- Law Job Star
The Life and Career of Richie Roberts practicing criminal defense attorney and inspiration for the movie "American Gangster"
by Mary Waldron
Today, with his dangerous days behind him, Roberts leads a casual life as a practicing criminal defense attorney in West Caldwell, NJ. But make no mistake about it, Roberts is still a hard-nosed Jew from the Bronx who can take on the best of 'em...and yes, he's just as cool now as he was in his heyday of the 1960s and 1970s.
Roberts was raised by his grandparents in the Bronx until he moved to Newark with his parents when he was eight years old. He attended Weequahic High School, where he was a star football and baseball player.
Roberts joined the Marine Corps after high school and served in the reserves for six years at Parris Island.
"It was the best move I ever made in my life," says Roberts. "It had a total, lasting effect on everything that I've done. As they say, 'Once a Marine, always a Marine.' It's really true. Kind of saved me, I think."
Next, Roberts went on to enroll in Upsala College, a private college in East Orange, NJ. It was there that Roberts quickly stumbled upon a new dimension of his personality.
"I discovered that I had a horrible, horrible fear of speaking in front of people. It's something that's affected me my whole life," Roberts says.
Though today Roberts will fool anyone with his confident and rugged New Jersey accent, at the time, Roberts had such a tough time with his fear of public speaking that he would stop attending classes if he had to speak in front of people.
Years later, as Roberts prepared to graduate from college, he had a rude awakening.
"They called me into the dean's office and said, 'You have seven administrative F's, and we are flunking you out.' I said, 'What's an administrative F?' They said, "Well, you didn't officially drop the classes.' I said, 'Well, yeah, I didn't attend.'" The school officials didn't really care.
"So I flunked out of school," Roberts says.
In search of a positive career that didn't involve speaking in front of people, Roberts found a position as a detective for the Essex County prosecutor's office in 1963. Immediately, Roberts dove into undercover organized crime work for the first couple years with the prosecutor's office.
Pretty soon, Roberts's moment of doom came when he was called to testify in court for the cases he made. His fear of public speaking still had the best of him. "There were hours of throwing up the nights before. It was awful," Roberts says.
Eventually, when Roberts was able to cope with his fear, he began to take notice of the prosecutors questioning him in these cases. "I thought, 'Gee, I can do that.'"
Luckily for Roberts, in those days, law schools accepted students with three completed years of school, so he decided to enroll.
Roberts was accepted to Seton Hall University School of Law in South Orange, NJ, where he attended night classes five days a week for four years. By day, Roberts was fighting organized crime, and by night, he was battling law school courses.
Upon graduation from law school, Roberts took another blow from higher education when his school informed him that he could not take the bar exam after he completed law school. Though he was accepted with three years of college on his record, the rules had changed during his time in law school, and he now needed four years of undergraduate school to take the bar exam.
Good thing for Roberts that he had friends in high places. A few prosecutors from his office petitioned the Supreme Court to allow him to take the bar exam. The Supreme Court allowed Roberts to take the exam...but there was one catch. He couldn't get his results until he finished his fourth year of undergraduate school.
"I went to Rutgers for five nights a week for a year. I don't know how I got through, but I did graduate. Then they gave me my results, and thank God I passed. I don't think I could have taken it again," Roberts says.
Upon passing the bar in 1971, Roberts was made an assistant prosecutor at his office. Shortly thereafter, he was made head of a narcotics strike force under the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Before Roberts started in the narcotics squad, he and his team had been briefed on an extremely potent brand of heroin floating around on the streets called "Blue Magic." "Blue Magic" was then-drug lord Frank Lucas's brand of heroin. The movie American Gangster tells the story of how Roberts came to track Lucas down, stop his business, and arrest him.
During the Vietnam War in the 1960s, Lucas blew up his drug business by cutting out the middleman and going straight to Southeast Asia to purchase the best heroin. Lucas was only successful in this business venture because he had a connection through the U.S. Army that was stationed in Vietnam.
Lucas's friend, U.S. Army sergeant Leslie "Ike" Atkinson, helped him smuggle thousands of kilograms of the purest heroin into the United States. Atkinson and his affiliates were able to ship the drugs in the casing of caskets of dead soldiers. No other drug dealers in America could get this type of product and sell it for as cheap as Lucas did. With the help of his brothers and cousins from North Carolina, known as the Country Boys, Lucas sold the best, purest heroin in the city at the best price available. The heroin was so strong and unlike what the American consumer had ever tried that it killed a lot of people during those years. It's rumored that his venture was making a million dollars a day.
Contrary to what the movie portrays, Roberts and his team knew what Lucas was up to the whole time. "We knew pretty early on. They 'Hollywood-ed' this movie up," says Roberts.
Even though Roberts and his team were on the trail of Lucas, they were viewed as the "underdogs" in the movie, as well as in real life. "Our mandate was measure jobs, yet they wanted arrests. You can't make 100 street arrests and hope to go to the top. We had wiretaps going; these things take a while. It looked like we weren't producing," Roberts says. "We got a lot of heat."
In spite of the pressure to deliver headlines in the case, Roberts and his team, with the support of his boss and mentor Joe Lordi, continued on their path to success.
