Tales of heroin being smuggled in coffins of GIs have endured for four decades.
Tales of heroin being smuggled in coffins of GIs have endured for four decades.

“I should know. I was one of the criminal investigators who helped end the so-called Asian Connection”.

Twelve flag-draped coffins bearing the remains of U.S. servicemen killed in Vietnam are reverently offloaded from an Air Force C-130 cargo plane and stored in a warehouse in a remote corner of Newark International Airport to be picked up by local morticians the next day. Police have a tip that heroin was hidden on the plane, and surveillance is set up outside the airport’s perimeter fence. Around midnight a “Bayonne Custodial Services” van pulls up to the warehouse. Six men jump from the truck, one the brother of New York City drug kingpin Frank Lucas. Lucas had earlier flown to Thailand where his cousin, Army Sergeant Nate Rose, took him to “the Golden Triangle” to buy a ton of heroin from an opium warlord. Circumventing the middlemen, Lucas could corner the Harlem heroin market by selling higher quality dope at lower prices. With this much heroin, he would be able to wipe out the competition. Out of view of the police, the men drill into the aluminum body transfer cases. They pull packages of heroin from false compartments—2,000 pounds in all—then wheel them in laundry carts to the waiting van. The cops tail them to a seedy housing project in Newark and raid the apartment that Lucas uses as his cutting and bagging pad.

The war in Vietnam spawned innumerable tales and enduring legacies, on the battlefield and off. Among the most notorious is that bodies and coffins of slain American soldiers served to transport vast quantities of heroin into the United States, as described above, in the climactic scenes from the celebrated 2007 movie, American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas. The credits say the movie is based on a true story. More correctly, it’s based on a story truly told to them by Frank Lucas.

Three parts of the story are wrong. First, Nate Rose—true name Leslie “Ike” Atkinson—was not a lackey of Frank Lucas as portrayed in the movie. Second, Lucas likely never traveled to the Golden Triangle, let alone purchased heroin there. And third, although it remains widely believed and comports well with popular perceptions of American failures in the war, no heroin was ever seized from the coffins of U.S. servicemen killed in Vietnam.

I should know. I was one of the criminal investigators who helped end the so-called Asian Connection.

In early 1970, after serving a year in Vietnam as an Army Intelligence Officer, I joined the federal narcotics agency that in 1973 became the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). I had wanted to be a “detective” ever since I was a kid and, after my experience as a military adviser in Vietnam, wanted to work overseas. The DEA was the ticket, with investigators stationed in more than 60 countries.

After three years on the streets in Philadelphia, I applied for Asia. Nine grueling months of Thai language school later, my wife and I and our nine-month-old baby landed in steamy, exotic Bangkok, the gateway for Southeast Asian heroin entering into international markets.

In those days every active investigation had to have an agent assigned, if only to prepare monthly status reports. Dumped in my lap barely a year after I settled into Bangkok was the William Jackson­–Leslie Atkinson case. An entire file drawer was stuffed with investigative reports dating back a decade. Atkinson and Jackson were already incarcerated, but rumors persisted that Atkinson was still running his heroin smuggling operation from prison. The problem was that we had no informants who could get us into his group and no prospect of finding one in the tight knit organization.

Atkinson, nicknamed “the fat man,” grew up poor in Goldsboro, N.C. At 17, he forged his mother’s signature to enlist in the Army. After serving in the Korean War, he reverted to a habit learned during his youth: gambling. Atkinson spent the rest of his military career fleecing fellow GIs out of their hard-earned money. After retiring in 1966, he remained in Germany with his “band of brothers,” a cadre of active duty and retired military, to continue his gambling career.

He met Sergeant William Herman “Jack” Jackson while the two were stationed at Ft. Bragg. Jackson retired a year before Atkinson and, during the height of the Vietnam War, moved to Thailand to check out the action. He fell into a lucrative scam: purchasing Military Payment Certificates (MPC) from Saigon merchants at discount prices and then cashing them in at face value upon leaving the country. With that, and the prospect of thousands of GIs in Asia eager to gamble away their money, he enticed Atkinson to join him.

