By DON BABWIN
Associated Press Writer
MARKHAM, Ill. - Two decades after customers clamored to buy cocaine from a teenager named John Cappas, they're lined up again to buy what he has to sell: Hot dogs.
The one-time "drug kingpin," as the newspapers called him in the late 1980s, this summer became an owner of a hot dog stand called Johnny's WeeNee Wagon.
It's a few Chicago suburbs and a world away from where he ran the drug empire that made him $25,000 a week - enough to buy a house, fast cars and a necklace that spelled "Spoiled Brat" in diamonds to drape around his Playboy bunny girlfriend.
In a bright red building that looks like a barn with a man-sized statue of a hot dog wearing an American flag out front, he sells hot dogs, gyros, burgers, and now for the first time since the place opened in 1955, french fries.
"I'm doing the right thing now," said the 43-year-old Cappas, who was released in 2004 after serving 15 years in prison.
That doesn't mean Cappas is shying away from his past.
He obviously enjoys telling stories about what life was like before he was arrested. Like the time he made headlines when, knowing federal agents were looking to arrest him, he and a local television reporter took a spin on Lake Michigan on a friend's speedboat ("The feds had already seized mine," he said.) before he turned himself in.
Nor did he keep it a secret that for his grand opening last weekend - an event that included a magician and a tiger he says belonged to former boxing champ Mike Tyson - he'd asked two friends who were Chicago police officers before they were convicted of selling cocaine to judge his auto show.
But Cappas knows that his reign as a drug kingpin includes more than funny stories about his lavish lifestyle. He's linked to the deaths of two 19-year-old sons of Chicago police officers, both of whom killed themselves with their fathers' service revolvers after, authorities said at the time, at least one of them bought drugs from one of Cappas' accomplices.
And he knows that for all the "toys" he had, there was a time members of his family wanted nothing to do with him.
"I was banished from my (family) house," he said, his father, Louis Cappas, nodding in agreement.
Then he was banished from society, with a judge who sentenced him to 45 years in prison, angrily telling him that he had "lost his soul."
"I am what I am," he said simply. "I'm never going to live that down."
That helps explain why he said it is important to let people know he is no longer the same young man he was when he was sentenced to prison - something he says he deserved. And that he wants to make amends.
"I do not want kids to follow in my same footpaths ..." he said. "I'm paying some penance for what I did in the past."
That means his plan is not just to own a successful hot dog stand in a community, but to play a role in that community. He talks about plans to sponsor Little League teams and build a baseball diamond, as well as continue talking to at-risk kids, as he's done for the last few years.
He said a big part of his message is that it's possible to turn your life around, to come out of prison and make an honest living.
"This is my way of giving back," said Cappas, who also plans to publish a book about his life.
It all has impressed Scott Ladany, the owner of Red Hot Chicago, Inc. to sell Cappas his hot dogs.
"I did hesitate but ... it's a gut feeling that he deserved a second chance in life," Ladany said.
Ladany said that what Cappas did after he got to prison - earned a college degree and studied and taught cooking classes - helped convince him that Cappas had changed.
So far, Cappas sees no signs that his past has cost him any customers. In fact, on one recent day, customers - many of whom said they knew all about Cappas' drug dealing past - were in a line that stretched out the door. Some said his past was partly why they were there.
"It's great to see somebody whose life is turned around and is trying to do something good," said Mary Beth Johnson, a 47-year-old Orland Park resident, who grew up nearby and came to the stand regularly when she was a little girl. "It's great to see this in our neighborhood."