The true-life story of a Harlem’s notorious Nicky Barnes, a junkie turned multimillionaire drug-lord, MR. UNTOUCHABLE takes its audience deep inside the heroin industry of the 1970s. The most powerful black drug kingpin in New York City history, Barnes came from humble beginnings to make himself and his comrades rich beyond their wildest dreams, ultimately reaching national infamy in 1977 when the New York Times put him on the front cover of their magazine with the headline “Mr. Untouchable”.
Soon after, it all came crumbling down, and facing a life sentence without parole, Barnes started naming names. With the first hand testimony from “the black Godfather” himself, this documentary tells an epic story of business, excess, greed and revenge.
LONG SYNOPSIS “If you strike the King you better kill him or he’ll move on you and take your ass out”. This is the true-life story of a junkie turned multimillionaire drug-lord. MR. UNTOUCHABLE takes you deep inside the heroin game. With the first hand testimony of the black Godfather himself, Nicky Barnes. This is an epic story of business, excess, greed and revenge.
Nicky Barnes was the most powerful black drug kingpin in New York City history. From humble beginnings he came to dominate the heroin distribution business and make himself and his comrades rich beyond their wildest dreams. Trusted and trained by the Italians he set up his own black crime family – The Council – a formidable drug collective.
The film has secured the testimony of Nicky Barnes himself. Barnes has broken the street code and his 23-year silence to tell all in this epic American dream story. We have also interviewed former members of The Council and others in the Barnes drug Collective. This is an inside look at the heroin business from the Kingpin at the top to the dealer and user on the street.
Barnes reveled in his nickname Mister Untouchable and was often seen strutting the sidewalks in eye-catching suits, dripping in diamonds and with a girl on each arm. But his ostentatious manner drew the attention of the authorities and a classic cops and robbers chase began. We have interviewed the federal prosecutors and undercover DEA agents and informant that worked so hard and risked their lives to win the game of cat and mouse that ensued.
In 1977 Barnes reached national infamy when the New York Times put him on the front cover of their magazine with the headline “Mr. Untouchable”.
“This is Nicky Barnes” the text said. “The police say he is Harlem’s biggest dug dealer, but can they prove it?”
To the embarrassment of the cops, Barnes was being billed as not only the biggest drug dealer in America but someone who was proud of it. He behaved like a superstar acting as if he was beyond the law and untouchable. With the fancy clothes, fancy cars and fancy women, he was the real deal, the Original Gangster.
When President Jimmy Carter saw Barnes’ picture taunting him from the cover of the New York Times he ordered an all-out effort to convict him. First they went after him for tax evasion but Barnes paid his taxes, he filed over $250,000 a year for "miscellaneous income". Then they tried to turn the community against him but discovered Barnes was Harlem’s answer to Robin Hood. He gave money and food to the community and was even the deacon of his local church – where he would hand out turkeys and gifts on Thanksgiving.
But despite his good deeds and tax payments, he was still a Kingpin who made millions from his heroin enterprise. In 1977 the authorities finally got their man, Barnes was charged with drug trafficking, found guilty and sentenced to life without parole. At the time, he was so feared that the judge in the case took the unprecedented step of ordering that the names of the jurors be kept secret for their own protection. Federal prosecutors warned that Barnes was responsible for a series of murders, that he would kill with impunity – this was America’s first anonymous jury trial.
In 1981, five years after Barnes was convicted, he made a dramatic U-turn. Barnes had discovered that his drug partners were not only cheating him out of money on deals (which he was still directing from the inside) but also sleeping with his wife and his girlfriend and worst of all taking drugs in front of his two young daughters. Barnes decided to take revenge and offered to work with the federal authorities to set his former partners up.
For the next fifteen months he worked deep undercover against his friends and lovers. From his prison cell he worked with the authorities and to trap those that had betrayed him. Collaborating with the feds, Barnes told them everything they needed to know and helped direct their covert NARC operations.
His defection to the other side was so complete that once he started, Barnes sang like a canary. He spent seven straight years testifying against his former colleagues and ultimately helped to convict over 50 drug dealers and murders - making him the most successful turncoat in US history.
He gave information about terrorists involved in robberies and prison escapes and about the planned murder of public officials including President Ronald Regan. He testified before congressional and presidential commissions on narcotics, giving life saving tips to undercover NARCS and alerted officials to how prisoners deal drugs both on the street and from jailhouse phones.
But after his historic co-operation became public Barnes was sent to the Witness Protection Unit at Otisville prison in NY for his own protection. His daughters were also scooped up and given a new identity, after a $1 million dollar hit was put out on them as revenge for their fathers’ betrayal. Barnes thrived at Otisville, he graduated from college, won a national poetry contest and worked hard to turn his life around.
