By David Amoruso
In 1973, Frank Matthews, history’s first African American drug kingpin, jumped bail in New York City with $15 to 20 million and ostensibly a beautiful girlfriend. Nearly four decades later, the fate of Frank Matthews, the money and the girlfriend, Cheryl Brown, remain a complete mystery. “It’s as if Matthews dropped off the face of the earth,” explained Mike Pizzi, a retired U.S. Marshal who was involved with the hunt for Matthews, the fugitive, for several years.
Now, in a new documentary, filmmakers Alan “Al Profit” Bradley (www.alprofit.com) and Ron Chepesiuk (www.ronchepesiuk.com) investigate the “Frank Matthews Story: The Rise and Disappearance of America’s Biggest Kingpin.” The one hour and 25 minute documentary features rare archival footage, interviews with Mike Pizzi and other sources who previously haven’t talked on camera about Frank Matthews and never before seen photos of Matthews. The documentary explores several intriguing questions: how was Matthews’ been able to operate for several years without being detected? What was his relationship with La Cosa Nostra? Why did the CIA get involved in the Matthews investigation? What happened to Cheryl Brown? Why has the mystery of his disappearance been so difficult to solve?
Born in 1944 in Durham, North Carolina, Matthews left his hometown when he was a teenager, going first to Philadelphia and then to New York City. By the early 1970’s, Frank Matthews (right) had become America's biggest drug kingpin. His organization, headquartered in Brooklyn, stretched across more than 20 states, and he became the only Black gangster to establish direct ties to the French Connection heroin pipeline. To quote a federal prosecutor assigned to the Matthews’ case, “Matthews was a pioneering giant of drug distribution."
Matthews’ organization eventually outgrew even the Italian Mafia, and when he built himself a mansion in Staten Island's most exclusive neighborhood (and across the street from mobsters Paul Castellano and Three Finger Brown), he found himself on the verge of a war with La Cosa Nostra. Matthews also battled militant Black Muslims for control in the streets of New Jersey and Philadelphia as he built his empire. “Frank Matthews was a legend in the drug trade,” Profit explained. “That legend has only grown over the years.”
The $15 to 20 million dollars he disappeared with is roughly equivalent to $100 million in today's cash. What happened to Frank Matthews? That’s the most intriguing question in organized crime history, said Chepesiuk, who has spent five years researching the Frank Matthews story. “Despite one of the largest manhunts in US history, there is no proof as to whether he is alive or dead.”
Ron Chepesiuk and Alan “Al Profit” Bradley, the makers of The Frank Matthews Story: The Rise and Disappearance of America’s Biggest Kingpin, were kind enough to sit down with Gangsters Inc. and answer some questions about their new documentary.
Q: When did you first become familiar/interested with Frank Matthews’ story and what peaked your interest about this drug boss?
RON: I became familiar with Frank Matthews in the mid 2000s when I was researching my book, Gangsters of Harlem. I thought it was a great story to bring to the screen. I hooked up with another documentary filmmaker but nothing ever happened. Meantime, I could not believe no one else had jumped on the story. Then Al approached me last fall. I thought he had the complementary skills to get it done, and we did.
AL: I kept hearing about this guy Frank Matthews and when Ron mentioned to me that he had been researching Matthews for five years, my interest was piqued. So I had Ron explain the contours of the story to me, and I said: “This is really important, we have to get it out”. Time was of the essence, the people involved are in their late sixties, some of them in their eighties. With every passing year the mists of time obscure the story more and more.
Q: Can you describe the process of making a documentary like this one? How does it start, what phases are there?
AL: This is my sixth crime documentary in the past four years, and I’ve certainly learned a tremendous amount about how to go about it. Initially you gather information, Ron filled me in on the contours of the story and he laid out the interview schedule. As we begin doing the interviews I just absorb all the things all the people say and I begin to find common points that different subjects mention, different ways that the historical facts are tangent (or clash) with the interview subjects. And I let the words of the interview subjects guide me to the points I emphasize or really delve into. Instead of having a strict blueprint of what we’re going to cover, it arises organically as I parse each interview. For a 90 minute documentary you might have fifteen hours of interview footage. This is the real work, weaving the interviews together. Then I begin to build a visual tableaux to reinforce the interviews, which includes re-enactments in this case. Then the graphics, titles, etc. are added. Parallel with this process is music and sound effects which I do myself and I really find to be the hardest part, finding appropriate music to use that doesn’t violate copyright laws. I’ll be happy when I have the budget to hire someone to score my films!
Q: With organized crime being comprised of a very secretive group of people who usually avoid the spotlight, how easy or hard was it for you guys to find people to interview on camera?
RON: Well, Frank Matthews has a mystique and is a legend. The mystique and legend are enhanced by the fact that we know absolutely nothing about what happened to him when he jumped bail in 1973. Law enforcement, for the most part, was eager to talk to us. Many of them had worked on the Matthews investigation and they tell us that Matthews was the biggest and most remarkable gangster of the 1970s period. But I also had built contacts over the years and I was able to use those contacts to find good sources for the documentary.
