In 1972, Barnes formed The Council, a seven-man African-American organized crime syndicate that controlled the heroin trade in the Harlem area of New York City. Barnes led The Council into an international drug trafficking ring, in partnership with the Italian-American Mafia, until his arrest in 1978. Barnes was sentenced to life imprisonment, eventually becoming a federal informant that led to the collapse of The Council in 1983.
Leroy Nicholas Barnes was born on October 15, 1933, in Harlem, New York City, into an African-American family. A good student in his youth, Barnes left home early to escape his abusive alcoholic father, turning to drug dealing for income. Barnes himself became addicted to heroin for several years in his 20s until spending time in jail, when he ended his addiction. Barnes was sent to prison in 1965 for low-level drug dealing, and while in prison he met "Crazy" Joe Gallo, a member of the Colombo crime family, and Matthew Madonna, a heroin dealer for the Lucchese crime family. Gallo wanted to have a greater presence in the Harlem heroin market, but did not have any personnel to deal in the predominantly African-American areas. It is believed Gallo passed on his knowledge of how to run a drug trafficking organization to Barnes, and asked him to assemble the necessary personnel. When Gallo was released from jail, he provided a lawyer for Barnes, who subsequently had his conviction overturned on a technicality. On his return to New York City, Barnes began to assemble his personnel, and began cutting and packaging heroin.
In 1972, to deal more efficiently with other black gangsters in Harlem, Barnes founded The Council, a seven-man organization consisting of Barnes, Joseph "Jazz" Hayden, Wallace Rice, Thomas "Gaps" Foreman, Ishmael Muhammed, Frank James, and Guy Fisher. The Council was modelled after the Italian-American Mafia families, where it settled disputes among the criminals, handled distribution problems and other drug trade related issues.
By 1976, Barnes' operation spread throughout all of New York State and into Pennsylvania and Canada. According to DEA records, Barnes' operation in 1976 consisted of seven lieutenants, who each controlled a dozen mid-level distributors, who in turn supplied upwards of 40 street level dealers each.
Barnes set up front companies to protect some of his assets, such as numerous car dealerships, which appeared to be rented through those companies. The DEA eventually discovered the true ownership of the companies and seized the cars, including a Bentley, a Citroën SM, a Maserati, a Mercedes-Benz, a yellow Volvo, and several Cadillacs, Lincoln Continentals, and Ford Thunderbirds. Barnes' net worth had reached over $50 million at the height of his career. A New York Times article estimated Barnes purchased hundreds of tailor-made suits, Italian shoes, coats, and jewelry, which alone was valued at over $7 million. During this time Barnes had become the dominant drug lord in Harlem, and was given the name "Mr. Untouchable" after successfully beating numerous charges and arrests. It is believed while under surveillance, Barnes would often make pointless stops and go on high-speed chases with little purpose other than to aggravate those following him.
On June 5, 1977 The New York Times Magazine released an article titled "Mr. Untouchable", featuring Barnes posing on the front cover. The Times told Barnes that they were going to use a mug shot of Barnes unless he posed for the cameras. Barnes, who hated mug shots, agreed and took the shot. Barnes’ posture of smug invulnerability so affronted President Jimmy Carter that the President ordered his attorney general, Griffin Bell, to prosecute Barnes to the fullest extent of the law. The Justice Department prosecuted Barnes for his drug-related crimes and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on January 19, 1978. The chief prosecutor in the case was Robert B. Fiske, then the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
According to Barnes, while in prison he discovered that his assets were not being maintained, and The Council had stopped paying his attorneys' fees. Barnes discovered that one of his fellow Council members, Guy Fisher, was having an affair with Barnes' mistress. The Council had a rule that no council member would sleep with another Council member's wife or mistress, so in response Barnes became a federal informant. He forwarded a list of 109 names, five of them Council members', along with his wife's name, implicating them all in illegal activities related to the heroin trade. Barnes helped to indict 44 other traffickers, 16 of whom were ultimately convicted. In this testimony, he implicated himself in eight murders. While in prison, he also won a national poetry contest for federal inmates, earned a college diploma with honors, and taught fellow inmates English.
After Barnes cooperated with the government by working as an informant, Rudolph Giuliani sought a reversal of Barnes' life sentence. Eventually, Barnes was resentenced to 35 years and housed in a special Witness Security Unit at Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, New York. By working in jail, he earned two months off his sentence and was released in August 1998.
He worked all the time ... He worked in the kitchen, in the dining area, separating the recycle stuff from the regular garbage. You name it he did it. He seemed obsessed.
In 2007, Barnes and his former competitor, Frank Lucas, sat down with New York magazine's Mark Jacobson for an historic conversation between men who had not spoken to each other in three decades.
Now in his 80s, Barnes is part of the United States Federal Witness Protection Program. He wrote his memoir, Mr. Untouchable: My Crimes and Punishments, in 2007, and appears in a documentary about his gang life, also titled Mr. Untouchable (2007). On January 31, 2008, Howard Stern interviewed Barnes on Stern's Sirius Satellite Radio show.
Barnes' name is mentioned in a scene in the 1995 Movie Dead Presidents, the scene was set in 1973.Barnes was portrayed by Sean "Diddy" Combs in the 2005 film Carlito's Way: Rise to Power. Starring Jay Hernandez, directed by Michael Bregman.
Barnes was portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2007 film American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas and directed by Ridley Scott.