How gangster blockbuster led hoodlum's daughter to set up charity

For years Francine Lucas tried to keep her father's identity a secret. After all, who would want to admit to being the daughter of a Harlem hoodlum who used to smuggle heroin from Vietnam stashed in the coffins of dead American soldiers? But Ridley's Scott's new blockbuster American Gangster, which charts the rise of the chinchilla-clad drug kingpin Frank Lucas, forced her into the limelight at the age of 35, and now she is on a mission to help children who find themselves in a similar position today.

As the Hollywood version of her father's criminal operations reels in cinema-goers across the United States, Ms Lucas is trying to establish the first national group to provide support be it financial assistance or ways to bolster self-esteem for children whose parents are in prison. The organisation, which expects to be granted charitable status within days, has been named Yellow Brick Roads after her love of the children's classic.

"I would fantasise about being Dorothy, reaching the end of the Yellow Brick Road and being able to ask the Wizard of Oz for my parents back," Ms Lucas recalled in a telephone interview from her home.

Her earliest memories are a blur of lavish presents: a $10,000 train set, a Fendi fur coat specially designed for toddlers, in short "everything I ever wanted". Her father, Frank, would spoil her, always intervening to prevent her mother from dishing out a spanking, and always bringing her sweets. "There was always so much candy, I used to think he made it for a living," Francine explained.

In fact, her father led the Country Boys, one of Harlem's cut-throat gangs controlling much of the top-grade heroin coming from south-east Asia into New York. Although semi-literate, Lucas's drug-dealing in the 1960s and 70s was so prolific, he once boasted he was earning $1m a day, some of which ended up stashed inside Francine's cuddly toys and the family's tumble-drier.

In 1975, when Francine was just three, the FBI burst into the house, took the girl from her father's arms and carted him off to prison. Lucas was released in 1981 but wound up back behind bars just three years later. And this time so did Francine's mother, Julie, after a sting-operation in a Las Vegas hotel. Nine-year-old Francine had flown to the city with her mother for what she was told was a mini-vacation. She had come back from a swim and was just preparing to drink a vanilla milkshake, when the police burst in.

With both parents in jail, Francine was sent to live with her grandparents and her life of secrecy began.

"It was the end of my childhood. I became a little adult, worrying all the time and dealing with the shame," she said. "I was very secretive and had a lot of pent-up anger. People don't often think that little kids get depressed but trust me, I was."

But she forged ahead on what she calls her "own yellow brick road", graduated from high school and obtained a degree in public relations from the University of Puerto Rico.

Now living with her husband and two children just outside Atlanta, a world away from the Harlem streets on which she grew up, she has slowly come to terms with her past.

"I thought I would always want to keep it quiet. When one article about Dad came out a few years ago, my heart totally sank. I thought 'Oh my God', I wanted to hide and started using my mother's maiden name," she said.

Between 2001 when Lucas sold the rights for a film about his life and this year when American Gangster was in the cutting room, she silently heaved a sigh of relief at each hiccup or delay. But then came what she describes as her epiphany. "I did not have to go public but I decided to do so because I saw a way to bring this issue to light and help other children. I know what they're going through. I was one of them," she explained.

And that's how she found herself at the star-studded premiere of American Gangster in Harlem this month, watching Russell Crowe hunt down Denzel Washington aka her father. "It was really crazy; I had to keep reminding myself that I was watching my dad's story and not just sat in a movie theatre watching a thriller," she said.

Now she hopes that the film will help open doors for children struggling with the trauma of their parents being in jail, a phenomenon she believes will only grow. She hopes Yellow Brick Roads will eventually have a branch in every major American city and tackle everything from after-school care to prison visitation rights, from providing emotional support to making sure a little girl has someone to do her hair.

"Unfortunately these children as a group have no 'warm and fuzzy' appeal, since they are related to prisoners," she said. "I want to be an example to these children that everything doesn't have to be hopeless, that they're not alone, that it happens to other people."

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