Kadner: Drug kingpin Cappas writes a book
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org September 22, 2012 12:02AM
John Cappas in front of his restaurant, Johnny's WeeNee Wagon in Markham, Illinois, Friday, September 21, 2012. The former south suburban drug kingpin has written a book, "Tall Money," about his drug-dealing days. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun Times Media
Updated: October 24, 2012 6:37AM
I am sitting across a picnic table from John Cappas, once the leader of most notorious cocaine ring in the southwest suburbs, who now dispenses hot dogs from Johnny’s WeeNee Wagon in Markham.
Cappas, who grew up in Oak Lawn, owns the place, which his father purchased. He dreams of creating a pizza delivery empire in the Southland, using the same sales skills that allowed him to earn $40,000 a month as a coke dealer.
Cappas served 15 years in the federal prison system (he was released in 2003) and has now self-published a book, “John Cappas Tall Money,” about his life.
I decided to meet with him after reading the book.
Why, I wondered, would a guy who served his time, had by many accounts rebuilt his life, want to remind people that he’s not just John Cappas the restaurant owner but John Cappas the drug dealer?
“I wanted to tell my side of the story,” he said. “I never took the witness stand in my own defense.”
I can’t say that satisfied me, although his father, Louis Cappas, who once owned Cappas Liquors at Archer and Western avenues in Chicago, may have come closer to an explanation.
When I asked the younger Cappas, who graduated from culinary arts school while in prison, why he hadn’t opened a high-end restaurant instead of a hot dog stand, the elder Cappas interjected.
“No one in Orland Park is going to go to a fancy dining establishment run by John Cappas,” he said. “It’s never going to happen. In Markham, in the black community, no one looks down on him because he once sold drugs. That’s it!”
John Cappas nods his head. No matter what he does in life, no matter how many classrooms of kids he talks to about the dangers of drugs, no matter how often he visits the juvenile detention center in Chicago to help troubled youth, “I’m never going to redeem myself in the eyes of many people,” he said.
Still, he wants to convince me that he has changed. He’s a different man.
But I have read his book, and what stands out is a fellow who is very proud of his bad-boy image.
He studied martial arts and used those skills to beat many people senseless, details of which are recorded with great relish in his books. In every instance, Cappas would tell you, the guys deserved it.
He describes the expensive cars he purchased with his drug money and brags about the beautiful women with whom he had sex.
Police officers, federal drug agents, federal prosecutors, even his defense attorney come off as liars, bullies, cowards or unprincipled and unethical jerks.
There’s more than a hint that law enforcement officials helped the young Cappas succeed in his drug business. And Cappas brags that he never testified against anyone, never turned “rat.”
There’s little soul searching to be found about the damage that he and his gang might have done to teenagers in the Southland who were his primary customers. Two of those children, from Chicago’s Mount Greenwood community, committed suicide.
In the book and while talking to me, Cappas compared his connection to their deaths to that of a bartender who sells a drink to a customer. That customer then goes to another bar and buys a drink, visits a third bar for a drink and ends up killing himself in a car crash.
“Is that first bartender to blame?” Cappas asked.
He quickly adds that he never sold drugs to either of the two teenagers who died nor did he know that members of his gang were selling them drugs.
“If you’re looking for someone to cry and say forgive me, I feel so bad, that’s not me,” Cappas said. “I know what I did was wrong. That’s why I counsel kids one-on-one and in groups today and tell them what can happen to them.
“If you read the last chapters of my book, you see how I take responsibility. I’m a different person today than I was at 19.”
Indeed the last chapter has a letter from U.S. District Court Judge Charles Kocoras, who originally sentenced Cappas to an astonishing 45 years in prison.
Kocoras writes that “the world of crime and punishment does not produce success stories with any regularity or certainty. I consider John Cappas to be a success story, and I am now proud to say I know him well.”
In addition to graduating culinary school while in prison, Cappas received a bachelor’s degree with a double major in psychology and business. He argues forcefully for more emphasis on reform than punishment in prison.
The parts of his book I enjoyed the most were hilarious — detailed descriptions of his culinary creations behind bars amid passages about rape and murder by convicts.
Cappas believes a movie will be made based on his book. He sees himself as Joel Goodson, the Tom Cruise character, in “Risky Business.”
I cannot conclude this column without mentioning his mother and father, who expressed great love and admiration for their son today. Cappas seems to have an appreciation for the emotional price his parents have paid and is devoted to them.
As for the financial cost, “I have never told John or his mother,” Louis Cappas said. “And I’m not going to tell you.”
I believe in second chances. But I also believe in accepting responsibility for your actions.
“I’m no killer!” Cappas shouted in court years ago when he was sentenced. “I never killed anyone,” he told me outside the WeeNee Wagon.
He can’t possibly know that his actions didn’t result in death. But he believes he had no responsibility.
I told Cappas that had he not gotten involved in drugs, he might have made millions in the business world.
He has self-confidence, people skills, intelligence and almost no sense of guilt.
Who knows, he might become governor of Illinois.