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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Drug kingpins, entertainers, hit men, corrupt cops and more in: Straight from the Hood

Award winning investigative journalist, documentary film producer and true crime author, Ron Chepesiuk, partners with Scott Wilson, a former New York state corrections officer, in Straight from the Hood: Amazing but True Gangster Tales. The 36 stories are sure to entertain and enlighten true crime aficionados.

Straight from the Hood reveals fascinating facts regarding such international luminaries as Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, Frank Lucas, Frank Matthews and even Denzel Washington.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with the authors:

MS: Ron, you’ve written several Black Gangster books including Black Gangsters of Chicago, Gangsters of Harlem and Sergeant Smack. What drew you to the Black Gangster writing niche?

RC: I had done a book titled Drug Lords, which was about Colombia’s Cali drug Cartel, and I was looking for a subject for my next book. I was watching the film Superfly, one of the so called blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. I really loved those movies, many of which were set in Harlem, and I wanted to know a little more about the background to the movies. But I couldn’t find a book. So I wrote Gangsters of Harlem. This led to Black Gangsters of Chicago because all we read about is Al Capone and The Outfit. I am interested in crime history, and there is lot of history still to be written about black organized crime.

MS: What prompted you to write this book?

SW:  Ron Chepesiuk told me about the idea and asked me to be a part of it. I was an admirer of Ron’s work and I thought it would be a great opportunity for me. I’ve always had a fascination with organized crime and the underworld, so it wasn’t hard to be enthusiastic about a project like this. I also thought that I could learn a lot from someone with Ron’s expertise and experience.

MS: How did you decide who to include and who to leave out of your book Straight from the Hood? Was it based on what information was available or other criteria?

SW:  We tried our best to include stories that aren’t very well known by the general public. This presented a real challenge, as there is scant information available regarding some of the people and events that we wanted to cover. In those cases we simply had to work with what we had, and lay out the story in the most objective and interesting way possible. We did include a few stories that have a bit of mainstream notoriety, but even then we tried to include details and points of view that are rarely discussed. The popular versions of many crime stories leave out vital details that can drastically affect how the reader/viewer perceives them. Overall, we tried to offer a good balance between the well-known and the obscure. 

MS: In your book, you quote a former Cuban heroin dealer talking about Frank Matthews, one of the few drug lords to remain at large for almost 40 years. “He was charismatic, articulate and self-assured. He was certainly the biggest Black gangster of that period, much bigger than Frank Lucas or Nicky Barnes, who have gotten all the attention recently.”

Retired DEA agent Lew Rice had this to say about Frank Matthews, “He’s smart enough to hide and maintain a very low profile, and he went out of his way not to draw attention to himself. That combination will bring you a certain degree of loyalty and anonymity.”

It seems that if you amass the kind of fortune Matthews allegedly has acquired through his drug dealings, he would naturally want to lead a life of excess and flaunt his wealth. Yet to do so would make him an easy mark for the authorities. Do you think he’s alive and leading the high life somewhere?

RC: Well, what happened to Frank Matthews is organized crime’s biggest mystery. He jumped bail in 1974, reportedly with $15 million and has never been seen again. As a U.S. Marshal explained to me, he vanished off the face of the Earth. There hasn’t been one credible citing of him. There are rumors in the Underworld about Matthews getting whacked. Matthews would be 67 today, if alive. So I would think that, if Matthews is alive, he has managed to be disciplined and has kept a low profile.

MS: The chapter titled “Frank Lucas—American Gangster or American Fraud?” stands out from the rest of the book. It carries a none-too-positive judgmental tone, whereas you maintain neutrality—that of mainly recounting history—in the other chapters. What was the purpose of writing the Lucas chapter the way you did?

RC: The chapter is the distillation of my research on one of the bogus stories in organized crime history: the life of Frank Lucas. There is no other way to write a chapter about Lucas because Lucas’s story is so full of holes—that is, unless you are willing to be a stenographer and not a journalist and write a chapter the way Hollywood scripted it. For a fuller picture of Lucas’ life and claims people can go to my book, Sergeant Smack.

MS: In the same chapter on Frank Lucas you describe how Bumpy Johnson’s widow wrote an autobiography calling Lucas a liar and saying that her husband never trusted Lucas. Based on your research, what kind of relationship did Bumpy Johnson and Frank Lucas have?

RC: It was certainly not the kind of relationship portrayed by Lucas. He probably worked for Bumpy but in a very flunky sort of way. I interviewed a couple of police officers from that era who knew Bumpy well. They do not remember Frank Lucas.

MS: Loved the chapter titled “The Charles and Griselda Story: New Jack City Meets Scarface.” In the humble opinion of the interviewer this chapter is worth the price of the book. Where did you find out about this duo?

RC: Thank you for your kind comment. I interviewed Billy Corben, a noted documentary filmmaker who discovered the story and chronicled it in his documentary, Cocaine Cowboys 11. I knew after interviewing Corben that the story was a true one. The story, thanks to Cosby’s promotion, has since become well known.

MS: Charles Cosby spoke of how black gangsters were traditionally locked out of the ranks of other ethnic mafias. Are there some noted exceptions?

RC: I wouldn’t use the words “locked out.” It has been customary for gangsters to stick with their own people—people they know and people they can trust. That’s true whether we are talking about the Italians, the Colombians or the Chinese, or any other ethnic group. So you are not going to see a Dominican at the head of the Triads or an African American in higher echelons of the La Cosa Nostra. But greed is the primary factor in criminality so ethnic groups work with each other.

MS: It’s rather good timing on your part to include some interesting tidbits about Libyan leader, Moammar Khadafi, considering the current state of affairs in Libya, i.e., the rebels seizing control of the country. What do you think readers will learn about Khadafi from reading your book?