In 1966 they opened Jack’s American Star Bar on Petchburi Road in Bangkok, which became their base of operations. It had Southeast Asia’s hottest soul music, tastiest soul food and sexiest (Thai) soul sisters, becoming an “in place” for black GIs stationed in Thailand, and for those on R&R from Vietnam.

Retired Army NCO Jimmy Smedley moved from Germany to manage the club. Since every local business needed a Thai partner, the club owners coopted Luchai Ruviwat, their diminutive Thai-Chinese bartender, to be theirs.

Jackson and Atkinson soon tired of shuttling between Saigon and Bangkok on the MPC scam. They made money between the bar and crooked gambling games. But in late 1968, they ventured into an even more lucrative venture—the heroin trade.

Buying heroin from Chinese sources of supply, and leveraging their knowledge of military operations and contacts within the military community in Bangkok, the two began moving heroin to the States. Atkinson tried his luck at smuggling heroin in duffle bags as a passenger aboard military aircraft. After a few successful but harrowing experiences, he diversified tactics.

By 1970 a hailstorm of heroin, a kilo at a time, cleverly concealed in the false bottoms of black leather “AWOL” overnight bags purchased at the PX in Bangkok, was raining down on Goldsboro. The bags went through the Army Post Office system with the help of cooperating employees, or were hand-carried by soldiers returning to the States. Some of the soldiers were unsuspecting, but many had been cheated at the card table and were told their debt would be forgiven if they carried a load of heroin. Others just did it for the money. Eventually one of those bags rained on Ike’s parade. It had “Atkinson” written all over it.

When his partner, Jackson, was arrested in 1972 in Denver trying to retrieve a load of heroin, Atkinson took over the whole operation and was forced to commute between Goldsboro and Bangkok. And when his Chinese sources of supply dried up, he pressed Luchai Ruviwat into service to procure his heroin.

It must have been jet lag. As Atkinson watched one of his comrades struggle to stuff a bag of heroin into an AWOL bag, he grew impatient, grabbed it and shoved the heroin in place with the palm of his hand. The bottom was sewn back in and the bag filled with old clothes. It was mailed through the APO to the aunt of an associate who was to pick it up from her when it arrived.

When the elderly lady got the box, she thought there was a bomb inside and called the police. They found the heroin and Atkinson’s palm print on the plastic bag. He was arrested in February 1975 and four months later was convicted and sentenced to 19 years in a North Carolina State penitentiary.

But Atkinson was persistent. He kept running his operation from prison with the help of Smedley in Bangkok. By 1975, U.S. troops had been pulled out of Saigon, and operations in Thailand to support the South Vietnamese were winding down. Realizing that his “military” transportation system was evaporating, Atkinson decided to make a few last shipments—huge ones—that would set him up for the rest of his life.

I already had a Thai surveillance team outfitted with motorcycles, binoculars and cameras watching Smedley to identify who he was associating with. But I needed a lucky break. By chance, as Atkinson was being busted in North Carolina, I got a call from San Francisco that changed everything.

Special Agent Lionel Stewart explained that two GIs had been caught in Japan trying to smuggle a couple of kilos of heroin to the States. He said one was cooperating and had identified a former part-time singer at Jack’s American Star Bar as their source of supply. Stewart asked if I could find the guy.

Jack’s American Star Bar had been closed for some time, but I found their source, an American employee of the 3M Company in Bangkok. Stewart rushed to Bangkok with Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) Mike Nerney, the prosecutor in the Japan case. I called the potential informant to the American Consulate on a ruse, and Nerney pulled off a bluff that would have made championship poker players envious.

“I’ve got an arrest warrant in my one hand, and a ‘get out of jail free’ card in the other,” Nerney said. “Which one do you want? Either cooperate with these two agents,” he said, pointing to Stewart and me, “or face prosecution in the United States.” Nerney had a warrant signed by a federal magistrate in San Francisco for “aiding and abetting a conspiracy,” but we had no evidence to back it up other than the cooperating defendant’s statement. Fortunately, the trembling young man decided to do the right thing.

