Transcript: 147. The French Connection | USA

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Our cases have been researched using open source and archive materials. It deals with true crimes and real people. Some parts are graphic in nature and listener discretion is advised. Each episode is produced with the utmost respect to the victims, their families and loved ones. 

This month, we are celebrating Evidence Locker’s third birthday, as well as our 150th episode. In the spirit of celebration, we decided on a Blockbuster theme for the month of July. To kick things off, we look into the true crime case behind the film, The French Connection, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Writing in 1971.

New York City of 1962 was rather different to the city we know today. It was about as dirty as its criminals and its crooked cops and only a few enjoyed the glitz and glam of the city that never sleeps. 

On a cold January night, three dogged detectives from the NYPD Narcotic’s Bureau were tailing two French speaking men. According to hotel registrations, the men came from Montreal, but the experienced officers knew not to take anything at face value. 

It was 8pm on an icy cold and windy January night – temperatures only just reached ten degrees Fahrenheit. These men were not out for a leisurely stroll, that’s for sure. But what were they up to? The narcs observed as the foreigners stopped at the corner of Twelfth and 46th, and intently watched the pier below where the SS United States had docked an hour before. There was a humdrum of crew and passengers disembarking and offloading cargo. 

The freezing cold police officers watched the men watching the ship, wondering what was interesting enough to warrant them standing on the corner, watching for almost an hour. The NYPD Narcotics Bureau along with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics had been keeping surveillance on a suspected drug smuggling ring for months. They knew things were heating up and soon, the volcano erupted. 

This surveillance operation, with wiretaps, cheap wigs, endless stakeouts in unmarked vehicles, cold coffee and a steady diet of street hot dogs, led to one of the largest drug busts in history. The events that took place in New York in the early 1960s inspired a book, which in turn inspired an Oscar-winning feature film starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. This is the real story of The French Connection

Intro Music

In 1960, a young couple made their way to court for a quick and discreet wedding. 28-year-old Pasquale ‘Patsy’ Fuca was an American-born Italian and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Barbara Desina came from a broken home. Both had had brushes with the law – robbery and so on, but in their world, it was nothing major. Patsy’s mom had a brother who was ell-connected in the Mafia. This gave Patsy and his brother Tony a lot of street cred, and no one in their right mind would cross the Fuca brothers.

Patsy and Barbara moved into an attached red-brick house on 67th Street and owned and managed a luncheonette called Barbara’s nearby. Barbara often wore wigs, which meant she could look as glamorous or as demure as she pleased. At home she was a plain-looking expectant mother, but when Patsy took her out on the town, she looked like a million dollars. 

And that was their lives: days of pouring coffee and selling newspapers, evenings in the city’s finest nightclubs. It was on one such a night in 1961, at the popular nightclub Copacabana, that Patsy and the blonde bombshell on his arm, caught the attention of two seasoned, off-duty police officers. 

Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso were partnered up in the NYPD Narcotics Bureau in 1959. Both men were large in stature and fearful in their own way, and together they made a powerful team. The ever-gregarious Eddie would always push the envelope, while a serious Sonny was more grounded, and knew when it was time to reel it in. Sonny, who took care of his mother and sisters since the age of 15, after his father had died, was a pessimistic character. He had a black belt in karate and even his silent stare was enough to intimidate the most hardened criminal. Because of his serious demeanour, Eddie gave him a fitting nickname. Sonny was not sunny, but ‘Cloudy’ – and that is how his colleagues referred to him.

Hailing from an Irish family, the brash and unapologetic Eddie Egan was born to be a police officer. However, before joining the NYPD he had been in the military, played baseball for the New York Yankees and served in Korea. In the Narcotics Bureau he was better-known by his codename “Popeye”, because of his way of flirting with women, if only it meant he got a blush and a smile in return. 

