The Black Godfather Who Rose, Fell and Vanished
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this drug kingpin might still be on the lam.
By Seth Ferranti
Legend holds that Carlo Gambino, the No. 1 Mafioso in New York City, put a contract out on Frank Matthews in the early ’70s. Instead of going into hiding or attempting to parley with the infamous mobster, the man known as the Black Godfather made a bold and reckless statement that could only be taken as the direct threat it was: “Touch one of my men, and I’ll drive down Mulberry Street [the main drag of New York’s Little Italy] and shoot every wop I see.”
Not prone to idle threats himself, Gambino knew his uptown enemy was deadly serious. Matthews seemed to have a problem with Italians selling heroin to Blacks, though he had no problem supplying it himself. Gambino wisely called off the hit rather then start a costly war between the Blacks and Italians — one that would have left both sides decimated. Gambino had made what was considered a smart tactical move in the criminal underworld, where everyone knows the mob has a long memory and might wait years to exact revenge.
Matthews was the epitome of gangster style, a flamboyant and cocky entrepreneur who owned a fleet of exotic and luxury cars.
Frank Matthews was a Black drug kingpin originally from Durham, North Carolina, who operated from the late 1960s to 1973. “I call him the Al Capone of Black organized crime, because he was the first big gangster to operate outside his hood,” says Ron Chepesiuk, author of Black Caesar: The Rise and Disappearance of Frank Matthews, Kingpin. At one time Matthews operated in 21 states and imported enough heroin to flood the country with dope. In the criminal underworld money equals power, and Frank Matthews was known to front $2 million to $3 million at a time to get his shipments in.
“He had a connection, a Cuban gangster by the name of Rolando Gonzalez,” Chepesiuk tells OZY. Gonzalez, who operated out of Harlem, acted as a bridge between South American cocaine wholesalers and French heroin importers. When Matthews met Gonzalez, the Cuban had just jumped bail, but before he fled to Venezuela, he sold Matthews his first 2 kilos of heroin and plugged him into the Corsican Mafia. That introduction helped Matthews become the first African-American drug lord to bypass the usual stateside Cosa Nostra channels and directly import heroin from abroad.
According to Donald Goddard’s Easy Money, Matthews became the “new [Lucky] Luciano of dope.” As the old European-based drug-smuggling routes through New York were disrupted, Cubans like Gonzalez had helped forge new routes through Latin America, with Miami as the central hub. With a seemingly endless supply, Matthews ran an empire of dope from his base in Brooklyn, supplying most big inner-city heroin dealers. He was much bigger than Frank Lucas, the kingpin portrayed by Denzel Washington in the 2007 film American Gangster.
“Frank Matthews was a name that had such unbelievable yet true stories associated with it, that you didn’t know if he was a real person or not,” says Alan Bradley (aka Al Profit), director of the 2012 documentary The Frank Matthews Story. The filmmaker remembers thinking that Matthews was like a character from a blaxploitation movie who had stepped into real life.
Matthews was the epitome of gangster style, a flamboyant and cocky entrepreneur who owned a fleet of exotic and luxury cars, although he preferred the Lincoln Continental Mark IV. His fashion sense ran toward full-length mink coats, bespoke suits and platform shoes. He loved cigars and Las Vegas, where he thought nothing of dropping $200,000 at a casino. To prove that he wasn’t scared of the Mafia, Matthews purchased a mansion on Buttonwood Road in Todt Hill, Staten Island, across the street from where Paul Castellano, Carlo Gambino’s brother-in-law and successor in the mob hierarchy, lived.
Meanwhile, law enforcement was closing in. After a multimonth investigation by the New York Joint Drug Task Force — a collaboration between the New York Police Department, New York state and what became the Drug Enforcement Administration — federal agents arrested Matthews in Las Vegas in January 1973. He was extradited to New York City, where he was charged with six counts of tax evasion, as well as conspiracy to distribute cocaine and heroin. If convicted, he faced 50 years in prison.
Despite prosecutors’ insistence that Matthews was a flight risk, the judge on the case reduced the gangster’s bail, which was set at $2.5 million in Vegas, to just $325,000 — chump change for someone like Matthews. Sure enough, on July 2, 1973, Matthews secured a bond and promptly jumped bail, allegedly fleeing with his girlfriend and $20 million in cash. Despite being the object of the biggest manhunt in DEA history, Matthews and his girlfriend haven’t been seen since.
A lot of crime historians think he’s still out there, but Chepesiuk isn’t one of them. “I think Frank is dead,” Chepesiuk says. “He would be nearly 74, and he had a bad heart when he fled; he’d pissed off the Corsican Mafia, and he’s never been spotted.” Some think that the Italian-American Mafia had him whacked, but with no fingerprints, no snitches and no sightings, the disappearance of Frank Matthews remains one of the biggest mysteries in the history of organized crime.
- Seth Ferranti Contact Seth Ferranti