LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — A Southern California man released from prison after 20 years is using his second chance to counsel teens, hoping to steer them away from a path he wishes he never traveled.
KCAL9's Leyna Nguyen spoke with John Hawkins, who by 25 has established himself as a successful entrepreneur with a flourishing business.
"I was already at a place in my life where I had more money than I ever dreamed I'd have. I got more attention than I should have gotten, and it went to my head," he remembered.
It was 1988, and Hawkins had a chain of 22 stores, mostly in Ohio, called Just Sweats, which sold workout clothing.
"I thought I was on top of the world, but I was a guy with a lot of character flaws," he said.
Those flaws eventually led to a twisted plot to fake his business partner's death and file a false life insurance claim.
Hawkins would cash in on the insurance, and his partner would cash out of the business.
"We were approached by a company that had, like, I think it was 500 or 800 shoe stores all across the country. And they wanted to be our venture capital investor," he recalled.
When the national shoe company wanted to invest, Hawkins says, his business partner wanted to sell his shares for nearly $2 million. But he didn't have the money to buy him out.
"He was going to get all the money. And I was going to get his shares in the company," Hawkins said.
That's when he found Richard Boggs, a Harvard-educated Los Angeles doctor, to help commit the fraud.
"The doctor would purchase a cadaver from a medical school or a teaching hospital, identify the body as my business partner, sign the death certificate 'natural causes' and send the body to a mortuary. My role was to have the body cremated, scatter the ashes at sea and collect the insurance money," Hawkins said.
But there was no cadaver. Instead, Boggs picked up a man at a North Hollywood bar and killed him, telling officials it was Hawkins' business partner, who had died of natural causes.
Hawkins flew to California, arranged for the cremation and cashed the insurance payment.
But, Hawkins claims he didn't even know there was a murder until the insurance company realized the dead man was not the business partner and contacted authorities.
"At that point, I pressed the panic button and ran," he said.
Hawkins fled to Europe with $400,000, bought a boat and stayed on the run for three years using several aliases, still partying and still quite the ladies' man.
A rerun of "America's Most Wanted" resulted in Hawkins' arrest in Italy.
He was returned to Los Angeles to face charges, but few people remember the case because it was going on while all eyes were on the O.J. Simpson trial.
"We were housed in the same place. I used to see him every day on my way to the shower," he said.
Hawkins was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. It was there he says he found his calling: counseling troubled teens.
"It was for me an opportunity to give back and make amends," Hawkins said.
Letters of praise and recommendations from those teens, their parents and school officials helped win Hawkins a second chance. He was paroled after more than two decades behind bars.
"There was no reason for this crime to even happen. It was senseless," he said.
Now living in an RV with his aging mother in San Diego, it's as if time stood still while he was in prison. Twenty years ago, there weren't iPhones and Facebook or Twitter.
Now 55, Hawkins is trying to make up for lost time and learning to live in a world almost foreign to him.
The transition has been difficult, but he continues to counsel teens, hoping to steer them away from a path he wishes he never traveled.
"I just feel very blessed to have a second chance," Hawkins said.
Boggs and Hawkins' business partner Melvin Hanson were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Boggs died in 2003.
Hanson is 72. He's incarcerated at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo.
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