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A felon's odyssey reveals his true self

Love lured him to Switzerland.

His bride-to-be was from there, and he wanted to meet her family. But first the businessman needed a passport � something he'd never had in his 54 years.

So in 2003, James Young traveled from his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to his birthplace, Rochester. He chased down documents he didn't have � a birth certificate and high SCHOOL records � to verify he was who he claimed.

He secured the passport, traveled to Switzerland with his betrothed, then returned to Florida. At a Customs stop in the Miami airport, his past caught up with him: James Young, a twice-convicted felon, had absconded from parole and Rochester in 1981.

Authorities had never tracked him down in the two decades since. Nor had he ever been arrested.

Nor, in fact, had he even been James Young.

Since 1981, Young had assumed a different identity � John Nevin � to avoid detection. His friends and business colleagues knew him as John Nevin. Even his family knew that he had long ago ceased being James Young and had taken the name John Nevin. But the trip to Switzerland exposed the truth and landed Young back in a New York prison.

Last month, Young, now 56, was released from prison by a local judge who chafed that New York parole officials had reincarcerated him. Young "is an example of a man who has turned his life around after committing the most serious of crimes," the judge wrote.

Young's odyssey is the tale of a man who changed his life externally and, by doing so, experienced a remarkable internal metamorphosis. He transformed himself from a fast-talking Rochester hoodlum who had survived a deadly gang shootout into a Florida businessman esteemed as a humanitarian and the publisher of Fort Lauderdale's The Vanguard Chronicle.

His is the story of a true extreme makeover. And, Young says, it is a story he is sharing in hopes of convincing others � especially TROUBLED TEENs � that there are choices other than crime.

"I had to become somebody else to actually be me," he says. "But the reality was this actually is the real me. It was the other person that was made up."

Birth of 'Goon'

Young entered the foster system as an infant; he never knew his birth parents, he says. When he was 13, his foster family moved from Scottsville to a house on Seward Street in southwest Rochester. "Coming from outside the city, I guess, I was square, a little country boy," Young says. "I had never really been in a fight before in my life."

At West High SCHOOL, that changed. Two TEENagers jumped Young in the locker room, intending to initiate a light-hearted wrestling match. But Young thought they planned to hurt him, and started flailing. Another TEEN in the locker room shouted, "He's fighting like a goon!"

Thus was Goon born. Young eventually grew into a muscular figure on the Rochester streets, and his voice � a sonorous bass like that of actor James Earl Jones � only added to his intimidating reputation.

Some of Young's friends aspired to saving the city's impoverished youths; a group called the Soul Brothers established clubs and neighborhood groups.

But Young started hanging out with older, street-savvy TEENs who skipped SCHOOL, stole, ran cons and experimented with illegal substances.

Friction flared between a gang in Young's neighborhood and one in northeast Rochester. On Aug. 9, 1969, a friend of Young's was stabbed by a rival gang member. Young also maintains that the gang brutally beat two young sisters of his friend.

The next day, Young and seven friends piled into three cars and went hunting for their rivals. They found them on Joseph Avenue.

Court records describe the mayhem and violence that followed. Young's gang, some of them armed, emptied out of their cars. A wild shootout ensued, and two members of the rival gang were slain. Young says he was not armed and did not realize that his friends in other cars were. "I had nothing because I thought we were going to fight."

Witnesses gave wildly divergent stories � variously alleging that Goon was in the back seat of a car, or the front; pulling a rifle from underneath a coat or brandishing a pistol or emerging unarmed. Young, then 21, was convicted of manslaughter and served six years � much of that in Attica Correctional Facility. He was there in September 1971 amid the nation's deadliest prison riot.

Out on parole in 1975, Young again fell into trouble. In 1977, he sold drugs to an undercover police officer; he was incarcerated for three years.

Released on parole in 1980, Young was 31 and once again traveling with the same Rochester crowd. He saw nothing good in his future if he stayed. He told his parole officer he wanted to move from Rochester, but he had no idea where.

By December 1981, Young decided to abscond from parole and leave Rochester. He would no longer be Goon, no longer be hip, no longer be a criminal.

