Robert Leuci, the former New York City detective who was the subject of the book and film Prince of the City, is a crime writer who lives in Rhode Island, far from the mean streets of New York City.
Robert Daley’s Prince of the City: The True Story of a Cop Who Knew Too Much
was a first-rate true crime book and Sidney Lumet’s film based on the book with Treat Williams portraying Leuci when he was a young detective and a member of the elite narcotics Special Investigating Unit (SIU) was brilliant and haunting.
The SIU narcotics detectives had city-wide jurisdiction and little supervision over their selected cases, which was unusual in a bureaucracy like the New York Police Department (NYPD). These “Princes of the City” were the most aggressive and talented detectives in the war on drugs in the 1960s and 1970s. And some of them were corrupt.
Leuci, as he recounts in his memoir All the Centurions: A New York Cop Remembers His Years On the Street - 1961-1981 (Harper), committed acts of corruption, but he came forward and volunteered to make cases for the prosecutors (including a young Rudolph Giuliani) against corruption in the criminal justice system.
He was not, he stresses, caught in a criminal act and forced to do, which is the path taken by so many crooked cops and assorted criminals.
And he says he was not an oddball and outcast like Frank Serpico, the NYPD undercover narcotics cop who was the subject of both the book and film Serpico. Leuci said he was all cop. He belonged.
He wanted to go after corrupt lawyers, political fixers and judges, but tragically for Leuci; he was ultimately forced by prosecutors to also testify against his former partners and other cops.
Leuci, now 68, retired from the NYPD in 1981. In addition to his memoir, he writes crime novels.
I contacted Leuci and talked to him about drugs, organized crime, crime fiction, and his life as a cop and a writer. Below is my Q&A with him:
Davis: I read two of your novels, Odessa Beach and Captain Butterfly and I read your memoir All the Centurions. I thought they were very good.
Leuci: Odessa Beach and Captain Butterfly are my early books. My later books are much better.
Davis: I’ll have to read them as well.
Leuci: My favorite is Fence Jumpers. It’s a bit autobiographical. For Odessa Beach I spent about nine months at Brighten Beach among the Russian immigrants. That was fun.
Davis: Was that as a detective or later as a writer?
Leuci: It was after I retired. I wanted to write something about these Russian immigrants, whom I found fascinating. I lived down there and wrote the book. Russian guys have been around since 1979. They left the old Soviet Union and were allegedly going to Israel, but they never got there. They are mostly Jews, but they were not Jewish in any sense. They knew nothing about Judaism and they knew nothing about Karl Marx. They were not communists, they were just Russians. They were tough guys. A lot of them were ex-prisoners who had been in jail for all sorts of different reasons. The first wave that first came here were some of the toughest guys you would want to meet. They are very violent and they are into almost everything. They are much more powerful today than the Italians.
Davis: Have the Russians become the bigger organized crime element in the country?
Leuci: For a hundred years Italian organized crime held sway in the streets in all the big cities, especially in eastern cities, and some in the west. New York alone had five major crime families. They were all over the place and they controlled drugs, gambling, prostitution, and a lot of stuff. But they’re done, pretty much.
Davis: Italian organized crime is still active around the country, including here in Philadelphia – I’m part-Italian and I live in South Philly - but you’re right, their influence has greatly diminished.
Leuci: I know a lot of people like to say that organized crime kept crime down, and without organized crime, disorganized crime would take over the streets, but these guys were responsible for most of the drugs that were in the streets. They were responsible for a lot of that street crime. I write about this in Fence Jumpers.
Davis: Have you written about anything other than crime?
Leuci: No, I’ve thought about it, but crime is what I know.
Davis: I find crime to be one of the most interesting of human endeavors.
Leuci: There can be a lot of really good things in a crime novel.
Davis: I truly liked Prince of the City, both the book and the film. Were the book and film accurate? Is there anything that you would change if you could?
Leuci: I had a certain amount of input there, but not a whole lot. The book was written by Bob Daley, who is a wonderful writer and a good friend, and then it was turned into a film by Sidney Lumet, who is a wonderful film director who made Serpico and Network and other wonderful movies. But you know it was not exactly an uplifting movie. I’ve never sat through the entire movie, but I saw bits and pieces of it - it’s too hard for me. People still say to me why did you do this? What was the reason? It’s not really explained very well in the book and it’s not explained at all in the movie. I mean it sort of gives you an idea of why I got involved in that investigation, but it was hard to do it, I suppose. In All the Centurions, I really do explain what brought me to that place and why I did what I did. I’m not sure it was a great decision, by the way.
Davis: That’s my next question. Do you think you did the right thing by coming forward?
Leuci: Certainly at the time. I was probably on the verge of a nervous breakdown and I didn’t even realize it. I was a bit loony and all kinds of things were going on in my life. I was very depressed about the work I was doing in the police department. I went into the police department because I very much wanted to be a cop. I found myself within a short period of time, after five or six years, behaving in ways that were foreign to my nature. I was behaving in ways that were much like the people I was investigating. It mad me sick and it started to make me crazy. The people I cared most about were the other cops I worked with, and most of them were great guys, but they were crooks. We all rationalize our behavior. It made sense to me at the time, but when I really thought about it and really took it all apart, I realized it was so hypocritical and so opposed to anything I believed in. I should have quit or transferred to another unit, but I didn’t do that and I got caught up in this crazy investigation that was a horror in many ways. It was a decision that changed my life certainly, and maybe changed it for the better in some ways, but the price I paid and the price that other people paid for my fucking feeling sorry for myself, was way too high.
Davis: Are there different levels of corruption? Is there a difference between a cop taking a meal and a cop taking drug money?
