The Day They Got Mr. Untouchable, Nicky Barnes

The jury began its deliberations last Wednesday. By coincidence, that was the day Nicky Barnes’s troubles began. He came back from lunch and said he was feeling sad. One of his favorite women had taken it into her head to lay down guidelines. “I had to tell her that the relationship couldn’t continue if she were going to erect barriers,” he said. It was her scent, above all, that he would miss; he might have to go to the Far East to find a scent like that. He was going to wear black the next day. “Maybe she’ll wear black, too.” said Nicky Barnes. “And bring her whip!” A charge of electricity shot through him. He shook his hand from the wrist and grinned.

Nicky Barnes was standing at the rail with his feet planted firmly apart. The clothes he was wearing marked a metamorphosis from the muted blues in which he had wrapped himself for the trial. Against the rust-colored shirt, which fit his weightlifter’s physique like armor, he had placed a copperish tie and a wool jacket of a delicate gray-and-purple hound’s-tooth weave. His olive-drab trousers were cut as round as columns, and were held up by a lizard belt. His tan ankle boots were made to be coveted. He wore glasses that were tinted lilac with purplish frames; set into the arms were little metal discs embossed with the Playboy rabbit. He never did change into mourning.

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On Wednesday, the jury made the 14 lawyers happy. From the notes that the forelady sent out, it was clear that the jurors had put aside the first two counts — the con­spiracy count, which embraced all the 14 black defendants, and the criminal-enterprise count, which alleged that Nicky Barnes was the chief executive of the General Motors of heroin. They had plunged into the 10 substantive counts, which alleged specific acts of drug selling and possession of guns.

Due to an unprecedented decision by the judge Henry “Speed” Werker, the names and addresses of the jurors were kept secret. The lawyers and the prosecutors knew their occupations and the counties in which they live; apart from that, they were only numbers. The government had insisted that the jury be sequestered, which the defense considered a stroke of luck since it meant that fewer executive types from Westchester could afford to serve and more than the usual number of urban blacks were seated — five in all. As the trial progressed, the lawyers guessed that three or four of the whites were rooting for the prosecution — but the only one they knew to be an enemy was blond, Teutonic Number 7, a loan officer from Westchester. The lawyers called him “the Nazi.” One afternoon, from within the bus that was taking the jury back to sequestration, Juror Number 7 had stared straight at one of the lawyers, Paul Goldberger, and given him the finger. The judge saw no reason to query Number 7 about this gesture.

Now, each time the jurors came out to hear the court reporter read the testimony they had requested, the lawyers studied the faces, read the body language, and got happier.

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When Number 7 came out to hear the testimony, his face was flushed with anger. His ally, Number 8, the free-lance artist from Radcliffe, was pale and drawn. By contrast, the blacks looked serene and confident. The blacks were thought to be solidly behind their fellow blacks. Nicky Barnes’s lawyer, David Breitbart, became convinced that Number 3, the white lady with gray hair and glasses, was smiling at him. “Are you kidding?” said Breitbart’s partner, Paul Goldberger, “She was smiling at you when she came in, she was smiling at you when she went out, and she was winking in between.”

As the lawyers walked out of the courthouse on Wednes­day night, they were talking about the fact that the U. S. attorney for the Southern District of New York had never lost a narcotics conspiracy case. “What about Tuttino?” said one of the lawyers. “They lost Tuttino.”

“Yeah,” said another lawyer, “but they lost it the wrong way.” When the foreman announced the acquittals in Tuttino the defendants broke up laughing. They knew what the verdict was going to be because they had paid for it.

On, Thursday morning, when the fog came in, Nicky Barnes arrived in court an hour late and the U.S. attorneys threatened to remand him to the Metropolitan Correctional Center. This made Nicky Barnes furious. He stood behind the rail shaking his head, and there were tears of rage in his voice: “I got more motherfucking reason than anybody to be here,” he said. “What’s everyone trying to do? — try­ing to make a buck, right? I got $300,000 of them here. Three hundred thousand motherfucking bucks. And they don’t think I’m going to show up!”

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The other defendants sat around the defense tables playing tonk or dominoes, or reading car magazines. All day long the jury kept sending in notes, from which a definite pattern began to emerge: All of the notes requested direct testimony from government witnesses; none demanded cross-examination, in which defense law­yers had destroyed some of those witnesses. The lawyers decided that brainy Number 1, the Smith graduate who works at the Council on Foreign Relations, was running the jury, and wasn’t running it in a friendly way. Late in the afternoon, a note arrived that spelled death. The jury wanted to hear again the judge’s charge on the second count. Which meant that they must have already returned to the first count and found that a conspiracy existed. Now they were getting ready to conclude that Nicky Barnes was guilty of having headed a criminal enterprise.

When the clerk announced another note at 6 o’clock most of the lawyers looked as if they were going to cry. This had to be the verdict. The courtroom began to fill up with smiling U.S. attorneys in pin-striped suits. “They smell the blood,” said a morose lawyer.