Despite much praise from law enforcement officials, including former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Barnes repeatedly had his request for release denied. But eventually after considerable pressure a judge decided that there was a strong public interest in rewarding Barnes' epic cooperation and reduced his sentence. In 1998 after 21 years inside Barnes was finally released from jail, given a new identity and relocated under the federal witness protection program.
Today, Barnes at 74, is as youthful and passionate as a man half his age. Frighteningly bright and articulate he is still angry at those who he says betrayed him and there is still a trace of the once ruthless crime boss. He no longer has to check the air on his tires to make sure the cops haven’t tried to slow him down. He doesn’t have to worry about heroin sales and Mafia suppliers. He is a regular family man, concerned with his daughters and grandchildren. Where once he strutted the streets the scourge of lawful society now he just concentrates on trying to lose the “prison shuffle” - that short-strided gait that comes from years of having no particular place to go.
DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT Although it was thirty years ago, I still clearly remember seeing Nicky Barnes dressed in respectable business attire, staring out from behind his trademark shades on the Sunday New York Times Magazine cover as MR.UNTOUCHABLE. He was already a New York legend and I was already fascinated by the stories of outlaws, gangsters, drug dealers, subversives, street hustlers and other characters who boldly challenged the establishment.
When I met Nicky last summer I was amazed, repulsed, intrigued, and totally captivated. Whether judged a Kingpin or a King Rat, he is American gangster royalty and talking to him was like sitting with Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano or Al Capone.
Today the American fascination with gangsters has been commodified into a "gangsta" culture which sells everything from music to clothing. Gangsterism has also become one of America's great cultural exports, offering the disenfranchised of the globe a sexy rags to riches myth. Kids
in the favelas of Rio and the slums of Moscow sport t-shirts with Tupac, and Scarface.
This film is a journey into the heart and soul of one of those truly historic characters. Nicky Barnes saw how the Irish, the Jews, and the Italians had organized themselves and used crime to get their piece of the American pie. He told his Black partners, "Now it's our turn." This is the
true story of how he organized The Council and the New York heroin trade, ruled the streets and eventually turned against his own brothers.
Hollywood has made many great gangster films but for me there is still something special about the real characters telling the story. This is the real thing. In the end it isn’t simply about drugs, or snitching, or even violent crime - it's a morality tale about power. Hopefully it will
broaden our understanding of the universal obsession with this Machiavellian beast.
THE MAKING OF MR. UNTOUCHABLE
By Mary-Jane Robinson
Producer: ‘Mr. Untouchable’
If you’re a New Yorker then you’ve probably already heard of Nicky Barnes. Kids today know his name from rap lyrics and their parents remember his 1977 photograph plastered on the front cover of the New York Times Magazine. But growing up in London I knew nothing of this infamous Harlem Kingpin.
For years Barnes’ epic story lay almost forgotten. But 2007, thirty years after his conviction, marks the beginning of his resurrection. Mr. Untouchable is the definitive documentary film about Barnes’ life and legacy. It is the result of over three years of research and gets inside the story with interviews with all the key players on both sides of the law – including Nicky Barnes himself.
The seed for Mr. Untouchable was sown back in 2003. Like many documentary films I have produced the idea was born from a passing comment in an otherwise forgettable evening. Events unfolded in Jay Z’s downtown club 40/40.
It was summer time and extremely hot. I went to the club, which hadn’t been open long, with a couple of girlfriends who seemed to know all the right people and despite the long line we got in without any trouble. Inside the club was heaving, outside the line was down the block.
There is a huge staircase that dominates the center of the club - it leads to a smaller upstairs bar and the VIP rooms, which are heavily guarded. After taking a look around I stepped outside the club to talk with a friend who wanted a cigarette. The crowd waiting to get in was getting increasingly restless and began to spill into the street. We stood to one side in a small roped off pen that had been specially set aside for the nicotine hungry – a sight that was becoming increasingly common after the city’s smoking ban.
I don’t smoke and was just there for the ride. As we chatted I looked over at all the people in line. No one was getting in and everyone was getting heated. But then people began to turn away from the front of the club and look back down the street. Instead of shouting to get in they were whispering and nudging each other. I followed their gaze. The waiting crowd parted and a path was cleared for a striking, tall, very well dressed black man. I suspected he wasn’t famous, as no one wanted his autograph and people seemed reluctant to engage him. Rather, they looked with curiosity and let him through. He glided up to the velvet rope and our eyes met briefly. Then he looked at the doorman who nodded ‘hello’ and quickly escorted him inside the busy club. Intrigued, I watched through the open door as he worked the room. He was so smooth, always polite but totally illusive he shook the many outstretched hands but never stopped for more than a moment. The door began to close as I watched him ascend the club’s long glass staircase, it shut and he disappeared from view. Who was that? I thought.
A minute later my friend took her last drag on her cigarette we re-entered the club retracing ‘Mr. Smooth’s steps.