Leuci: For years many cops believed there was “clean money” like gambling, and “dirty money” like drugs, but the problem with that kind of mentality is that most of the money really comes out of drugs. It ends up in one big circle. I would never sell drugs. I would never sell to an informant. I had a line that said I would never cross. A lot of guys I worked with said they would never cross that line, but a lot of guys did. You can’t draw those lines; it’s beyond your control. You shouldn’t do that. Once you do it you’ve screwed yourself. It’s a sensual world you’re working in. It really rubs off on you. There is no cop born, ever, that changed the street. But the street has changed every single cop.
Davis: Drugs are rampant today, and they fuel many other crimes. Can you tell us what it was like to a narcotics detective in your day in New York?
Leuci: There was a heroin epidemic in the 1960s, 1970s, and part of the 1980s. The drug of choice was heroin, not cocaine or crack cocaine. Heroin killed thousands of drug addicts. The 60s and the 70s were a crazy time, and when you added this drug it made the whole world seem topsy-turvy. But there was less violence as that drug doesn’t produce violence. People go out and rob to get the drug, but heroin is an opiate. It makes people tired, it makes them sleep. Heroin addicts are not threatening people. When the drug of choice changed to crack cocaine it became extremely violent. That drug produces violence and paranoia. Meth is another violent drug.
Davis: I’ve long been interested in your era, as I was a young guy then, and I read Robin Moore’s The French Connection in 1969, and went on to read a lot books and see a lot of films about crime in New York, including Prince of the City, and your books. In your era the SIU produced many legendary detectives like Eddie Egan, Sonny Grosso, and Joe Nunziata. Nunziata was an interesting man who came to a tragic end with his suicide. Even though he was apparently corrupt, my heart went out to him and his family when I saw Prince of the City.
Leuci: Joe Nunziata looked like Dean Martin. He was a very handsome, a very gregarious guy. He was all those things. There were a lot of good things about him and I was one of his big admirers. Joe made some big mistakes. We all did. I think the film did him justice. I talk to his son every now and again. Papa's Game is a great book that tells the story of that time and the French Connection rip-off. That was the most horrendous thing imaginable.
Davis: Yes, after confiscating all that heroin in the French Connection case, the biggest drug bust at the time, someone simply stole it from the NYPD property room. Did you know the people written about in Papa's Game, the criminal Vincent Papa and Detective Frank King?
Leuci: I knew Frank King pretty well. Frank King was a good cop in a lot of ways, but he was thoroughly corrupt. He was a gangster as a cop.
Davis: How are you treated by law enforcement officers today?
Leuci: It depends on where they are and who they are, what generation they are from. I lecture at every police department in the country, with the exception of New York, on corruption, ethics and morality. The cops are very nice. But what old school guys say, and it’s true, is that you violated something that can’t be forgiven. When you turn in a cop for whatever reason, it’s unforgivable. I understand it as I come from that generation. That has changed nowadays. It exists in cases of police brutality, but I think that if there is a cop out there who is going off on his own and doing corrupt things, other cops will report it. Police today have different kinds of education, background and world views. I don’t think you can get away with that kind of stuff today.
Davis: I have one last question about your era. Did you see the film American Gangster? It has been reported that the corrupt detective was based on you.
Leuci: I won’t go see it. I read the magazine piece and this guy has got to be kidding. Josh Brolin called me up and said he was playing me in a movie. I said you’re not playing me.
Davis: Did you know the Black heroin dealers Frank Lucas or Nicky Barnes?
Leuci: I never worked in Harlem and I didn’t know Lucas. I worked in Brooklyn.
Davis: I talked to a retired DEA agent who worked in New York at the time and he said the movie was false and Lucas is a liar. Lucas never did any of that stuff he claimed. When he was caught he ratted out his gang and family members, but he never made any cases against corrupt cops or DEA agents. The writers and filmmakers naively believed everything Lucas told them.
Leuci: The people who wrote that spent no time doing any kind of research on it. They had this great story and they turned it into a movie. This guy Jacobson, who wrote the magazine piece and wrote the screenplay, is totally full of shit. I had federal protection during the time he was talking about. I know the detective he was talking about, a guy named Albano. He was a real bad guy who worked Harlem. He was involved with the French Connection case. But if they didn’t spend any time trying to get it straight, if they didn’t get my story straight, how can they get the rest of that movie straight?
Davis: Do you think Lucas used your name because you are known?
Leuci: Yes, of course. My daughter wanted to sue, but I said no.
Davis: They didn’t use your name, but they used your street name “Babyface.”
Leuci: No, when he gives Lucas his card, that’s my name on it.
Davis: I didn’t catch that.
Leuci: I’ve never seen it, but people told me about it. I was working for Giuliani at the Southern District of New York, and if any of that was true, Giuliani would have crucified me. Those guys should be ashamed of themselves. It’s all bullshit.
Davis: One of the things I liked in your memoir was your portrayal of Sean Connery, one of my favorite actors. You wrote that at a party people were smoking pot and Connery told them to respect you and stop. “This man is a police officer.” I can hear his commanding voice.
Leuci: Sean Connery is a very straight shooter. He was very kind to me when I was out of my level in Hollywood with these characters. He was very supportive. Some guys started smoking pot in front of us and he got pissed off.
Davis: Who influenced you as a writer?
Leuci: Robert Stone is a big influence and he is my mentor. I like Joseph Wambaugh, Dennis Lehane, Richard Price. There are so many writers that I really like.
Davis: Any last thoughts?
Leuci: I’ve written seven books, taught at the University of Rhode Island for ten years, and I’ve lectured around the world. I’m a much more complicated character than you see in the movie.