FRANK MATTHEWS (aka: Frank McNeal, Black Caesar, Mark IV + Pee Wee): IN 1960s – 1970s, A TOP 10 AMERICAN DRUG TRAFFICKER, FUGITIVE SINCE June 26, 1973 (aged 29) with Cheryl Denise Brown (his girlfriend)
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PROFILE: Frank Matthews (drug trafficker)
|Born||February 13, 1944|
|Disappeared||June 26, 1973 (aged 29)
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Status||Missing for 47 years, 7 months and 11 days|
|Other names||Black Caesar, Pee Wee, Mark IV|
|Criminal status||Fugitive from justice from 1973 charges.|
|Conviction(s)||No convictions, fled while under indictment for drug trafficking|
Frank Larry Matthews (born February 13, 1944), also known as Black Caesar, Mark IV and Pee Wee, is an American drug trafficker who sold heroin and cocaine throughout the eastern United States from 1965 to 1972. At the peak of his career he operated in 21 states and supplied drug dealers throughout every region of the country. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ranks him as one of the top 10 drug traffickers in U.S. history and he is estimated to have had $20 million in savings.
He led a flamboyant lifestyle, with luxury homes, vehicles and clothing along with prime seats at sporting events and regular trips to Las Vegas, Nevada to launder money and gamble. Matthews hosted an African-American and Hispanic drug dealers summit in Atlanta, Georgia in 1971 and another in Las Vegas in 1972 to discuss how to break the American Mafia control of heroin importation. Matthews was arrested in 1973 on tax evasion and drug charges but disappeared and has been a fugitive from justice ever since.
Matthews was born on February 13, 1944 in Durham, North Carolina. His mother died when he was four years old and he was raised by his aunt, Marzella Steele, the wife of a Durham police lieutenant. He was nicknamed “Pee Wee” and attended the East End Elementary school but dropped out of school in the seventh grade. At age 14, he led a teenage gang in stealing chickens from local farms. When confronted by a farmer Matthews assaulted him with a brick. He was arrested in October 1960 and served a year for theft and assault at the Raleigh State Reformatory for Boys in Raleigh, North Carolina. Upon his release, he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he worked as a numbers writer. In Philadelphia, he made contacts that would become his future Philadelphia drug connections including Major Coxson and members of the Black Mafia. He was arrested in 1963 and avoided conviction by agreeing to leave Philadelphia. He moved to the Bedford Stuyvesant area of New York City and became a barber, collecting numbers as he had in Philadelphia, as well as working as a collector and an enforcer.
In 1965, Matthews grew tired of the numbers game and began to transition into the heroin drug trade in order to make more money. In the early 1960s, the main supply of wholesale heroin was the Italian Mafia through their famed French Connection. Matthews attempted to partner with the Gambino family and Bonanno family, both part of the Five Families that controlled organized crime in New York City since the 1930s, however, both organizations declined. From his days in the numbers game he knew of “Spanish Raymond” Márquez, a prolific Harlem numbers operator. Márquez put him in contact with “El Padrino”, the New York Cuban Mafia godfather Rolando Gonzalez Nuñez, a major Cuban cocaine supplier, shortly before Gonzalez fled to Venezuela because of an upcoming indictment in the United States. Before fleeing, Gonzalez sold Matthews his first kilo of cocaine for $20,000, with a promise to supply more in the future.
This relationship expanded into a lucrative and expansive drug trafficking network. Gonzalez began sending Matthews large loads of cocaine and heroin from South America. Matthews expanded on this and, within a year, was one of the major players in the New York drug business. Realizing the need for diversification, Matthews would continually seek out new sources of supply for narcotics, willing to do business with anyone as long as the product was sufficiently pure.
By the early 1970s, the Matthews organization was handling multimillion-dollar loads of heroin. The IRS estimates that he earned over $10 million in 1972. According to the DEA, “Matthews controlled the cutting, packaging, and sale of heroin in every major East Coast city.“ In New York City, he operated two massive drug mills in Brooklyn: one located at 925 Prospect Place, nicknamed the “Ponderosa”, and the other at 101 East 56th Street nicknamed the “OK Corral”. Both locations were heavily fortified and secured, with walls reinforced with steel and concrete and protected by guards with machine guns. Besides controlling the retail sale of heroin, the organization supplied other major dealers throughout the East Coast with multi-kilogram shipments for up to $26,000 per kilogram.
Matthews would take multiple trips to Las Vegas with suitcases full of cash to have the drug money laundered at casinos for a fee of 15-18%.