And, within weeks of leaving, he would no longer be James Young.

'Knucklehead' to star chef

Young had $136 when he decided to leave Rochester. He spent $76 on a one-way train ride to New York City. Friends he'd made in prison had told him they led the high life there, with nice homes, plenty of cash.

"I go to New York and I find these guys," Young recalls. "There's four of them living in a vacant apartment building."

They were unemployed and spent much of their time free-basing cocaine, Young says. Seeing what their lives had become, and knowing how much of his he'd wasted, Young decided crime clearly did not pay.

Before Young moved out, his friends gave him something that would change his life: a fake New Jersey driver's license with the name John Nevin.

"I thought it was a real license from New Jersey," Young says. "I found out later it was something made on 42nd Street."

Unemployed and homeless, Young began sleeping in parks. One morning, he saw a police car. "I was so hungry and destitute ... I was actually going to walk over to the car and turn myself in, tell them I was a parole violator.''

But the police car was empty. So Young ventured into a nearby church mission for a meal. There, he saw a sign offering a bus ride the next day to a place in the Catskills that HELPed alcoholics dry out. Young wasn't a drunk, he says, but he caught the bus.

Resorts hired the alcoholics for menial jobs, and the man known as John Nevin got a job at the Gibber Hotel at Kiamesha Lake, washing huge pots after meals prepared for hundreds of people.

"I hated the job. I thought I was too cool. Here I am, this street hustler, this real slick guy, and here I am washing these pots."

But, he adds, "that was the beginning of my transformation because something happened to me early on."

An alcoholic who worked next to him gave him what he at first thought was cryptic and worthless advice: "'You've got to be there in order to be there.'''

So Young showed up, day after day, scrubbing hundreds of pots. Meanwhile, he perfected the identity of John Nevin. He'd stand in front of a mirror and repeat the name "John," to grow accustomed to responding. And he trained himself not to answer when someone called out "James."

His paychecks came under the name John Nevin, but he made sure he owed no taxes at year's end. The Internal Revenue Service paid no attention.

When an opening for a cook appeared, Young got the job � then informed a colleague that he did not know how to cook.

The cook, a drug addict, HELPed Young learn. Soon Young was a star chef at the resort and good enough to take his talents elsewhere. He met a masseuse at the resort who spent six months in the Catskills and six months in Florida each year. He moved with her to the Fort Lauderdale area.

James Young was well in the past. He was now John Nevin, a law-abiding chef. He knew if ever arrested, if ever fingerprinted, he'd likely end up in prison again.

"My main concern was staying free,'' he says. "In order for me to stay free I had to do the right thing. ... And then I began to understand that I had a choice.

"It was my choice to be a knucklehead. And now I'd rather choose to go to work to do the right thing."

In Florida, Young finally let his family in Rochester know he was fine. Molly Thornton, who married a son of Young's foster parents, says she wasn't surprised to find out that Young had shunned a life of crime and was becoming successful.

"The only thing that was uncomfortable for us was, here we are in a situation where we didn't want to expose him in any way."

Businessman blossoms

In Florida, Young took a series of jobs as chef at the ritziest of resorts. His paychecks got bigger. He found pleasure in his first paid vacation and his first car. The Ford Fairlane he bought for $250 was "a piece of junk," he admits � but he'd valet park it nevertheless. His circle of friends grew. But he kept his real identity a secret. He and the masseuse split, and he went through other relationships, eventually meeting the woman with whom he would father eight children. Their first was born in 1986.

Young and the woman never married, and are no longer together. But she and he began several businesses together � in her name, for tax purposes.

Their fashion design business fell apart when a chief financial backer died of a heart attack, Young says. But their medical transcription business took off.

By 1989, the company, Angie Typer, employed 26 people. The reputation of John Nevin, the businessman, blossomed. Sometimes he used lessons he'd learned in a business class in prison in the late 1970s. (He and an inmate friend had had "this brainy idea that if we learned business we could run our crime enterprise with the same structure.")

In 1991, John Nevin was a guest on a radio show focusing on start-up businesses. While on-air, he told a caller that he felt so good about the economic environment and his own acumen that he could start a new business within 30 days and make it successful.

