Nucci couldn’t make the $10,000 bail, so he would end up spending 2½ months in jail. Inside his cell, Nucci sat on the edge of the concrete bed and looked at himself in the aluminum mirror. His dull reflection stared back.
He was 22 years old. He weighed 330 pounds. His remaining friends were living their lives — graduating college, getting married, buying houses, starting families.
“I was so far removed from that,” he remembered. “I was wondering how it went so wrong. … I was thinking about how much I let down my family, my friends. …”
Since that day, the 31-year-old Nucci said he has done everything he can to turn his life around. Now, roughly eight years after sitting in that jail cell, he has his sights set on attending law school so he can help people facing the same kinds of struggles he did.
“The actual reason for me wanting to pursue law school had also now become my biggest obstacle in actually going,” Nucci said of his conviction for attempted second-degree burglary, which he shares in the personal statement required of every applicant.
“I want people to see. I want schools to see how far I’ve come and I want them to know everything.”
Nucci put family and friends through an ordeal that left the ones he loved the most wondering whether he’d live to tell his story.
Nucci had played basketball at Greece Odyssey Academy, and after graduating in 2005, he kept playing recreationally. But starting in 2007, he suffered a series of torn knee ligaments, which required several reconstructive surgeries.
The pain lingered past the procedures. One day in 2008, he bought the opioid painkiller OxyContin from a coworker.
“It was more so just the opportunity,” he said. “It was fairly accessible to me. I would work with him every Friday. I would get a paycheck and I would throw him 20 bucks for a pill or two.”
Nucci said he thought it was harmless. But he quickly learned he was wrong.
“It progressed to a point where it was controlling every minute of my life until I was eventually arrested,” he said. “It was offered to me and I was fairly young and naïve, and I tried it and it’s an extremely addicting drug, so I was hooked pretty quickly.”
His life soon revolved around getting money to buy pills. He was using two 80 mg pills a day, which — depending on supply and demand — cost between $40 and $60 per pill.
“The worst of my addiction, I was spending almost $500 a week. It was entirely on pills.”
He wasn’t making enough to support the addiction. “I started selling all of my own belongings,” he said. “When I had none of that left, I was selling things in my mother’s house, selling other things. I was borrowing money from people I knew I was never going to pay back.”
Nucci and his second cousin, Chris Graham, were very close.
“Johnny is very intellectually smart,” Graham said. “He’s a very witty kid.” Graham remembered family birthday parties that turned into roasts, with Nucci zinging hilarious one-liners.
The two played cards and hung out — until Graham said Nucci started in with a different crowd.
“I thought it was a minor little thing that young guys get into and try things out and then move on with their life,” Graham said. “He got caught up in it. Next thing you know, it took him over and we weren’t as close anymore.”
He called Nucci to say he noticed them drifting apart. “It was tough. He started turning into a person you didn’t know.”
Graham said Nucci looked like he hadn’t been sleeping, and it was obvious he wasn’t taking care of himself. Once, when Nucci came over to his house, Graham wouldn’t let him into the bedroom for fear he’d steal something.
Graham thought, “This isn’t the happy-go-lucky, smart, big, loving guy that I know growing up with.”
In June 2009, Nucci told his mother he had a problem with OxyContin. He also said he was pretty sure he could handle it.
Daneane Nucci promised to help however she could. “It took a long time to realize that there was really not much I could do. It was all on him to make that change.”
Daneane Nucci struggled initially to accept that anything was wrong. She said she couldn’t believe the son she knew as compassionate and loving was addicted to drugs. “As a parent, it’s just hopelessness and despair and denial. For a while, you think, ‘This happens to other people. Not my kid.’”
She admitted to enabling him. She gave him rides. She loaned him money. She made excuses.
Looking back, she said it wasn’t helpful. “It became apparent that tough love is very tough; put it that way.”
She said she loved him more during this time. “You want to feel that it will influence his behavior by knowing how much he’s loved and supported.”
Within an eight-month span, between December 2009 and August 2010, Nucci was arrested three times.
The first, according to court documents, was after he stole a debit card from his uncle Nick.
“Johnny had never been in trouble his entire life,” Nick Nucci said. “I knew he was in a bad place. I knew the only way to save him was to try and hold him accountable and get him help. … I didn’t do it because I was upset or angry. That was done out of love.”
Nick Nucci said police ordinarily might be reluctant to pursue a family issue, but he pushed the Greece department to file charges. In his deposition, he said the family was extremely concerned for John Nucci’s well-being and safety.
In a sworn statement, Nick wrote: “I believe that if he does not change his path, it will result in much worse situations including his potential death. I love my nephew and hope this will drastically alter the course of his life in a positive way … . I would like Johnathan prosecuted for his actions in the hope that the justice system sees fit to enter him into some type of drug addiction program that would help him overcome his chemical dependency.”
John Nucci was charged with fourth-degree grand larceny. He pleaded guilty to petit larceny, received a one-year conditional discharge and was referred to drug court.
Just months later, in February 2010, Nucci was arrested for petit larceny for stealing books from the Monroe Community College Damon Campus bookstore and selling them. He received a one-year conditional discharge and two workdays in the Monroe County Jail.
