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‘My chance to do some penance’

John Cappas owner Johnny's Wee Nee Waghas book out about his former life called 'Tall Money'. Friday November 2 2012.

John Cappas, owner of Johnny's Wee Nee Wagon, has a book out about his former life called "Tall Money". Friday, November 2, 2012. I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 10, 2013 6:07AM

“You gotta try it — it’s the best you’ll ever have, I swear,” says former cocaine kingpin John Cappas, fixing a potential customer with a winning grin and jabbing a chunky finger for emphasis.

He’s talking about the burgers at his restaurant, Johnny’s Wee Nee Wagon, but at one time it could just as easily have been a kilo of Colombian blow.

Back in the late 1980s, Cappas’ name was a byword for everything that was rotten in Chicago’s cocaine culture. The notorious excesses of his gun-toting crew of southwest suburban teenagers were daily fodder for the evening news. He even spat at FBI agents and yelled “I have a black belt!” at a judge.

But at age 43, Cappas is long out of the drug game. He has been free from prison for nearly a decade, first selling cars at a Chevrolet dealership, then hot dogs and burgers at his Markham restaurant — and now, his own life story.

“Tall Money,” his recently released autobiography, details his rocket rise to become the muscle-bound, mullet-and-mustachioed braggadocio who controlled a large chunk of the suburban cocaine trade, making $25,000 a week just a couple of years after graduating from Marist High School.

Rarely seen without a buxom, big-haired woman on his arm, Cappas openly taunted cops as he enjoyed the high life, driving Corvettes and piling out of limousines into nightclubs with pals decked out in jackets emblazoned with his moniker and a gangster logo.

But Cappas’ book dwells just as much on the shame he felt during his 15-year stretch behind the bars of a federal penitentiary, describing his rehabilitation as a law-abiding hot dog man who spends his days shopping for ingredients and bussing orders, and his spare time lecturing kids on the dangers of drugs.

“I didn’t testify at my trial, so I never got the chance to tell my story,” says the Tinley Park resident. He’s a little paunchier and humbler now — and settled into a longterm relationship — but as intense as ever. “This is my chance to do some penance for all the stupid things I did back then,” he adds.

Or as he puts it at the start of his book, “I have delusions of grandeur and absolutely no sense of fear.”

If that sounds like the makings of what might have been a promising political career, Cappas is hoping the book will one day be turned into a gangster flick, or a suburban satire like Tom Cruise’s “Risky Business.”

The plot, though, reads like a cross between a Kung Fu movie and a porno. Hardly a chapter passes without Cappas unleashing his trademark “roundhouse kick” to the head of a hapless drug debtor, street tough or fellow inmate, a repetition rivaled only by the comic regularity of his sexual encounters with random women, including a stranger he claims discreetly pleasured him during a visit at the Metropolitan Correctional Center.

“What can I say — I didn’t start fights, I finished them,” Cappas says, laughing. “And I had some beautiful women.”

Those conquests did not include Giselle Fernandez, the leggy CBS 2 reporter he memorably squired around Fox Lake on a pal’s speedboat on camera in the last hours before he surrendered to furious federal agents, Cappas says. For years Fernandez’s scooped rivals speculated on their relationship, but Cappas says nothing ever happened, “Not that I didn’t try!”

The speedboat incident was perhaps the most brazen example of the cocksure attitude that so enraged Cappas’ neighbors in Oak Lawn, the parents of classmates he recruited into his crew, and federal Judge Charles Kocoras, who in 1989 sentenced Cappas to 45 years behind bars, telling him “America is at war with itself and unfortunately, Mr. Cappas, you’re part of the enemy.”

Kocoras went further, telling Cappas that his drug business was to blame for the suicides of two young men — both sons of Chicago cops — who owed money to Cappas’ dealers.

But in the years that followed, Cappas’ sentence was reduced on appeal to 15 years, and Kocoras grew to become one of Cappas’ staunchest supporters.

In fact, the judge was so impressed with how Cappas turned his life around with study and hard work in prison that he penned an epilogue for the book.

“The soul I thought John had lost is now seen in all its human glory,” Kocoras wrote. “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 proud to say I know him well.”

The judge even stopped by for a burger at the Wee Nee Wagon this summer, Cappas says.

Ever the salesman, he added that the judge told him, “This burger is great!”

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