Like in most good movies, some of the climax events of the real story were made more screen-worthy in American Gangster. But, Roberts says the movie did capture the substance of the story. "The essence of the movie was true," he says.
The beautifully staged ending when Roberts arrests Lucas in front of a church with a huge audience, unfortunately, is not how it happened. "Oh, I wish it would have happened that way, but it didn't," Roberts says.
The real question is, though, was the case really as dangerous as Hollywood made it out to be?
"I may get an argument on this, but there is no job in the police department or prosecutor's office that is more dangerous than those concerning narcotic work. You're dealing with people who are armed, people who are brutal, people who will do anything not to get locked up, and people who will kill," Roberts says.
However, the gun fight at the end of the movie might have been a little exaggerated. "I'll be honest; the gunfight at the end — that's like the gunfight at the O.K. Corral — I mean, no. I didn't shoot 25 people. It really didn't happen that way."
In the end, though, in real life, Roberts was able to shut down all of Lucas's business throughout the city, but he still hadn't gotten Lucas himself. All the evidence Roberts had to arrest Lucas was the word of one of his arrested cousins who "flipped" (or became an informant for the police as part of a plea bargain) and some drug money.
"I went to Joe, and I said, 'This is what I have. It's a very weak case. But I'd like to go ahead with it.' So he looked at me and said, 'Do you realize that if you indict Frank Lucas and lose, you'll forever be known as the lawyer who screwed up the case and lost Frank Lucas. It's going to hurt your career. I don't think you have enough for a conviction, but if you want me to stand behind you, I will.'"
Prior to the trial that got Lucas 70 years in federal prison, members of the FBI provided reliable information that there was a contract out on Roberts's life. "I was kind of stupid, I guess, looking back. I didn't think anybody really would do that because what's the percentage of killing the prosecutor? There's a hundred more behind me who'll try the case," he says.
"Every time I sat down, the weapon would hit the side of the counsel table, and I thought I was going to shoot my toes off," Roberts says.
Once he was convicted in 1975, with Roberts as the prosecutor, Lucas agreed to cooperate with Roberts to take down other drug dealers and traffickers in the New York and New Jersey areas. Together, they were able to take down a significant portion of the drug trafficking business in that area, creating a dent that would remain for years to come.
The work Lucas did with the government was so good that he was released from prison by 1981. After being arrested and sent to jail again on drug charges later in 1984, he was finally released in 1991 after serving seven years.
From the experience, strangely enough, Lucas and Roberts became friends. "I think I'm probably wired differently than a lot of people, but I didn't turn my back on him. When anybody flips, you work very closely with that person, and we became friends," Roberts says. "Frank, personally, is a very charming guy. I don't think he can read still; if he does, not much. But he knows how to put the charm on."
Roberts even ended up becoming the godfather to Lucas's son, Ray. "I wanted him to grow up in a manner that Frank didn't. I put him in private school and paid his way for eight or nine years. He's a straight-A student, and I think he's going to turn out to be something," Roberts says.
After losing 15 pounds during the stressful five-month trail that put away at least 100 drug-related criminals, Roberts remained an assistant prosecutor doing narcotics work for three years. Roberts had hoped to be made head prosecutor, but because of some inner-government politics, he was denied.
Roberts went on to work as a criminal defense attorney with some other former state prosecutors at Harkavy, Goldman & Caprio. In the mid-1980s, Roberts started his own criminal defense firm in West Caldwell, NJ, and he remains there today.
"Most of the good criminal attorneys that I know are former prosecutors. It gives you a fantastic background. You know what they're thinking, and you know where the weaknesses are going to be. It does give you a tremendous advantage," Roberts says of his transition from prosecution to defense.
Looking back on his career, Roberts recalls a few mentors who made significant impacts on him personally and professionally. One of those mentors was New Jersey attorney Mike Querques, who Roberts had the opportunity to see work while he was a detective. "He was one of the finest defense attorneys I've ever witnessed."
Another defense attorney who Roberts looked up to was Ray Brown, another legend in Northern New Jersey, who was also one of the first major African-American attorneys.
"When these two guys were in court (Mike and Ray) when I was a detective, I used to run up and watch them as much as I could. Even today when I'm on trial, and I hear myself speaking, it's not me; it's either Mike or Ray," he says.
Joe Lordi, Roberts's boss while he was at the prosecutor's office, was also a strong influence. "He was a like a second father to me. He was as honest as the day's long. He was as bright as you can be. When you have a boss like that, you try to emulate that person, and I did as best I could."
Roberts also valued the example of deputy chief Evan Miles — also someone he worked with when he was a detective. "He was as straight and as tough a cop as there could be."
When asked what advice he would share with law students and young attorneys, Roberts says, "I'm going to tell them the same thing that was told to me by F. Lee Bailey. I once paid a lot of money to see he and some other lawyers speak in the city. Someone asked him that question, and he got up there, said one word, and sat down. That word was 'preparation.' You must be so prepared that the material is coming out your ears. If they think for a second (the jury) that you don't believe your own case, or you didn't prepare it properly, it's going to make a big difference."