The Real Men Behind American Gangster

updated 12/03/2007 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/03/2007 01:00AM

Four decades ago, Frank Lucas was one of the most feared men in New York City—a drug lord who made millions smuggling narcotics in coffins of soldiers killed in Vietnam. Richie Roberts, an ex-Marine and New Jersey cop, was determined to bring him down. "When it came to the heroin trade in Harlem, Frank was as big as they come," recalls Roberts, who remembers the first time he met his nemesis in a Manhattan courtroom in 1975. "He kind of gave me a half-smile, like, 'You're not going to get me,'" says Roberts, now in his 60s. "I thought, 'Yes, I am.'"

The story of how he brought Lucas to justice inspired American Gangster, the hit movie starring Denzel Washington as the mobster and Russell Crowe as the cop. But perhaps the most intriguing chapter of the saga is only briefly mentioned before the credits roll: The once-deadly adversaries are now close friends. These days the men regularly dine together near Roberts's office in West Caldwell, N.J., chat on the phone often, and Roberts—now a defense attorney—is godfather to Lucas's 11-year-old son Ray. "They don't come any better than Richie," says Lucas, 77, who served 12 years on narcotics charges. Adds Roberts: "In spite of what Frank did, nobody is all bad."

The son of North Carolina farmhands, Lucas rose in the Harlem underworld as muscle for kingpin Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, then made $52 million trafficking heroin. "Nothing glorifying about it," says Lucas, a father of seven who now speaks at schools and churches, warning children not to follow his path. "I tell them, 'Don't do what I did,'" he says. "The things I did were terrible."

His counterpart, Roberts, grew up in a tough neighborhood in Newark, N.J., where "crime figures were kind of accepted." Despite that, he became head of the Essex County Bureau of Narcotics. Aided by information gathered by Roberts's squad, DEA agents arrested Lucas and his wife, Julie, now 59 (though her arrest is not depicted in Gangster). Despite being on opposite sides, Lucas and Roberts "had an instant chemistry when we met" in court, says Roberts. Still, that didn't stop Lucas's gang from putting a contract out on the cop's life. But when a woman testified about finding her son dead from an overdose of Lucas's heroin, everything changed. "There was no way I could make up for what I had done," says Lucas. "But that beautiful lady opened my eyes."

After being sentenced to 70 years, Lucas told Roberts he'd aid prosecutors. "I'm not saying he did it out of the goodness of his heart," says Roberts. "But he made up his mind to help. We spent a lot of time together after that and became close."

For his help, Lucas's sentence was reduced and he was released in 1981 (he later served seven more years on other drug charges). By then, he was penniless, and Roberts hired Lucas to work in his law office and also pays his son Ray's private school fees. Still, the two old foes sometimes bicker about bygone days. "Frank will say I never had any evidence on him," Roberts says. "It was a weak case, but it was enough for a jury to convict." But it's what happened later that matters most to Lucas. "Richie gave me a second chance," he says. "He believed in me."

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