It’s Dec. 15, 2011, and 31-year-old John Bokun is in the passenger seat of a white truck, texting on his Samsung burner. Suburban Long Island flashes past the window on his way to Manhattan.
To other drivers Bokun must look like any other commuter. He’s big (six-four and 240 pounds, to be exact), but he keeps a low profile. Which is good, because the back of that truck contains 200 pounds of premium California grass — the bounty of one of New York’s preeminent marijuana distribution operations.
There is at least one other vehicle on the road, however, whose occupants know Bokun is not just another commuter. A blue van driven by federal agents is on his tail. They allow him to travel undetected, granting him a sigh of relief as the Brooklyn Bridge comes into sight. “Now,” he thinks. “I’m home free.”
In reality, he’ll be in cuffs within the hour. Publications such as the New York Post and New York Times will clamor, looking to tie his story to organized crime. I’ll tell you more about all that — but first, let’s rewind.
John Bokun was born on Nov. 15, 1980 in Hell’s Kitchen. The area was a known hotbed for crime — the kind of place where neighbors protect one another, a place straight out of Scorsese. Bokun spoke frequently of this neighborhood’s camaraderie during our eight hours of interviews, as did many of his friends.
“Growing up, I always knew the neighborhood would take care of me,” Bokun said. “It wasn’t any Sopranos shit, but we kept each other safe.”
He didn’t know it as a child, but his uncles possessed strong ties to an organized crime ring called the Westies. Led by Irishman James Coonan, this group from Hell’s Kitchen ran a ring of racketeering and murder later detailed in T.J. English’s book, The Westies: Inside New York’s Irish Mob.
Bokun’s Uncle John was a member and was murdered during a March 25, 1977 altercation at a local bar. And his other uncle, Billy? A New York Times article from 1987 details the trouble he faced after his brother John’s killer, Michael Holly, was gunned down in front of the Javits Center.
Although Bokun claims no formal ties to the Westies, he did inherit his family’s, shall we say, entrepreneurial tendencies. By 22 he was selling steroids to friends at the gym while working construction.
“It was just an awful job — most people die within 18 months of retirement,” he said. “So I asked myself, ‘Do I want to be a slave for the next 30 years?’ And the answer was no.”
This was the early 2000s — the years immediately following California’s 1996 decision to legalize medical marijuana. A few savvy New Yorkers assumed the drug would soon be legal nationwide and decided to profit off the temporary opportunity to traffic more accessible Cali kush back to the East Coast.
He called his first run tiny — ”20 pounds, tops” — and shipped easily back to New York. But despite its meager size, the trip proved immeasurably beneficial. It led him to the man who became his primary business partner, a 40-something we’ll call Nick.
It went like this: Bokun would mail money to a P.O. Box at the local post office. Nick picked up Bokun from the airport and then drove him to get the cash. One of the dealer’s drivers met the men at Nick’s place, where they’d vacuum pack their score for safe delivery back east.
Nick had a connection with one of the most powerful dealers in California — someone Bokun can’t name but says was the Wizard to their personal Oz. The men set up shop at Nick’s Santa Rosa home, starting a small but profitable marijuana ring.
“The easiest way to transport pot back then was actually by mailing it,” Bokun said. “I would tell you how to do it, but then this article might read like a ‘how to’ for dealing drugs. My probation officer wouldn’t like that.”
Within a few months their business started picking up speed — upwards of $50,000 a week. Bokun used this newfound wealth to solidify his social status across the country, partying in New York, Miami and Las Vegas.
“When you’re young and have that much money, you live with the mentality of doing and getting everything that you want,” Bokun said with a smile. “I pulled all sorts of stuff, like storing ecstasy in an Altoids container. You’d be surprised how difficult they are to tell apart.”
One night in Miami, Bokun says he fed shroom-laced Rolos to an entire club. “Didn’t tell anybody what they were but gave them to everyone — girls, bartenders, bouncers. Soon the entire place was rolling while the managers sat upstairs freaking out,” he said.
Throughout, Bokun was surrounded by pals from the old neighborhood. Among them was Sal Romano, a classmate from Xavier High School.
“John was always up to these party-hard, rock-star antics,” Romano said. “But despite the women and despite the drugs, what he valued more than anything was loyalty, friendship and integrity. He was a great friend.”
The drug trade became routine. He made runs to California three to four times a month. And as they brought in more cash, he was able to snag a $10,000-a-month duplex in Soho on the corner of Broadway and Grand. Did anyone who ran the streets notice? He won’t tell me if he kicked any money upstairs or to whom.
The only thing missing from his illicit lifestyle was violence. He had his moments when he’d get pissed, but he knew violence was the fastest way to get caught.
“There were definitely people who fucked me over,” he explains, his voice hardening. “I remember one guy who took a few hundred grand and skipped off to the Dominican Republic. Sure, I wanted to break his knees. But violence isn’t worth it when you’re trying to run a business.”
Then one day Nick didn’t show at the airport. According to Bokun, he was on a hooker and heroin binge in L.A. If there’s anything Bokun dislikes, it’s unreliability. He might not baseball bat your knees, but he’ll move on without you.
“I was pretty pissed, so I called one of the drivers we’d been working with,” Bokun recalled. “I said, ‘I’m at the airport with tens of thousands bread in my pocket.’ He came to get me, and I did the deal on my own.”
Bokun took his belongings from Nick’s house, including the vacuum-packing machines. He then found a home of his own on a dead-end, gravel road — a place so beloved that he remembers it as, “The perfect drug house. So good, I couldn’t have dreamed one better.”
To replace Nick, Bokun moved out a longtime friend from New York. Oh, and remember that whole “mail” thing? Long gone. At this point he’d moved onto private jets.