And it was Eddie’s pop-eyeing that brought the two partners to the Copacabana one night. Eddie was in love with the coat-check girl and did not want to miss an opportunity to see her. As he was nursing a ginger and rye, Sonny found comfort in a Vermouth on ice. Habitually alert, they noticed a table of patrons, dressed in suits and spending an excessive amount of money. They recognised many of the faces, knowing that they dealt drugs in Harlem. However, there was one man who stood out from the others. Perhaps it was his regal manner, perhaps it was because of how the others reacted to him. They’d offer their seats to him, top up his glass… The off-duty officers overheard people calling him ‘Patsy’ and wondered why they had never heard of him before.

Although they had just come off a 27-hour shift, wrapping up another case, Eddie and Sonny were uneasy about the guy. They followed him after he left the Copacabana with his flashy blonde date, and they were not surprised when he took them straight to Mott Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. At the time Mott street, situated in Little Italy, was where mobsters met for meals, conspired and made shady, enormously lucrative deals.

Eddie and Sonny followed Patsy around, unseen, for the rest of the night. They saw him get out of his vehicle, while his female companion stayed behind. At every stop, there was someone he’d talk to for a couple of minutes, before he returned to his car and drove off to the next stop. At 5am Patsy’s car parked on Meeker Avenue, under the Brooklyn-Queens expressway. Patsy and the blonde woman got into a second car, a bashed up white 1947 Dodge and continued their journey. This was a strange thing to do, and the two cops were eager to see where they were going.

It was not a long drive, only about 12 blocks to Maujer Street. The couple got out and while the woman waited on the sidewalk Patsy went inside a luncheonette called Barbara’s. He made his way through to a back room, where he turned on the lights and put on a pot of coffee. Then he came out again and collected a stack of newspapers and motioned to the woman that it was okay to go inside. Once inside, she donned an apron and both of them prepared the shop for the day. At 7am, they flipped the ‘Open’ sign on the front door. 

The store was located opposite St. Catherine’s hospital. Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso managed to find a spot in a disused hospital room from where they carried on their surveillance. Not that there was much to see. Barbara’s seemed like a run-of-the-mill diner-slash-candy-store, where locals came to grab a refreshment or a newspaper on their way to work.

Something didn’t add up. Why would someone who had everyone at the hottest night club in New York at his feet, own a shabby old corner-store. Without any sleep, the man and his partner simply clocked in for a day’s work, greeting customers and charging regulars 10 cents for a cup of coffee. Where did all the rolls of money used to pay the Copacabana tab come from?

It didn’t take Eddie and Sonny long to find out who Patsy Fuca really was. He was none other than Angelo Tuminaro’s nephew. At 5ft2, he was also known as ‘Little Angie’. But dynamite comes in small packages – the 135-pound gangster was a force to be reckoned with. Once a soldier for the infamous Lucchese Family, one of five major organised crime families in America, Angie was no stranger to intimidation, torture and violent murder. He always had a firearm on him and people who knew him, feared him. 

When investigators found out that Little Angie was related to Patsy Fuca, they hoped that their surveillance would lead them to the uncle – a far bigger fish than Patsy. At the time, Angie was a wanted man, after skipping out on his bail. He was convicted together with two mafiosi who needed no introduction: Vito Genovese and Joseph DiPalermo. While the others were in prison, Angie was holed up somewhere and law enforcement had no idea as to his whereabouts. Not deterred by the fact that he was a wanted man, Angie continued his role as a vital part of an international drug smuggling ring.

Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso were not wrong about keeping an eye on Patsy Fuca. Angie’s brother Frank, who was usually the delivery man in the operation, was arrested for burglary. That is when Angie pulled his nephew into the network, and Patsy was only too happy to step up in the criminal underworld. Barbara Fuca would later claim that their annual income from heroin trafficking was $100,000.

Egan and Grosso were able to use wiretaps to gain more information about the operation. They told their bosses that there was a chance to apprehend Little Angie Tuminaro and received the green light. Their superiors signed off on a 30-day surveillance operation, instead of the standard 60-day period. The Narcotics guys knew better than to waste their time fighting red tape and got to work. 

During the surveillance operation, Eddie and Sonny borrowed white overcoats and went into Patsy’s diner along with other doctors from St Catherine’s hospital across the road. They learnt that an elderly man who helped out behind the counter was Barbara’s stepfather. He had a criminal past but had allegedly retired. The white Dodge Patsy used to drive around Brooklyn belonged to him.