In 1971, Matthews invited major African-American and Hispanic drug traffickers throughout the country to attend a meeting in Atlanta. The DEA became aware of the meeting and monitored who attended. The topic of the meeting was how to import heroin without the Mafia. Those present decided to build stronger independent relationships with the Corsicans and possibly Cubans. In addition, they agreed to diversify their product to include cocaine, which was becoming available in massive quantities.
This gathering of major drug traffickers throughout the United States is significant because it represented the changing nature of the drug business. Whereas, previously, the Italians controlled the importing and wholesaling of narcotics, therefore controlling who could and could not advance past them, now others were establishing their own pipelines. Before, the Mafia asserted behind-the-scenes control of the business while African-Americans sold and used the drugs in their cities; now the black dealers established connections and took control of their neighborhoods. This later evolved to include not just black people controlling the business, but also local gangs of black people eliminating out-of-town black suppliers trying to control their neighborhoods from a distance.
Matthews clashed with the Black Mafia and on Easter Sunday in 1972 in Atlantic City, New Jersey the Black Mafia killed Tyrone “Mr. Millionaire” Palmer, Matthews’ main dealer in Philadelphia, at the “Club Harlem” packed with 600 people. Many innocent bystanders were shot during the shoot-out with five people killed and twenty-six injured. No one was prosecuted for the crime and none of the 799 potential witnesses came forward. Three of his top lieutenants in the city were murdered by the Black Mafia.
In 1972, Matthews held another drug dealer summit in Las Vegas at the Sands Hotel during the Muhammad Ali and Jerry Quarry boxing match. Soon after this meeting, police received authority to tap his phone lines and he was recorded discussing drug transactions.
Arrest and disappearance
In 1972, he was charged in Skengfield, Florida for trying to sell 40 pounds of cocaine. In January 1973, the DEA arrested Matthews in Las Vegas on charges of tax evasion and conspiracy to distribute heroin and cocaine. A federal magistrate originally set bail at $5 million, the highest bail amount ever set at the time. The bail was reduced to $2.5 million when Matthews agreed to not fight extradition and be returned to New York. After a few weeks in detention in New York, his bail was further reduced to $325,000. He was indicted on six counts of tax evasion and conspiracy to distribute heroin and cocaine and faced 50 years in prison. On July 2, 1973, Matthews was scheduled to appear in a Brooklyn court house but never showed. Matthews allegedly took $20 million and fled the country with his girlfriend. He left behind his common-law wife, their three sons and their Staten Island mansion and was never seen again.
BACKGROUND: Frank Matthews (drug trafficker)
It was the first week of January 1973. Frank Matthews and his young girlfriend had just spent the holidays in Las Vegas and were about to board a flight to Los Angeles. In the previous several years, Matthews had made many trips to Las Vegas, carrying suitcases full of cash to be secretly laundered at casinos for a fee of 15 to 18 percent. This time, federal drug enforcement agents were waiting and placed him and the woman under arrest at McCarran International Airport.
Two weeks before, U.S. prosecutors in Brooklyn, New York, had issued an arrest warrant for Matthews, the top black drug kingpin in America whose heroin and cocaine trafficking gang of mostly African-American dealers extended to 21 states on the Eastern Seaboard. He was charged with trying to sell about 40 pounds of cocaine in Miami from April to September 1972, a small fraction of the drugs he’d pushed since 1968.
The feds believed Matthews had millions in currency stashed away in safety deposit boxes in Las Vegas. They wanted him in jail until they could have him extradited back to Brooklyn. A sympathetic federal magistrate in Las Vegas set bail for Matthews at $5 million, the highest bail amount at the time in U.S. history. On his way out of court, an IRS agent informed Matthews he owed back taxes on $100 million the drug dealer had earned in 1971 alone.
But that wasn’t quite the end of the story. Matthews’ life remains a mystery to this day. Let out in April 1973 on a mere $325,000 bail after serving four months in jail in New York, the 29-year-old Matthews failed to show for a hearing in Brooklyn on a list of felony charges that July. He and his girlfriend Cheryl Denise Brown had vanished. A friend reported that Matthews and Brown took a flight to Houston. Some authorities believe he left with as much as $20 million in laundered cash. A month later, IRS agents, acting on a tip, rushed to a bank in North Carolina. “Oh, you just missed him,” the manager told them.
No trace of Matthews (or Brown) has been found since – no fingerprints, no sightings, no confirmed leads, no recorded contacts with family members. In 1974, the newly formed Drug Enforcement Agency offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to his arrest, then the biggest reward since the one for Depression-era gangster John Dillinger in 1931. Matthews has been compared to Mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, so skilled was he in the transportation, manufacturing and selling of large amounts of heroin and cocaine, as well as security and money laundering.
