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Durham’s kingpin: What ever happened to Frank Matthews?

One of the most famous black gangsters in history was born in Durham and got his start in crime here.

This summer marks the 43rd anniversary of Frank Matthews jumping bail.

It’s like he disappeared off the face of the earth, according to author Ron Chepesiuk, who spoke about his book “Black Caesar: The Rise and Disappearance of Frank Matthews, Kingpin” recently at Stanford L. Warren Library.

We’ll never know the whole story of what happened to the flashy gangster, who was only 29 when he jumped bail in New York, but Chepesiuk said he tried to get as close to the truth as he could. He researched Matthews for six years before writing the book.

Born in 1944, Matthews lived in Durham only a short time, moving to Philadelphia after dropping out of seventh grade. But he was already starting his life in crime by stealing chickens in East Durham.

After moving to Brooklyn, Matthews briefly dominated the 1970s heroin market, starting a 21-state empire that competed with the Italian mafia. He was known for wearing flamboyant minks and taking trips to Las Vegas.

A New York City Police Department detective named Joe Kowalski happened to live in Matthews’ apartment complex and became suspicious of this man who drove flashy cars but had no visible means of support.

Kowalski, whom Chepesiuk interviewed, began an investigation on his own time, running the license plates of the many cars that visited Matthews at all hours. Kowalski discovered that the tags belonged to drug runners from all over the East Coast.

When the detective brought his findings to his superiors, they quickly saw that the case was too big for the NYPD by itself and brought in the feds.

A two-year Drug Enforcement Agency investigation determined that Matthews had set up franchises in cities such as Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago and Durham. He was charged with conspiracy to traffic in drugs, but never faced any murder charges.

Chepesiuk said he didn’t talk to anyone who didn’t like Matthews.

“Nobody disliked him, not even the good guys,” Chepesiuk said. “There was this grudging respect.”

Bail was set at $325,000 by a judge who was naive about how much money Matthews controlled, said Chepesiuk, who estimates that Matthews had about $15 million to $20 million when he jumped bail.

Chepesiuk feels sure Matthews was alive for at least six months after his disappearance, but after that the trail goes cold. There are no documents and no pictures of him after his disappearance.

Chepesiuk doesn’t think the Italian mafia killed Matthews because the gangster operated independently of the mob bosses and would not have had knowledge that threatened them.

A more likely culprit if Matthews was killed was the Corsican mafia, which originated on a French island but operates throughout Latin America, Chepesiuk said.

Chepesiuk’s favorite theory is that CIA somehow helped Matthews disappear, since that agency would have had the power to make something like that happen.

The author has heard reports that Matthews is in Cuba, Algeria or Chicago, but he doesn’t believe those. He tends to think Matthews might be in Venezuela if he is still alive.

The gangster has become an urban legend at this point, Chepesiuk said.

“We’ll never know what happened to Frank Matthews,” Chepesiuk said. “I’m convinced of that.”

Chepesiuk is the author of 25 books, including “Drug Lords: The Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel,” “Gangsters of Harlem,” “Black Gangsters of Chicago” and “Gangsters of Miami.”

He also serves as a consultant for the series “Gangland” on the History Channel.

Chepesiuk, who has already produced a documentary on Matthews, said he has had some interest in turning his “Black Caesar” into a feature film as well.

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