RC: They will probably learn that back in the 1980s Khadafi was a very dangerous individual when it came to U.S. interests and he would do anything to get back at the U.S. after it had killed his daughter in a bombing raid of Khadafi’s compound. He was also quite reckless in the sense that he was willing to risk facing the wrath of Uncle Sam to get involved with a street gang from Chicago.

MS: As the first African American to launch a Broadway show, convicted drug kingpin Michael Harris gave Denzel Washington his start on Broadway. Harris went on to put up $1.5 million for the rap label, Death Row Records. Since his attempted murder charge has been recanted, he’s now serving a 28-year sentence in San Quentin for narcotics distribution. It seems his foray into the entertainment business came a little late. Then there was a rapper with the moniker “X-Raided” who incriminated himself through his music. A number of hoods appear to have plenty of talent and then blow it. Any comments?

SW: I think in some cases, the hoods in question are bred in an environment that doesn’t nurture their talents or teach them how to properly apply them in the straight world. They may have been in a situation where a life of crime seemed like a viable career option. Maybe becoming an entertainer or entrepreneur didn’t seem like a realistic life choice. That’s why it’s important to make sure that the same opportunities are available to everyone. When resources and opportunities are exclusive to the rich and powerful, lots of otherwise smart and talented people end up making bad decisions.  

MS: You said, “Every criminal thinks they can avoid the mistakes made by others. They think they will be the one that will last and ultimately ride off into the sunset having fooled the authorities. In reality, even the smartest and most cautious crook is only biding his time.” What about Frank Matthews and possibly others?

SW: I think someone like Frank Matthews is the exception to the rule. Remember, the authorities eventually managed to catch up to him as well. He managed to slip through their fingers and escape, but the point is that he almost got caught. That was 38 years ago.  Government and Law enforcement agencies are now more technologically advanced and have many more tools at their disposal. They can change laws to suit their needs. Criminals these days are also a lot quicker to inform on their peers. People think that a smart and cunning crook can outsmart the law. I believe that’s a fallacy. Intelligence alone cannot overcome the judicial system. The game is pretty much rigged. The odds are automatically against anyone that decides to make a living by an illegal means. 

MS: Dirty cops are fodder for endless movie plots. Dealing with the criminal element exposes police to many opportunities too good to pass up. You point out that “drug dealers can’t go to cops for protection and that makes them ripe for robbery and extortion.” Do you think cops being “on the take” or succumbing to other forms of corruption is increasing due to the prevalence of illegal drugs?

SW: I definitely think that the prevalence of illegal drugs has increased the number of cops who are “on the take.” The Crack Cocaine epidemic spawned an underworld version of yuppie culture.  It made a smokable version of cocaine widely available to people who probably could not afford the powder form of the drug. In a sense, that opened up a whole new clientele. It generated a lot of cash for those who were willing to cater to that particular vice.

MS: You devote a chapter to a British guy named Curtis “Cocky” Warren who thought he could outsmart authorities by talking in code and keeping all information in his head. He didn’t partake in any of the usual vices like drinking and doing drugs. And Cocky organized mammoth shipments of cocaine hidden inside lead ingots. How did they finally catch him?

RC: Warren was an example of a gangster who didn’t know when to get out of the drug game and thought he was too smart for his own good. He was too visible and he flaunted his freedom and criminal success in law enforcement’s face. He thought he could just move from England to another country and escape the law. He did not care that the police monitored his calls. He thought he could outsmart Johnny law by simply talking in code. He was smart but not smart enough and allowed law enforcement to build a case against him.

MS: When referring to the era where Miami’s fabled Cocaine Cowboys infested Atlanta around 1986, you stated that it was rare for an out-of-town crew to invade another territory. Apparently, the influx of Blacks who migrated from the North presented a huge source of recruits for moving drugs? 

SW: It’s not so easy to move into an established market and simply take it over. The locals who’ve built up and maintained that market likely will not roll over for an invading army. During the crack era, a lot of New York dealers began migrating to other areas of the country as the New York market became oversaturated. When they would relocate to another area and set up shop, they often made the mistake of thinking that the locals weren’t savvy or fearsome enough to fight them off. This lead to a lot of New York dealers getting killed and extorted in places like Washington D.C. Established kingpins in other cities do not take kindly to arrogant transplants trying to take over

MS: You stated further that “no American city was safe from the extreme violence that the crack trade inspired…” and that “their brazen methods provided inspiration for a new generation of hustlers and gang members that hoped to make a reputation for themselves through their willingness to shoot first and ask questions later.” In your opinion, has the drug scene changed markedly in recent years? And what does the current profile of drug trafficking look like in the United States? 

SW: The drug trade is no longer as lucrative as it was in the 80’s and 90’s, at least not for the Black organizations. The dynamics of the drug game have changed over the last decade. From what I understand, the Mexican cartels continue to effectively shut Black dealers out of the picture in places like California and Texas. Many of them are not willing sell wholesale amounts of drugs to black organizations. They won’t sell to the competition. This has created a situation out west where a lot of criminals are now turning to robberies and the like in order to make money. 

RC: I think the drug trade is much more fragmented. You have so many players today. Practically every ethnic group has become a player in the drug trade. Compare that to the 1960s when in the heroin trade there was mainly the French connection and it was controlled by La Cosa Nostra. The drug trade had reflected the globalization trend and today practically every country in the world is involved. There are also many more illegal drugs today and that has helped to diversify the drug trade.

Mob Speak wishes to thank you guys for a thought-provoking interview. To learn more about Straight from the Hood and its authors, go to

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