Book to set record straight for 'Sgt. Smack'
By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on September 17, 2010 1:46 PM
Goldsboro native and former armed forces member Leslie "Ike" Atkinson was convicted of drug trafficking in the Vietnam era -- and now, the 84-year-old drug "kingpin" is telling the story of how he brought a reported $400 million in heroin to the United States.
Released in 2007 after serving more than 30 years in prison, Atkinson is promoting South Carolina author Ron Chepesiuk's book about his life: "Sergeant Smack: The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and His Band of Brothers."
The book purports to debunk the "cadaver connection" -- a theory, popularized by the 2007 movie "American Gangster," that he and another famously convicted drug lord, Frank Lucas, allegedly smuggled drugs to America inside soldiers' coffins.
Atkinson and Chepesiuk will appear this Sunday at the Wayne County Library in Goldsboro to talk about the story and sign copies of Chepesiuk's book.
Atkinson served 20 years in the U.S. Army and achieved the rank of Master Sergeant before being discharged in 1963. He lived in Europe and was a participant in several gambling operations before moving to Thailand and becoming involved in the Golden Triangle drug trade, he said.
The book examines the ways that Atkinson smuggled heroin to North Carolina from his base of operations in Thailand. But those methods did not include transporting the drug in coffins, a myth that Lucas started, the book claims.
The story presented in the film was "a fantasy and a lie, and I'll challenge anybody that says that," Atkinson said. "...It is virtually impossible to smuggle drugs in coffins, the security that they give the bodies, the remains rather, is just absolutely - you couldn't do that."
Wayne County is, in several ways, at the heart of Atkinson's story. Goldsboro is his birthplace, while Lucas was born in La Grange; the two did not know each other as children and are not related by blood, Atkinson said.
The onetime "kingpin" is looking forward to coming back to Goldsboro for the event, he said.
"I'll get an opportunity to see a lot of people that I know, and I think it'll just be good to come back home and start over again," Atkinson said.
Seymour Johnson Air Force Base was one of the military bases that the drug ring used to bring heroin into the country, shipping the drug through duffel bags and the mail service, Atkinson said.
"Yes it was, it was used by me and my band of brothers that came to live with me in Thailand," he said.
When Atkinson was convicted of drug trafficking, the issue of smuggling through coffins was not part of the evidence that convicted him - because there wasn't any evidence of it ever happening, he said.
"That was not our way of smuggling, there was no reason to change it," he said.
Providing an inside look at the drug trade of the Vietnam era, the book discusses Atkinson's connections with the Southeast Asia drug ring he reportedly ran for a number of years - a ring that, the book claims, brought as much as 1,000 pounds of heroin to the country every year from 1968-1975.
The book's title references the nickname "Sergeant Smack" reportedly given to Atkinson by Drug Enforcement Agency agents, who eventually arrested Atkinson after intercepting a shipment of heroin that was linked to the trafficker.
Atkinson was also famous among law enforcement officials for his remarkably charming and affable nature, Chepesiuk said.
"He never killed anybody, he never carried a gun," he said.
Chepesiuk learned about Atkinson after writing a book on the gangsters of Harlem. After meeting with Atkinson in prison, he set out to write the story that challenges Lucas' smuggling claim, and many of the events of the "American Gangster" film.
"It was the best story I had. I couldn't make this story up. I had a very good character, Ike Atkinson, who everybody liked, whether they were on the right side or the wrong side of the law," Chepesiuk said.
After researching the records of the trial and the DEA investigation, and hearing Atkinson's side of the story, Chepesiuk was convinced enough to declare "case closed" about the long-running rumor, he said.
"It was a myth created by the American media and sloppy journalism, and when Lucas came out, nobody checked out his story," Chepesiuk said.
Now living in Raleigh, Atkinson has a different view of his activities in the 1960s and 1970s. He was not a "poster guy" for the service, but he remains proud of his 20 years in the Army despite wishing he had not become involved in drug smuggling.
"The lesson learned there was a bad thing. I made a very, very bad mistake, and I've already asked the Lord before I come back home to forgive me," he said.
Atkinson and Chepesiuk will be at the Wayne County Public Library on Ash Street at 2 p.m. Sunday to talk about the book and sign copies. There will also be a preview showing of a DVD about Atkinson's life.
Chepesiuk is a freelance journalist, former Fulbright Fellow and author of more than two dozen books.