But the note didn’t announce a verdict. It was a request to see the videotape of Stevie Baker removing large amounts of mannite for cutting heroin from the trunk of his car and taking it into his apartment. The smiles fell off the U.S. attorneys and the defense lawyers picked them up. Three television sets were set up and everybody craned his neck to watch the Stevie Baker tape, which was clear as crystal. Every so often the forelady from the Council on Foreign Relations would hold up a finger and the techni­cian would stop the tape, which caused the television image to fuzz up, obscuring the features of the putative Stevie Baker. When the viewing was over and the jurors had filed out, all the defense lawyers were ecstatic. “It wasn’t Stevie Baker!” they kept saying, even though they knew it was. Even Stevie Baker knew it was Stevie Baker, and had confessed after being shown the tape. But compared to certain death, anything looks wonderful.

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The next and final morning, Friday, found Nicky Barnes sitting in the empty jury box, looking bleary. His olive-drab trousers were badly wrinkled.

“You get any sleep, Nicky?”

“No man, they followed me all night. I couldn’t get any sleep.”


“Agents. It looked like a motorcade.”

Louis Diaz and Bobby Nieves, the same two agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration who had been watching Nicky Barnes ever since November 1976, and who had testified against him in court, had followed him to make sure he didn’t go to the Far East. “I didn’t want to take them home with me,” said Nicky Barnes, “so I went to a certain hotel. I don’t ever rent a room there. I always give the clerk $20 and I don’t sign the register.” The garage was closed, so he parked his $22,000 Mercedes right in front of the hotel, assuming that Diaz and Nieves would watch over it for him. Unfortunately, when the two agents went into the hotel they found that Nicky Barnes wasn’t registered, and that the clerk hadn’t ever heard of him. “They went crazy,” Nicky Barnes said. “Meantime, the NYPD come along and tows my Mercedes. That’s $75 to get it out, and I only got about $150. And when I get to the pound, they say it’s $300 with all the parking tickets I haven’t paid.” So Nicky Barnes was driven to court that morning by agents Diaz and Nieves of the DEA.

Early Friday morning, the jury sent in another note which made the defense take heart. They wanted to hear a tape from February 26, 1977, which the DEA had recorded from a bug in the office of the Harlem Rivers Motor Garage, 145th Street and Lenox, which the government said was the corporate headquarter of the Nicky Barnes drug ring. The government claimed that a fellow named Bucky Beaver could be heard saying, “…got to pick up a kilo out of Nicky’s car now.” The defense had put on an expert in sound analysis who swore that the word was not “kilo,” but “payroll.” Summing up the case, Assistant U. S. Attorney Tom Sear insisted that the word was “kilo.” He didn’t even bother to make the argument that the word “payroll” would be just as damaging if applied to someone who was supposed to be the boss of a large drug business.

The tape was played and the word was clearly, unmis­takably “payroll.” After hearing “payroll,” the defendants took off their earphones and leaned back. The jurors kept their earphones on and asked to hear the tape again. When the word “payroll” came up, several of them exchanged glances.

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The joy of the lawyers was unbounded. They were positive that the battle had turned, and compared themselves to the Russians at Stalingrad. The U.S. attorneys wore expressions of worry. Upstairs in the cafeteria, Tom Sear came down the aisle with a forced smile on his face and Jerry Feldman, another of Breitbart’s partners, asked him why he was smiling. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”

Just before 3 o’clock, the clerk came in and announced that the jury had reached a verdict. Some of the defendants started to fidget, and the tonk game stopped until Waymin “Wop” Hines, the smallest of the defendants, but also one of the toughest, said, “Motherfucker, deal another hand.” A few minutes later, the forelady rose and in her soft voice said the word “guilty” over and over again. A couple of women in the audience started sobbing, but none of the defendants turned a hair. Nicky Barnes sat straight in his chair and looked blandly at the jury. When the judge had thanked all the jurors, and dismissed them, the youngest of the defense attorneys, Edward Hayes, went over to Nicky Barnes and shook his hand. “I always thought you were 100 per cent man,” he said.

Nicky Barnes put his hand on Edward Hayes’ shoulder and said, “You know, kid, I never thought they were going to get me.”


Nicky Barnes: Geronimo Takes on the Man No One Can Convict

Nicky Barnes: Geronimo Takes On the Man No One Can Convict
October 24, 1977

The federal courthouse in Foley Square has a far more cathedral air than its poor neighbor two blocks to the north, the criminal courthouse at 100 Centre Street. The federal courthouse has cushions on the benches, ecclesiastical ceiling lamps, and clerks who make everybody stand up when the judge comes in. Federal cases, which often concern intricate infractions of capi­talist ground rules, produce long, lucrative trials. It’s the great Wall Street firms that make Foley Square their home away from home. But right now, something a little different is going down under the eagle seal. Fifteen of the city’s most sought after criminal lawyers are currently appearing in room 318, defending Nicky Barnes and his 14 codefendants.

