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How To Find The 'French Connection'

POSTED: 12:45 PM ET, 01/ 8/2009 by Derek Kravitz

In a career that spanned four decades at Newsday, Les Payne established a stellar record as an investigative reporter and top editor before going on to a 28-year run as a columnist. He won one Pulitzer Prize and helped shepherd six others as an editor. He was considered the "conscience and unacknowledged leader" of the newsroom. "Les was once described as the best and most influential African American editor and columnist in the United States," wrote former Newsday reporter and editor Peter Eisner. His column abruptly ended last week. Here is an account of one of Payne's greatest reporting triumphs.

It was 1973 and Marcel Francisci was the heroin kingpin of Europe.

Francisci, a Corsican mobster, controlled a sometimes-deadly network of drugs moving through Europe to the United States, dubbed the "French Connection."

Starting with poppy farmers in Turkey, a three-person team from Newsday embarked on an ambitious effort to expose the lucrative heroin trade. (The team entered Turkey, then under martial law, with shotguns and rifles, secret recording devices and rice paper to write down their notes.)

Les Payne, a reporter on the team, was eventually tasked with traveling to the Italian island of Corsica, which was notoriously wary of outsiders -- called "pinsutes" -- and simply dangerous for journalists.

A Corsican reporter bluntly told Payne's editor, Bob Greene, "I won't get involved; I won't be responsible," and hung up.

But three islanders and one dissident official agreed to talk to Payne, and he traveled to Ajaccio to meet with them.

The series he helped write, "Heroin Trail," was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Payne spent more than six months in Europe and Asia on the story, reporting from Istanbul, Turkey, Munich, Cyprus, and Nice, Marseilles, Corsica, Paris and Rome for the 33-part series, which was also published in book form.

Francisci was shot and killed in 1982.

The following is Payne's recollection of what happened, courtesy of Payne's blog.

A mostly young, noontime crowd flowed past the small, Royal Bar, the former drinking spot of Ange Simonpieri, a wealthy mobster serving a prison sentence for narcotics trafficking. As I sipped pastis with the translator, waiting for my first contact, a woman was carried limp out of the bar by two men who bundled her into the back seat of a station wagon and drove away. As the crowd returned to a buzz, the number of young men with bandaged hands and arms, some with raw tissue exposed, gave the street scene a touch of exotic menace.

At 12:30 my source, one Marchetti, his wavy hair parted in the middle and combed over his ears, gave a nod and joined us at the table. Over lunch at an upstairs cafe, we were joined by a local, Corsican journalist who published a twice monthly newspaper. I told them about my reporting plans for the four-day trip.

"Be very, very careful around here when you discuss him," Marchetti said. "This is Francisci country; he is home when he comes here." The two Corsicans fell silent each time the waiter mounted the stairs. "No one can be trusted to overhear discussions about Francisci and mobsters," he said. Whereupon, we took a brief walk outside and created a nom de plume. I agreed not to use "Francisci" on the island ever again.

I gave Marchetti a list of my interests - Jean-Baptiste Croce's holdings in Bastia, Colonna's in Pina Canale, all there was to know about Francisci. We adjourned, and regrouped at the Royal Bar at 7pm. The two Corsicans brought along a "young law student from a very prominent family here in Ajaccio."

Over dinner, the "student," asked a series of probing questions. Sensing my hosts extreme nervousness, I claimed to be a tourist and lied at every other question as well. The newspaperman coded that he couldn't discuss matters under the present conditions and excused himself. The "student" stayed to the end.

The next morning, at 11am, I sat on a park bench diagonally across from the Grand Bar. Francisci's gang had shot it out with that of a rival there, three years earlier. The "gambling war" saw 6 mobsters injured and one killed. Francisci's men prevailed to control the bar where he held forth when he visited Ajaccio.

As I raised my Minox camera to sneak a picture of this Francisci landmark for our "Heroin Trail" files, a lean man dressed in black, standing spread-eagle, trained a Bolex-type, motion-picture camera on us. "Hey Chris," I whispered, "that guy's filming us taking picture of them." Not quite ready for my close-up on Francisci's mob channel, we walked away, slowly at first.

When two men from the Grand Bar ran toward us, we picked up the pace, sprinting down the street and uphill through a winding alley. A pursuer in a brown jacket and turtleneck ran into the alley checking doors at the foot of the entryway. Circling the block, we doubled back to the Fresch Hotel, and dashed to the 6th floor to pack.

One of the men conferred with the desk clerk and positioned himself in a doorway across the street. After she called us a taxi for the airport, I blocked the desk clerk's move toward the door to confer with the man across the street. Dashing to the cab, we ordered him to speed for our late plane on the tarmac. Our two pursuers, organized transportation, and arrived at the airport just as we were heading up the ramp of the last plane off the island.

It was a sweet flight back to Marseilles.

By Derek Kravitz |  January 8, 2009; 12:45 PM ET
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