Nicky Barnes, ‘Mr. Untouchable’ of Heroin Dealers, Is Dead at 78
Sentenced to life in prison, he informed on former associates, disappeared into the witness protection program and died in 2012 — a death unnoticed until now.
Nicky Barnes, an ostentatious New York City drug lord who was played by Cuba Gooding Jr in the Ridley Scott film American Gangster, is dead.
According to the New York Times, Barnes died aged 78 – or possibly 79 – in 2012. The news was not known until now, the newspaper said, because Barnes had entered the federal witness protection program. The Guardian could not independently confirm the report.
The report of Barnes’ death came a week after the death at 88 of Frank Lucas, a rival Harlem heroin kingpin of the same era who was was the lead character in the 2007 film, played by Denzel Washington. American Gangster also starred Russell Crowe as a cop.
Put on trial in 1977, Barnes was convicted and sent to prison for life without parole. As it turned out, he spent more than 20 years behind bars. While in jail, the Times said, Barnes became so incensed that his former associates were ruining his drug empire that he decided to testify against them. Following his release in 1998, federal authorities put him in witness protection, under a new name.
Around the release of American Gangster, Barnes participated in a biography and documentary and gave the Times an interview. He said he resented Scott’s film for the way it focused on Lucas rather than him. But he also said he had abandoned his old, flashy ways.
“Nicky Barnes is not around anymore,” he said. “Nicky Barnes’s lifestyle and his value system is extinct … I left Nicky Barnes behind.”
In Barnes’ heyday, the Times said, he owned “as many as 200 suits, 100 pairs of custom-made shoes, 50 full-length leather coats, a fleet of luxury cars and multiple homes and apartments”.
The drug trade that made him him a millionaire had a drastic effect on African American neighborhoods but Barnes managed to cast himself as a sort of Robin Hood in Harlem, through stunts such as passing out holiday turkeys, something Washington’s Lucas is shown doing in the movie.
Prior to his conviction, a sharply besuited Barnes even appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine under the headline “Mr Untouchable” and with the caption: “The Police Say He May Be Harlem’s Biggest Drug Dealer. But Can They Prove It?”
The story offended then US president Jimmy Carter so much, the Times said, that he ordered Barnes prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law”.