeanor. "All the way back to when I was a boy, people have always liked me. I've always counted on that."
That much was apparent when I went to the Eastern District federal court to see Judge Sterling Johnson, the former narcotics prosecutor instrumental in putting the Country Boy behind bars.
Frank told me to look up Johnson, whom he calls "Idi Amin." "Judge Johnson likes me a lot. You'll see," he said.
Johnson greeted me with a burnished dignity befitting a highly respected public official. "This is Judge Johnson," he said. When I mentioned the name Frank Lucas, Johnson became notably more familiar. "Frank Lucas? Is that mother still living?!" A few days later, chatting in his stately chambers, the judge told me to call Lucas up.
"Get that old gangster on the phone," Johnson demanded, turning on the speaker.
Lucas answered with his usual growl. "This is Frank. Who's this?"
Johnson mentioned a name, someone apparently dead, likely snuffed by a Country Boy or two. This got Lucas's attention. "What? Who gave you this number?"
"Red Top!" Johnson said, invoking the name of Lucas's beloved chief dope cutter.
"Red Top don't got my number . . ." It was around then that Frank figured it out.
"Judge Johnson! You dog! You still got that stick?" Johnson reached under his desk, pulled out a beat cop's nightstick, and slapped it into his open palm loud enough for Lucas to hear it. "Better believe it, Frank!"
"Stop that! You're making me nervous, Judge Johnson!" Lucas exclaimed before gingerly inquiring, "Hey, Judge, they ever get anyone in that Gallina thing?"
Johnson laughed and said, "Oh, Frank. You know you did it."
Smiling through Lucas's denials, Johnson said, "Well, come down and see me. I'm about the only fly in the buttermilk down here."
After he hung up, Johnson chortled, "That Frank. He's a pisser."