Nathan Barksdale, Drug Kingpin And 'The Wire' Inspiration, Dies In Federal Prison

The former Baltimore gangster, who referred to himself as the "real Avon Barksdale," was 54.
Actor Wood Harris (left), who played drug kingpin Avon Barksdale on the HBO show "The Wire," interviews former Baltimore
Actor Wood Harris (left), who played drug kingpin Avon Barksdale on the HBO show "The Wire," interviews former Baltimore gangster Nathan "Bodie" Barksdale. The real Barksdale died on Saturday in federal prison. 

Former Baltimore gangster and drug kingpin Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale, who inspired several characters on HBO’s “The Wire,” died of an undisclosed illness on Saturday while serving a term in federal prison. He was 54.

Baltimore Health Department spokesman Sean Naron confirmed Barksdale’s death this week, reports The Associated Press. He died in a medical prison in Butner, North Carolina, Naron said.

Dubbed “one of the most notorious and resilient gangster drug kingpins Baltimore has ever seen,” Barksdale rose to infamy in the 1980s selling heroin out of the city’s Murphy Homes public housing complex. “[B]y the end of that decade he had become a local criminal legend,” wrote City Paper in 2013.

Barksdale's drug operation was notoriously violent. According to the Baltimore Sun, Barksdale was shot more than 20 times during his life, and had to have his right leg amputated below the knee.

In 1982, Barksdale was acquitted in the murder of drug trafficker Frank Harper. Three years later, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for torturing three people in an apartment in Murphy Homes.

“The Wire” creator David Simon has said that Barksdale’s life served as inspiration for aspects of some of the show’s characters, two of whom (drug kingpin Avon Barksdale and a dealer named Bodie Broadus) were apparently named with him in mind.

“There are some anecdotal connections between [Barksdale's] story and a multitude of characters,” Simon said in 2013. “We mangled street and given names throughout ‘The Wire’ so that it was a general shout-out to the west-side players. But there is nothing that corresponds to a specific character.”

In 2010, Barksdale released “The Avon Barksdale Story: Legends of the Unwired,” a DVD about his life. In it, he referred to himself as the “real Avon Barksdale,” and was interviewed by Wood Harris, the actor who played the Avon Barksdale character.

In the 2000s, following his release from prison, Barksdale appeared to have left his life of crime behind him.

He started working with Safe Streets, an anti-violence program, as a gang interventionist. He made “a large impact on reducing violence in our targeted area,” a program director told the Sun in 2013.

That year, however, he was arrested on a heroin distribution charge following a Drug Enforcement Administration wiretap investigation. Federal prosecutors also alleged at the time that Barksdale was a high-ranking member of the Black Guerrilla Family.

In court, Barksdale, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 42 months behind bars, told U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III that he had lapsed back into heroin addiction. He said, however, that he believed he had done “some good” before his arrest.

“I’d like to think I saved some lives,” Barksdale said.

According to the Sun, Russell conceded that Barksdale had “done a lot to turn his life around, but reminded him of his violent criminal past.”

You paid back, but you took a lot,” the judge told Barksdale in court. “So you still owe.”