Having trained as a criminologist I have made many films about crime and interviewed many criminals. Most were charming, often charismatic and sometimes dangerous. Mr. Smooth was clearly charming and probably charismatic but may or may not have been dangerous. In such a public setting I concluded it was probably safe to find out who this man was.
Making my way upstairs I saw him, imposing and standing alone with his back to the wall surveying the club. I left my friends at the bar and decided that the direct approach would be best. I had no compunction about walking over and talking to him. So I did. I just stuck out my hand and introduced myself and asked him who he was. He looked taken aback and half smiled. He took my outstretched hand, shook it and said. ‘Hello Mary-Jane, nice accent, let me ask you, who are you and what do you do?’ Typical, I thought answer a question with a question. So I told him, I’m a documentary film producer. But rather than ask the litany of questions this disclosure normally solicits he looked me the eye and in a hushed tone said: ‘If you make documentaries, you should make one about Nicky Barnes’. Then he reached into his inside pocket pulled out a piece of paper wrote his number on the back and continued ‘if you want to know more give me a call’. I had never heard of Nicky Barnes and was thrown by his statement. ‘Who is Nicky Barnes?’ I asked but the conversation was clearly over and I left to join my friends. I was none the wiser about the smooth stranger but did not forget his advice.
The next day I started my research and was soon gripped by Nicky Barnes’ amazing life story. I couldn’t believe it had never been told before. It had all the universal themes for an epic - power, greed and love.
I have met Mr. Smooth several times since and have thanked him for his ‘tip’. I still don’t know why he said what he did or really who he is but I am very grateful he uttered those words.
Having a good idea is one thing but making it into a film is quite another and I could not have done it without the brilliance of Marc Levin (director) and Alex Gibney (Ex. Producer). When I pitched the idea to Alex he loved it from the start and brought HDNet films on board. We talked about who would direct as we both felt it needed someone with insight and access into this world. There was really only one person that we wanted, Marc Levin. I had long been a fan of Marc’s work. His films for HBO are seminal and I had seen them when I was living in the UK. His contacts in the gangster rap world were second to none. He had a proven track record having already worked with Snoop Dogg, Fat Joe, The Roots to name a few and had directed the multi award winning film SLAM. He is a New Yorker, who had partied in 70s in the same nightclubs as Nicky and he had the credentials we needed to get inside this story and possibly even get to Nicky Barnes himself.
Marc agreed to direct and we began production in October 2005. In August 2006 Marc and I traveled to an undisclosed location and spent 48 hours interviewing Nicky Barnes. The experience was one that neither of us will ever forget. Early on researching the film I was told that Nicky Barnes had said that ‘a woman could never tell his story’ so meeting him that day, talking to him and filming him felt like more than just a personal triumph. We completed editing in February 2007 and the film will be released in October 2007.
This film is the result of an enormous amount of collaboration. For the first time people on both sides of the law have agreed to talk completely candidly about their experience. We could not have done it without their considerable cooperation and the support of our production team.
THE PLAYERS Leroy ‘Nicky’ BarnesA.K.A ‘Mr. Untouchable’. Barnes was the black Godfather of Harlem. He was a heroin kingpin who ran a formidable drug empire known as ‘The Council’ during the 1970s. Famous for his rise from junkie to millionaire kingpin, he beat three state cases before being convicted by the feds in a historic legal battle in 1977. After a few years behind bars Barnes learned he was being wronged by his street brothers – sworn to protect him - and his wife and girlfriend, so he exacted revenge on them all by becoming a government witness and went from kingpin to king rat. He was released from prison under an assumed identity and joined the witness protection program in 1999. He is still alive and recently wrote and published his memories and agreed to take part in this documentary. He was filmed in a secret location in August 2006.
Thelma Grant A.K.A Mrs. Nicky Barnes. Thelma was a professional dancer. She joined the Mama Lu Parks dance troop as a young girl and went on to win the highly coveted Harvest Moon Ball dance contest in 1966. At the age of 18, Mama Lu recommended her for a job dancing at the infamous uptown club Smalls Paradise. Whilst working at Smalls, in the early 70s Thelma caught the eye of a man almost twice her age –Nicky Barnes. They were soon a couple and she quickly settled into her role as the bosses’ wife. They had two children together and lived in a big house in New Jersey enjoying a suburban middle class life style. Thelma was a formidable woman, involved in all aspects of Nick’s drug operation and affectionately referred to as ‘the vet’ by the other wives, girlfriends and women uptown. There was no doubt that she had a strong guiding influence over her man. After Nick was convicted to life without parole in 1977 she tried to keep his drug operation and business concerns afloat but was isolated by the remaining members of the council. Several years into his prison sentence she took a lover and when Nick found out he used the DEA to set her up. In 1983 she pled guilty to federal drug charges and served ten years in prison. Her two children, now parentless, were taken into the witness protection program after a hit was put on their heads. During her incarceration Thelma gave birth to her lover, Tito’s, child who was raised by family down south. Thelma reevaluated her life whilst in prison. Learned a skill and is now a successful businesswoman, married to Tito and lives with him and their daughter in the south. She can only see her two other daughters on supervised US Marshall visits. She has not heard from Nick since he set her up.
