By Seth Ferranti
In the 1970s the heroin market in the United States was dominated by a black distributor named Frank Matthews who operated out of New York. He was the most notable black figure on the east coast at the time and one of the first major independents who challenged the mob for supremacy in the criminal underworld. The Black Caesar, as he was known, was a new kind of super-criminal ruling a nationwide empire of dope. He was the boss of bosses and the DEA ranks him as one of the Top Ten drug traffickers in United States history. A pivotal figure in the history of the drug trade, Matthews was one of the nation’s largest narcotics dealers from the 1960s through the early 1970s, and he routinely handled multi-million dollar shipments. More importantly, Matthews was the first black man astute and confident enough to control an interstate organization the size and scope of his operation, at a time when the Mob controlled everything, illegal or otherwise. Astonishingly Matthews did it while still in his twenties.
He became a major dealer in twenty-one states with quality overseas contacts for both heroin and cocaine. Frank was a North Carolina country boy who seized control of the black rackets in New York City. The DEA said that Matthews imported heroin from Turkey by way of processing plants in Marseilles, France and cocaine from Latin America. Street legend has it that his wealth could not be counted. He had Pablo Escobar-type money in the early 1970s. It didn’t go to his head. To him money wasn’t but a thing. He controlled the illegal drug market in the inner-cities from the east coast to the west coast and had contacts with Cuban wholesalers who controlled vast portions of the South American coke trade to the United States. Matthews earned respect in the streets and criminal underworld by holding his own against the Mafia. When his profits became so huge that they took notice he didn’t bow down, he dictated. In essence, Frank was the first black man that had the Mob shook. He was a true trendsetter and set the standard for future street legends who followed in his path and tried to earn the title of American gangster.
Matthews was Mr. Big. In four years he made an estimated 300 million. By the early 1970s Matthews’ organization was handling multimillion dollar shipments in 21 states. He was running a well-oiled and profitable operation that functioned like a machine. He worked on strict business principles- high grade heroin sold at fair prices with a ruthless attitude toward payment. Dealers could cut Frank’s coke ten times and put an eighty on the heroin. Frank would descend on a town in his Cadillac and give local distributors the benefit of his wisdom. He franchised like McDonald’s.
A suitable candidate for a Matthews’ dealership would be identified in advance by one of several point men Frank employed to find market opportunities for him and it was almost always an agreeable experience. Matthews probably accounted for the distribution of about one third of all the heroin entering the country. His purchasing power was the kind the Corsicans couldn’t ignore and the deals he brokered showed his stature. In the summer of 1971 Matthews took delivery of 150 kilos at 623 East 37th Street in Brooklyn. Five weeks later he got another 100 kilos. That winter two more shipments of 112 and 152 kilos arrived.
His biggest problem was securing enough cocaine and heroin to keep his organization running smoothly. He also had to deal with shortages of cutting materials. A five percent bag of heroin was also ninety-five percent quinine, mannite, milk sugar, Epsom salts or some other soluble non-toxic base, so that by the time a 100 kilo shipment of pure reached the streets at five percent strength, it would’ve been cut with over two tons of filler. At three percent it would need about three and a half tons. Quantities of that sort weren’t available over drugstore counters.
Quinine, the preferred cutting material was hard to come by. After 1971, a license was needed to buy or sell it and many drug dealers diversified into pest control, one of the few businesses left that could use quinine legally on a large scale. Needing it by the truckload Matthews went this route. By the late spring of 1972 his stockpile of cutting materials was so low that he was unable to cut and distribute 50 kilos of heroin he had, though every dealer in his empire was begging for a package. Frank set up a company called Herald Corporation to buy stock in a bank and import mannite from Italy. Walter Rosenbaum was his partner in the venture.
Not all of Frank's shipments made it. In January 1972, Matthews went down to Miami to supervise the final stage of 175 kilos of pure coming in from Marseilles. The dope cost 1.75 million and Matthews was set to make 2.5 million on the one deal. By the time the heroin hit the street, cut perhaps 30 to 1, it would have generated $150 million. Agents of the BNDD acting on a tip moved in, as the first three couriers were leaving by air for New York and Matthews was hit. It was the biggest bust the government had to date, but by no means the biggest Matthews ever put together. Six months later 400 kilos were seized in the New York harbor, but crooked cops sold Matthews his heroin back, 180 kilos of it. Matthews just paid for it twice. Matthews was knee-deep in money so it didn't matter. A loss was a loss. He just needed the product from whatever source he could get it from.
