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."

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star