EXT. METRO STREET – AFTERNOON
At a red light, a green van pulls in front of a vehicle occupied by three males. Uniformed officers spring from the van. The driver throws the car into reverse in a failed attempt to flee as nearly 10 police cars converge on and surround the vehicle. A uniformed OFFICER instructs the passenger in the back seat to put his hands outside the vehicle. The passenger complies. OFFICER cuffs the passenger, opens the door, and looks right into the passenger’s eyes.
“Mr. Vega, your life is never going to be the same after today.”
“And from that day on, I didn’t see the streets for eight years,” says Johnny Vega.
This is no script. This is real life. Johnny’s family moved to Lancaster from the Bronx in 1984 when he was 5-years old. He was amazed by the sound of crickets.
“We have rats and roaches in New York,” says Johnny, and breaks out in a hearty laugh. “And then my mom said something I’ll never forget: ‘Go and play.’”
Johnny was a good student. In fourth grade, he joined a college prep program run in coordination with Millersville University. But he started following some poor role models and experimented with drugs.
“By the time I was 15 or 16, I started selling weed to support my habit,” says Johnny, now an adult. Part of the problem that manifested in his life was the need to be beyond average. He couldn’t just be a street level seller; he had to be bigger. “I basically started treating it like a business. Eventually, by the time I was 18 I thought I was Scarface. They used to call me the ‘one-stop shop.’ If I could make a profit, I was snatching it up— heroin, coke, crack, pills—at one point I was even selling guns.”
Meanwhile, Johnny the model student was getting good grades, participating in sports, joining after-school programs. He even managed to get a scholarship to Millersville, but while in college he started seeing friends get busted for drugs, some facing multiple-year sentences. Also, at this time, ecstasy hit the scene and by the age of 20, he opened a pair of nightclubs.
“And one day, I’m sittin’ in the club thinkin’ I’m on top of the world,” remembers Johnny, who was selling over 1,500 pills a week at the time. “And all of a sudden, boom! The doors get kicked in and the windows get broken out. In the blink of an eye I went from college student to on the run from the federal government.”
The FBI had Johnny’s number. Everybody knew what he was doing. He was flamboyant—the club was always packed—he was large. Now he was at large.
“I was on the run for six months,” says Johnny. Remember the scene from the intro? That happened in York while Johnny was going to get a haircut and some new clothes for the weekend. He wound up sitting in York County Prison for 11 months until the U.S. Government charged him with conspiracy to distribute 10,000 ecstasy pills. His choices were to roll over on his gang connections, go to trial and face a 25-year sentence, or plead guilty and do 100 months in jail.
“This is all before I changed to the nice guy you know now,” says Johnny, returning with that laugh. Then it’s back to seriousness. “You make choices in life. And you have to deal with those choices. And you have to deal with the consequences of those choices. I had gotten away with so much… When I decided to plead guilty, I prayed and made a deal with God. I gave myself as a living sacrifice to God.”
He ended up serving eight years, most in Allenwood Federal Correctional Institution where he got his associate degree in business. In 2008, he returned to Lancaster and opened a restaurant, got involved with the youth ministry at church, and began working with Teen Haven, a youth program based out of the Water Street Mission. Next came his own non profit called Fight for Lancaster and HoodRISE, a specialized curriculum of mentorship in Harrisburg and York. He also serves as a motivational speaker. He wants to make sure no kid makes the mistakes he made. It seems with Johnny, the sequel is turning out much better.
“You can be the cool guy and not be part of that lifestyle. That lifestyle is only going to lead you to jail or an early death,” says Johnny. He would know.