From approximately 1968 to 1975, retired army sergeant and all around likable guy Leslie “Ike” Atkinson took an unthinkable career turn. According to the Next Generation Indie Book award winner, Sergeant Smack, penned by true crime author Ron Chepesiuk, Atkinson and a band of close friends, family and fellow servicemen became major wholesale suppliers of extremely pure heroin – $400 million worth. Based out of a popular Bangkok watering hole called Jack’s American Star Bar, the crew would carry, ship or mail the goods back home to North Carolina military bases and beyond.Their customers? Primarily east coast dealers, including well-known Harlem gangster -Frank Lucas. Dubbed “Sergeant Smack” by drug enforcement agents, the careful, yet admitted thrill seeker and gambler kept his operation tight, steering clear of unwanted notoriety. But in 1974, he made a costly mistake in leaving a hand-print on a package of seized heroin.
Prior to his 2007 release from federal prison, Leslie “Ike” Atkinson was handed a copy of New York Magazine , in it he read an interview conducted in 2000 with former drug lord Frank Lucas. Much of the story Lucas told in the article was, according to Atkinson’s account, simply not true – at least in terms of the who and how dope made it into the country. The Lucas interview would however become the basis of a major motion picture. Receiving good reviews and more than a few award nominations , American Gangster released in 2007 with a starring performance by Denzel Washington.The climax of the Hollywood tale, a morbid smuggling scheme whereby heroin was packed into the coffins of deceased servicemen (“Cadaver Connection”), is what Ike Atkinson says is most disturbing and outlandish.
While on a recent book tour stop, Atkinson, now 84, and author Ron Chepesiuk took a few moments to explain the anatomy of a smuggling operation, Sergeant Smack’s relationship to Frank Lucas, and why they believe Hollywood tends to put more emphasis on fantasy than fact.
How does a respected army officer transition into the dangerous world of drug trafficking?
Atkinson:I was happy up until the time I was about to retire. I got court marshaled for gambling in the officers club. I had twenty years in and was looking to extend it another twenty when I got court marshaled. So I resigned. If I had to go back and do it again, I would probably have pursued flying. And this is how I got into the dope trade… I got in through a friend of mine, William Jackson. He’s dead now, but if it wasn’t for that I would have probably stayed into gambling, cards and shooting craps.
The book mentions you were quite the adventure-seeker and couldn’t resist a gamble. What offered the bigger thrill: gambling or smuggling?
Atkinson: At the time, I thought gambling was. But when I got into the heroin business, it just went off and I changed my opinion about that. Heroin and the big money. I speak for myself and my ex-partner who got me into this business. He was a former army friend of mine, in the same unit, and we both retired about the same time. Big money was in heroin, but at that time I had never seen dope in my life. I was in the service, gambled a lot and went to a lot of places. I had access to military flights, fly free and got to go to a lot of places.
Were you ever concerned about the violent element usually associated with the drug trade?
Atkinson: Outside my military service, I have never carried a gun. Never have. I wouldn’t have been in that type of business if there was going to be violence, and I never had any while I was in it. I’m positive that if we had… I would have gone on my way.
You are known by two nicknames, both born of very different circumstances. How did you get these monikers?
Atkinson: My friends, when I was seven or eight, called me shorty and I didn’t like that. I had a friend gave that name Ike so I kept it. I went to the army and General Eisenhower was called Ike and I knew I would never get rid of it then.
Chepesiuk: The code name for Ike was Centac 9. Ike was number nine on the list. They were always looking for catchy names so They called him Sergeant Smack . He was a sergeant in the military and smack is the nickname for heroin. Ike took it personally in the beginning of writing the book because he thought the name was derogatory or cast a dispersion on his service, but I convinced him it had nothing to do with that and it was a good name for the book.
As explained In the New York Magazine article, Frank Lucas imported heroin into the United States via coffins of soldiers coming home from Southeast Asia. You dispute this version of events?
Atkinson: It did not happen that way. First of all, Frank Lucas had no claim on that territory. That was mine and my partner William Jackson. Anything he could do in New York — he couldn’t do it in Thailand. He was one of my customers and asked me to take him to Bangkok. We tried to get him a passport in Maryland, but couldn’t. So I took him down to North Carolina to his hometown, got a birth certificate, took him back to New York and bought a ticket for him, his brother Shorty, my nephew Wade and myself. That’s the only time he came to Thailand and he bought his drugs from me.
To your knowledge, is there any truth to the so-called ‘cadaver connection’ controversy?
Atkinson: Absolutely not! That man had no part in smuggling drugs out of Thailand. And let me tell you something — I had my own little thing, most of the guys called a mob, ya know the guys that you have working with you. Not one of them could stand up in court, or take a lie detector test and say that he had anybody to take a gram of dope out of Thailand. He had absolutely nothing in it. Thinking back, he thought some rag tag thing was going on in Thailand. And he probably thought I could take him over so he could see what it was and then do it himself.
How do you think the whole cadaver conspiracy theory got started then?
Atkinson: I was getting a big shipment ready and I knew what I wanted to do – put it in teakwood. But I wanted to try it out first and see if it worked. My partner Jackson got caught in Denver with a shipment and that was the second thing, at that time, that the government learned we were doing. So I was going to turn all that around and we decided to try teakwood. I brought my friend and carpenter Leon Ellis to my home in Goldsboro N. Carolina to do some cabinetry. We had the opportunity at that time to take part in what I was doing. In Thailand, while he was there, Frank Lucas came to my house and I introduced him to Leon, simply telling Lucas that Leon was doing carpenter work for me. What happened was, lucas spotted Leon in my back yard, and he acted like Leon was a friend and went out. Ellis never said a word in the conversation. Lucas asked Leon what he was doing and I spoke right up and said Leon was making coffins. That’s probably where Lucas got the whole coffin thing. There was no coffin. We were doing the teakwood furniture. He thought Leon was making coffins. Nobody in my organization had anything to do with coffins. We were shipping drugs, but not in that way. He never took a drop of damn heroin out of Thailand in his life. And nobody ever charged him with taking drugs out of Thailand. He was not in the loop.
The Character called “Nate” in the film American Gangster is said to have been based on you. What are your thoughts on how the film American Gangster portrayed the events overall?
Atkinson: All that stuff you saw in American Gangster is just a movie. It had nothing to do with the real story of transporting heroin from Thailand.
In the book Sergeant Smack, it’s stated that you tried inform the filmmakers and Lucas of these disputed events and but the film released without your suggested changes. What are your thoughts on this?
Chepesiuk: When the book came out, we invited Lucas to a discussion. He’s got Hollywood behind him. There’s nothing in it for him, so you can’t blame him for sitting with Ike face to face. The thing is, before I started talking to Ike, and I talked to him for over fifty hours, but before that ‘” nobody knew who Ike was. Slowly but surely people are starting to realize. But, you could tell people Elvis was never kidnapped by aliens, but there will still be people who believe Elvis was kidnapped by aliens. People don’t like to be suckers, so they tend to keep with the false story than admit that there’s something wrong. If we get this story in Hollywood ‘” it should be very interesting.
Atkinson: I’ve got witnesses, that were part of the organization and still alive, that I was the one who smuggled the drugs in. Lucas had no part in it. I don’t know anybody, that was part of this organization, that would do something with Frank Lucas. Not one of them