Barksdale, inspiration behind characters on 'The Wire,' dies in federal prison

Actor Wood Harris, who played Avon Barksdale in The Wire, interviews Nathan Barksdale who claimed to be the inspiration for the character, in this YouTube clip.
Actor Wood Harris, who played Avon Barksdale in The Wire, interviews Nathan Barksdale who claimed to be the inspiration for the character, in this YouTube clip. (YouTube)

Nathan Barksdale, the former Baltimore gangster who inspired characters in "The Wire," died in a federal medical prison in North Carolina on Saturday. He was 54.

Barksdale, who went by the nickname "Bodie," was a notorious Baltimore criminal in the 1980s, running a violent heroin-dealing operation in the Murphy Homes public housing complex. He was shot more than 20 times and had to have his right leg amputated below the knee.


He later worked with the anti-violence Safe Streets program. But he was arrested in 2014 and pleaded guilty to taking part in a heroin conspiracy with members of the Black Guerrilla Family gang.

Key characters on "The Wire," the gritty HBO drama set in Baltimore, included the drug kingpin Avon Barksdale and a dealer named "Bodie" Broadus.


Nathan Barksdale embraced the connection. He released a DVD that chronicled his life, in which he was interviewed by the actor Wood Harris, who played the Avon Barksdale character.

"In real life he was one of the most notorious and resilient gangster drug kingpins Baltimore has ever seen," the narrator says. "He was a magnet for violence."

A spokesman for the city Health Department, for which Barksdale worked in the Safe Streets program, and an official at the Butner, N.C., medical prison where he died confirmed his death from an undisclosed illness. Attempts to reach his family were unsuccessful.

Barksdale said he left a life of crime. But he was ensnared in a Drug Enforcement Administration wiretap investigation in 2014, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison.

"I got busted," Barksdale said at his plea hearing.

Still, he said, he thought he had more work to do in the community.

Akio Evans, a local video director, this week recalled watching Barksdale counsel young people on how to avoid his mistakes.

"I did some good," Barksdale said at sentencing. "I'd like to think I saved some lives."

U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III responded: "You paid back, but you took a lot. So you still owe."

Barksdale said he had lapsed back into heroin addiction and had been running a scam to feed his habit. He said he would try to get samples of heroin, promising to pass them on to big-time dealers, but would use the drugs himself.

Barksdale presided over a lucrative heroin ring in the mid-1980s that authorities said controlled much of the drug traffic in now-demolished public housing such as the Lexington Terrace apartments and the George B. Murphy Homes.

Barksdale was acquitted in August 1982 in the killing of Frank Harper, a drug trafficker who had been Barksdale's mentor in the trade.


He was convicted in early 1985 of torturing three people in an 11th-floor apartment in Murphy Homes. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

David Simon, who created "The Wire," said in 2014 that Barksdale did inspire aspects of certain characters, but was not specifically the basis for the Avon Barksdale character.

"There are some anecdotal connections between his story and a multitude of characters," Simon said. "We mangled street and given names throughout 'The Wire' so that it was a general shout-out to the Westside players. But there is nothing that corresponds to a specific character."

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