Patsy often went to his parental home. His dad, Giuseppe, or Joseph was commonly known as Jo, or Papa Joe. Other than that, he frequented a seedy bar in Manhattan where he flirted with a barmaid. Then, once or twice a week treated his wife to a night out. While Patsy was galivanting around Manhattan, Barbara went to bingo nights with a friend, who was also called Barbara.

NYPD Narcotics weren’t the only ones keeping an eye on Patsy and Barbara Fuca. After Sonny and Eddie informed head of the narcotics squad, Edward Carey about the possibility of tracking down Little Angie, FBI agent Francis E Waters was assigned to assist. He joined forces with Sonny and Eddie and recalled one of their stakeouts:

“We set ourselves up with binoculars on the roof of a building across the street from Patsy’s luncheonette. We see a black car pull up and double park outside. An Italian with a black Borsellino hat gets out, goes inside the luncheonette, comes out, drives away. This happens a few times that night, and we realise what’s going down. We even followed Patsy to his mother’s house, where the plant was.”

Through Waters, FBI provided all the intel they had, but in the end, it was the wiretap arranged by Eddie and Sonny in Patsy’s luncheonette that became the most valuable evidence – the smoking gun so to speak.

Agent Waters became instrumental in gathering more information to paint the bigger picture of the operation. He spent more than fifty days straight following Patsy, and claims he even slept in his car during that time. It was Waters who saw Patsy meet with someone driving a car with Canadian plates. This man was not seen in any surveillance before, and Waters was intrigued.

The wiretaps also paid off and helped to get a better understanding of where Patsy fitted into the picture. In one conversation, Patsy expressed his wish to take over his uncle Angie’s role to receive drugs coming in from Marseilles on behalf of New York’s crime families. They had also observed people going into the diner, pretending to be usual customers and handing over brown paper bags, the right size and shape to be concealing thick wads of cash.

Intriguing as the information was, it was not enough to arrest Patsy or Angie. When they learnt that Barbara Fuca had ordered curtains for her home, they intercepted a UPS van, donned the uniforms and masqueraded as curtain fitters. All in the name of gathering intelligence, but there was nothing at the house to prove what they were up to.

By November 1961 law enforcement had been watching the Fuca’s for six weeks. Because of information they had gathered, Sonny and Eddie’s superiors extended the operation from the initial 30 days. In Patsy and Barbara’s luncheonette, they had witnessed what they believed to be small drug-deals. Patsy supplied small packets and was paid generously. However, they decided NOT to arrest Patsy at this point, seeing as they were waiting to flush out Angie.

With only days left on the surveillance operation, Eddie and Sonny heard a phone call come into the luncheonette. The person on the other end of the line had a distinguishable French accent and wanted to meet Patsy. This would turn out to be a turning point in the investigation.

While NYPD and the FBN were keeping an eye on activities in New York, something was brewing on the other side of the Atlantic. In December 1961, French TV personality and host of the daytime show Paris Club, announced that he was heading to the Big Apple to film an insert for his programme. He was going take his own luxury vehicle with him and travel through America, sharing his experience with the audience back home. 

Angelvin, an ageing French TV personality was coming up to his sell-by date and did not have many prospects beyond his daytime TV-gig. His wife had also just passed away and the floundering celeb drowned his sorrows in the nightclubs of Paris. Here he found comfort in the arms of another woman, the sister of François Scaglia, a Corsican Member of La Trois Canards, named after a bar in Paris from where they did most of their deals. Scaglia was the gang’s liaison person with the American Mafia, a dangerous man, known on the street as ‘The Executioner’.

Jacques Angelvin’s new love interest introduced him to a whole other side of life… And to cocaine. He discovered the opulence of an organised crime family’s lifestyle – and loved it. When François Scaglia offered Angelvin $10,000 to drive a modified Buick onto an ocean liner in Le Havre and drive it off the ship in New York, he agreed. This amount was more than Angelvin earned in a year. In mourning, newly infatuated and perpetually high, perhaps Angelvin lacked sober judgement, but he agreed. 