Stewart was a street-savvy African American raised in a tough New York City neighborhood. He lied about his age in order to join the Army, fought in Korea and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal. He then joined the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, where he excelled in narcotics investigations. When he retired, he was recruited by the DEA.

Our Bangkok informant introduced Stewart, undercover, to his source of heroin, who turned out to be none other than Luchai Ruviwat, Atkinson’s procurer of heroin. Posing as “Johnny,” a tough, San Francisco–based drug trafficker who claimed to have several corrupted Hong Kong–based airline employees on his payroll, Stewart negotiated two purchases of heroin from Luchai.

Luchai wasn’t making that much money with Atkinson. He was paid to buy heroin for Atkinson, and could buy his own, which Atkinson would ship back for him and sell. But Atkinson kept from Luchai the fact that he was getting $100,000 for each kilogram of heroin after diluting it, and returned only $25,000 for each kilo Luchai sent, less a hefty “shipping and handling” charge. Luchai figured Johnny just might be his chance to finally make some real money.

We got the goods on Luchai, meticulously documenting Stewart’s two purchases of heroin during March and July. Now we needed to get Luchai out of Thailand so he couldn’t use his influence to beat the case. Our extradition treaty with Thailand did not include narcotics offenses.

Stewart went for broke, offering, to “wine and dine” Luchai in Las Vegas, and even introduce him to some showgirls. Luchai was so convinced Stewart was the real deal that he not only jumped at his first chance to travel to the States, but also offered to bring a load of heroin along with him.

In late August, Stewart welcomed Luchai at San Francisco International Airport like a long lost relative. We had a hotel room reserved for him in Chinatown, outfitted with a court-ordered bug. Luchai told Johnny that his Thai courier would be arriving the following morning.

The two watched Luchai’s courier clear Customs, whose agents were working with us. A kilogram of pure heroin had been sewn into the false sides of his suitcase. Stewart drove the two to a motel to meet “Mister Big”—Johnny’s boss, DEA Group Supervisor Peter Fong—followed by half the San Francisco office.

At sentencing just before Christmas, Luchai’s attorney pleaded for leniency, stating that Luchai’s wife was dying from leukemia. District Court Judge Oliver Carter was having none of it. He sentenced Luchai to 30 years in a federal penitentiary.

Luchai was a big catch, but we had a bigger fish to fry: the fat man, Ike Atkinson. But Luchai refused to talk.

In Bangkok, several months before Luchai’s arrest in San Francisco, my surveillance team had followed Jimmy Smedley almost every night to the Thermae Massage Parlor. So whenever Stewart was in Bangkok for undercover operations with Luchai, I asked him to hang out there. It took the smooth-talking Johnny no time at all to introduce himself to Smedley and to ingratiate himself with many in the “band of brothers.” One was a new face in town, Freddie Thornton, an NCO who had just retired from the Air Force.

Thornton invited Johnny to stop by his house. They were shooting the breeze the next day when in walked Luchai. The two pretended not to know each other; neither wanted Thornton to know they were in cahoots. But it became clear that Thornton was involved with the Atkinson group, and not just socially. What we didn’t know was just how involved he was.

Thornton never incriminated himself to Stewart, so we had nothing on him. But I figured if he was in business with Atkinson, his cooperation could be invaluable. So after we took down Luchai in San Francisco, I called Bangkok and asked if the Royal Thai Police would consider expelling Thornton to San Francisco in what we jokingly referred to as an “informal extradition.”

The Thai Police raided Thornton’s house on a “writ of suspicion.” They found a pistol that Thornton’s paramour claimed was hers, and marijuana that Thornton claimed wasn’t his. But it was enough to expel Thornton as an “undesirable.”

Once in San Francisco, Thornton told us that he thought Atkinson was in the process of sending a huge load of heroin to the States, as much as 100 pounds, and that if we let him go, he would try to find out the details. If true, it would be one of the largest seizures of pure heroin ever made in the United States.