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The 14 codefendants and their 14 lawyers are crammed along the L-shape of two long defense tables — the lawyers in ties, the defendants casual. The U.S. attorneys, in their dark suits, sit enclosed by the L, grouped around their gigantic tape record­er and its two black speakers. At the right hand end of the defense table, nearest the jury box, sits the star, Nicky Barnes, the most famous alleged drug dealer in the world. He is a muscular man, 44 years old, no taller than five foot eight inches, and precise in all his movements. Mythology holds him to be the most powerful man in Harlem. Perhaps for this reason, Jimmy Breslin recently put him in a suit of royal purple. That was the wee touch of the artist. The color Nicky Barnes actually favors for courtroom wear is a washed-out blue, in either corduroy or denim.

The cops have had Nicky Barnes under surveillance for years. Since 1973, he’s been tried for attempted bribery, gun posses­sion, and murder; but the police work was sloppy, the cases were shaky, and his lawyer, David Breitbart, was a scrapper. The street regards Barnes as the man no one can convict, “Mr. Untouchable.” Now the federal prosecutor has charged him with having run a massive conspiracy to distribute heroin from January 1974 through March 1977. Breitbart claims that his client is nothing but an extremely successful real-estate operator who’s being persecuted for flaunting his money, his fancy cars, and his aversion to whitey. Barnes hasn’t done any serious time since he went to Greenhaven 12 years ago on a narcotics rap. During his incarceration he subscribed to 37 law journals. A real-estate man can’t have too much legal training.

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The man who handed out turkeys last Christmas at 126th and St. Nicholas has attracted a following. The “defense” side of the courtroom, on the left, is usually crowded with his fans, and occasionally he leaves off his absorption in the law to do a turn for them. The other day, when the courtroom became overly chilly, he picked up a 14-foot window pole, pretending it was very heavy, and made a bravura show of closing the windows. His admirers burst into applause.

The U.S. attorney for the southern dis­trict of New York, Robert Fiske, Jr., is personally handling the prosecution — these big conspiracy cases can be tricky. On the opening day, he unveiled a chart that purported to represent the positions of all 15 defendants in the heroin empire. Here, at the bottom, were the street sellers; here, higher up, was the man who washed the money, changing small bills into large ones; and here, at the very top, almost totally insulated from contact with overt criminality, was the man they all called “sir” — Nicky Barnes. In ensuing days, Fiske has played tape after tape. The tapes contain the garbled voices of people on the chart, who complicate things by constantly referring to each other by aliases and nicknames: “Fat Stevie,” “Bo,” “Jazz,” “Radio,” “JJ,” “Wop,” “Bucky Beaver,” etc. The judge, Henry Werker, added to the confusion by informing the jury that in his youth he’d been known not only as Hank but also as ”Speed.” “I had a very heavy foot as a young man,” he confessed.

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Last week, U.S. attorney Fiske put on his first major witness, Robert Geronimo, a thrice-convicted flimflam artist whose spe­ciality was conning people into buying hot cars and TV sets. In the fall of 1976, when Geronimo agreed to cooperate with the government, the Drug Enforcement Ad­ministration wired him for sound and en­couraged him to get close to 21-year-old Wally Fisher, whom they believed to be a highly active street distributor for Barnes. According to Breitbart’s opening state­ment, however, Wally Fisher was employed as a simple car-washer until Geronimo came along and duped him into entering a scheme to sell “street garbage to the government for top dollar.” The defense is trying to show that Wally Fisher and Geronimo did buy large amounts of low quality dope with money supplied by a DEA agent posing as Geronimo’s cousin from California. According to the defense, the DEA had paid Geronimo $25,000 to get Barnes, so he simply made up a story that the heroin came from Nicky’s people.

When the cross examination started and Breitbart got first crack at Geronimo, the other lawyers were patently envious. Geronimo looks a lot like Tony Orlando but hasn’t had the same kind of luck with his recordings. Of the 60 tapes he made during the seven-month investigation, only one is alleged to contain direct discourse with Nicky Barnes. (Geronimo had at least one other wired meeting with Barnes; the tape came out blank. Breitbart showed that this couldn’t have happened unless someone deliberately unscrewed the microphone wire from the little Nagra strapped to Geronimo’s waist.) Breitbart challenged Geronimo to produce a single tape he’d made of Barnes’s voice; the next morning the government produced a tape Geronimo had made at Bubba Jean’s Emporium, using a microphone concealed in a cane and a transmitter in a plaster ankle cast. It was a tape they hadn’t introduced during the direct examination of Geronimo. When played, it turned out to contain mostly inaudible voices submerged beneath the din of Bubba Jean’s jukebox. “That’s Barnes,” said Geronimo. “I have no more questions,” said Breitbart.

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Breitbart also forced the unhappy and increasingly amnesiac Geronimo to admit that during a weekend when, according to his own testimony, he had been in Baltimore buying “angel dust” for the government, he had, in fact, been living it up with Wally Fisher and their respective bimbos at the Sheraton Pocano.

In his opening statement, Breitbart promised he would prove that “as Geronimo lay fornicating… with another woman, his wife was dying of asthma induced from drugs that he supplied; and that he brought the other woman to the wake and laughed about it.” As it turned out, he didn’t try to elicit any such testimony. But then, it was difficult to get anything out of the witness who took a full minute to answer when Breitbart asked him how old he’d been in 1973.

