When heroin trafficker Leslie 'Ike' Atkinson was released from a North Carolina federal penitentiary in April 2007, he was in remarkably good physical shape for a man of 82. But after more than three decades behind bars, there was not much left of life to enjoy.
While he doesn't like to dwell on the past, the old US Army master sergeant does have one real regret: that he did not take advantage of the GI Bill, which would have allowed him to go to college, where he is confident he would have done well, and pursue an honest living.
Unlike the ruthless traffickers of today, Mr Atkinson is a gentlemanly, charismatic figure whose ring of former black American servicemen, his 'Band of Brothers', smuggled as much as US$400 million worth of Golden Triangle heroin from Thailand to the United States during the Vietnam War.
Touched on in the largely fictionalised film American Gangster, the true story of what the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) labelled one of the world's largest trafficking organisations is told for the first time in Ron Chepesiuk's new book, The Bangkok Connection.
The work is of more than passing interest to me because, in Bangkok in the early 1970s, I knew some of the players on both sides of the law. More specifically, Chepesiuk convincingly debunks the myth, perpetuated in the film, that the ring used the bodies of dead soldiers to spirit the heroin into the US.
Mr Atkinson calls the so-called Cadaver Connection 'a big lie... the biggest hoax ever perpetuated', and says that on the sole occasion Harlem gangster Frank Lucas, the real-life central figure in the movie, visited Thailand, he was so disorientated he had to have his hand held.
When Mr Atkinson took him to a Buddhist temple, Lucas insisted on buying a bag of apples as an offering. Then, to everyone's surprise, he burst into tears and asked: 'Does Thailand border the Holy Land?' No wonder Mr Atkinson called him 'the dumbest man I ever met'.
Lucas was just one customer in the seven years, between 1968 and 1975, during which the man dubbed 'Sergeant Smack' supervised the flow of thousands of kilograms of No. 4 heroin through the American military postal service and aboard US Air Force cargo aircraft crossing the Pacific in support of the war.
In scores of interviews with his fellow conspirators, former US narcotics agents and prosecutors, Chepesiuk details Mr Atkinson's rise from petty crime on West German military bases and how the DEA had to create a special unit, known as Centac 9, to bring him down.
Eventually undone by a handprint carelessly left on a bag of heroin, Mr Atkinson remained so low-key that when he entered the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in mid-1975 to begin serving a 19-year sentence, there was none of the adulation that usually greeted celebrity prisoners.
But it wasn't the end by a long way. Over the next six months, Mr Atkinson remained in control of the ring from behind bars. When the surviving conspirators were finally arrested and turned state's evidence, he received another 25-year term - to be served consecutively.
Then as late as 1987, he would even try to revive the operation again with a different group of accomplices from his cell in New York's Otisville Federal Penitentiary. That ended in failure and he had nine more years added on.
A lot has changed in Thailand since Mr Atkinson's day. Khun Sa, the Shan warlord his Thai intermediaries bought the heroin from, saw his empire dissolve in the early 1990s. Over the next decade, Afghanistan slowly took over from Myanmar as the world's major supplier.
Much of Myanmar's heroin now goes directly across the border into the voracious China market, which did not exist 30 years ago. The dwindling amount still smuggled through Thailand ends up in Australia, Japan and Taiwan.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was almost no heroin flowing into Taiwan because the border trade was controlled by elements connected with the Kuomintang armies who fled China in 1949 and settled along the Thai-Myanmar border.
The collapse of the Communist Party of Myanmar (CPM) in 1989 changed all the dynamics and ushered in a new group of drug warlords, many of them former CPM leaders who felt no such loyalty to Taiwan.
For Mr Atkinson, crime may have paid for a while - but not any more. 'There is no money left,' says Chepesiuk. 'The little known aspect of the War on Drugs that the public doesn't know is that the authorities not only get their man, they also get his money.'
Mr Atkinson's lawyer was also his bag man, who stashed the bulk of the proceeds in the Cayman Islands and later turned over the laundered accounts when the ring was busted. The authorities also confiscated Mr Atkinson's property, including a large farm he co-owned with Lucas.
Today, Mr Atkinson lives simply on his military pension and social security benefits. It is a far cry from what he calls the 'one long adrenaline rush crammed with risks' which marked his career as an international drug trafficker who for a long time literally flew beneath the radar.
This review first appeared in the