“Nicky Barnes is not around anymore,” said the balding, limping grandfather in the baggy Lee dungarees.
“Nicky Barnes’ lifestyle and his value system is extinct,” he went on, speaking of himself in the third person in a restaurant interview with The New York Times in 2007. “I left Nicky Barnes behind.”
With that, the man asked the waitress for a doggy bag for his grilled salmon, and left.
He was the antithesis of the old Nicky Barnes, a flamboyant Harlem folk hero who had owned as many as 200 suits, 100 pairs of custom-made shoes, 50 full-length leather coats, a fleet of luxury cars, and multiple homes and apartments financed by the fortune he had amassed in the late 1960s and ′70s, first by saturating black neighborhoods with heroin and later by investing the profits in real estate and other assets.
Moreover, he was in fact no longer Nicky Barnes even by name. Convicted in 1977, imprisoned for more than two decades, he ultimately testified against his former associates, ensuring their convictions, and was released into the federal witness protection program under a new identity.
The new Nicky Barnes promptly submerged himself so thoroughly in mainstream America that barely anyone beyond his immediate family knew his new name, his whereabouts or even whether he was still alive.
But now it can be said that Nicky Barnes is definitely not around anymore, in any form. This week, one of his daughters and a former prosecutor, both speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that Barnes had died of cancer in 2012. He was 78, or possibly 79.
The U.S. Marshals Service declines to provide information on individuals in the witness protection program. Barnes’ daughter had also been given a new identity under the program. Because of his new guise, his death, in an unidentified place, was never reported under the name Leroy Nicholas Barnes.
That name was once as notorious as any in New York City and beyond. He had headed a lucrative and lethal drug-dealing enterprise that seemed impregnable, thanks to lost evidence, lapsed memories and missing witnesses.
His record of avoiding conviction inflated his ego, to the point where in 1977 this dashing dope peddler flaunted his supposed invulnerability by posing — recklessly, as it turned out — in a blue denim suit and a red, white and blue tie for the cover of The New York Times Magazine.
He loomed from the page defiantly in dark glasses next to the headline “Mr. Untouchable,” followed by what amounted to a thumb-in-the-eye taunt: “The Police Say He May Be Harlem’s Biggest Drug Dealer. But Can They Prove It?”
The cover so affronted President Jimmy Carter that the White House ordered Barnes, who had been indicted again only weeks before, to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
The Justice Department did just that. And later in 1977, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
While Barnes languished behind bars, though, his former cronies, his wife and his girlfriends began squandering the criminal enterprise that had made them millionaires.
He felt betrayed. But he extracted his revenge: He testified against them in federal trials, and scores of his wayward former associates were convicted. One was his ex-wife, Thelma Grant, who pleaded guilty to federal drug charges and served 10 years in prison.
In return for his cooperation, the government released Barnes from prison in 1998. But concluding that he would henceforth be a marked man, the authorities offered him something more: a new life, though a hidden one, in the witness protection program.
And with that, Barnes achieved a goal that his former self would have loathed, even feared: to be forgotten.