He then decided to accept his self-challenge: He created The Vanguard Chronicle, a monthly publication largely aimed at minority-owned businesses in Fort Lauderdale.

Throughout the next decade, The Vanguard Chronicle assumed a prominent role in the business community. So did John Nevin.

"He's very active in the community,'' says Art Kennedy, the chief of staff to Rep. Alcee Hastings of Fort Lauderdale and a friend of Young's. "He's done a lot of positive things not only for the minority community, but he also has very good connections with the power structure here in Broward County.''

Many days, Young says, he forgot he was ever James Young. But he could not always forget. Once, he attended a luncheon for the United Negro College Fund along with dozens of other businesspeople and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

"They think I'm just as high as they are because of my business, because of my success," Young recalls thinking. "I almost cried because I'm looking around the room and I said to myself, 'I'm the only criminal in here.'

"I felt so bad because of how I'd wasted my life."

The shocking ruling

The Vanguard Chronicle became Young's passion, so much that his relationship with his companion collapsed. He continued to devote long hours to the newspaper and charitable causes.

In 2002, he met a woman from Switzerland; soon they decided to marry.

Before going to Switzerland to meet her family, he had a Florida lawyer and a law enforcement friend check for his outstanding warrant. They found no sign of it.

When Young returned from Switzerland, however, Customs officials at the Florida airport discovered the warrant. It was so old, and linked to a drug-related parole violation, that officials let him continue on his way with a pledge that he would resolve the issue.

Young contacted a Rochester lawyer, Charles Schiano Jr., to put the longstanding violation to rest.

Friends from Florida wrote the Parole Board, as did Rochester Mayor William A. Johnson Jr., who knows Young's foster family. In May 2004, parole officials in Rochester determined that Young had turned his life around and could return to Florida under parole supervision there.

But a parole commissioner in Buffalo, who held the final authority, decided Young should be imprisoned for a year. Each day Young was free he was "participating in unlawful activity,'' the commissioner wrote.

"Parolee's desire to maintain his assumed name � which was used to evade authorities � shows unwillingness to fully take responsibility for his past actions," he wrote.

Schiano says he was shocked by the ruling. For one, Young tried while in Florida to take care of the warrant, but his lawyer found no record of it.

Also, Schiano says, parole officials who reviewed police and court files from the 1969 killings decided that Young, as he claimed, was not the shooter.

Early last month, after Young had spent nine months in state prison, state Supreme Court Justice David Egan ruled that the parole commissioner's decision was egregious and, if anything, could push Young back to crime by destroying his livelihood.

Freed from prison Jan. 6, Young went home to Florida � where he is still known as John Nevin, and many are still unfamiliar with his saga. He's still deciding whether to assume his original identity.

Turning back the page

On a recent frigid day, Young was back in Rochester, revisiting the neighborhood where he grew up. He and his friends asTEENs often roamed Jefferson Avenue, which then bustled with clubs, drug stores and a supermarket.

Young spent many hours at the F&S Club, which was located where the Southwest Area Neighborhood Association now houses its drug and alcohol TREATMENT PROGRAM, The Bridge.

"All the hustlers would go there,'' Young recalls of F&S. "Anybody who didn't work, you could find them here, anybody involved in any kind of crime.''

Today, Young says, "Many of my friends are dead, either from drugs or from AIDS."

But the Come-N-Get It Shop at 581 Jefferson Ave. is owned by two men, Charles Hamer and Gary Davis, who were young TEENs when Young, then in his early 20s, volunteered at the recreation center through the Soul Brothers.

"They made us read for about an hour before we could even do anything in the center," Davis says.

Whenever Young visits Rochester, he stops by the store, which sells goods ranging from clothes to electronics. He says he wants to find ways to HELP the store grow, to HELP spark a new vitality in his old neighborhood.

It's like he's starting all over again, he says, doing what he should have been doing two and three decades ago.

"Young people don't understand that when they're committing these crimes," he says. "They don't understand that, when they get 45 and 50, that you can't turn the page back.

"Where are you going to work? What have you done with your life? These are the kind of things now that begin to be meaningful to you."

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