The government’s next big witness is named Promise Bruce. Fiske forthrightly informed the jury in his opening statement that Promise Bruce is a convicted drug dealer and murderer who has, in the past, supplied false information to the DEA. Next to him, Geronimo should look like a sweetheart.

From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

Stranger in Harlem, Part One: Where the Prisoners Come From

“It is a miracle that the American black people have remained a peaceful people, while catching all the centuries of hell that they have caught, here in the white man’s heaven!”
The Autobiography of Malcolm X 

Sometimes, when I feel the world is passing me by, I wonder whatever could have possessed me to take this job, cov­ering crime. But when I look at the pho­tograph on this page, the same photo­graph which laughs up at me from my desk, I know it was because I wanted to meet some new people.

The picture shows me and Nicky Barnes and Nicky’s lawyer, Dave Breit­bart, standing outside the federal court­house in Foley Square on the day before Nicky got convicted for running a crimi­nal enterprise to sell heroin. That’s Nicky in the middle with the knotted belt, Dave with the open trenchcoat, and I’m the one in the yachting slicker. That thing in my hand is an admiral’s cap, which I picked up in some army surplus store when I was cultivating the Samuel Eliot Morison look. During the trial, somebody told me that admiral’s caps were all the rage in Har­lem, and I kept hoping that Nicky would comment favorably on mine, but he never did. I do recall, however, that Dave said something like, “Why don’t you take off that stupid hat?” just before Fred McDarrah snapped the picture.

The camera doesn’t lie. That’s a white up­per-middle-class Harvard educated journalist you see, tickled pink to be standing beside the world’s most famous drug dealer. The smile on my face says: Look how far I’ve come from my overprivileged beginnings. But look again at the background and it’s clear I hadn’t gone anywhere at all; I was still at the courthouse, homeground. I had been a courthouse reporter for a year, and this pic­ture captures the high point of my encounter with criminality.

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I didn’t know then that I would spend a good part of the next 11 months — most of the year 1978 — riding around with homicide de­tectives, looking at Harlem. This series is about the things I saw there, and it hasn’t been easy to write. I had taken taxis through Harlem on the way to the airport, read about it, seen it on the news, lived a few miles away from it most of my life. I assumed I knew something about it. But when I actually made myself look at Harlem, what I saw was so bizarre that, even with the help of those homicide detectives, I found it bewildering — another country, another planet. It came to me as a great relief when a black homicide detective, who had grown up in Queens, told me that when he first started working in Har­lem, it gave him culture shock. He just couldn’t believe the degradation.

The last time I thought about culture shock with any frequency was 10 years ago, the summer of ’68, when I was being trained to teach English in Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer. My instructors used to talk about culture shock as if it were some kind of un­pleasant but unavoidable therapy — shakes you up, wakes you up. They warned us that we’d feel uncomfortable and out of place in a country which had never heard of the Protes­tant ethic, and they were right, at least in my case — I didn’t like the politics, the food, the gauntlet of grotesque, aggressive beggars I had to run every day on my way to school. There were so many things I didn’t like that I came home after a year — but that year, in re­trospect, was maybe the most wonderful of my life; it certainly kept me awake. And ever since then, I’ve sought out stories that would put me in the same state of perkiness without the loneliness and the fear — stories that were different from my own experience.

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I covered rock and roll for a while, and some of those rock stars were different all right, but most of them weren’t as different as they looked. And then I turned to polit­ics — Nixon’s last campaign, Ervin hearings, Mitchell-Stans trial, Watergate trial, CIA hearings, Jerry Ford’s Washington. But by the end of that sequence there wasn’t much mystery left in the government for me or for anybody else, and no shocks either. So I came home to New York City to reconnoiter and figure out what to do next.

That’s when I started playing squash with an old friend from Harvard who had recently become a criminal lawyer. He told me tales of the Criminal Courts Building on Centre Street, where all Manhattan’s violent crimes are tried — real-life stories with dialogue by Dashiell Hammett and plots by James M. Cain. As the weeks went by, and his life be­came increasingly entangled in that world, he confided that he felt scared, isolated, and un­sure of himself. To me it all sounded great — a little nest of culture shock right in my own home town, a foreign land I could commute to on the subway. And I wouldn’t have to be on my own. It would be a perfect arrangement for both of us — he would get company, and I would get an intimate source — someone to show me the ropes. In due time, I presented myself to The Village Voice, outlined my plan to the editor, and got myself hired as courthouse reporter.

The very next week, my friend announced that he was leaving town. He explained that his practice just wasn’t giving him enough satisfaction, although he was winning cases. “Even when a lawyer succeeds,” he said gloomily, “he just gets his client back into the Despair. Like a fireman who saves your house and ruins everything inside it.” He thought it would be a good time for him to take a long trip.

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Right. But what about me? What was I go­ing to do down in that courthouse with no one to tell me what was going on? My friend was all compassion, and one afternoon he gave me a crash course on the New York City criminal justice system: judges, D.A.’s office, detectives, Legal Aid, clerks, court officers, pimp lawyers, the works. When he got done, he looked me straight in the eye, lowered his voice dramatically and said: “Now write this down and underline it — NEVER UNDERESTI­MATE THESE GUYS!! They’re better trained than we are.”