Joseph 'Jazz' Hayden was a member of Nicky Barnes’ drug organization ‘the council’. He too was a former heroin user who had beaten the addiction and gone on to supply it to those still afflicted. Jazz was convicted along with Barnes in the 1977 federal case and served fifteen years for his role in the heroin ring. Luckily for Jazz, he was in prison when Barnes became a cooperating witness for the government and was not included in Barnes’ street sweep of all his old business partners. He is the only council member with the exception of Barnes that is not dead or in prison for life. Jazz has become a political activist and is the founder and director of the New York City Unlock the Block campaign; a group dedicated to giving prisoners the right to vote and overturning the laws that connect prison sentences to voting rights.
Jackie Hayden wife of Jazz Hayden. Jackie met Jazz the first time she ever went out in Harlem at night. She was a young, naïve girl he was a much older man. She was not welcomed by Thelma and the other ‘vets’ but persisted in her pursuit of Jazz and eventually won his heart and the right to call him ‘her man’. Unlike Thelma, Jackie knew very little about the business her husband and his friends were in. Jazz protected her from it and she learned not to ask questions. She did take part in his social activism and marched through the streets of Harlem, heavily pregnant, demanding a garbage can on every corner! After his 1977 arrest, pregnant with their second child, Jazz and Jackie finally tied the knot. They were married in 1978 at MCC (Metropolitan Correctional Centre) with Nicky Barnes as their best man. Jackie had to learn to fend for herself after her husband’s federal conviction. She got her first job and built a good life for her and her children. Jazz has been in prison for 26 years of the 35 years they have been together. They are the only council couple still together.
Leon 'Scrap' Batts was a trusted lieutenant in the Barnes drug organization. He came from an established Harlem crime family. His parents were both in the numbers game and he was well accustomed to street life. As a teenager he was a stick up kid, ripping off grocery stores and robbing small time street dealers. Then he met Jazz, who quickly became his ‘hero’ and mentor. Jazz taught Scrap all about the big time heroin game and together they made a fortune for themselves and the council. Scrap was a loyal worker and enforcer who was willing to do what ever needed to be done. He looked up to Nick and Jazz and was profoundly disillusioned when Nick flipped. He was sentenced to ten years for his part in the Barnes drug ring. He was released in 1993 and has not re-offended. He now works with young offenders and tries to use his knowledge and wisdom to help kids today who ‘wanna be gangstas’.
Carol Hawkins/Williams was a street dealer and mill worker in the Barnes drug organization. She was a promising young athlete that got caught up in street life. After a chance encounter with Nicky Barnes’ bodyguards – she helped them dodge the police surveillance – she was invited to meet the man himself and soon became one of his best workers. She was 19 years old and making $15,000 a day. She described Nick as her savior. She saw the drugs she was selling as candy and never once considered the morality of what she was doing. That was until Nick went away and she started using crack. She quickly went through all her money and became an addict herself. It took her more than 10 years to get clean.
Frank James was a top member of the Barnes drug council. He had a fierce reputation on the street and is the most well known of Barnes consortium of heroin dealers. He too was a user who beat his addiction joining forces with Barnes to build the council. James escaped the federal 1977 trial but did not escape Barnes when he flipped and after a grueling three month trial was convicted of life without parole. He has been in prison for 24 years and is currently being held at Otisville Federal Penitentiary in upstate New York. He has become a devout Muslim since his incarceration and a very well respected member of the Otisville prison population. He works with prisoner groups both inside and outside of prison trying to reeducate impressionable young men on the realities of street life.
David Breitbart A.K.A ‘Mighty Whitey’ was Nicky Barnes’ attorney. Wherever Barnes went trouble and Breitbart would follow. They were a legendary courtroom duo. In the ten years they were together they beat three state cases, earning Barnes the name ‘Mr. Untouchable’ and making Breitbart one of the hottest defense attorney’s in the City. Breitbart’s defense of Nicky was more than a job it was a crusade, they had a long run of success but in the end the federal government prevailed and Barnes was convicted, sentenced to life without parole. Barnes wasn’t just Brietbart’s client they were friends, their wives shopped together and their children played together. Barnes even gave Breitbart his nick name ‘Mighty Whitey’ but when Barnes decided to co-operate with the government their relationship came to a close. Breitbart went on to win some very high profile cases but no other client has come close to Barnes in infamy or friendship.