Q: While filming the documentary did you stumble upon any new information that had not been uncovered before? Obviously you don’t want to give away too much, but if the answer is yes, could you give our readers a “vague” story about it?
RON: Yeah, we found interesting things. For example, The CIA got involved in the Venezuelan part of the Frank Matthews investigation. One of the law enforcement sources was finally willing to talk about it Also, we found out that there has never been a credible sighting of Matthews since he disappeared. You can use that piece of evidence to claim he is either alive or not alive.
Q: What surprised you the most while doing research or filming the documentary? Either about the production itself or the story of Frank Matthews.
RON : We were both surprised by the depth of the story and the amazing personality of Matthews. I don’t see how a guy could have so many friends, know so many people and entertain so many mistresses. Everybody, it seemed, liked him, and his personality was bigger than life.
Q: Where would you place Matthews in the long line of American gangsters? How big of an impact did he have?
AL: What’s so interesting about Matthews and the late sixties, early seventies era is the confluence of race, crime, and social upheaval. He really tried to be the black Lucky Luciano, the guy who organized things for the black gangsters. But it wasn’t meant to be. The fact that he called a summit of top black and Latin drug dealers in Atlanta in 1971 is really amazing; it’s akin to the Mafia’s Appalachian meeting that was the beginning of their slow decline. In terms of personal attributes he seems to be one of the most charismatic and smartest gangsters ever. Here’s this teenager that leaves Durham, North Carolina in the early 60’s and five or six years later he’s getting heroin directly from the French Connection. Everyone who worked with him loved him, he had lieutenants up in multiple major cities, he was a one-man La Cosa Nostra. When he disappeared he was only 29 years old and he had amassed 15 million in cash, which is about 90 million in today’s dollars. No Italian or Jewish gangster ever amassed that much cash at that young of an age, even Al Capone didn’t because he was spending his money and losing it at the horse track as fast as he made it. And Frank is one of the few to ever operate at those levels and get away with it. As for his impact? What’s the impact of any gangster? They’re really a product of their times. When the public has a demand for an illegal good, be it liquor, drugs, or sex, someone will meet it. He certainly took black gangsterism to the summit of crime, he beat the Italians at their own game at a time when it was hard for a black male to get financing on a new car or buy his own home in some parts of the country.
Q: And following up on that: what impact on the streets does he have today? Is he a major idol for young gangsters trying to make it big? Or isn’t his name that well known?
AL: I think a lot of older people on the East Coast know his name, in an almost mythical way. Like Keyser Soze from the movie “The Usual Suspects”. I don’t know how many young people know who he is, but he had an anecdote told about him on “The Wire”, so there is certainly knowledge of him in certain quarters. In the older generation guys knew that he got away and there was a joke of “pulling a Frank Matthews” and disappearing. I think a lot of the black guys involved in selling drugs now are so unsophisticated that they can’t even fathom getting away with their crimes. They almost want to be caught. BMF comes to mind.
Q: The past decade there has been a huge increase in the public’s fascination with everything “gangster”. Magazines, music, television series and movies are dedicated to them now more than ever. How do you explain this recent jump in interest?
RON: I don’t know if there has been a jump in interest. It may seem that way because of the ubiquity of the Internet and cyberspace but look at Hollywood and you can see the public has always been fascinated by gangsters who live on the edge unlike us everyday folk who do the right things to get ahead in life.
Q: So, what do you think? Is Matthews still alive? Did he get away with it?
RON: No one really knows. The arguments for and against him being alive are equally good. But if I was to bet, I would bet he is alive, unless he died of natural causes (he'd be 68 today). Buy me a beer or a dozen and I will spend a few hours explaining my answer. Otherwise, wait for the book, which I am writing and which should be out this fall.
AL: I think yes. The recent arrest of the black airline hijacker that had been hiding in Portugal shows that a black American could hide anywhere in the world. More than anything, though, the fact that the DEA reopened the investigation in the 90's points to them having real concrete info about him being in the Philly/New York area at the time, info that was reflected by their reticence to talk specifics on camera.
Q: Can we expect more crime documentaries from you guys?
AL: If I can find another story as compelling as the Frank Matthews Story, which interests me because of its historical and social elements as much as it’s “Gangsterism”.
RON: We are planning a Frank Matthews documentary sequel. The story is so rich and fascinating and we are still uncovering info by the story
Q: Where can we see and/or buy The Frank Matthews Story?
RON: Go to www.frankmatthewsmovie.com for a discount on the documentary. To contact the filmmakers, e-mail email@example.com
The documentary will be screened and open to the media at two locations:
Friday, March 23, 2012 @ 7 p.m.
Hayti Heritage Center (www.hayti.org)
Wednesday, April 11, 2012 @ 7:30 p.m.
The Museum of the American Gangster http://museumoftheamericangangster.org/)
New York, NY
Thanks to both of you for taking the time out of your busy schedules to do this interview! Appreciate it!
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