Chartering planes helped Bokun’s business double overnight. One trip could now move up to 250 pounds of pot — so profitable, in fact, that he was able to afford a jet of his own. And it was safer, too. The New York Post even went so far as to praise Bokun’s methods, as private planes provide minimal exposure to law enforcement.
The best thing about his Dassault Falcon 10 was the privacy. He could now avoid busy airports where authorities are on high alert. He could also skip standard security, and — although captains are legally allowed to search bags — they rarely bite the hand that feeds them. But the best part about flying private? Bokun’s bags were never alone. From car to cargo, they had no reason to leave his side.
This is when the money really started rolling in. Bokun could now get the pot from Santa Rosa to New York in just under six hours. He imprinted the one-hour drive from Republic Airport in Farmingdale, Long Island to Manhattan on the back of his eyelids. The Brooklyn Bridge always meant it was safe to start texting his dealers on the ground — it meant victory.
“The strain I was selling — Sour Diesel — was extremely popular among the uptown hip-hop crowd,” he said. “If I landed with 200 pounds on a Thursday night it was gone by morning.”
He had a duplex in one of Manhattan’s best neighborhoods. A bevy of celebrity clients – major hip-hop stars he’d rather not identify. Enough cash to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. But Bokun always wanted more, and this would ultimately be his downfall.
“This one time, I’m sitting at the private airport talking to a hedge fund guy who had bought a private jet to fly to India and see his mistress,” said. “Because he thought his wife could track commercial flights. And I’m thinking, ‘There’s no pussy in the world worth the amount of money it takes to get a private jet to India.’ But I wanted that money anyway.”
As Bokun tasted lifestyles of the rich and richer, his desire for more sped out of control. He increased the amounts he trafficked each week, pushing limits. It is at this point that we return to Bokun’s final run — that December evening when his life took an ill-fated turn.
When he saw the Brooklyn Bridge, Bokun knew that in a matter of minutes he’d be home and the drugs would be sold. Cue the champagne and strippers – only, not tonight. Just after they’d crossed the bridge into zig-zaggy Chinatown, a blue van shot out of nowhere. Bokun saw the car, and — thinking it was a takedown — prepared for a gunshot.
“When they jumped out in ski masks with infrared and all that shit, I thought it was a hijack,” he said. “Literally closed my eyes and waited to die.”
But it wasn’t an attack — it was Homeland Security. As soon as they’d pulled open the door, they had Bokun on the pavement.
“I’m laying on the sidewalk, waiting to hear, ‘Hello, Mr. Bokun,’” he said. “But the next thing I know, this guy is asking my name. I’m like, these fuckers don’t even know who I am.”
So why were they there? Turned out a dealer in Los Angeles — someone Bokun hadn’t even met — had narced on a whole lot of people. He’d heard Bokun was a major player in NYC and thought his name could save major jail time.
The only issue was this guy told the feds Bokun dealt in cocaine and weapons, not pot. And that carries a much longer sentence. Their expectations of AK-47s in the truck may have had something to do with the feds’ particularly grumpy demeanor that day.
“At first, I thought I was sitting pretty. They had dogs in the back of my truck, and they weren’t scratching nothing,” he told me, head hanging low. “But with the Patriot Act, cops can really open anything deemed a threat to security. Which on that day was row after row of perfectly packed Pelican cases.”
The bust was like something out of a movie: A private airplane. Thousands in cash. And, most importantly, 250 pounds of marijuana worth roughly $500,000.
“We followed Bokun from the airport,” said Andrew Borra, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations in New York. “A judge issued a search warrant that led us to find several Pelican cases containing hundreds of pounds of high-grade, Northern California marijuana. Bokun knew the gig was up, and we took him into custody for federal drug charges.”
Bokun’s friends were surprised to hear of his arrest. “I remember when he went down,” said a pal from Hell’s Kitchen, Vinny Perroncino. “It caught me completely off guard. Sure, I knew what John did, but I never asked any questions. I just knew he did what he had to do.”
I would bore you with tales of the trial, but, in reality, that’s no fun. He was guilty. Let’s just cut to the part where Bokun is sentenced to 31 months at a prison in Lewisburg, Penn., followed by a year of house arrest and four years probation.
“Those first nights in jail were unbearable” he said. “I would do 500 pushups and 500 squats just to get myself tired enough to go to sleep.”
What shook up Bokun more than prison was actually house arrest — 365 days of nothing. In prison, you have friends. There are things to do. You can go to the gym, take classes. You get to have a life. But house arrest? You’re just stuck.
His house arrest ended in May — barely a month before we sat down for this interview. At the time Bokun was purely focused on getting his life back on track.
“The thing about John is that he has this incredible brain,” said his friend Yannick Benjamin. “He knows how to survive. He knows how to manage a team. How to make money. What he needs is a proper avenue to do it.”
What he needed was a job. The biggest task on Bokun’s horizon was finding something that wouldn’t violate his probation but that employed the same skills he mastered as a drug dealer. At the time of this interview, Bokun worked in a service job on Broadway — a far cry from the private jets and Vegas ragers of his past.
To keep himself sane between days with probation and nights at the theater, Bokun invented a product. Dasher Lights are a string of Christmas lights that retract into each other like measuring tape. He has a patent pending on both the idea and the design.
So as we reach the end of our story, an important — and obvious — question emerges. Was it worth it? The good times. The thrill. The prison. The house arrest. Having his name forever associated with a criminal past.
“Yes and no,” said Bokun. “The things I did — vacations, clubs, parties, restaurants — I would have never experienced. But the hurt that I caused my family wasn’t worth it. And my early 30s were basically shot. The one thing I can say is something a guy inside said: ‘I got a million dollar education real cheap.’ And that, no one can take away.”