He was still in drug court, but he hadn’t stopped using opioids. At one appearance, he was called for a random drug screen. The test came back positive. He knew it would, yet he questioned the result and asked that the sample be sent to a lab. He didn’t return for his next drug court appointment.
He also had been referred to outpatient treatment. But he says now that he still wasn’t ready to stop using the pills.
“I still believed I could just stop at some point, or I would stop at some point. I think everybody around me saw it was going to lead to jail or worse. But I don’t think I did at the time.”
Then in August, he was charged with felony second-degree burglary and petit larceny for taking a gift card at a party in a home. He pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree burglary.
Family and friends said the arrest saved his life.
“I think we’re fortunate his rock bottom was jail,” said his mother, who wants everyone to know how proud she is about her son’s recovery. “Other people’s rock bottom is much worse. In some cases, it’s death.”
Nucci’s mother and grandmother visited him in jail.
They cried when they saw him dressed in an orange jumpsuit.
“I had to talk to them through the glass,” Nucci said. “On the phone. It was very difficult. I was ready to just move forward with my life and get to a point where I could have a face-to-face conversation.”
Longtime friend Joe DiMartino also paid a jailhouse visit.
The two had met in middle school and they were basketball teammates at Odyssey. But after he graduated, Nucci grew distant and would call only when he needed money.
DiMartino said Nucci went from being the loyal, bighearted pal who’d give the shirt off his back to someone who would gauge whom he could hit up. At one point, DiMartino stopped returning Nucci’s calls and texts because he knew what was coming.
“You get so fed up with those types of situations,” said DiMartino. “I felt horrible being like, ‘Dude, I’m not helping you anymore. I’m done with what’s going on right now.’”
DiMartino said others knew what was going on. Some dropped Nucci from their lives. DiMartino never said he didn’t want to be friends anymore, but he was wrapped up in his studies at the State University College at Cortland.
Then he got a text from a mutual friend who said Nucci had been arrested. He called the friend for details. “Out of all the things he could have been doing to get arrested for, it was that type of thing. Are you kidding me? … That’s when you know you hit rock bottom when you’re doing shenanigans like that.”
But when he saw Nucci in jail, DiMartino said he saw his friend’s spark starting to return. “We started reconnecting,” he said.
When Nucci got out of jail in October 2010, he started working at a company co-founded by the same uncle who called the police on him.
It was a way to keep him close, said Nick Nucci. He is 12 years older than John, and in some ways acted like an older brother. He helped John in Little League and took him into his home for a while.
“Johnny wasn’t a bad kid,” he said. “He was going through a bad situation.”
John Nucci also went back to playing basketball. “Being so big, it was rough for me to play,” he said. “I decided that for as long as it took me to lose weight, I would go out there and embarrass myself on the court.”
He said he lost 90 pounds in eight months and has since lost about 30 more.
He also became the first volunteer mentor in a program run by ROCovery Fitness, to help people with addictions. Every Friday, he attends drug court to explain the program and wait to see whether anyone wants to talk to him.
“It’s interesting to sit in there and see people’s stories and their struggles and know that I was sitting in literally that exact same seat before,” Nucci said.
He didn’t think about being a lawyer until he started replaying his experience and thinking about the inequality he’d seen in the justice system.
More convicted felons are entering law school, according to Georgetown Law associate professor Shon Hopwood, who served time for armed robberies committed when he was in his 20s and later graduated from law school at the University of Washington.
Hopwood said he has mentored about 25 people who are pursuing or have achieved law degrees — Nucci among them.
“I could tell he wanted to go to law school for the right reasons,” Hopwood said. “I just felt like John understood his own struggles and own weakness and was able to overcome that, and he wants to help people. We need more lawyers like that.”
Nucci is finishing his undergraduate degree in criminal justice at the State Univesity College at Oswego. He plans to apply to several law schools. On Nov. 14, he got his first acceptance, to Suffolk University in Boston — with a scholarship. On Dec. 5, the University of Maine School of Law sent him an email of acceptance.
Nucci said he knows he made it difficult for friends to stick with him. But they were ecstatic when he told them about law school.
“You knew he had so much potential,” said Graham, his cousin. “Now he’s finally at a point where we knew what he could become.”
Longtime friend DiMartino said, “Once he got out, we went back to being normal friends. He’s realized what he’s done. He’s very apologetic. He covers it with humor: ‘I was such an idiot.’ But you know he’s very apologetic about what happened. He’s really said ‘sorry’ a lot of times.”
His uncle thanks God that his family got Nucci back.
“I give all the credit in the world to Johnny. We did everything we could to put pressure on him and to put him in a situation where he could turn his life around. … Unless somebody decides they want a change, … they’re not going to change. He made that decision.”
Thinking back to that jail cell eight years ago, Nucci said he sees a different person now when he looks in a glass mirror.
“I feel like I’m almost at redemption. I keep setting goals for myself and saying, ‘Once I do that, I’ll feel better.’ Every single time I reach that, I want something more.”
His criminal record will stay with him forever. Knowing that, he said when someone looks up his name, they may see how his past motivates him to a better future.
“Ultimately, I’d like to just make my family proud,” he said. “When I look in the mirror, I think I do that. I look in the mirror, I want to be a good friend I want to be a good son, a good grandson, a good nephew. And I want to be able to help people that are in such a low spot as I was.”
By: Patti Singer
Published: December 7, 2018