Thornton wasn’t in our custody, but AUSA Nerney pulled off another bluff. He told Thornton that he would release him under the conditions that Thornton submit to a debriefing by agents at Wilmington, N.C., who were working the domestic side of the case against Atkinson’s organization, and call Stewart every day to report his whereabouts and progress. Had I known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have let Thornton out of my sight, not even to go to the men’s room.

Back in Bangkok, Staff Sgt. Jasper Myrick and his wife were packing their household belongings for their October transfer to Ft. Benning, Ga. Several days before, a teakwood bedroom set had been dropped off at their house. Myrick told his wife he had offered to take the furniture back to the States for a friend.

An Army inspector accompanied the movers to Myrick’s home, normal protocol, to ensure nothing illegal was packed in the crates of household goods. The inspector noticed one of the finely carved teakwood night stands had a rather crudely screwed-on bottom. He drilled a hole in it and out trickled white powder. He had uncovered one of the largest hauls of pure “China White” heroin ever seized in Southeast Asia, 100 pounds in all.

After scouring dozens of furniture shops along Sukhumvit Road, a Thai police lieutenant found the manufacturer of Myrick’s bedroom set. The owner identified a photo of Smedley as the person who had ordered it. When Smedley was arrested, DEA agents found a set of orders for Myrick in his briefcase and a second set of orders for a Sergeant William Brown. Brown had been transferred weeks before from Thailand to Ft. Gordon near Augusta, Ga.

I was in San Francisco when I got the call from Bangkok. Was Myrick’s shipment the one Thornton had talked about? Or could Brown be sitting on a second shipment of heroin? Stewart wasn’t getting anything of value from Thornton. He just kept saying, “I’m working on it.”

I flew to Augusta and was met by Wilmington supervisor Don Ashton, who had already set up a surveillance on Brown’s Ft. Gordon residence and had agents working on a search warrant. But when we drove by Brown’s house, my heart sank. Sitting out in the rain on the back patio was a set of teakwood dining room furniture. We were too late.

The Wilmington agents discovered that one of Atkinson’s associates, using a fictitious name, had stayed at a motel near Ft. Gordon just days after Brown had settled in. They were convinced he was the one who had picked up the heroin. It was Freddie Thornton.
Thornton had a good reason to tell Stewart and me that he thought Atkinson was sending a large shipment of heroin to the States. And he wasn’t lying when he told Stewart he was “working on it.” He had been in charge of it.

Thornton was arrested. He then said that after talking with the agents in Wilmington he had had an epiphany. If he cooperated with the DEA and gave them the heroin, his life wouldn’t be worth a Thai baht. And he could end up being prosecuted by local authorities even if the Feds didn’t. But, he figured, if he followed Atkinson’s instructions and delivered the heroin to Atkinson’s daughter, he’d have enough money to party until the Feds figured it out, and he might even get away with it.

Thornton was the star witness at Atkinson’s May 1976 trial in Raleigh, and gave Ike up like a bad habit. Stewart testified to the facts surrounding the Luchai Ruviwat case that related to Atkinson. I submitted into evidence the Thai newspapers that had been used to stuff the bags of heroin in the false bottoms of Brown’s furniture.

In all, nine of Atkinson’s associates were convicted. Atkinson got 25 years, Brown 10, and Atkinson’s daughter and her husband each received 15 years.

For his cooperation, Thornton was given probation and placed in the Witness Protection Program. Federal Prosecutor Joe Dean told reporters that if it were not for Thornton’s firsthand account, Atkinson would probably not have been convicted. We never found the heroin, worth $5 million on the wholesale market. Atkinson was a very wealthy prisoner.

Atkinson never seemed to learn his lesson. After more than 10 years in prison, a fellow inmate told him he knew an employee at the West German Consulate in New York who could smuggle heroin into the United States under his diplomatic immunity. Atkinson arranged through a nephew for the diplomat to pick up heroin in Bangkok. The problem for Atkinson was that the inmate was a DEA snitch and the German diplomat a DEA undercover agent. That stretched his term another nine years.