The cop, Detective Joseph Nanziatta, a fifteen-year veteran on the force who signed out the 180 kilos, was later found dead in his car, an apparent suicide, in the Greenport section of Brooklyn. He had an appointment to see U.S. Attorney Whitey North Seymour Jr. that day.
The prosecutor was offering him immunity from prosecution, in return for his cooperation in an investigation of corruption among narcotics agents and police officers. A few hours before the interview Nanziatta apparently drove out to Greenpoint, wound up the windows and shot himself in the left side of the chest with his .38 caliber service revolver. The dirty cop’s death didn’t register for Matthews. He went on about his business as if nothing happened. He was about money, money, money. One associate told how Matthews, “Kept money bundled up in rubber bands, stacked in broad parallel rows, like green brick walls, three to four feet high, from one side of the room to the other, with aisles between them to help make the counting easier.” That was how Frank Matthews got down. To him it was strictly business.
Frank employed several stewardesses who worked for domestic airlines also, paying them $1,000 a drop. They would pick up packages at an airport locker, pack it in their airline flight bag and leave it in another airport locker upon arrival. Frank worked on multiple levels. Always scheming to make a buck. He had all types of deals going down simultaneously. He was a multitasking drug kingpin. Frank told associates, “When you travel, always get a round trip. Don't matter if you don't use it- one way tickets make them jumpy.” His associate said, “Makes air travel kind of expensive, don't it?” Frank laughed, “Expensive, oh man. That one way ticket of yours damn near cost you a hundred thousand.” For the lawyers fees incurred when or if his associate got busted. Frank didn't take too many precautions other than that. He traveled on a legitimate passport in his own name.
Frank was involved in every aspect of his smuggling operation. He bought a DC-3 in Caracas for $100,000 and made a deal with Venezuelan secret police for safe passage of his shipments coming in from Marseilles to avoid the usual customs inspection at Marquetia Airport. He did everything he could to make sure his investment made a safe journey. Frank was big on real estate also. Matthews was looking to buy some beachfront property in Port-au-Prince. He saw it as an investment. He wanted to diversify his interests. This international wheeler- dealer was balling in ways that later drug dealers couldn’t even imagine. The type of money and power he had access to was colossal.
The police had an organizational chart that showed Frank Matthews at the top of the tree, with branches that spread out to include 113 individuals. “Some of whom did not know they were part of his organization.” A detective said. Most of the people on the chart in fact, actually thought they were at the top of the pyramid. But they were only big shots in a small glass. Matthews was the real deal, the puppet master who was pulling all the strings. Dudes like Liddy Jones from Baltimore, who employed seventy-five people, including eighteen baggers, thirty-five bundle dealers and at least two hitmen were literally, little sub-organizations under Frank.
In 1971, one drug gang alone was buying as much as five kilos of heroin at a time from Matthews at prices of 26 grand a kilo. The gang would then sell 17,500 bags, to as many as 10,000 retail customers, for a gross of about $45,000 daily. That gang, the Dutch Shultz organization in Bedford-Stuyvesant, bought enough to keep an army of Cadillacs. In twelve months they took a hundred kilos from Matthews. In the same twelve month period Ray “Dutch Shultz” Daniels and his partner Donald “Keno” James had expanded their payroll from about forty people serving a Brooklyn/Queens clientele to more than 150 baggers, pushers, street lieutenants and enforcers operating in all five boroughs.
Keno regularly took delivery of five kilo or larger packages from Matthews himself, often making cash payments of $250,000, but when possible he liked to deal with Micky Beckwith, because he thought Frank was crazy. “One time I took a cab and met Frank in Brooklyn and he gave me a package of like five keys, all wrapped up. He offered to drive me back.” Keno said. “During the ride he was driving extremely fast. We ran across a couple of traffic lights and I got scared. He was driving a green convertible Cadillac and he scared the shit out of me. I said, ‘Maybe I ought to take a cab’ because I had the five keys on me and any minute the cops are going to stop us. He just laughed.”
Matthews and his crew were real casual when they hit dudes with packages because they knew the cops were in their pockets. They would just walk out on the street, meet dudes at the corner and produce the package from under their coat, handing it over. Since Frank had the cops in Brooklyn on the payroll he never worried. To Frank it was all a trip. He found a lot of shit comical. In the drug game there were all types, which really amused Frank. He got a kick out of the different situations that arose.
