The gangsters of the 1970s are fading away. Nicky Barnes, one of the biggest heroin dealers of his time in Harlem, has died. He was 78.
Due to Barnes being in witness protection for well over 40 years, news of his health wasn’t reported to anyone. It wasn’t until the New York Times spoke to one of Barnes’ daughters and former prosecutors that the truth was revealed – Barnes died in 2012 of cancer. Due to him living his life anonymously, there was no death record for Leroy Nicholas Barnes.
Barnes’ life seemed movie like. Constantly arrested by police, 13 times and not one time before then had he been convicted. At the height of his criminal enterprise, Barnes posed on the cover of New York Magazine under the tag, “Mr. Untouchable.”
Eventually, Barnes was finally convicted of heading a major drug enterprise in 1977 and sentenced to life in prison without parole, but he found a way to live up to his “Mister Untouchable” mantra even more after that.
In a 2007 interview with the Times, Barnes said, “Nicky Barnes is not around anymore. Nicky Barnes’s lifestyle and his value system is extinct. I left Nicky Barnes behind.”
By then he was a grandfather who worked 40-hour weeks after entering Witness Protection in 1998, years after he became an informant and helped the government secure numerous convictions of former partners and more who had squandered his vast empire, including his ex-wife who served 10 years in prison.
“Being in prison for the rest of your life. I’d rather be out as a witness than be in there and what they characterize as a stand-up guy,” Barnes said about what he’d done to once more become a free man.
“I’m out,” he said. “They’re in.”
Barnes’ death mirrors that of his New York rival, Frank Lucas, who passed away last week at age 88. Both men’s stories played out in the 2007 film American Gangster. Barnes was a supporting character in that film, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., while Denzel Washington played Lucas.
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