Pubdate: Sun, 04 Mar 2007
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2007 The New York Times Company
Author: Sam Roberts
Bookmark: (Heroin)


The 74-year-old man who used to be Leroy Nicholas Barnes, owner of 60
pairs of custom-made shoes, 27 full-length leather coats and more than
one Mercedes-Benz, wears baggy Lee dungarees these days and drives to
work in a used car he bought five years ago.

With his slight limp and mostly bald pate, he seems the antithesis of
his former persona as Mr. Untouchable, the dashing Harlem heroin
dealer who posed 30 years ago on a magazine cover in a blue denim suit
and a red, white and blue tie.

Mr. Barnes's posture of smug invulnerability so affronted President
Jimmy Carter that he ordered his attorney general to, as they say,
prosecute Mr. Barnes to the fullest extent of the law.

The Justice Department did just that. And in 1977, Mr. Barnes - a
former addict with a junior high education who made a fortune flooding
black neighborhoods with heroin and swaggered around as an invincible
outlaw - was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

"He was the No. 1; he had charisma," said Sterling Johnson Jr., a
federal judge and former special narcotics prosecutor in New York
City. "Have you been in the presence of Bill Clinton when he walks
down the street? That was Nicky Barnes."

While Mr. Barnes, widely known as Nicky, languished behind bars,
though, his former cronies, his wife and his girlfriends began
cavorting, he said, squandering the criminal enterprise that had made
them all millionaires. So much for honor among thieves. Mr. Barnes
felt betrayed.

"They had a sleeping lion, a caged lion," he recalled, "and they woke
him up." And so Mr. Barnes roared, so ferocious a government witness
that scores of drug dealers were convicted. He was released into the
federal witness protection program in 1998.

And then he disappeared.

Years ago, a former associate predicted how difficult it would be for
Mr. Barnes to adjust to a life of anonymity if he ever turned informer
and was granted a fresh identity.

"If he runs a Laundromat in Dubuque or a grocery store in Slippery
Rock, that's one thing," the associate said. "But the man has a
tremendous amount of charisma and intelligence. I don't think he's
going to be innocuous anywhere."

For nearly a decade, though, Mr. Barnes says, he has managed to
seamlessly insinuate himself into mainstream America, this time
untouchable by those he incriminated and the friends and families of
foes he murdered.

"A lot of people think I'm dead," he says. "The anonymity that cloaks
middle America is the life I'm comfortable with, and what I want to

Last weekend, though, Mr. Barnes surfaced briefly, and pseudonymously,
to promote a new book about his old life in the feral 1970s, "Mr.
Untouchable," written with Tom Folsom. This summer, he will appear in
a documentary with the same name and later this year a movie,
"American Gangster," is to be released. It stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as
Mr. Barnes, but, to his exasperation, focuses on his chief rival in
Harlem's heroin trade, Frank Lucas.

The dapper Nicky Barnes that audiences will see bears little
resemblance to the man he says he has become, a grandfather who puts
in solid 40-hour weeks at an undisclosed job, who lives in a white
neighborhood in an undisclosed state, and who matter-of-factly takes
home doggie bags from restaurants.
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