In November there was a failed attempt to ship the car to Canada. When they arrived in Montreal, Border Patrol placed an embargo on the ocean liner and searched the ship and everything on it. They did not find any drugs, but Scaglia decided it was safer to return Angelvin’s Buick to France. This was the deal of a lifetime – in fact, concealed in the Buick was the largest shipment of narcotics ever attempted – and the drug brokers were not about to give up. They decided to take the highest risk: to ship the Buick directly to New York.

Then, in December, the TV-host announced his trip to America, everyone would watch as he drove through America. Angelvin later claimed that he was unaware of the fact that the car was used to smuggle drugs in hidden compartments. Perhaps he didn’t know the details of his errand, but he had to know something illegal was going on. Firstly, 10 grand was a lot of money, so the stakes were high. Also, before the American trip, Scaglia asked Angelvin to park his Buick on the Champs-Elysée, and only collect in 48-hours later. Angelvin did not know where the contraband was hidden, but he must have known the car had been modified. Also, to transport the car on the ship to America cost $475, which was more than his own passage. Air tickets would have cost much the same, so from a financial point of view, there had to be another motivation for taking an American car to America, when he could have rented or purchased one when he arrived. 

On the 5th of January 1962, Angelvin boarded the SS United States for New York, departing from Le Havre, in the north of France. Two days later, François Scaglia flew to Montreal where he met a man called Jean Jehan. Jehan, a dashing 64-year-old Corsican, was well-connected in the drug-world. He was rumoured to have been a member of the French Resistance during World War II and was skilled in avoiding detection. 

Jehan and Scaglia travelled to New York, where Eddie, Sonny and agent Waters saw him meeting with Patsy Fuca. In the days leading up to this meeting, there had been more and more brown-paper-bag transactions at Patsy’s diner, and investigators knew things were heating up. When Jehan entered the picture, he was unknown to all US law enforcement departments working on the case. He piqued their interest and investigators decided to keep an eye on him too.

After Patsy and Jehan met, they went their separate ways. Agent Waters stayed on Patsy who went back to his diner in Brooklyn. Sonny Grosso followed the new guy in the investigation: Jean Jehan. And he was about to observe yet another player: François Scaglia. The two met for lunch and then Jehan went to the Edison Hotel and Scaglia to Victoria Hotel, where he was registered under an alias, François Barbier. For the first time, law enforcement was able to link two crime factions together: Angie’s mob in New York and Scaglia’s French mob. It was the connection that eventually broke the case, the reason the case was dubbed The French Connection.

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics bugged both Jehan and Scaglia’s rooms and a newly appointed French-speaking agent was brought into the case to assist with analysing the conversations.

On the 10th of January, two agents followed Jean Jehan and François Scaglia to Pier 86. They watched patiently as cars drove out of the bowels of the large ocean liner, The SS United States. Once they spotted the Buick, they headed back the way they came. As arranged, Angelvin drove his Buick to the Waldorf-Astoria and left it in the parking lot. 

Angelvin was eager to explore New York and meet up with a woman he had become acquainted with on the cruise. He met briefly with Jehan and Scaglia who said that they would give him further instructions in due time. A reluctant Angelvin had to be reminded how much he was being paid before he agreed. 

The deal was close to completion and Scaglia was eager to break ties with Angelvin. He did not seem to grasp the magnitude of the situation. Before he left France, Angelvin took his Buick for a service. The mechanic was none-the-wiser as to the modifications, but it was a close call. Scaglia freaked out when he heard about it and felt Angelvin had to be kept on a tight leash.

Sonny Grosso and Eddie Egan followed Jehan and Scaglia to the Waldorf and saw them enter the hotel’s garage. They never saw them leave and were unaware of the meeting with Angelvin in his hotel room. It was only later when the French men were at a nearby bar that police located them again.

So, the US and French organised crime families were connected, but outside players also lent a hand. How big was this operation? To investigators, it seemed like everyone who was anyone in the New York underworld was involved in some capacity or another.

