For those too young to recognize their names, you might have seen them both in “American Gangster”, where Denzel Washington played Lucas and Cuba Gooding Jr. made a brief appearance as Nicky Barnes. Ironically they’re both in the news again as Lucas passed away last week and we’ve now learned that Barnes has passed away as well.
The only thing is that Barnes passed away before Lucas, seven years before Lucas, to be exact.
Yes, you read that correctly. Barnes actually passed away in 2012 from cancer, and we’re only just learning about his death because he was in the witness protection program.
According to the NY Times, Barnes passed away at the age of 78 or 79, his daughter confirming the news through email.
“My sister and I have kept his passing private and have not released it publicly,” said his daughter in an email. “It still remains a sensitive topic given all that occurred. Our dad was very private and we wanted to respect that.”
Barnes, also known as “Mr. Untouchable”, was a notorious drug kingpin who decimated the streets of Harlem with heroin while unabashedly flaunting the wealth he accumulated through the drug trade in the form of expensive suits and flashy cars. While his empire flourished, the streets grew worse, but Barnes refused to keep a low profile.
Now Playing. The true-life story of a Harlem’s notorious Nicky Barnes, a junkie turned multimillionaire drug-lord, MR. UNTOUCHABLE takes its audience deep inside the heroin industry of the 1970s.
Then he made the ultimate mistake and broke the code of “real G’s move in silence” when he appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in a story entitled “Mr. Untouchable” in June of 1977.
“This is Nicky Barnes. The police say he may be Harlem’s biggest drug dealer. But can they prove it?” read the cover headline. It was a direct taunt at government and law enforcement, and put Barnes’ name on the hit list of President Jimmy Carter and rising district attorney Rudy Giuliani, who made Barnes target number one.
Barnes was eventually convicted that same year and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
While he was in prison, everyone from former friends, women and enemies went straight for his empire. He, in return, ratted them out, leading to the convictions of many, including his ex-wife, Thelma Grant, who ended up doing 10 years after being convicted on federal drug charges.
For his cooperation, Barnes served a little over 20 years, eventually being released in 1998 and whisked away into the witness protection program where he was given a new identity and new life. His daughter was also brought into the program, which is why, per the NY Times, no one knew he passed away.
“The United States Marshals Service declines to provide information on individuals in the witness protection program.” said the Times. “Mr. Barnes’s daughter had also been given a new identity under the program. Because of his new guise, his death, in an unidentified place, was never reported under the name Leroy Nicholas Barnes.”
While there had been some pop culture features on Barnes, including the 2007 book “Mr. Untouchable” and the documentary of the same name, as well as the aforementioned “American Gangster” film, he remained largely invisible and out of mind, completely opposite of the way he led his former life.
It’s ironic that the death of Frank Lucas has brought Nicky Barnes back into the spotlight, even if he passed away seven years prior.