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The notorious 'Mr Untouchable' Nicky Barnes, who built a Harlem heroin empire and fortune in the 60s before disappearing into witness protection after testifying against his associates has died

The rise and fall of Mr Untouchable: Nicky Barnes, who built a heroin empire and fortune,

  • Leroy Nicholas Barnes was born on October 15, 1933 in Harlem, growing up in the neighborhood, getting arrested by aged 10, and never made it high school
  • After stints in jail, Barnes carved out a heroin empire in the late 1960s and into the 70s that spanned New York City, Pennsylvania and Canada, making millions  
  • He invested that money into legitimate businesses and real estate, and he lived a flashy lifestyle, owning luxury cars, homes and an extensive wardrobe 
  • While he was arrested several times, he had not been convicted when he agreed to do a cover story for the New York Times Magazine albeit he had been indicted
  • The cover called him 'Mister Untouchable' and amounted to a taunt to police and prosecutors, with then President Jimmy Carter wanting the book thrown at him
  • Barnes was convicted in 1977 and sentenced to life in prison without parole
  • Seeing his empire in ruins, Barnes testified against his former associates, and for his cooperation, the government released him from prison in 1998
  • He was placed into the witness protection program, given a new name and life 
  • Barnes lived quietly and his death from cancer at age 78 or 79 in 2012 was only confirmed Saturday when the New York Times reported it 
  • Cuba Gooding Jr played Barnes in 2007's 'American Gangster,' which focused on Barnes' rival Frank Lucas - much to his consternation, according to the Times
  • Barnes, who became a folkloric legend of sorts, was said to inspire the song ‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,’ and Wesley Snipes' character in ‘New Jack City’

Barnes’ hubris would be his undoing, posing for a magazine cover that amounted to a taunt to police and prosecutors, and then President Jimmy Carter wanted the book thrown at him. He was convicted in 1977 and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.

Upon learning that his wife, girlfriends and former associates were ruining his empire, he turned against them and testified for the government at their trials. For his cooperation, Barnes was released in 1998 and disappeared into witness protection – a vanishing act so thorough that his death in 2012 at the age of 78 or 79 only now has been confirmed by the New York Times on Saturday. He died of cancer, according to his daughter and a former prosecutor.

He had a fleeting taste of the limelight once again in 2007, when Cuba Gooding Jr portrayed him the film, ‘American Gangster,’ but to his consternation, it focused on his competitor Frank Lucas, according to the Times obituary.

Barnes ran ‘the largest, the most profitable and the most venal drug ring in New York,’ Robert B. Fiske Jr, a former U.S. attorney during the 1970s, told the Times upon hearing the news of Barnes' death.

The cover story, above, that started notorious heroin dealer Nicky Barnes' downfall. Born Leroy Nicholas Barnes on October 15, 1933 in Harlem, he would rise to run an extremely lucrative drug empire that raked in millions. Barnes invested that money into legitimate businesses, such as car washes, and real estate, and lived a flashy lifestyle that included luxury cars, homes and apartments, and an extensive wardrobe that included 50 leather coats, 100 bespoke pairs of shoes, and 200 suits, the New York Times reported. The newspaper reported his death from cancer in 2012 at age 78 or 79 on Saturday

The cover story, above, that started notorious heroin dealer Nicky Barnes' downfall. Born Leroy Nicholas Barnes on October 15, 1933 in Harlem, he would rise to run an extremely lucrative drug empire that raked in millions. Barnes invested that money into legitimate businesses, such as car washes, and real estate, and lived a flashy lifestyle that included luxury cars, homes and apartments, and an extensive wardrobe that included 50 leather coats, 100 bespoke pairs of shoes, and 200 suits, the New York Times reported. The newspaper reported his death from cancer in 2012 at age 78 or 79 on Saturday

When Barnes agreed to do the New York Times Magazine cover story, he had already been indicted on federal charges but nonetheless went through with the profile. In 1977, the Times reported that he had been arrested 13 times but had not been convicted. The magazine article amounted to a taunt to police and prosecutors and he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Above, Barnes' mugshot

When Barnes agreed to do the New York Times Magazine cover story, he had already been indicted on federal charges but nonetheless went through with the profile. In 1977, the Times reported that he had been arrested 13 times but had not been convicted. The magazine article amounted to a taunt to police and prosecutors and he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Above, Barnes' mugshot

Leroy Nicholas Barnes was born on October 15, 1933 in Harlem. Growing up in the neighborhood, he was arrested by aged 10, never made it to high school, and got hooked on drugs at one point, later saying that after he got clean, he did not use again, according to the Times.

He served time both at a jail in Lower Manhattan and an upstate correctional facility before he started to build his empire. ‘With the connivance of the Italian Mafia,’ Barnes solidified his position as a drug lord, and ‘imported and distributed millions of dollars worth of heroin in New York, Pennsylvania, Canada and elsewhere, all the while murdering rivals,’ the Times reported.

His empire brought in millions before Barnes was convicted in 1977, and Barnes invested the money in real estate, such as housing projects in Cleveland, and in businesses such as gas stations and travel agencies, according to the Times.

When Barnes agreed to the New York Times Magazine cover story, he had been indicted on federal charges, and while he had been arrested 13 time, according to the obituary, he had not been convicted.