Patsy met up with Jehan again, who had another man with him, only known to investigators as J Mouren. The criminal trio drove to an underground parking lot on East End Avenue, owned by Sol Feinberg – someone whose name had come up as a suspected drug trafficker in investigations before. 

And this brings us back to Little Angie. He was married to Bella Stein, the daughter of an influential Jewish racketeer. With contacts in Italian and Jewish criminal networks, Angie became an invaluable asset to everyone. And his contacts were passed on to his nephew, who in turn passed them on to Jehan and Scaglia.

Agent Frankie Waters kept tailing the elusive Jean Jehan. The famous subway scene from the film where Gene Hackman’s character Eddie Egan follows ‘The Frenchman’ on the subway, was based on agent Waters’ surveillance experience. Just like in the film, the agent followed Jehan as he hopped on and off subway trains. In the end, Jehan managed to shake Waters and waved at him through a window of a closed door as the train pulled out of the station. Waters simply waved back, making it clear that he didn’t care. The pressure was on, and it was only a matter of time until the long arm of the law would pull them in.

A sidenote… While they were filming the famous subway sequence, Eddie Egan was there as an advisor. He worked closely with Director of Photography, Owen Roizman, giving pointers and making suggestions. Then he spotted a person in the crowd, someone who had nothing to do with the film, and said to Roizman that he suspected the individual was ‘dirty’. Eddie took off and followed the guy, only to return a couple of hours later, justified, informing Roizman that he was right. And that was Eddie, he was a cop to his very core, he never shied away from a confrontation and had an instinct about people.

Back to the aftermath of the friendly subway confrontation with Waters, Jean Jehan and his accomplices all checked out of their hotels, one after the other. They disappeared into the crowds of the bustling New York streets. It was a conundrum: law enforcement had lost eyes on their main suspects. For a moment it looked like the investigation was about to implode.

Then came a lucky break: François Scaglia made contact with Jacques Angelvin. He instructed him to drive the Buick to Sol Feinberg’s parking garage. Angelvin did as he was told and, in the underground garage on East End Avenue, he handed the car to Patsy’s brother Tony and J Mouren. They took the car to the garage of Tony’s apartment in the Bronx, where they retrieved the heroin from hidden compartments in the Buick.

Patsy joined the men with rolls of hard cash, which he hid in Mouren’s car. In return he was given 88 one-pound bags of heroin. Mouren kept 24 bags in a blue valise for safekeeping, until Patsy came up with the rest of the money. Tony took the 88 bags to his apartment in the Bronx, where he concealed it in a steamer trunk in the basement. Once it was safely hidden away, Tony drove the Buick to Feola’s Auto Body Shop to be put back together. 

Law enforcement knew that drugs had come into America and that it had been moved. In the end, it was the Buick that held the key. Sonny Grosso noticed the entries on the shipping declarations: from Le Havre to New York, and then from New York back to Le Havre. On the return trip, the Buick weighed 112lbs lighter than when it arrived in New York. When the Buick was seized, they found traces of heroin.

Law enforcement had enough evidence, gathered during the surveillance operation, to warrant arrests. On the 13th of January 1962, Patsy and a six-month pregnant Barbara Fuca were arrested at Patsy’s father Papa Joe’s house. Papa Joe, Patsy’s brother Tony and Tony’s friend Nicholas Trovato were also arrested. Trovato happened to have two packages of heroin in his pocket, so he was only taken in for possession. Police searched the house, top to bottom, and finally found what they were looking for: in the freshly plastered basement ceiling they found 24 one-pound bags of heroin, ready for distribution. There is a photo of Papa Joe, taken during his arrest. He can be seen protesting wildly, almost foaming at the mouth. The Fucas were not going down without a fight.

Police also found several machine guns and a hand grenade at Joe Fuca’s residence. Two days after the Fucas were taken into custody, Jacques Angelvin, François Scaglia and were also arrested.