That’s how I began my daily trips to Cen­tre Street — feeling very much alone and over­awed by my new surroundings. Riding the subway to the Canal Street stop, I’d tell my­self, this is what you wanted, just try to enjoy the weirdness. But I barely understood what people were talking about. Sitting on a stool in Henry’s Courthouse Lunchroom, where the batty waitresses called me “dear” and Al the speed-demon chef fired off a dazzling smile as he served up grits, I would listen hard to conversations, trying to pick up the dialects of crime.

It was a lot different from any federal courthouse I’d ever spent time in. The two arraignments parts were always packed with whispering relatives, bawling children, and grumbling cops — you could never hear what was going on at the bench. The cops wore blue jeans, fatigue jackets, and hunting shirts with their police shields hanging from their necks on silver chains; some looked like Hell’s Angels, some like Vietnam vets, some like hoods. Harried Legal Aid lawyers disap­peared into the pens to interview prisoners; while the dauntless clerks kept barking out names and numbers.

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In the big, front lobby it always felt like night, despite the harsh amber glare of the mercury lights, and night creatures hung about, conferring in conspiratorial tones. Court officers were constantly confiscating knives, shivs, machetes. Once I saw two court officers trundle a flailing wino into the freight elevator and calm him down by smashing his head against the steel wall. Pasty-looking whores stumbled around on four-inch heels, while their lawyers leaned against the columns and leered at each oth­er’s jokes, and pimps in neon-colored clothes sprawled on the round, deserted information desk. At the far end of the lobby stood John, the blind newsie, glowering behind his coun­ter, the ultimate judge. He heard much and told nothing.

Like a new minister in town, I had great hopes of meeting everybody, especially the poor and downtrodden. In my first article, I wrote: “For persons who are not of the Street but wish to know what the Street is up to, the Criminal Courts Building is the only place to go.” By “the Street,” I basically meant hus­tlers and perpetrators of violent crime. I did have a vague desire to meet these people, but as it turned out, I interviewed only one prisoner at any length during my entire first year in the courthouse. The truth was, I was afraid of defendants and didn’t know what to say to them.

Starting out, I clung to the few practicing Marxists still left in Legal Aid, loud, tough refugees from the ’60s, dogged in their belief that every prisoner was a political prisoner. But I am gregarious by nature and people down there were friendly. After a while, it was Legal Aid in one ear, probation officer in the other, lunch with a judge in Forlini’s; I’d shoot the breeze in the pressroom with Mike Pearl (dean of the courthouse reporters), and finish up over drinks at Doyle’s with some court officers. Manfully, I tackled the obvi­ous topics — arraignments, plea bargaining, picking judges — but it was much more fun to try and catch the little life cycles of the court­house. Gossip flew fast and thick: this judge crazy, that one drunk, D.A.’s squad has a good investigation going. I got lost on side­tracks for weeks and months, holding up the great tradition that courthouse news is enter­tainment.

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And yet, something kept telling me that I was only skimming the surface, I was missing the point, maybe I needed some philosoph­ical underpinnings. In the second week of July, I enrolled in a seminar on “radical criminology” at NYU. The lectures, deliv­ered by a British sociologist in fluent socio­logical gobbledygook, were opaque. As I pe­rused the assigned reading, however, a quote from Friedrich Engels caught my eye. “If the influences demoralizing to the working­ man act more powerfully than usual,” he wrote, “he becomes an offender as certainly as water abandons the fluid for the vaporous state at 80 degrees Reaumur.” That night, July 13, 1977, the lights went out, and thou­sands of people turned into steam.

The next day I saw the courthouse as I’d never seen it before.

There was no ventilation, the sun glared through the grimy courtroom windows, and by noon the whole place felt like the inside of an exhaust pipe. Court officers ran around with walkie-talkies, reporting conditions to the administrative judge, who sat in his steamy aerie, chomping on his cigar and re­ceiving the reports with pride and frustration. His courthouse was rarin’ to go; every Legal Aid and A.D.A. and judge stood at his sta­tion, ready to work all day and night if neces­sary to give the alleged looters justice. But the law decreed that no judge could set bail without the defendant’s criminal record, and the FAX machine, which held all such re­cords, could not disgorge them without elec­tricity. So the finest hour of the courthouse had to be postposed indefinitely while the looters sat in the system like so many kidney stones.

Eventually, around 7:30 that evening, the lights came back on and the arraignments be­gan. The first defendant, a black woman, was remanded to jail. Her woman friend in the audience cast a long malevolent look around the courtroom — at D.A. Morgenthau, at Judge Torres, at all of us. “All you whiteys,” she screamed. “I ain’t seen no whitey prisoners come through here.” And she was still screaming when the court officers dragged her out.

