The risky business of John Cappas

The former cocaine kingpin pens a memoir, slings hot dogs and hits the motivational-speaking circuit.
Photograph: Michael Jarecki
By Jake Malooley |

In the mid-1980s, when John Cappas transformed from a promising wrestler at Marist High, a strict prep school in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood, to the leader of a multimillion-dollar southwest-suburban cocaine ring, his mantra was a line from Risky Business: “Sometimes you gotta say, ‘What the fuck, make your move.’ ”

On a recent afternoon, at the hot dog stand Cappas owns in suburban Markham, he paraphrased a different line from the ’83 Chicago-shot film that made Tom Cruise a household name. “I’m still in the business of human fulfillment!” Cappas said with satisfaction as the lunch rush finally died down. Alongside burgers and pizza, Johnny’s Wee Nee Wagon (15743 Crawford Ave, Markham; 708-333-8584) peddles Cappas’s recently self-published memoir, Tall Money. For $20, buyers get a combo meal—hot dog, fries, a soda—and the book, a piece of pulpy nonfiction that charts Cappas’s rapid rise and precipitous fall.

From the beginning, he was a shrewd businessman, capitalizing on upper-middle-class teens in the ’burbs who didn’t want to drive to rough parts of the city to score. “Since all the jocks and rich kids from Oak Lawn bought their drugs in the Concrete Jungle, I had a better idea,” he writes. “What if we moved the mountain to Muhammad and serviced the suburbs directly?” At the Scarface-esque height of the illicit business, described by a federal prosecutor as “ugly, violent and brutal,” Cappas was making five figures a week, which funded all the lifestyle’s cliché trappings—fast cars and faster women.

Before surrendering to authorities who had a warrant for his arrest, Cappas infamously hosted a going-away blowout on a speedboat. The party officially ended in ’89, when the then 23-year-old was sentenced to 45 years in prison. An appeals-court judge later cut the sentence, and Cappas was released in 2003. After a successful stint as a car salesman, Cappas put the culinary degree he earned in lockup to good use, purchasing Willie’s Wee Nee Stand, a half-century-old hot dog shack, in 2009.

Now 46, Cappas doesn’t have the Stallone mane and toned physique prominent in the salad-days photos on Tall Money’s cover. But he still cuts an imposing figure and has the motor mouth befitting a former wiseguy. That gift of gab is key to Cappas’s latest reincarnation as a motivational speaker. He recently met with a Michigan Avenue marketing firm interested in repping him for corporate gigs. “I’m gonna tell these guys at these corporations, ‘Look, you want to be a CEO? This is how you do it,’ ” he said. “You have to know the nucleus of a business.”

Cappas has brought his brand of straight talk mostly to youths at juvenile detention facilities, community centers, churches and libraries. “I say to them, ‘Listen, you got choices,’ ” Cappas said. “If you pick up a fuckin’ book, you’re arming your most nuclear weapon—your brain. That’s your most marketable skill. If not, you can sweep floors and be someone’s piece of shit.… Learn from my mistakes!”

The mistakes still haunt him, especially in his seven-year relationship with his pharmacist girlfriend. “Her parents won’t have nothin’ to do with me,” Cappas said. “They don’t want her to marry me, said they’ll never walk her down the aisle.”

Along with his mother, Cappas cares for his father, who has Parkinson’s. “I look at him and wonder if the stress I put him under is part of [the onset of the disease]. My ma still thinks the feds are looking at us. She’s a nervous wreck,” he said. “The life I’ve lived has consequences.”