Sonny Grosso and Eddie Egan knew they had not recovered all the drugs. There was more to be found and the narcotics officers set out to search Tony Fuca’s apartment building at 1171 Bryant Avenue in the Bronx. They found the 88-pounds Tony had stashed in the steamer trunk. But instead of celebrating the massive discovery, they had to sit tight. Tony did not make bail and they knew someone would come for the heroin. Another month’s stake-out followed, keeping eyes on all entrances into the apartment block, but mainly on the steamer trunk. But no one came. It was a frustrating time during which residents became suspicious of the worn-out cops lurking in their basement. Most people didn’t believe the story that they were on a stake-out to prevent a burglary. 

Eventually, Tony’s bail was lowered, and he was released. On the 19th of February, Sonny Grosso was best man at a friend’s wedding when a call came through to St Patrick’s Cathedral. Eddie Egan was on the other side of the line and told him: 

“Come back, this is it!”

Sonny was still wearing his tuxedo when he arrested Tony Fuca – again. Patsy and Tony received 15-year prison sentences. In the film, they are combined into one character: that of Sal Boco. Barbara Fuca agreed to show police where Patsy had hidden the drugs, in exchange for leniency. In the end, she only received a suspended sentence. Barbara Fuca later joined forces with Robin Moore, author of the Book The French Connection, to paint the picture of her life as Patsy’s wife in a second book called Mafia Wife. Her The French Connection film character was Angie Boca. Although they eventually divorced, Barbara stood by him while he was in prison. She told People magazine:

“A Mafia wife can hate her husband, but something she never does is divorce him while he is in jail.”

Jacques Angelvin, portrayed as Henri Devereaux in the film, was sentenced up to six years in jail. After his release in 1976 he returned to France where he worked as a realtor. Angelvin also published a book about his time behind bars called My American Prisons. He passed away in Cannes in November 1978. 

François Scaglia received the harshest punishment of all and was sentenced for up to 22 years and served his time in Sing Sing and Attica. Jean Jehan disappeared and was arrested more than 20 years later in Paris, but not extradited. He was 82 years old at the time of his arrest.

In 1962 Angelo Tuminaro handed himself to police in Miami Florida where he made an ‘undisclosed deal’ with law enforcement. He was sent to prison for four years and released in 1966. Although he always managed to place himself on the periphery, Angelo Tuminaro was everything but an angel. In 1986, he was ranked 49th on Forbes’ ‘Top 50 Mafia Bosses’.

The success of the operation has largely been attributed to the work of Sonny Grosso and Eddie Egan. But there were hundreds of officers on the case and FBN agent Frank Waters was every bit as involved as the two NYPD cops.

Shortly after the release of the film The French Connection, Eddie Egan was fired from the NYPD for failing to appear in court as a witness, and for NOT turning in contraband. But he fought his dismissal and won. After retiring from the NYPD, he became an actor. Eddie died of colon cancer in Miami, at the age of 65. 

During filming of the film, Gene Hackman asked Eddie Egan what the phrase “Picking your feet in Poughkeepsie” was all about. He said he’d show him. They found a random kid on the street and interrogated him on the spot. While Sonny Grosso asked the logical questions, like name, address and so on, Eddie would apply pressure by talking about a guy who committed a rape in Poughkeepsie and, afterwards, sat at the end of the bed, picking his feet, placing his fingers between his toes. The person being interrogated was understandably confused and mortified. So, when the questioning veered back to questions he knew answers to, he was more likely to giving straight answers. 

Sonny Grosso retired from the force in 1974. While he was still a cop, he also worked as an advisor to the Godfather films. When he handed in his badge, he became a movie and TV producer, mainly working on cop-shows. He died in January 2020 at the age of 89, in the place that made him famous: Manhattan.

But there was another chapter in the French Connection case… Between March 1969 and January 1972, a plan was put in motion by organised crime bosses to get the confiscated heroin back in their hands. Someone who signed the register at the Narcotics Bureau as Detective Joseph Nunziata using a series of fake badge numbers, systematically removed the French Connection heroin from the evidence locker and replaced it with flour and cornflour. At the same time 300 pounds of heroin also disappeared from the police vault at 400 Broome Street. Officers only noticed it when they saw insects hovering around the bags and realised the contents had been replaced.