The story of how Matthews created a drug empire almost without detection by law enforcement for years while openly defying – and cutting out — New York’s “white” organized crime families is told by author Ron Chepesiuk in his book, Black Caesar: The Rise and Disappearance of Frank Matthews, Kingpin. Chepesiuk spoke at The Mob Museum about his book on Saturday, Feb. 6.
Matthews, born in 1944 in the segregated town of Durham, North Carolina, trained as a barber, drifted to Philadelphia and then to New York in the early 1960s. He earned himself a place in the city’s numbers racket from inside a barbershop and came in contact with underworld figures. Into the mid-1960s, New York’s five Italian crime families and some Jewish underworld figures kept a grip on drug dealing – specifically heroin — in the city’s black neighborhood, Harlem. One black dealer who worked with the “white” mob was the famous gangster Bumpy Johnson, who died in 1968. But by then, independent African-American gangsters started coming into the drug scene.
In the mid-1960s, the Mafia’s famed French Connection of heroin trafficking was still going strong. The Mafia ran the connection by exporting morphine base from opium poppies in Turkey and refining the product in Marseilles, France, where Corsican drug sellers sent the heroin to New York for street sales. It was through the Corsicans that Matthews would later enter the illegal drug trade and rise to become a major dealer.
At first Matthews felt he had to prove himself with New York’s crime groups. He sought the attention of the Gambinos and Bonannos, but they refused to allow him in. Through the numbers racket he met Spanish Raymond Marquez, one of New York’s major numbers operators who introduced Matthews to a Cuban friend, Roland Gonzalez, one of the town’s main drug dealers. Gonzalez had him do some narcotics deals and the two became friends.
When Gonzalez fled to Venezuela to avoid a drug trafficking charge in 1969, he helped set up Matthews back in the States. Gonzalez, working with the Corsicans, became Matthews’ supplier for heroin and cocaine from Latin America, propelling Matthews into the big time. While U.S. authorities were well aware of Gonzalez, for some reason Matthews remained unknown to them for years.
Matthews disliked the Italian crime families and avoided working with them, with the exception of Louis Cirillo, to whom the families entrusted New York’s heroin racket. Through supplies furnished by Gonzales and Cirillo, Matthews, shrewd and brilliant, evolved into New York’s premiere narcotics dealer
By the early 1970s, his drug empire stretched to 21 states, from Boston to Connecticut to the Midwest, as far south as Alabama and as far west as Missouri. Matthews insisted on working with only African-Americans and some Hispanics as his underbosses. He was making as much as $250,000 in cash per deal. From 1969 to early 1970, he moved 100 to 150 kilos of heroin into New York. In 1971 he brashly held a meeting for his dealers in Atlanta to discuss business, and in 1972 chaired another such conclave in Las Vegas.
But things began to unravel for Matthews in the early 1970s, thanks to a neighbor of his in Brooklyn who was a New York City police detective. The detective grew suspicious while observing Matthews driving luxury cars and being visited day and night by men carrying paper bags. Checks of vehicle license numbers showed some were known drug dealers, although there was nothing solid on Matthews.
Finally, in June 1972, after Matthews’ dealers meeting in Las Vegas, police received permission to tap his phone. He was preparing to move into a large house in an upper-crust neighborhood on Staten Island with his wife and three kids. Authorities learned he was paying airline stewardesses $1,000 a month to smuggle heroin in their flight bags to airport lockers. By then, Matthews was importing cocaine from the Corsicans in Caracas, Venezuela, to his Cuban connection, George Ramos, in Miami. Matthews made some careless remarks over the phone and nine people were arrested, including Ramos in November 1972. Ramos ratted him out in front of a federal grand jury and later entered witness protection. In December, the federal arrest warrant was issued to deliver Matthews.
The law also caught up to Matthews’ gangsters. In February 1975, 18 members of what the New York Daily News described as a “black narcotics ring” on the East Coast were indicted by a federal grand jury, 12 of whom were already serving time for other crimes.
A drug dealer told police that once while visiting Matthews’ New York home to pay him, Matthews told him to put the cash in a nearby closet. The closet, the dealer claimed, was packed to eye level with stacks of money.
Some believe Matthews, who would be 71 years old today, may still be alive. One source heard he fled to the Bahamas, but no trace of him was found after a federal investigation. Some friends heard he was in Africa, others that he was killed by gangsters. A former member of the U.S. Marshals Service who handled his case thinks he is dead. The author Ron Chepesiuk also thinks it’s likely that Matthews has died but just what happened to him may never be known.
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