One time, a dude was trying to jump Brother Carter, Frank’s man in B-More, and buy directly from Frank. He told Frank he only wanted to deal with him and offered Frank a 50 grand down payment for his next package. It was street money- creased, dirty and in small denominations. Matthews glanced at it indifferently and told dude he only took money in big clean bills. An hour later dude came back, having somehow changed the 50 grand into $100 bills. Matthews smiled at him lazily, “Man, I got five times that much with me just to lose at the tables. Now you just give that loose change to Brother Carter and he’ll take care of you like always.” Dealers were always trying to get closer to Frank but he trusted his people. Through Carter, Matthews controlled at least 80 percent of the narcotics trade in B-More. That was good enough for Frank.
Matthews spent his time with wine, women, coke and gambling. Staying in luxury hotels and driving cars like his gold Lincoln Mark III, working his magic on hustlers across the United States to sell his dope. Matthews was suspected by the feds of trafficking heroin in seven or eight regions of the country. He was a marketing expert who flaunted his wealth. He would appear in all his glory- in a full length black sable coat or a black leather safari suit- driving yet another brand new El Dorado to hit the Persian Room on a Saturday night.
He used to tell people, “You know how it is when you got a hundred thousand things on your mind? The bigger you are in drugs, the more careful you got to be to stay clean. You got to keep away from the stuff. You got to stay off the streets and you got to line other people up to take the fall when there’s trouble.” But Frank didn’t follow his own advice. He was right down there in the mix. Doing everything he didn’t need to be doing and getting his hands dirty. Frank used cocaine, melting it with smack to make speedballs and despite his status, he never carried a gun. His presence was intimidating enough.
Matthews loved cocaine too. It was not just his business, it was his breakfast, lunch and dinner- a complete life support system. Cocaine imposed such a pattern of its own on Frank’s behavior that normal became abnormal. One day in February 1971 Detective Kowalski saw Matthews looking all around his car like he lost something. After Matthews left in disgust Kowlaski checked the area and found a small aluminum foil package wrapped in wax paper that had an ounce of white powder. By the autumn of 1972 Matthews showed all the classic symptoms of chronic cocaine abuse, shuttling between extremes of euphoria and irritability in an almost continuous macho delusional power trip.
He was Tony Montana come to life- the black scarface. He seemed possessed by a sense of invincibility and a godlike mastery over his own fate that was not to be shaken by such setbacks as the raid on the OK Corral or the collapse of a 100 kilo deal. What was one heroin mill or heroin source more or less to Black Caesar? The loss was annoying but it taught him nothing. It was an affront, not a lesson. Frank went about his business as blatantly as ever, still putting millions away in preparation for retirement. He was indifferent to the danger despite a kaleidoscope of factors swirling around him. The feds were circling him like vultures, ready to swoop down, while the Mob was watching him like a hawk, looking for any sign weakness, to pay him back for slights to their honor, real or imagined.
The legends and mythology surrounding Matthews are still relevant today, 36 years later. He left behind a trail of unsolved murders, a fleet of luxury cars and a lavishly decorated mansion. His reputation has remained impeccable. He is an icon to all those enamored with gangsters. A master of the drug game. “Frank was freed on a million dollar bail which was required by authorities to be posted collectively by three separate bondsmen so that in the event of his jumping he would have a triple threat on his tail.” Fats says. “Frank still managed to disappear, taking 20 million dollars with him.”
To dudes in the streets Matthews is a hero. An outlaw of epic proportions. The hustler who did it his way and got away with it. He gave the United States government the big fuck you and blatantly defied them right to their face. He bypassed the Mob, the preeminent criminal structure of the day by importing his heroin directly from Turkey by way of processing plants in Marseilles, France and got his cocaine straight from Latin American long before the Colombian cocaine cartels were in vogue. Locally he eliminated the middleman by handling the narcotics all the way down to the street sales, plus sold weight to big dealers in other cities. He was the original American Gangster- fuck all that other shit- Frank Matthews was the real deal and god's honest truth when it came to this gangster shit. He did it in the dope game like no one else, before or after him.
Check out the rest of this story and more in Street Legends Vol. 2. Order it today.
Seth Ferranti is author of numerous true crime books, Order them online at all bookstores or visit Ferranti’s website Gorilla Convict to get your copy there. You can also follow Ferranti on Twitter @SethFerranti
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