Leroy Nicholas "Nicky" Barnes (born October 15, 1933) is an American former criminal (drug lord and crime boss), later turned government informant, who led the notorious African-American New York-based criminal organization known as The Council, which controlled the heroin trade in Harlem. In 2007 he released a book, Mr. Untouchable, written with Tom Folsom, and a documentary DVD of the same title about his life.
Leroy Barnes was a good student in his youth but left home early to escape an abusive, hard-drinking father. Turning to drug-dealing for income, Barnes was himself addicted to heroin for several years in his 20s until spending time in jail, where he gave up his habit. Barnes was sent to prison in 1965 for low-level drug dealing. While in prison he met Colombo crime family member "Crazy" Joe Gallo and Lucchese crime family heroin dealer Matthew Madonna. Gallo wanted to have more of a stake in the Harlem heroin market but didn't have any personnel to deal in the mostly-black Harlem. It is believed Gallo passed on his knowledge of how to run a drug-trafficking organization to Barnes and asked Barnes to assemble the necessary personnel. When Gallo got out of jail, he provided a lawyer for Barnes. The lawyer got Barnes' conviction overturned on a technicality and he returned to New York City. Once home, Barnes began to assemble his personnel and began cutting and packaging heroin. To deal more efficiently with other black gangsters, he created The Council, a seven-man organization modeled after the Italian mob families. The Council settled disputes, handled distribution problems and other drug-related issues. In addition to Barnes, The Council included Joseph "Jazz" Hayden, Wallace Rice, Thomas "Gaps" Foreman, Ishmael Muhammed, Frank James, and Guy Fisher.
Rise to drug lord
By 1976, Barnes' operation spread throughout all of New York State and into Pennsylvania and Canada. According to DEA records, Barnes' operation in 1976 consisted of seven lieutenants, who each controlled a dozen mid-level distributors, who in turn supplied upwards of 40 street level dealers each. During this time Barnes was given the name "Mr. Untouchable", after successfully beating numerous charges and arrests. It is believed while under surveillance, Barnes would often make pointless stops and go on high-speed chases with little purpose other than to aggravate those following him.
Barnes set up front companies to protect some of his assets, such as numerous car dealerships, which appeared to be rented through those companies. The DEA eventually discovered the true ownership of the companies and seized the cars, including a Bentley, a Citroën SM, a Maserati, a Mercedes-Benz, a yellow Volvo, and several Cadillacs, Lincoln Continentals, and Thunderbirds. Nicky Barnes' net worth was well over $50 million at the height of his career. A New York Times article estimated Barnes purchased hundreds of tailor-made suits, Italian shoes, coats, and jewelry, which alone was valued at over $7 million.
"Mister Untouchable" and arrest
On June 5, 1977 The New York Times Magazine released an article titled "Mr. Untouchable", featuring Barnes posing on the front cover. The Times told Barnes that they were going to use a mug shot of Barnes unless he posed for the cameras. Barnes, who hated mug shots, agreed and took the shot.
Barnes’ posture of smug invulnerability so affronted President Jimmy Carter that the President ordered his attorney general to prosecute Barnes to the fullest extent of the law. The Justice Department did just that. Barnes was prosecuted for his drug-related crimes and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on January 19, 1978. The chief prosecutor in the case was Robert B. Fiske, then the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
According to Barnes, while in prison, he discovered that his assets were not being taken care of, The Council had stopped paying his attorneys' fees, and one of his fellow council members, Guy Fisher, was having an affair with Barnes' mistress. The Council had a rule that no council member would sleep with another Council member's wife or mistress. In response, Barnes became an informant. He forwarded a list of 109 names, five of them Council members', along with his wife's name, implicating them all in illegal activities related to the heroin trade. Barnes helped to indict 44 other traffickers, 16 of whom were ultimately convicted. In this testimony, he implicated himself in eight murders. While in prison, he also won a national poetry contest for federal inmates, earned a college diploma with honors, and taught fellow inmates English.
Release and life after prison
After Barnes cooperated with the government by working as an informant, Rudolph Giuliani sought a reversal of Barnes' life sentence. Eventually, he was resentenced to 35 years and housed in a special Witness Security Unit at Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, New York. By working in jail, he earned two months off and was released in August 1998.
He worked all the time ... He worked in the kitchen, in the dining area, separating the recycle stuff from the regular garbage. You name it he did it. He seemed obsessed.— Prison official
In 2007, Barnes and his former competitor, Frank Lucas, sat down with New York magazine's Mark Jacobson for an historic conversation between men who had not spoken to each other in three decades.
Now in his 80s, Barnes is part of the United States Federal Witness Protection Program. He wrote his memoir, Mr. Untouchable: My Crimes and Punishments, in 2007, and appears in a documentary about his gang life, also titled Mr. Untouchable (2007). On January 31, 2008, Howard Stern interviewed Barnes on Stern's Sirius Satellite Radio show.
Barnes' name is mentioned in a scene in the 1995 Movie Dead Presidents, the scene itself set in 1969.
Depictions in media
- Barnes was portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2007 film American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas and directed by Ridley Scott.