She had a point. No one could deny that the prisoners came from Harlem. I had watched them being unloaded from city buses, shackled like chain gangs. Scores of them were crammed into the basement pens, where the temperature hovered around 120 degrees. A cop who went down there came back horrified. “It’s the Black Hole of Calcutta,” he said. Later, I went for a brief tour of the Tombs, five minutes or less, but I didn’t get over it for days. The cellblock reeked of shit and disinfectant, the air was hard to breathe, and the floor was littered with balogna sandwiches which no one could eat. I stood across from 20 black men, mostly young, who reached out their arms to me, not angry, not hostile, just trying to get my attention so I would make phone calls for them. A big guy in red track shorts asked me to go uptown and find his two-year-old son. The whole experience was so overwhelming that I didn’t realize how upset I was. When I got home and called my editor to tell her what I had seen all day, I started crying and couldn’t stop.

The next day I tried to write a piece saying that the blackout was just as much the work of Nemesis as any other black riot, a perfect expression of black demoralization. It all seemed fairly simple to me: Harlem was infi­nitely worse off in 1977 than it had been in the decade of the long hot summers; there was less running water, less heat in the win­ter, fewer jobs, and much more crime. Five hours out of a decade wasn’t much, but it was all the opportunity that knocked. White power went off, black power surged on. It seemed to me that locking up those looters made about as much sense as locking up the Johnstown flood. They were a natural force, like the electricity which had failed, and there was something stupid about trying to judge a natural force.

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When I arrived at The Voice and showed a rough draft of these sentiments to my editor, she seemed to think I was losing my grip. And one of my best friends in the office, who comes from a working-class background, denounced the looters with a furious animosity that shocked me. “But look how they’ve been treated,” I kept arguing, “But look at how they acted,” he argued back, and we kept going around in circles like that until I began to feel like a bleeding heart. What did I know anyway from having spent five min­utes in a cellblock? This wasn’t South Africa, after all. These people hadn’t been attacked, they were the ones who had run amok. And I had to admit that they had been treated with greater leniency in Manhattan than they would have been anywhere else in the world. I went back home, struggled with the article for another two weeks, and finally emerged with a report that focused on the mechanics of putting out a riot. Then I went for a vaca­tion in the mountains.

By the time I got back in September, the courthouse had its face back on again, just as if nothing had happened. The marble floor of the lobby had been waxed and buffed to a high shine by the new Wildcat crew. (The old Wildcat crew had been let go after stealing most of the building’s electric typewrit­ers.) I went around checking in with my friends — everyone from judges to court offic­ers to law secretaries — and they seemed to as­sume that I was now a part of the courthouse, like them. This was flattering but also unset­tling, because I knew I was only a tourist. I was free to pick my shots and get out when­ever I’d had enough, while most of the peo­ple I’d been writing about had a serious com­mitment to the place and its ongoing drama. Centre Street had every ethnic group and race and class, except for the upper class, and they were all constantly forced to deal with each other. This meant that there was no way for anyone, white or black, who worked in the criminal-justice system to avoid facing the major problem of the city, which was that a large group of Southern black tenant farm­ers had settled here under extremely adverse conditions and had not made it and were not going to make it. They had no share in the material success of the money-obsessed city, and they had turned into one of the angriest and most hopeless proletariats that any city had ever seen. No matter who you were, if you worked in the courthouse you had to confront the anger of the blacks who made up 65 per cent of the defendants there — you had to confront it constantly, day after day, which was not pleasant. There were people in the courthouse who simply couldn’t stand blacks — from judges who thought niggers were hardly worth wasting a trial on, to court officers who yearned to shoot some “yams.” There were also judges, court officers, law­yers, A.D.A.s who had enormous sensitivity to black culture and there were those who thought they did, but didn’t.

What made me feel ashamed as I returned to the courthouse, supposedly as part of the family, was that I had never even tried to know the blacks on the arraignments benches, the blacks in the holding pens, the blacks at the defense tables; the black pimps and prostitutes in the lobby; the black moth­ers and sisters and girlfriends and the close­-cropped Muslim men and veiled Muslim women who sat sullenly through the trials. To have avoided getting to know these peo­ple struck me as a definite symptom of ra­cism. And I didn’t much want to think about that. Nor did I wish to make the effort.

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So I made a deal with my editor. I would cover one last crime story, the trial of Nicky Barnes at the federal courthouse, and then I would be free to do something else entirely. I couldn’t imagine how to go about approaching Nicky Barnes for an interview, so I decid­ed I would just go down and listen to the tes­timony — a grim few weeks, and then it would be over.

But when I got down to Foley Square, it wasn’t exactly as I’d expected. Sitting in that third-floor courtroom was something like sit­ting in a Harlem nightclub that didn’t have its liquor license yet. Compared to Centre Street, the federal courthouse was the Ritz­ — the well of the courtroom was carpeted and furnished with comfortable armchairs. The 15 defendants were by and large an attractive bunch. They were all young, slim, and clean cut (except for Fat Stevie Monsanto, who was fat and dirty), and, in their spotless tube socks and bright new Pro-Keds, they looked like an unbeaten college basketball team. Guy Fisher, who was supposed to be Nicky’s most treasured lieutenant and a very tough customer, wore cashmere sweaters and shiny loafers and looked like the 1959 valedictorian at Howard University.

