It was advertised on posters all over campus.
At West Chester University on Tuesday night, the Department of Criminal Justice was presenting the latest in their "Crime & Justice Lecture Series."
Previous lecturers included the former leader of the Pagans motorcycle gang. And a former member of the Mexican Mafia.
On Tuesday, the latest attraction was a former Mafia hit man:
"A poor kid from South Philly" who "survived three gunshots to the head, to become a federally protected witness who brought down the Philly mob," the posters said. "And then reinvented himself as a wildly successful car salesman."
Yep, "John-John" Veasey, the former high school dropout, was appearing live at West Chester University to talk about his life in the Mafia and the witness protection program. And his current reincarnation as a born again, right-wing Republican, and millionaire car dealer.
|Veasey autographing his book for a student|
"He's real," DiGiacomo warned the students before Veasey spoke.
Back in the 1990s, DiGiacomo was captain of detectives in South Philadelphia. The captain's guys were busy chasing Veasey around town during a mob war that featured hits "downtown," as the locals refer to South Philly, and shootouts on the Expressway.
At the lecture Tuesday night, DiGiacomo told some 200 students about the first time he ever laid eyes on John Veasey.
On the frigid night of Jan. 14, 1994, an unconscious Veasey was lying in a bed in the emergency room at Jefferson University Hospital.
Veasey was all bandaged up and had tubes attached to him. He had just been shot three times in the head in an attempted gangland assassination.
Standing with DiGiacomo at the bedside vigil were some FBI agents, DiGiacomo recalled. Veasey's doctors weren't optimistic.
"We don't expect him to live," the doctors told the cops and FBI agents.
But John Veasey survived that assassination attempt to become a government witness against the mob.
Veasey was a street fighter who, by the time he was 29, had been arrested 60 times. During his brawling career, Veasey said he had been hit so many times in the head with metal pipes and baseball bats that doctors told him he had developed a protective layer of calcium deposits on his skull.
That may have been why, Veasey told the students, he survived three shots to the head.
The mob retaliated by murdering John Veasey's older brother, Billy, days before John Veasey was scheduled to take the witness stand.
Veasey did testify, however, and was extraordinarily effective. The judge was amused by him; the jury loved him.
To familiarize the students with the legend of John Veasey, DiGiacomo played the 60 Minutes segment from 2013 that recounted Veasey's life and times. On the screen, they recounted how attorney Brian McMonagle, defending one of the mobsters accused of shooting Veasey, began his cross-examination of the government's star witness.
McMonagle asked Veasey about the new suit and pair of glass that the government had just bought for him.
"What do you wear those glasses for," McMonagle asked.
"After I got shot in the head" by your client, Veasey told McMonagle, "my right eye is a little bad."
McMonagle was the first of eight veteran defense lawyers to cross-examine Veasey. They didn't lay a glove on him.
"It was like he was standing on a corner telling a story," one juror told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "He was sincere. He was down to earth. He was believable."
The jury convicted former mob boss John Stanfa and seven associates of racketeering, extortion, and a dozen gangland murders. The judge sentenced Stanfa to five consecutive life terms; his seven associates also got life sentences and long prison stretches.
But John Veasey is still sorry about his starring role in putting Stanfa away. He told the students he never wanted to be "a rat."
"I like John [Stanfa]," Veasey said. "I like him to this day. I'm sorry I testified against him."
Veasey blamed Stanfa's associates for talking the mob boss into signing off on the plot to kill Veasey.
"They poisoned him against me," Veasey said.
He didn't express as much regret, however, about the two men he shot to death while working as Stanfa's hit man.
It was in the middle of a war, Veasey told the students. Killing people was his job.
"I don't lose sleep over it," he told the student who asked him about it. He still gets upset, however, about the murder of his older brother, Billy.
But Veasey played down those old underworld rumors, publicized on the 60 Minutes episode, that he would return to South Philadelphia some day and kill the mobsters he blames for murdering his brother.
Even though in South Philly, there are some protective orders out against him, "I'm not going to
kill anybody," Veasey told the students. "I'm done with that."
The day before, however, when he was in Philadelphia, Veasey did cruise around the old hood. But he wasn't hunting down any mobsters. He was ordering a cheesesteak at Pat's.
One student asked Veasey what he thought about mob movies.
Veasey had to explain that back in the days when he was a drug addict and criminal, he was too busy stealing TVs to watch them.
But since he got out of jail after serving ten years for two murders, he has watched all the old mob movies. His favorite is Goodfellas. But he didn't like Black Mass, the movie they made about Whitey Bulger.
"Johnny Depp sucked," Veasey said.
Veasey explained how in prison he met a couple of hit men who used to work for Bulger's mob. Hollywood didn't tell the real story, Veasey said.
Veasey told the students how he grew up fatherless in the projects of South Philadelphia. How his mother, who ran a South Philly bakery, was also a meth dealer. Mom had John-John making deliveries on his bike. Along with poundcake and cannoli from the bakery, you could also order meth.
John-John was smoking marijuana and snorting angel dust at 11. At 12, he was shooting up. That same year, he was arrested the first time, for assault.
By the time he was 15, John had already fathered two kids. Then he got arrested for pulling a knife on a teacher at Furness High School.
"I was obviously not a good person," Veasey said. He told the students about how the ex-husband of his first wife died after John-John gave him a beating.
Veasey told the students he didn't really have much of a conscience until 2005. That year, Veasey was fresh out of jail, and a member of the witness protection program who was wandering around the Midwest, while feeling homesick for South Philly.
Then, he fell in love with an administrator at a hotel he was staying at. An illegal immigrant from Mexico named Norma.
As a felon, Veasey had a rough time finding a job. Until he discovered that car dealerships don't do background checks when they hire salesmen.
People in the Midwest thought Veasey talked funny and looked like a member of the Mafia. But Veasey could talk to anybody, and nobody intimidated him.
On Midwest car lots, Veasey discovered he was a natural car salesman. In his past life, Veasey had only paid attention to cars when he was stealing them.
The former mobster became a family man who went to church every Sunday as a born-again Christian.
John and Norma have been married for 12 years. They still live in the Midwest. And Norma is the reason why John changed his violent ways.
After he got arrested a couple of times for beating people up, Veasey told the students, he realized he had to stop it because, "I didn't want to hurt her."
He had a liver transplant, but his body rejected his new liver.
He needed costly experimental drugs to survive. Black pills that cost $1,000 each. Veasey, who lost his job, needed 168 of those pills to go on living. But he didn't have any health insurance.
That's when an old friend stepped up to save John-John.
Paul Hayes was the FBI agent who had prepped John Veasey for the Stanfa trial. Hayes and Veasey became friends while hanging out at safe houses and playing cards and chess.
Hayes raided his pension plan to come up with the money to save Veasey.
If it wasn't for Paul Hayes, Veasey told the students, he wouldn't be here today.
"I guess God's got a plan for me," Veasey said.
He returned to the car lots. But this time he went into business for himself, buying two car lots now worth more than $1 million.
"I work every day," he said.