Atkinson was released in 2007, an old man no longer thought to be a danger to society. He lives quietly in Raleigh, N.C., but he’s waging an academic war on Frank Lucas.

Lucas was arrested just before Atkinson, in January 1975, in Teaneck, N.J., in a separate DEA investigation, and sentenced to 70 years in federal prison. He served only five years because of his cooperation, but was convicted on another drug charge in 1981 and did 10 more. A 2000 New York Magazine article, claiming he was the first Harlem gangster to have broken with La Cosa Nostra, rocketed him from obscurity.

Lucas maintains he smuggled heroin in the coffins of returning servicemen. Atkinson adamantly denies it ever happened, telling investigative journalist Ron Chepesiuk in 2006 that Lucas’ claim was “the big lie…the biggest hoax ever perpetuated.”

Atkinson was on the military flight in 1972 that spawned the myth. As author Chepesiuk reveals in his new book Sergeant Smack, The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and His Band of Brothers, as Atkinson and a partner carried heroin in their baggage on the flight from Bangkok, federal authorities—tipped off by an unreliable informant—believed the dope was actually in the coffins of two slain soldiers on board. After exhaustively searching the plane and questioning Atkinson, no heroin (not even that carried by Atkinson) was found, leading to speculation that while the coffins had been unattended during a Hawaii stopover, the drugs may have been removed. Sensational press reports, bolstered by anonymous sources, fueled the rumor. One former DEA executive nourished the myth in 1988 with a fictional article in the San Francisco Chronicle claiming he witnessed heroin sewn into the body of a Vietnam KIA in a Bangkok hospital in 1975. Conspiracy theorists still think there were government cover-ups, and some implicate the CIA. Even today, press reports give credence to the “Cadaver Connection.” And Lucas capitalized on it all. He wove the fairy tale into Mark Jacobson’s New York Magazine piece, “The Return of Superfly,” that was the basis for the film American Gangster.

The fact is, it would have been almost impossible to get the heroin from the Golden Triangle of Thailand into wartime South Vietnam. And even if they did, it would have then required the complicity of dozens of military and civilian mortuary employees in Vietnam to bypass security and implant the heroin, and dozens more inside the United States to coordinate its retrieval.

As Atkinson explained to Chepesiuk, “Why would I do something so awful as move heroin in cadavers? I had so many easier and more effective ways of moving my dope.” Simply put, it never happened.

Lucas claims he’s the “big shot” who commanded a self-contained criminal organization that took heroin from “the farm to the arm.” Atkinson says Lucas hijacked his reputation, that he’s the real “kingpin,” and that he wants his title back.

Most self-respecting criminals claim their innocence, yet these two are boasting about who caused the greater harm to our country. But that should come as no surprise. Lucas made a bundle off his far-fetched story, sensationalizing it with the cadaver connection. Now Atkinson wants a piece of the action.

While no heroin entered the United States with the bodies of U.S. servicemen killed in Vietnam, Leslie Atkinson did unleash a tidal wave of heroin up and down the east coast of the United States by subverting military facilities, equipment and personnel. And with his share of the heroin, Frank Lucas terrorized communities in New York City and New Jersey, preying on the weak and living high off the misery of his victims. They share a legacy of broken neighborhoods, broken homes and broken lives. And neither has displayed a shred of remorse.

Charles Lutz served in Vietnam with the 525th Military Intelligence Group, the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, and was an adviser to the 18th ARVN Infantry Division, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal. Lutz spent 32 years as a federal narcotics agent, eight of them in Southeast Asia. In the mid-1990s, Lutz made 11 trips to Vietnam to lay the groundwork for what is now a DEA office at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi. He and DEA agent Lionel Stewart received the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service for his role in the Luchai Ruviwat–Leslie Atkinson investigation.

For the author’s account of his undercover role at a 1971 protest rally in Washington, D.C., see Operation Bent Penney at 1971 May Day Protest.