Ron Chepesiuk is well versed in the arts of street knowledge. This Canadian born and internationally educated scholar has jumped into the true crime genre and pumped out books about drug lords and gangsters like Lil’ Wayne pumps out hits. Ron Chepesiuk is certified platinum, tackling and taking on black gangster street legends like Bumpy Johnson, Frank Matthews and Nicky Barnes while at the same time debunking the myths of bullshitters like Frank Lucas. With his well researched and investigated stories Ron Chepesiuk is to true crime books what Nas is to the hip-hop world- a lyrical poet who traverses in words that have meaning and scope, examining issues which are at once relevant and concise, demanding and precise- in both a popular culture, historical and scholastic context. Forget all thoses tired ass Mafia books you’ve been reading and check out Ron Chepesiuk’s work on the black gangsters of America, especially his latest offering- Sergeant Smack. You know we keep it 100 percent official here at gorillaconvict.com so here is the Ron Chepesiuk interview. We sat down with the gangster writer of the moment to see where he’s been, where he’s going and what’s good right now.
When and why did you first start writing about black gangsters?
My book, Drug Lords: The Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel, which I published in 2002, was my first true crime book and I really enjoyed the writing experience. I wanted to do another true crime book and was looking for a subject. I am a big fan of the so called Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s—you know, the genre with titles like Shaft, Superfly and Black Caesar. Many of them were set in Harlem. I wanted to read a good but true book about the gangster era in Harlem of the 1960s and early 1970s but couldn’t find one. I did some research and learned about such big-time gangsters of Harlem as Caspar Holstein, the numbers king, Bumpy Johnson, Frank Matthews, Robert Stepeney, Nicky Barnes, Goldfinger, the Black Dutch Schultz, Zack Robinson and I knew there was a book to be written. That resulted in my first book on Black crime—Gangsters of Harlem.
What is your background and where are you from?
I have a background that’s given me the type of experience I need to research and write about true crime. I am a Canadian by birth from Thunder Bay up in the frozen tundra where wearing three pair of socks in the winter is considered normal. I grew up poor in a tough multiethnic neighborhood that maybe included more than 50 nationalities. So I’m use to taking care of myself and dealing with people of all types of backgrounds. I was the first kid in my family to go to college. I earned a Master’s degree in library science from the predominantly Black school, Clark-Atlanta University and a post graduate diploma in archival science from the National University of Ireland in Dublin, Ireland. I worked as a University professor at a southern university for several years before becoming a freelance writer. I already had published 15 or 16 books, mainly academic in nature, and at least 3500 freelance magazine and newspaper articles, before I decided to pursue my dream of being a fulltime freelance writer (see www.ronchepesiuk.com.) I’ve reported from close to 40 countries and met my Colombian wife on one those trips when I missed a plane. On another trip to Cuba I was detained by Cuban security and given 48 hours to get out of the country. I got out in 24. I live in small, sleepy southern town, but write true crime books about drug lords and gangsters in far off places like Colombia and Thailand and in the gangland of the inner city. Go figure but I love it. I’d say life has been a continuous adrenalin rush.
What documentaries have you appeared on and how have you talked about?
I serve as a consultant to the History Channel´s ¨Gangland¨ series and has been interviewed by NBC´s Dateline, the Biography Channel’s “Mobsters”, The Discovery Channel’s “Undercover” and Black Entertainment Television´s ¨American Gangster¨ I‘ve talked mostly about black organized crime. I imagine that as I continue my research there will be other gigs, given the huge interest in true crime.
What did you think about the Frank Lucas American Gangster movie and all the hoopla?
I didn’t think much of the movie. If you know nothing about the real Frank Lucas then the movie can be entertaining. But the movie is supposed to be based on a true story. So it was really quite amazing to see how the hoopla unfolded and Lucas was able to pimp his bogus story. Talk to former gangsters from era in which Lucas operated in and they will tell you Lucas is full of shit. I have done extensive research on Luca’s life and his relationship to Ike Atkinson, who appears as the character Nate in “American Gangster,” and I would say about 80 percent of the life story Lucas has presented is a lie. Now his autobiography has come out and he has three versions of his life: the New York magazine article that got him the movie deal, the movie itself and now his autobiography. Each of them contradicts the others and is full of holes.
Here in a nutshell is the truth garnered from my research. Lucas was not Bumpy Johnson’s right hand man. Ike Atkinson, not Frank Lucas, pioneered the Asian heroin pipeline to the U.S. Lucas worked with the Italian American mafia contrary to what the movie and he claims. There was no smuggling of heroin in coffins and/or the cadavers of American servicemen who died in Vietnam. Lucas was big snitch who turned in his fellow gangsters and not cops. When Hollywood, the media and Denzel Washington are all pimping a movie, it’s pretty hard to combat the myths they create. But my new book, Sergeant Smack (www.ikeatkinsonkingpin.com, I think, does that.
