Notorious Swindler Recounts Notorious ‘Just Sweats’ Case, Including His Mysterious Vanishing Act


UPDATED: Wednesday May 21, 2014 11:52 PM

It was one of the most notorious crimes in Columbus history.

The "Just Sweats" case had everything - money, murder, mystery (and like the movies), a sexy leading man.

It's been 25 years since a young CEO pulled a vanishing act with more than million dollars.

John Hawkins now lives with his mother in an RV park in San Diego, a world away from the life he once lived as a head of a trendy clothing chain in Columbus. It is also far from his life in maximum security prisons.

By age 25, Hawkins had a chain of 22 stores, called Just Sweats, that sold workout clothing.

"It was the largest selection of sweat clothing at the lowest possible price," he said.

In an interview with 10TV just days after he opened his first campus-area store in 1985, he said, "Our concept is geared to students. Students live in sweats. It's as simple as that."

As a curly-haired hunk, he starred in its commercials. Looking back, he admits that he was a narcissist.

"I got more attention than I should have gotten, more attention than most 25 year olds get, and it went to my head. My focus was always on being successful,” says Hawkins.

Then, a national shoe company wanted to invest some venture capital into Just Sweats. Hawkins' partner, Melvin Gene Hanson, wanted this sell his shares, and thought he'd get a buy-out of nearly $2 million. But the shoe company wanted a two year audit first. The partners had previously taken out insurance policies on each other. So they hatched a plan.

"He was going to get all the money. And I was going to get his shares in the company."

The plan was to defraud an insurance company.

"But this wasn't the first go-round on insurance fraud for either of us," Hawkins admitted. "This was a pattern in my life that started when I was a kid, to take shortcuts to get the things I wanted."

Hanson found a Harvard-educated Los Angeles doctor, Richard Boggs, to join in.

"It was a scheme to fake his death," Hawkins explained. "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. And my role was to have the body cremated, scatter the ashes at sea, and collect the insurance money."

Instead, Boggs picked up a man at bar, Ellis Greene, and killed him. He told officials Greene’s body was Hanson who had died of natural causes.

Hawkins says he knew nothing of the murder. He flew to California, arranged for the cremation, came home and got the insurance. He cashed the check for a million dollars. But investigators were suspicious because the dead man's fingerprints did not match those on file for Hanson.

"At that point, I pressed the panic button and ran, " Hawkins said. "They call it the Mad Cash Dash. I went around to all the banks in Columbus and got as much money as I could."

He withdrew $400,000 from Just Sweats accounts and fled to Amsterdam. He got several fake IDs, but he kept seeing familiar faces.

"Everywhere I went, I ran into people I knew."

He bought a sailboat so he could keep moving. The name of the boat was "Carpe Diem" - Latin for "seize the day." He drank too much and partied with lots of women. He said he did that because he was horrified by Greene's murder, and consumed with guilt.

"I was lost, really lost," he recalled.

After three years on the run, Italian police grabbed Hawkins by his boat. A friend's father had seen Hawkins' story on an Oprah Winfrey show and told police where to find him. His trial was over-shadowed by that of O.J. Simpson, whose case was in the same courthouse at the same time.

"We were housed in the same place. I used to see him every day on my way to the shower," Hawkins said.

Hawkins was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to 25 years to life.

"I was actually in maximum security prisons the entire time. For the first 17 years there was no glimmer of hope whatsoever. The most horrible thing is losing your freedom and being separated from the people you love."

Then Hawkins got involved in a program to help troubled teens. Police and school principals brought them to prison to hear inmates' stories, and to steer kids away from drugs and gangs. As John began to see the kids change, he changed himself.

"It was for me an opportunity to give back and make amends," Hawkins said.

And every day he thought about Ellis Greene, a man he never met, a fellow Ohioan - and how his death affected his family. Hawkins said that Greene's father's health declined. His mother suffered a heart attack. He sister tried an overdose of pills, and his twin brother committed suicide.

"My actions caused immeasurable devastation in this family's life," he said softly.

While incarcerated, Hawkins counseled kids and worked so hard, that police officers and principals wrote letters to the parole board. After 20 years, Hawkins was freed.

"I think tears started rolling down my face."

He had to learn how to be free all over again. The world had changed while he was away.

"When you're in prison, you're in a really small place. So now when you're exposed to this giant environment of many, many opportunities and choices, I put my toe in the water slowly."

He knew nothing of computers. His mother had to coax him to get a cell phone. It was eighteen months before he started to date again.

Now he spends time at the beach every day, enjoying its space and endless horizon. He also continues to speak at any school that will have him, trying to steer kids away from bad choices that lead to expensive mistakes.

As he reflected on the path his life has taken, he choked up, and said, "I just feel very blessed to have a second chance."

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