If the evidence proved anything, it was that they were into some very expensive kinds of hedonism. What you heard on the DEA tapes were people with exotic nick­names like Jazz, Wop, and Radio rapping on coke till five in the morning at clubs like Bubba Jean’s and Hubba Hubba (although mainly you heard the jukebox blaring in the background). They drove around all night in Mercedes-Benzes, with the radio pumping out disco. (And the evidence was nothing. Later I heard the full stories. They had yachts. They had fleets of Mercedes. They did mountains of coke, and even some angel dust. They went out with movie stars. They had regular Friday night orgies. And, of course, they did stay up all night, partying and doing business — some of them couldn’t remember what a morning looked like.)

They all acted incredibly cool, considering the predicament they were in. There was one tall, skinny defendant named Bat (because his ears stuck out) Saunders. He was alleged to be one of Guy Fisher’s street captains. One day, Bat drove his brand-new Lincoln Conti­nental into the courthouse parking lot just as the jury bus pulled up. The whole defense ta­ble had a good laugh over that — “Just your luck, man” — but it didn’t seem to faze Bat. While the jury was out deliberating, he drew up a hilarious parody of the prosecution’s conspiracy chart, assigning nicknames to everyone on the government team. He stood in front of the jury box and gave a ringing summation against the U.S. Attorney, whom he dubbed “Micky Mouse” and denounced as “the ringleader.” Even the U.S. Attorney had to laugh. Bat was so lucky, he got acquitted.

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Nobody in the federal courthouse could re­member a narcotics conspiracy where at least one of the members hadn’t turned state’s evi­dence, but in this group there wasn’t one rat. Most of the defendants did, in fact, belong to Nicky Barnes’s drug crew, which had the reputation of being the best, though not the biggest, that Harlem had ever seen. Others, however, had been dragged into the “con­spiracy” apparently at random. Stevie Baker and Fat Stevie Monsanto ran a drug opera­tion separate from Nicky’s and almost as large. Petey Rollock was a small independent dealer whom the others had never heard of, but who did manage to become a member of the conspiracy in the course of the trial. J.J. Johnson was a numbers operator who sold coke to Nicky’s people as a kind of sideline, because he liked being part of their scene. But all of these people had respect for Nicky, and when their hour of testing arrived, they achieved total solidarity under a total leader.

Nicky sat in an armchair slightly apart from the rest, always wearing the same corn­flower blue suit with leather elbow patches. Even in repose — and he dozed through much of the trial — he had the ferocious energy of a working monarch. Loyal subjects came to pay their respects, and he always received them graciously; even two old junkies with boxing-glove hands and a transvestite he had known in prison. Everyone who saw him was struck by his effortless authority. Murray Kempton called attention to “that great brow, swollen to bursting with the power to command,” while I myself felt that his force resided in his bullish neck, hulking back, and bulging arms. Whatever it was, and wherever it came from, everyone seemed to feel it and defer to it.

Even the Establishment had been forced to recognize his power and deal with it, a lavish compliment of sorts. The New York Times had deferred to Nicky by making him the first black drug dealer to adorn the cover of their Sunday magazine. The president of the United States had deferred to Nicky by or­dering the attorney general to give him “spe­cial attention,” and the U.S. Attorney de­ferred by taking personal charge of the case. And Nicky’s lawyer, Dave Breitbart, de­ferred by wanting so badly to be Nicky’s friend.

Dave Breitbart was a brown belt in karate and a black belt in ju-jitsu and had a close physical resemblance to portraits of Napole­on in his middle years. Nicky wasn’t just Dave’s biggest client, I think Dave genuinely adored him as a friend. They saw each other socially, went to Regine’s together, and Dave even attended the famous birthday party Nicky threw for himself at the Time-Life Building — a party where the DEA made movies of the arriving guests. Dave was flat­tered to be one of the few white people Nicky liked and trusted; it made him feel hip, cool, and macho, and he called attention to the fact by nicknaming himself “Mighty Whitey.” Dave’s defense of Nicky was more than a job, it was a crusade, and he never tired of vilifyi­ng the prosecution’s case. “Does it make you want to throw up,” he would demand, pointing to some example of injustice. “Can you hold your lunch down?”

When the trial had gone on for about three weeks, I wrote a column mocking the prose­cution’s case, drawing my conclusions partly from ignorance and partly from Breitbart. I had missed the U.S. Attorney’s most pre­sentable witness, a woman who sold Nicky’s organization vast amounts of mannite for cut­ting heroin. I didn’t find out until much later that Breitbart’s cross-examination had so lit­tle damaged this witness that when he sat down, one of his partners was heard to mut­ter, “From here on in, we’re all just jerking ourselves off.”

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Of course, Dave was thrilled with the piece. “You called it right down the middle,” he said. As a reward, he introduced me to Nicky.

“God bless you,” were Nicky’s first words to me, with a warm handshake — but that must have been how he greeted white people he didn’t like, because Dave said something like, “No, no, no, this is the guy who wrote that great article in The Voice.” After that, things were cordial between Nicky and me, nods and handshakes every day.