How did you get involved with the Sergeant Smack story?
Ironically, Frank Lucas led me to Ike Atkinson. I had interviewed him twice for my book Gangsters of Harlem. The book has a chapter on him. In the interview he kept referring to his “cousin” Ike and how he helped him to set up the Asian drug connection. I had heard of Ike but did not know too much about him. I did a search and found he has been prison for nearly 31 continuous years. He had not given an interview during that period. Not a good sign for a journalist. Maybe he doesn’t want to talk to anybody. But I wrote the prison where he was incarcerate, requesting an interview with Ike. They passed the message on to him. Fortunately, I mentioned in my letter some of the things Lucas was saying about him. Ike was curious and agreed to the interview. We did another prison interview. I learned that Lucas was not Ike’s cousin as Lucas claimed and that most of what Lucas said about his relationship with Ike was bullshit. Ike and I developed a close relationship and continued to work together on his biography when he got out of jail in 2007.
How do you do your research?
After I decide on a topic for a book, I gather all the background material I can on the subject.—books, articles transcripts, etc. by going to the Internet and library and talking to sources. I like to include a lot of historical background in my books to give the reader perspective. For instance, I have a lot of info in my Sergeant Smack book about what was going on in Southeast Asia when Ike arrived in Bangkok in 1966. I hope there are a lot of court records available. They are a rich source of information. I absorb that material and develop a list of the questions I will want to ask sources. I also develop a working outline for the book. I develop a list of sources to interview. Then I go out and find them. It’s very important to find good sources to interview. I think quotes enliven the text. When I’m about 30 percent into researching a book, I start writing and revising. I write very quickly. It usually takes 6 or 7 months to finish a book
Would you say your writing is your passion or your job?
It has to be a passion, given the economics of book publishing today. It’s very tough to make living solely by writing books, especially true crime books, unless they make the big screen. Your visitors may be surprised to learn that I can make more money writing articles. A 3,000 or 4,000 word articles can pay $5,000 or more. Today, that’s more than the average advance given an author who is writing a 100,000 word book. So I love what I do and will continue doing it as long as I feel that way. Life is too short.
What are you working on now?
Where should I start? My plate is quite full. We are starting to get nibbles about film rights for Sergeant Smack (www.ikeatkinsaonkingpin) and we are sorting them out. I’m halfway through a book about “Queenpins,” famous woman gangsters, which should come out early next year. I’ve just been commissioned to write a bio of Robert Stepeney, the so called “Godfather of Harlem, which I hope to have done by next April. I plan to restart my Frank Matthews project soon. I’m co-starting my own publishing company, Strategic Media Books, and we will be soliciting for manuscripts for a series of books we are publishing, titled Gangster Chronicles. I’m only really happy when I see a life full of possibilities. To stand the French philosopher Rene Descarte’s famous saying on its head—I work therefore I am.
What other writers do you admire in the black gangster genre?
There are some real good writers out there. I recently read Mara Shalhoup’s BMF: The Rise and fall of Big Meech. It’s a real good book and I can’t wait for the movie. Ethan Brown’s Queen Reigns Supreme is also good read, as is Tom Folsom’s Mr. Untouchable. As far as the Black gangster genre goes, to they are one shot wonders. I hope these authors come out with more books in the genre. I also like Seth Ferranti’s books. I think it’s amazing what he does from where he’s located. I’ve learned from these writers and will continue to learn. But I don’t limit my reading to true crime. I read both great and popular writers to learn and enrich my life as much as I can. For instance, right now I’m re-reading Ernest Hemingway’s collected short stories because I love his style. I also read a lot of John Grisham to lean how to writer cinematically.
Do you think this genre can be as successful as the mafia and Colombian cartel books that came before it?
Oh, yes, the genre is just getting started. There are still so many good stories about Black gangsters out here begging to be written. Look at Robert Stepeney. He was one of the most powerful gangsters of the late 1960s and 1970s when the black gangster was asserting himself but Stepeney was low key and is little known. These stories need to be written. They are a part of African American history and the country’s history. So they should be written with the historical perspective in mind and not just about the sensational aspects of the criminal scene. Publishing needs to move on from the mafia and Colombian cartels. After all, how many more books need to be written about Al Capone, John Gotti and Pablo Escobar?
To read an excerpt from Sergeant Smack go to www.ikeatkinsonkingpin.com