The June 5, 1977 magazine cover shows Barnes, his demeanor seemingly calm with his hands folded in front of him, wearing a nice blue jacket that accents a shirt of the same color and a red, white and blue tie. The outfit was completed with large 1970s-style glasses. He was called ‘Mister Untouchable,’ with the question: ‘The Police Say He May Be Harlem’s Biggest Drug Dealer. But Can They Prove It?’ 

President Carter reportedly was furious with the cover and wanted Barnes ‘persecuted to the fullest extent of the law,’ according to the obituary. Barnes was convicted in 1977 and the next year sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Times reported that Barnes claimed he was innocent and denied killing anyone himself, only ordering the hits.

‘You can’t have The Times write about you if you are a gangster and expect to get away with anything. Successful gangsters cannot be known,’ Pete Hamill told The Daily Beast in 2017 about the photograph. 

‘The saddest part of all,’ the judge who sentenced him said, according to the Times, ‘is that the great majority of people he is affecting are people in his own neighborhood.’

While making millions, Barnes ‘managed to cast himself as a sort of Robin Hood in Harlem, through stunts such as passing out holiday turkeys,’ and became ‘folkloric,’ the Guardian reported. (He was reportedly the inspiration for the song, ‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,’ and Wesley Snipes’ drug dealer character in 1991’s ‘New Jack City.’) 

Barnes went to prison in 1977. But after seeing how his former associates, wife and girlfriends treated his empire, he decided to testify against them. For his cooperation, the government released him in 1998 and he went into the witness protection program and started a new, quieter life. He died from cancer in 2012 at age 78 or 79, and his death was only confirmed when the New York Times reported it on Saturday

Barnes went to prison in 1977. But after seeing how his former associates, wife and girlfriends treated his empire, he decided to testify against them. For his cooperation, the government released him in 1998 and he went into the witness protection program and started a new, quieter life. He died from cancer in 2012 at age 78 or 79, and his death was only confirmed when the New York Times reported it on Saturday

While serving his time, his former associates, wife and girlfriends ‘began squandering the criminal enterprise that had made them millionaires,’ and ‘he felt betrayed,’ according to the Times. He testified against them, and the government let him out of prison for his cooperation in 1998.

He entered the witness protection program, got a new name and led a quiet life: driving a used car and working 40 hours a week.

‘The anonymity that cloaks Middle America is the life I’m comfortable with, and what I want to be,’ he told the Times in a 2007 interview. ‘I want to get up every day and get in the car and go to work and be a respected member of my community. And I am respected.

‘I’m not looking in the rearview mirror to see if anyone is tailing me anymore. I don’t turn on the blender when I’m at home so I can talk. That is not a part of my life. Sure, I’d love to have more money, but I am not willing to do anything but go to my job to get it.’ 

There was a brief moment of the spotlight in 2007 when Cuba Gooding Jr. played Barnes in 2007’s ‘American Gangster,’ who focused on his rival Frank Lucas, who died at aged 88 on May 30. He was also the subject of a book and documentary titled, ‘Mr. Untouchable,’ which came out the same year.

Barnes is survived by two grown daughters, both of which entered witness protection with him. One daughter, who spoke to the Times on the condition of anonymity said: ‘It’s hard for us to think of ‘Mr. Untouchable’ as being the same person as our dad. By the time we were old enough to understand what he had done, we had so many positive experiences with him.’

After going to prison in 1977, Barnes saw his empire crumble at the hands of his former associates and he ended up testifying against them. For his cooperation, he was released in 1998 and placed in the witness protection program, beginning a new quiet life. There was a brief step into the spotlight once again with 2007's 'American Gangster.' Above, Cuba Gooding Jr portrayed Barnes. The movie focused on Barnes' rival, Frank Lucas, which the Times reported was a source of irritation

After going to prison in 1977, Barnes saw his empire crumble at the hands of his former associates and he ended up testifying against them. For his cooperation, he was released in 1998 and placed in the witness protection program, beginning a new quiet life. There was a brief step into the spotlight once again with 2007's 'American Gangster.' Above, Cuba Gooding Jr portrayed Barnes. The movie focused on Barnes' rival, Frank Lucas, which the Times reported was a source of irritation

Barnes was born and raised in Harlem, above, during a march in 1968 along East 116th Street. While making millions, Barnes ¿managed to cast himself as a sort of Robin Hood in Harlem, through stunts such as passing out holiday turkeys,¿ and became ¿folkloric,¿ the Guardian reported. He was reportedly the inspiration for the song, ¿Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,¿ and Wesley Snipes¿ drug dealer character in 1991¿s ¿New Jack City'

Barnes was born and raised in Harlem, above, during a march in 1968 along East 116th Street. While making millions, Barnes ‘managed to cast himself as a sort of Robin Hood in Harlem, through stunts such as passing out holiday turkeys,’ and became ‘folkloric,’ the Guardian reported. He was reportedly the inspiration for the song, ‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,’ and Wesley Snipes’ drug dealer character in 1991’s ‘New Jack City' 

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Comment by vaughn mitchell on June 11, 2019 at 8:43pm
All he did was destroy his own people with drugs.

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