The main thing that hampered our com­munication was the strain of pretending that he wasn’t in the drug business. But he had a nice, sly sense of humor, which put me at my ease. “I’m a flower child,” he said one day with a grin. “Only thing is, they associate me with the wrong flower — the poppy.” He always maintained that the way to solve the drug problem was to legalize heroin. We had many pleasant chats, sticking to subjects like his youth on 116th Street, his days in a gang called the Turks, his thoughts on black histo­ry. I gave him a copy of a book I wrote and assured him he didn’t have to read it, a piece of false humility I favor for such presenta­tions. Nicky took it wrong. “Oh, we read in Harlem,” he said, “even if you don’t think we do.” But he accepted the book.

A few days later, he called me to one side and led me down the hall to a bench where we could talk undisturbed. “I’ll tell you the truth,” he said. “There’s one main thing that interests me.” He rubbed his fingers together as if they held a crisp bill between them. He was thinking of doing a book, and he wanted to know what the profits would be like.

“I’ll be frank with you,” I said. “I don’t think it would make you the kind of money that you’re used to.”

I would be lying if I said I didn’t like Nicky, didn’t feel charmed by the attention he paid to me, wasn’t sorry when I heard he’d gotten life. (I still have certain reserva­tions about the prosecution’s case and so apparently does the Second Circuit, which has been deliberating the appeal for nearly six months, an extraordinary length of time.)

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Nicky’s conviction ended a fantasy that had been drifting around the back of my mind during the trial. It would sometimes occur to me that our little talks were just an ice-breaking prelude to the longer conversations we would have after he got acquitted; Dave would drive me uptown in his Mer­cedes; Nicky and Mighty Whitey would show me all the hidden magic of Harlem — ­Bubba Jean’s, The Hubba Hubba, Small’s Paradise, the old ballrooms, voodoo, jazz, the fabulous underworld which lay beneath the ruins. When that fantasy was blown away, all that was left was a kind of confu­sion. Nicky remained my touchstone to Har­lem, the only Harlem personage I really knew, but I couldn’t make up my mind who Nicky was, how much I ought to like him and how severely I ought to judge him. How much of Nicky’s crime was Nicky’s fault, and how much of it was — well, somebody else’s.

I had sat with Murray Kempton through much of the trial, a real joy, and when it was over he wrote a line that haunted me for months: “Nicky Barnes is a great man, and to say that is not to dispute Acton’s conclusion that all great men are bad men.” I puz­zled over that thought for a long time and finally concluded that if Nicky were great, it was in the same sense that Gatsby was — trag­ic in a slightly ridiculous way. Nicky was far more ruthless than Gatsby and much less of a romantic, but both men had tried to crash the club of capitalism, and both were doomed to fail. Heroin was to Nicky what bootleg was to Gatsby. He gave enormous parties, wore splendid clothes, and was rumored to have killed a man — many men, in fact. And if I had a problem understanding Nicky Barnes, not to mention judging him, because of race, it can’t have been so much worse than the difficulty Nick Carraway had in judging his neighbor Jay Gatsby because of class — and it stemmed from the same dis­tortion in vision. My father taught me pretty much the same thing Carraway’s father taught him: “Whenever you feel like criticiz­ing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.”

How much could Nicky be blamed for what he was and how much did you have to blame the phenomenon of racism? The only people really qualified to answer that were the ones who lived where Nicky came from and conducted his business. I suppose that’s why I spent the next 11 months at Sixth Homicide, the homicide zone for Harlem.

One afternoon when I was talking to a group of black detectives who had lived all their lives in Harlem, one of them, a man of enormous restraint, settled my doubts about Nicky Barnes: “If I’d ever have had the opportunity,” he said, “I’d have killed Nicky Barnes for what he did to my people.” ■

This is the first story in a series on Harlem:

Stranger in Harlem Part Two: Sixth Homicide

Stranger in Harlem, Part Three: A Harlem Dude

Stranger in Harlem, Part Four: Willy and the Sneaker People

Stranger in Harlem, Part Five: Postscript 


Mr. Untouchable

Interspersed with quotes from Machiavelli, blaxploitation anthems, non sequitur B-roll footage of New York City in the ’70s, and the occasional black-and-white dramatization, Mr. Untouchable is a fascinating first-person account of drug kingpin and ruthless gangster Nicky Barnes, whose outrageous story of rise, rule, rage, and revenge requires no such stylistic filler. Called everything from the Al Capone of Harlem to the titular moniker—by which he was christened in a New York Times Magazine cover story that led, some argue, to his downfall—Barnes (who is portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the upcoming true-crime opus American Gangster) has been a member of the witness-protection program since 1998, after giving up every one of the henchmen (and henchwomen) in his multimillion-dollar heroin empire. Shown in either master-of-the-universe silhouette or from the (expensively cuff-linked) wrists down, Barnes tells his story alongside an impressive number of the players, from the former “council” members that he helped put in jail to the reporters, DEA informants, police officers, and prosecutors who put him there first. Also on hand is Barnes’s defense attorney of yore, David “Mighty Whitey” Breitbart, whose attitude encapsulates the uneasy balance that this film strikes between telling the straight story and glorifying a stone-cold snake in the grass. Still bragging about getting his client off for murder and drug trafficking all these years later, Breitbart recalls being made an “honorary nigger” for his trouble with a glee that would take the spring out of even Superfly’s step.