As a toddler, Francine Lucas had a Fendi fur coat, a $10,000 FAO Schwarz train set and more toys than she could play with. She also had dozens of cuddly toy dogs and teddy bears that were stuffed with cash, as were the washer and dryer in her family’s big house in Teaneck, New Jersey. The walls, too, were literally lined with money; there was simply too much to hide under the mattress.
Little Francine had no idea how rich her family was or where the wealth came from. All she knew was that her tall, good-looking father worked nights in “the candy business” and arrived home each morning carrying satchels bulging with cash. Coming through the front door, Frank Lucas would lift his daughter high in the air and coo, “Daddy’s baby.” Then he’d shower, change and cook breakfast while Francine played near him in the kitchen.
Frank was at the stove frying eggs and bacon, with three-year-old Francine at his feet, when federal agents burst into the house one morning in January 1975. She felt comforted for a moment as her dad swept her up and pressed her to his chest, then terrified as strange arms ripped her from him and threw her to the carpet. She witnessed the rest of the chaos from ground level—a rush of shoes, guns and her mother’s screams as her father was taken away by police; he was eventually sentenced to 70 years in prison.
Frank Lucas was not, of course, in the candy business. In the early seventies, he and his gang, The Country Boys, controlled much of the heroin coming from Southeast Asia into the New York area. It was Frank who came up with the idea of shipping dope back from Vietnam in the caskets of dead American soldiers. Shortly before the raid on his house, federal agents seized about $4 million in drugs from just one of his several “stash houses” in Newark, New Jersey. Frank later boasted in a magazine article that he’d even killed a man (something he’s since denied).
For Francine, her dad’s arrest would mark the start of a 30-year odyssey that took her from New Mexico to Puerto Rico to Las Vegas and finally Atlanta. Through it all, she would learn to conceal who she was and what she was thinking, to wrap herself so tightly in an aura of middle-class respectability that no one ever guessed her secret.
But this month brings the release of a movie about Frank Lucas—American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington as Frank, and Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the prosecutor who brought him down—and Francine can no longer hide. She figures that the people who know her only as a mortgage broker and suburban mom will put two and two together. So she’s taking control and telling her story in these pages. In doing so, she hopes to shed light on the agony of the 2.4 million American kids who have a father or mother in jail.
Written By Nell Bernstein