And with that, Mr. Barnes achieved a goal that his former self would have loathed, even feared: to be forgotten.
Or mostly. In 2007, his fame was briefly rekindled in a book by Tom Folsom titled “Mr. Untouchable” and in a documentary film of the same name. That same year, he was played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the film “American Gangster,” which, to Mr. Barnes’s irritation, focused not on him but on his leading challenger for peddling dope and bragging rights, Frank Lucas.
Mr. Lucas died on May 31 at 88 — a death that evoked the Harlem heroin wars of the 1970s and a question that had not been posed in years: What ever happened to Nicky Barnes?
It is no longer a mystery. And now his death has evoked another set of memories. This week, after learning of Mr. Barnes’s death, Robert B. Fiske Jr., the United States attorney in Manhattan in 1977, recalled him as having overseen “the largest, the most profitable and the most venal drug ring in New York.”
Schooled in the Streets
Mr. Barnes was born in Harlem on Oct. 15, 1933, and grew up around Eighth Avenue and West 113th Street. An altar boy for a time, he was also arrested on robbery charges before he was 10. He fled from an alcoholic father. He never went beyond junior high school, became a street junkie and was sent for treatment to Lexington, Ky., where he was weaned from drugs. He said he never used them again.
Arrests on charges of possession of burglary tools and breaking into cars led to confinement at the Tombs in Lower Manhattan. Later, well on his way to a life of crime, he served time at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County, N.Y., where he reportedly converted to Islam.
First as a competitor and then with the connivance of the Italian Mafia, Mr. Barnes rose in the late 1960s to become the kingpin of an empire that imported and distributed millions of dollars worth of heroin in New York, Pennsylvania, Canada and elsewhere, all the while murdering rivals.
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