Handwriting analysis and fingerprints proved that Detective Nunziata was the person who signed the register, but there was a problem. Eight months before the theft was discovered, Nunziata was charged with corruption in an unrelated case. He was found dead in his car, after shooting himself.

Nunziata was known to Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, and they recalled joking with him about stealing the confiscated drugs. Author Robin Moore distanced himself from the two lead characters in his book, seeing as suspicion about their complicity was rife. It was later confirmed that neither of the ex-narcotics officers had anything to do with stealing the heroin from the police. After investigating the Lucchese Family’s Vincent Papa and a handful of corrupt narcotics officers, the trail went cold. The heroin was never recovered, and no one was ever brought to justice. 

The famous film depicts the actual events leading up to the first arrests made in the French Connection case. However, the case goes as far back as 1898. Viet Nam was part of the French Empire and opium made up a third of the country’s national income. In 1912, the first international treaty regarding the prohibition of non-therapeutic drugs was signed in The Hague, and drug-trafficking became an illegal affair.  

Marseille, strategically located in the south of France was a major commercial port. Ocean liner routes connected the Mediterranean city with Asia, Africa and the Americas. All it took was one ambitious, unscrupulous gangster, like Corsican Paul Carbone to seize the opportunity. The drug trafficking ring between France and America was established in the late 1920s, between Lucky Luciano in New York and Paul Carbone in Marseille.  

The first person who law enforcement suspected of drug trafficking, was the infamous Lucky Luciano, who was deported to Italy after the war. By that time, drugs were being smuggled between Europe and America on a routine basis. Luciano was stuck in Europe, but he was not planning on retiring. Carbone recruited a network of sailors to smuggle opium from Asia, then he arranged transport to a refinery in Bandol, Provence. When this lab was dismantled in 1938, Carbone set up shop in Turkey, where poppies were grown legally for medicinal reasons. Most of the drugs left for the States via Marseille, but when things got too hot, the drug barons used alternative ports, controlled by their associates. Carbone died in a train crash during the war, but his crime syndicate continued their work.

In 1949, Lucky Luciano was arrested in Rome on suspicion of involvement in the shipping of narcotics to New York but released a week later. He was banished from Rome and ordered never to return. In 1951, he was questioned in Naples for money laundering, but no charges were laid. Lucky Luciano had a lifetime of experience in covering his tracks. He remained a free man until his death in Naples in January 1962, incidentally the same month the French Connection arrests were taking place in New York.

In the early 1950s, several drug busts were made on ocean liners between Europe, the middle East and America. It could all be linked back to the port of Marseille. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics 1960 annual report stated that an estimated 2,600 to 5,000 pounds of heroin were smuggled into America on a yearly basis.

By 1969, The French Connection was responsible for 80% of heroin distribution in the United States. But it was all about to come crashing down… In February 1972, traffickers approached an American army sergeant with a proposal to smuggle 240lbs into the States. He informed his superior, who alerted the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Because of the sergeant’s tip-off, five arrests were made and 264lbs of heroin was confiscated. 

Also in February 1972, authorities intercepted 915lbs of heroin on a shrimp boat heading for Miami from Marseille. A year later, major drug trafficker, Jean-Baptiste Croce and his associates were caught after a drug bust at the airport in Paris. The Corsican godfathers realised that there was too much pressure from law enforcement and decided to bring their transatlantic effort to a close.

The real French Connection investigation was a landmark case, and in every respect the film was a landmark cinematic wonder. No special effects, no tricks, just long hours of filming in ice cold weather, simulating real life on the streets, as Sonny Grosso and Eddie Egan would have experienced it. Not the glamorous life of mobsters and their families on sets with runners, but the grimy, harsh life of detectives investigating smugglers and dealers. In the end, pressure from law enforcement and prevalence in the media made smuggling between the two countries near impossible. It was a mammoth effort to break the most established drug trafficking route at the time. For all the hours of low-tech surveillance, days without sleep and countless hours of manual observation, we tip our hats to all parties involved in the eventual French Disconnection.

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