I’m often asked: how did I come to secure the collaboration of Ike Atkinson, the biggest African American drug dealer in U.S. history, to write his story, “The Bangkok Connection”? It was by a fluke really. In 2006 I was researching my forthcoming book, “The Gangsters of Harlem,” and decided to include a profile of 1970s drug dealer Frank Lucas, who was on the verge of becoming international famous, thanks to the movie, “American Gangster.” I arranged an interview with Lucas. In the interview, Lucas kept referring to Ike as his “cousin” and claimed how Ike had helped him establish the Asian heroin connection from Bangkok to the U.S. in the early 1970s. Lucas also claimed that Ike had helped him move heroin in the coffins carrying U.S. servicemen who had died in the Vietnam War.
Some of Lucas’ claims sounded exaggerated or downright false. For example, Lucas claimed that Ike helped him smuggle heroin on the airplane of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger while it was in Bangkok and how he had gone personally to the Golden Triangle drug cultivation area to arrange drug deals. Really? You can put heroin on the plane of one of the most powerful men in the world. And what big drug kingpin would risk his life to do that when he could do it in a much easier and less risky fashion? So I thought it was important to interview Ike about Lucas’s claims and his relationship with Lucas.
I did a search of “Ike Atkinson” on the Internet and found he been in prison since 1975. That was 32 continuous years! Fortunately, Ike was incarcerated just 2 and 1/2 hours from me at the federal prison in Butner, North Carolina (I’m based in Rock Hill, South Carolina). Not much had been written about Ike since his incarceration. Not a good sign, I thought. Maybe he was not granting interviews. But then I thought, maybe the media had forgotten about him. In any case, as a journalist I knew never to assume anything when it came to sources. I thought it would be worth contacting Ike and asking him for an interview. I contacted the prison, and the deputy warden told me to writer Ike a letter.
Fortunately for me, I learned later from Ike, I mentioned Lucas and some his claims about his relationship with him. Ike was curious and granted me the interview. Ike denied pretty well everything Lucas said about their relationship. He is not Lucas’s cousin. He did not ship heroin in the coffins. Lucas got his heroin from Ike, who was the real pioneer of the Asian heroin connection. As the interview progressed, Ike got more agitated with what I was telling him. It was with good reason. Later I learned through my research that Lucas lied about almost everything when it came to his relationship with Ike. I left that interview knowing Ike had a remarkable story that needed telling. But he wasn’t getting out until next year. Still, we stayed in touch via postal mail and talked about collaborating after he had served his time.
When Ike got out in 2007, I contacted him and we hooked up to write the Bangkok Connection. As my research progressed, I knew I had the story of a lifetime. Okay, name one other drug kingpin who never carried a gun and who never killed any one but still managed to ship heroin during an eight year period that would be worth more than $2 billion today? Name me one other African American gangster who never worked with the Italian American Mafia? Moreover, Ike’s criminal activities sparked the creation of a special DEA unit code named CENTAC 9, which conducted an intensive three-year investigation across three continents. That was the first time that happened.
Later I learned that the deputy warden who approved my visit with Ike had screwed up. He did not know the prison rule which forbid press interviews with inmates in Butner. So I had gotten the interview because the gods smiled on me. Needless to say, I sent the deputy warden a copy of the book. I’ll invite him to the movie premier, too, if we get that far and lucky. Life is ironic sometimes, isn’t it?