ARLINGTON, Va. – Desperate to wiretap their target, federal drug agents early one morning scaled the roof of an auto garage that by day served as a well-protected Harlem headquarters for Mr. Untouchable, Leroy "Nicky" Barnes, a major New York heroin dealer who had eluded prison for a decade. They dropped by rope through a skylight and placed the bug.
It didn't work.
Several nights later, rope in hand, they were back on the roof. They installed another bug.
This time, "all we got was a loud buzz," said Mary Buckley, recalling an investigation three decades ago in which the Drug Enforcement Administration sent her undercover at age 26 to help catch Barnes.
Buckley and another retired DEA agent, Lew Rice, who once headed DEA's New York office, described their role in convicting Barnes and one of his major competitors, Frank Lucas. Their lectures Tuesday at the DEA Museum kicked off a series celebrating the agency's 35th birthday by recalling its biggest triumphs.
Rice and Buckley provided a stiff dose of reality about the 1970s clash between drug dealers and cops in New York City, which has provided rich lore for the movies. Hollywood has transformed this collision into a mythic era through films like "Serpico," "Prince of the City," "The French Connection" and its sequel, and most recently "American Gangster." HBO is planning a series.
"It's hard to defend against that Hollywood machine," said Rice, who spent 18 months prepping Lucas to testify for the government in return for a reduced sentence. Rice said Lucas was nothing like the man portrayed by actor Denzel Washington in "American Gangster."
Born in a 1973 merger of drug agencies, the DEA was devoted to undercover work but inexperienced and ill-adapted to it, Buckley said. Far from glamour and high-tech wizardry, her world in the mid-1970s meant sleepless nights on spike heels in smoke-filed joints with dangerous men, wearing a bulky concealed transmitter that burned her skin, using index card files rather than computer databases and searching for functioning pay phones in a world without cell phones.
One of just five female DEA agents then, Buckley was paired with an informant whose profession was armed robbery of drug stash houses. They were sent to Harlem after-hours bars with orders to buy drugs from Barnes' associates. DEA's rules and inexperience only made it harder.
The informant neglected to tell her the clubs searched patrons for guns. Fearful the bouncers would discover the bulky Kel transmitter strapped to her back, "I got bad," Buckley said, indignantly declaring, 'I'm a woman; you don't search me!"' It worked. She couldn't turn on the transmitter so the surveillance team outside could hear her conversations until she got in and went to the bathroom. Turned on earlier, it would get hot enough to burn her skin before she could take it off.
"In the clubs, everybody was offering me heroin but not the right people," Buckley said, referring to her instructions to buy only from dealers associated with Barnes. Occasionally she did buy from others because "you're ground beef" if you don't go along in some situations.
"You're all alone in there, so you do what you have to do to get out alive," Buckley said.
She regularly worked until 4, 5 or 6 in the morning to contact the right dealers, but DEA's New York office chief insisted every agent arrive for work at 8 a.m. "We didn't get much rest, but we were young," Buckley said.
More worrisome was that at 6 p.m. she and her surveillance team would leave the DEA office and go to a bar until 11 p.m., then drive to Harlem for undercover work. "These were the guys who would be covering me all night, and they'd speed uptown half drunk, running red lights," Buckley said.
Rice said DEA only had one car for every three or four agents. And Buckley said agency cars were no match for the Mercedes and Maserati vehicles Barnes drove.
Barnes leased his vehicles because DEA seized cars owned by dealers and enhanced its fleet with them. But Buckley said agents discovered Barnes owned the leasing company so the government grabbed his entire collection.
Buckley once saw Barnes himself in a club but couldn't get close. "I'm not full bosomed, not his type," she said. "And you didn't go up to him unless you were his girlfriend or had known him for years."
Although sentenced to life in prison in 1977, Barnes testified against other dealers to win release in 1998 and a new identity from the witness protection program. Buckley said he had a second motive for helping prosecutors: His henchmen had promised to take care of his family but he became "furious when his associates started dating his old lady."
Hollywood's portrayal of Frank Lucas' cooperation with authorities in "American Gangster" is a sore point for Rice. The movie shows Lucas helping convict corrupt New York police officers, particularly members of the anti-narcotics Special Investigation Unit, which is the subject of the movie "Prince of the City."
"Never happened!" said Rice. Lucas fingered other dealers and associates. Rice said the only cop he talked about was New York detective Robert Leuci, but only after Leuci was in custody and making cases against co-workers on the Special Investigation Unit.
Lucas also wasn't the family man portrayed by the movie, Rice said. "He was a ruthless drug dealer whose organization killed witnesses and co-workers."
And unlike the movie version, Lucas didn't establish an independent supply of high-grade Asian heroin, Rice said. Lucas did make a trip to Bangkok with that goal but was arrested before the connection was established. He bought his drugs from Mafia sources, Rice said.
"'American Gangster' really turned me off," Rice said. "I was uncomfortable when I saw him glamorized."
Retired DEA agents sued the filmmakers for damages because they ended the movie with an on-screen note saying Lucas' cooperation "led to the conviction of three-quarters of New York City's Drug Enforcement Agency."
There is no such agency and Lucas played no role in convictions of NYPD Special Investigations Unit detectives, they argued. A judge threw the case out because the movie never says a federal drug agent was corrupt.
When a movie says it is "based on reality" and uses that kind of closing notice, Rice said, "I think you've got a responsibility to get it right."