If you do not remember the face or the name, you will certainly remember some of the headlines from the late 1980s when John Cappas was the flashy embodiment of all that was the cocaine culture.
John Cappas is older now (43), a bit heavier than in his wrestling-martial arts practicing prime, a great deal more humble, and more than a bit contrite. Fifteen years in prison will do that to a guy.
He tells his story in a new book, "Tall Money," self-written, self-published and surprisingly self-aware.
The book's title comes from something one of his lawyers said in response to a question about how much dough Cappas was making in the old days. Before he turned 20, he was raking in $25,000 a week, give or take, selling cocaine. At the height of his illicit enterprise, he had more than 30 people working for him, many of them young pals from Marist High School, from which he had just graduated, or neighbor kids in Oak Lawn, where he lived with his parents.
Twenty-five thousand a week was (still is) a lot of money, and Cappas spent it lavishly on such indulgences as glitzy cars and stylish clothes as he and his pals/employees, always in the company of flashy, big-haired women, became stretch limo-riding regulars on the local club scene.
It all came crashing down when federal warrants were issued for his arrest. Before surrendering — "I could have run but decided to face the music," he says — he famously (for those who watch the local news) and notoriously had a pizza party on a friend's boat, accompanied and filmed by WBBM-Ch. 2 reporter Giselle Fernandez, who then controversially accompanied him to his arrest by federal agents.
"I still talk to Giselle every once in a while," he says. "She's doing great."
After a six-week-long trial that included the testimony of 72 witnesses, the 23-year-old Cappas stood in front of Judge Charles Kocoras, who said that "you turned into someone your parents and friends would never recognize. I am struck by who the real John Cappas is, the one who lost his soul."
It was May 23, 1989, and Cappas, then the youngest person ever indicted under what is known as the "kingpin statute," was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison.
"I was mad at the world," Cappas says, recalling that day. "I learned a valuable lesson too: In life, if you have more friends than fingers on your hand, count again. In this world, everybody is out for themselves."
He still harbors some bad feeling for some of those who testified against him but writes, proudly, "I did not testify against anyone and made no plea bargains."
Though his sentence was eventually reduced, he did serve 15 hard years, and much of the book is devoted to his experiences in jail.
"In prison, these guys don't fight with their hands," he says. "They just get a knife and stab a guy."
When he got out of prison in 2003, Cappas celebrated with family members at the Greek Islands restaurant and started working as a car salesman.
He didn't like it. "I was good at it, but all the arguing, all the pressures weren't for me."
So with the help of a couple of uncles knowledgeable about the food business, he opened Johnny's Wee Nee Wagon in south suburban Markham, not far from where he lives, in Tinley Park. Located at 15743 Crawford Ave. and open from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. every day, it was formerly known as Willie's Wee Nee Stand, an area hot dog oasis since the mid-1950s.
"My uncles told me I need to serve French fries and custard instead of ice milk," he says. "I really think I have the best weenies in the whole area. It's an honest business."
The place is colorful and the food quite good. A lot of families drop in.
Second chances don't come around often, and Cappas is genuinely grateful for his.
"Of course I am sorry for what I did to myself, to my family, to other families," he says. "But I don't have a time machine. I can't change things. My penance is going to talk to churches and schools and meeting with kids one-on-one to tell them not to follow my same path."
He says that he has never "before or since put a line of cocaine in my body." He doesn't go to bars but maybe "just a movie once a week" with his girlfriend. He works seven days a week. He appreciates life.
"Just to be able to walk around," he says, "without someone looking over your shoulder."
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
By John Cappas, AuthorHouse, 232 pages, $29.99Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun