By Webster Stone
I am not the guy you’d expect to know a 1970s heroin kingpin. But I knew Nicky Barnes pretty well.
I first met him fifteen years ago. He didn’t go by Nicky Barnes, not anymore. He was in the U..S. Federal Witness Protection Program. He went by Clayton “Clay” Williams. The name had no special significance, he just liked that way it sounded.
Getting to Nicky had not been easy. It took over a year of pestering the U.S. Marshal Service. Then one day I got a call, “You will be receiving a call at this time tomorrow from a man whose former name is Leroy “Nicky” Barnes. Do you understand?!”
“Yes,” I answered.
“You are not to ask his current legal name. Do you understand?!”
“You are not to ask where he lives, his phone number, what the weather is where he lives nor his occupation—DO. YOU. UNDERSTAND?!”
The next day, with marshals monitoring the call, I had a talk with the former Nicky Barnes. Not long after that I went out to meet him.
Nicky lived in Minneapolis. The Marshal Service must have figured no one would ever think to find him there. But he dreamed of moving to Arizona, only he was still on parole so he wasn’t going anywhere.
When I first met Nicky, he had just turned 70. He was a short, chiseled, compact man—a bantam rooster with a strut to match. He still did sets of push-ups and pull-ups to stay in shape, a habit acquired at United States Penitentiary, Marion. He ate healthy, only drank beer, had a girlfriend, a car, and he liked to go ice fishing. Oh, his girlfriend had no idea.
“Clay” worked at Walmart, and it frustrated him. When it came to sales, distribution, product display, he felt he could do a much better job. And he may have been right.
But he was a damn good story teller, and he had a lot of stories to tell. We started work on his book, Mr. Untouchable.
The first problem I faced was executing a contract. It couldn’t be with Nicky Barnes because he no longer existed. It could be with Clayton Williams but then we couldn’t keep the contract in our office. Lots of people still wanted Barnes dead —there was a genuine fear that a bad guy might come to the office, put a gun to an editor’s head in order to reveal Nicky’s new name, and then track him down in Minneapolis. We used a third alias for his contract, Remi Davis.
Contrary to what has been reported, by 2005, Nicky Barnes was no longer in the Witness Protection Program. They kept tabs on him, sure, because he was on parole. Otherwise, he was on his own. The Federal Marshal Service cut him loose when he decided to publish a book. That was policy. They had learned the hard way when Henry Hill published Wiseguy—raking in all that money while the government spent resources protecting him. Of course, it was neither in Nicky’s, my, nor the Federal Marshal Service’s best interest to let anyone actually know this.
If anything surprised me about Nicky, it was the anger, decades later, that still ran hot regarding the betrayal of his protegé, Guy Fisher (who is serving life without parole in Ray Brook Federal Prison, NY). Nicky’s book’s dedication says it all:
For Prisoner # 05404-054
Everything you had came from me. I turned you on to making money, and then I showed you how to spend it. You drove a Benz because you rode in mine. You lived in a penthouse because you’d been to mine. You didn’t even have jewelry til you saw mine! And what did you do in return?
You disrespected me. You betrayed me.
See where that got you?
I want you to read every word of my story. And when you finish the last page, I want you to look up, see where I put you and ask yourself, was it worth it? Ask yourself that every day until you die.
Keep this in your cell as a reminder. I dedicate it to you.
For Nicky, revenge was not a dish served cold. Why was he still so angry? With his own malignant family life growing up, he wanted a “family” to call his own. So he tried to build it, to invent it. His answer was seven drug-dealing “brothers”, known as “The Council”, very much a mafia-style family. But this is what Nicky wanted most. When he was betrayed and learned this “family” was no more than a naive delusion, he retaliated against them all, putting dozens into prison, many for life. Ironically, one of those was the mother of his children. Subsequently, Nicky’s daughters went into foster care—so much for family values.
Nicky Barnes was forty-four when he was sent away. He was forty-eight when he decided to cooperate, and sixty-six when he finally walked out of prison, a not exactly free man. No president pardoned him, but, at the behest of Rudy Giuliani and other law enforcement allies, Congress rewrote the law . . . just for Nicky.
Our last call was in 2011 (maybe even 2012). I sat in a Mini-Cooper with my fiancée and we all chatted on speaker. Nicky was alway optimistic and hard charging. He only called me by my last name to relish it, “Stone! How you been? Listen, Stone . . . ” He wanted to know when his movie would get made. The idea that Frank Lucas who he considered a low-life nobody, had a big movie (American Gangster) and he did not rankled him greatly. That he was portrayed in the film as a minor character in Frank’s life bothered him even more. “The only people who ever got it right was The Wire,” he told me. Nicky said nothing of his cancer.
I didn’t know he had died six years ago. But I thought of him whenever I walked by the Washington Square Diner on W. 4th Street where he exchanged car keys with Matty Madonna—suitcases of money in the trunk for suitcases heroin in the trunk. I tried calling Nicky/Clay these last few years—the phone number I had for him was disconnected. I figured he might have finally made it to Arizona. He hated Minneapolis,”Much too cold most of the year and almost everyone is white.” I figured if I really had to get in touch, I could go through the Marshals again. It would be a chore, but I knew the drill.
Back in the day, Nicky was not a “good” guy, personally nor professionally. He required that his girlfriends learn to “stand and hold”—this meant she must be able to carry his loaded pistol under her skirt, muzzle held inside her vagina, and then be able to walk that way so that the weapon would not be found by police if they were pulled over.
A former heroin addict himself, Nicky knew addiction, rationalizing away any remorse for destroying tens of thousands of lives. Indeed, he relied on his addict’s knowledge to make his product the best on the street. No matter how generous he was with people in Harlem—holiday turkeys and hospital bills— the money he proffered was taken from other family members who poisoned and/or killed themselves on his product.
He admitted to nine murders at his sentencing.
Why does Nicky Barnes merit so much attention? Supposedly, no minority makes it in America until they first make it in crime. In the 1970s, as blacks emerged as leaders in politics, society, and culture, Nicky Barnes did the same, only for African-American organized crime. The mafia, who Nicky had studied so deeply, became both rivals and partners; only now, the nation’s first black godfather dictated to them. His life inspired the film characters: “Mr. Big” (Live and Let Die); “Nino Brown” (New Jack City); “Marsellus” (Pulp Fiction) and “Nicky Barnes” (American Gangster). Barnes is believed to be the basis for the song, “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown”; he has been name-checked by countless hip-hop artists.
With an unfinished elementary school education, Nicky Barnes had few opportunities. (His real degree came in 1965 in Greenhaven Prison with “Crazy Joe” Gallo). I recently pointed out that had Nicky been white, he might have become the Sackler family, celebrated philanthropists but notorious for making billions with the opioid epidemic. But then I realized that isn’t true at all—if Nicky had been given real opportunities, he’d have gone in an entirely different direction as an entrepreneur, and he would have killed it.
He knew he was a modern day Shakespearean plot and character—the man who just wanted a family but only ruthless, titanic, and depraved tragedy ensued.
Webster Stone is a book publisher and film producer.