A self-described hustler, Alton Coles a.k.a. "Ace Capone" grew up largely on the streets after his parents abandoned him at age 12, yet came to own a barber shop, water and ice stand, day care center and rap music studio.
But a jury last year doubted that those sporadic efforts funded Coles' $220,000 Bentley, $450,000 home or $1 million in cash on hand. He was convicted of running a violent Philadelphia drug empire.
A U.S. judge called the money and drugs that flowed through Coles' hands "staggering" before sentencing him Thursday to a mandatory life term.
It was not at all what Coles expected to happen and it made the big guy break down and cry.
"My father was a crackhead and my mother kicked me out when I was 12, so I became a man on my own," he said, trying to control his emotions. "The streets raised me," he said.
Coles told the judge no one deserves life in prison for selling drugs and that "we are a product of our environment."
"You never respect life, or the value of it, until it's taken away," said Coles, a father of five who earned a high school degree at a juvenile detention center. "I never thought it would come to this."
Levette Todd-Johnson, the mother of his oldest son, now 14, said Coles and men like him need rehabilitation, not life without parole. Coles helped raise three younger brothers in Upper Darby after his family was no longer around, she said.
"He is not the monster they're making him out to be," said Todd-Johnson, of Wilmington, Del. "He's not a killer. He was about the money."
Coles had more than 20 underlings and moved an estimated $25 million of cocaine in the Philadelphia region from 1997 to 2005.
He ran a small studio in Philadelphia called "Take Down Records." However, prosecutors called it little more than a front that lost money on its music ventures, including a 2002 hip-hop concert in Philadelphia that featured rappers Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter and Beanie Sigel.
"It's a very tragic and sad day, because that young man did have a lot of potential," defense lawyer Christopher Warren said. "As an entrepreneur, as an entertainer, he had so much talent."