Leslie "Ike" Atkinson (November 19, 1925 – November 11, 2014) was a US Army master sergeant and convicted drug trafficker, believed to have been a major figure in smuggling heroin into the United States from Southeast Asia from about 1968 to 1975.
Atkinson moved to Bangkok, Thailand in the mid-1960s and became a partner in Jack's American Star Bar. In 1968, he entered into the drug trade from the Golden Triangle through a Chinese Thai man named Luchai Rubiwat, who was a business partner in Atkinson's bar. Atkinson and his organization bought heroin at about US$4000 a kilogram before being cut four ways and transporting it to the United States by military personnel. Flown on US Air Force aircraft, the heroin would eventually arrive at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and other military bases and be sold to American distributors for US$25,000 a quarter kilo, netting a profit of about US$96,000 per kilo.
Atkinson's downfall came in 1975. A shipment of heroin was due to arrive at two addresses in Fayetteville, North Carolina, each belonging to elderly black women. An Army serviceman would come to pick up the shipments, saying it had been accidentally mailed to the wrong address. The plan had worked before, but this time one woman contacted the postal authorities; the other, fearing she had been sent a bomb, contacted the police. The police found Atkinson's palm prints on one of the heroin bags, and he was arrested on January 19, 1975 in his home in Goldsboro. He was convicted the following year and was sentenced to 31 years in prison. Atkinson was released in 2007.
Relationship to Frank Lucas
According to the DEA Atkinson was in fact the main supplier of heroin to Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas after the two met in Bangkok around 1974. Atkinson takes issue with the most famous aspect of Lucas' operation, the so-called "Cadaver Connection" in which heroin was smuggled in the coffins of dead American soldiers coming back from Vietnam, instead claiming he smuggled the drugs inside furniture.
In the 2007 film American Gangster, Atkinson is represented by the character Nate, played by Roger Guenveur Smith. The film depicts Nate as being Lucas' cousin: However, Frank Lucas claims that Ike is married to one of his cousins, which made him akin to family.
The Cadaver Connection was a supposed heroin smuggling operation involving hiding heroin in the American serviceman's coffins. Frank Lucas, one of Ike's partners in the US, claims that this is how Ike smuggled the narcotic out of Thailand:
Ike flew a country-boy North Carolina carpenter over to Bangkok. We had him make up 28 copies of the government coffins... except we fixed them up with false bottoms, big enough to load up with six, maybe eight kilos... It had to be snug. You couldn't have shit sliding around. Ike was very smart, because he made sure we used heavy guys' coffins. He didn't put them in no skinny guys'....— Frank Lucas
But Atkinson who used his lifelong friend Leon as the carpenter claims he never used coffins to smuggle the heroin, "It is a total lie that's fueled by Frank Lucas for personal gain. I never had anything to do with transporting heroin in coffins or cadavers."
He (Leon) never had any association with constructing coffins for transporting heroin or drugs, On the contrary, Leon was in Bangkok hollowing out teak furniture.” [The coffin rumor was probably a misunderstanding] “One time, when I was in Bangkok, Frank came to visit. We used teak furniture to smuggle the heroin and we were getting a shipment ready. Frank barged in and went right to the back. ‘What are you doing?’ Frank asked me. I was caught off guard, and didn’t want him to know how I was moving drugs. The only thing I could think of to say was: ‘We are making coffins.’— Ike Atkinson
Prison and release
Atkinson was charged in 1987, while in prison, for his part in yet another heroin smuggling operation which he was allegedly running from prison. He was charged following a 15-month investigation where an undercover agent, posing as a corrupt German diplomat bought five pounds of heroin on Atkinson's behalf in Thailand. Six other inmates and a correctional officer were also charged. The CO, Samuel Arrante, 36, was charged because he was smuggling the letters out of prison to prevent the authorities from reading the letters. Also charged was Mr. Atkinson's nephew, Philip Wade Atkinson, 40, who bought the heroin from the undercover German diplomat at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where he was immediately arrested. Atkinson was released from prison in 2008, and died in November 2014 at the age of 88.
In popular culture
- The concept of smuggling drugs from Vietnam via dead soldiers is referenced in Tom Clancy's book Without Remorse.
- A similar plot was used in the 1980s television show Miami Vice in the episode titled "Back In The World" (first aired December 6, 1985). Vietnam war correspondent Ira Stone (Bob Balaban), who is investigating a series of drug-related deaths involving methanol poisoning, the byproduct of a decomposing drug stash that had been brought back to Miami more than 10 years earlier in the bodies of dead GIs. The investigation leads to a character known as "The Sargeant," who turns out to be a rogue CIA agent named Col. Maynard. The lethal drug stash is uncovered, but Maynard escapes, only to re-appear later in the series in the episode "Stone's War" (first aired October 3, 1986) running an illegal mercenary operation in support of the Contras in Nicaragua.
- In the movie American Gangster (which is based on the life and times of Frank Lucas), his on-screen counterpart "Nate" is played by Roger Guenveur Smith.