Beyond the Bubble Gum Bandit: How one man overcame his addiction

James McAuliffe got his nickname tattooed on his arm. "It couldn't be any more perfect," McAuliffe said.
Caption
James McAuliffe got his nickname tattooed on his arm. "It couldn't be any more perfect," McAuliffe said.

Credit: Special to The AJC

Credit: Special to The AJC

He hates the nickname. But James McAuliffe knows he’ll never be able to put it behind him. Instead, he had it tattooed on his arm.

“I see it every day,” he said. “I can’t not think about it.”

Heavily addicted to drugs, McAuliffe was so desperate for money, he stole candy machines. It wasn’t the sticky bubble gum he wanted. It was the coins inside the machines.

In March 2010, McAuliffe, then 42, was arrested and booked into the Coweta County jail. He had hidden his cocaine use — which started when he was a teenager — from many in his life, but the father of five couldn’t hide any longer. He was the “Bubble Gum Bandit” and his mugshot made the news.

“I just about ruined my life and my relationship with everybody,” McAuliffe told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

RELATED: Bubble gum bandit comes clean in Coweta

That isn’t where his story ended, and McAuliffe knows just how lucky he is. But moving beyond his darkest days is a battle he’s still fighting.

“It’s amazing I’m still here. I thank the Lord every day for that,” he said. “I live and re-live it every day.”

Given a chance to change

An office job would never have suited the free-spirited McAuliffe. He didn’t have to be on stage, but he needed to be near the music. In 1996, he began driving tour buses for some of the biggest names in rock. McAuliffe was truly living the rock-and-roll lifestyle.

After concerts, McAuliffe would be responsible for driving bands hundreds of miles a night to the next city. He did drugs as he drove, and band members did too. The quantities were enormous and could’ve killed him, he said.

“I blacked out one time, and thank God no one was on the bus,” McAuliffe said. “I drove across the desert floor.”

James McAuliffe (left) served as a driver for the band Red Dragon Cartel, including singer Darren James Smith. (Photo: Special to The AJC)
Caption
James McAuliffe (left) served as a driver for the band Red Dragon Cartel, including singer Darren James Smith. (Photo: Special to The AJC)

When he wasn’t driving, McAuliffe still did drugs until his arrest. As he sat in jail, McAuliffe prayed, wondered if he’d ever be free again, and considered suicide. Facing felony charges, McAuliffe said he could’ve faced 40 years in prison. He learned about a new drug court program being started in Coweta, but McAuliffe said he didn’t immediately qualify because of the seriousness of his charges.

Yet he was given the chance, the fifth and final person to be chosen for the inaugural program. It was hard work — his checklist included getting clean and completing his GED — but he was determined to complete the program.

In August 2012, McAuliffe became the program’s first graduate. As he spoke in front of judges, family members and his peers still in the drug court, McAuliffe said it was the best day of his life. He was ready to set a good example for his children, including his oldest two daughters who were teenagers at the time.

“Not a holiday, birthday, Christmas, nothing has the magnitude of this,” McAuliffe said. “This is huge.”

He called becoming a thieving drug addict the most shameful thing he’d ever done. And McAuliffe vowed never to let drugs wreck him again.

The battle he fights daily 

McAuliffe said his family urged him to consider turning away from his career as a rock-and-roll bus driver. But he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. He wanted to be on the road.

Not everyone, though, was eager for McAuliffe to return. McAuliffe said he has lost jobs and friends.

“I’ve still got people, they go out of their way to throw me under the bus,” he said. “I’ve had many, many, many chances. I still have people out there who don’t want me to be here. It’s hurtful, but those are some of the consequences I still have to deal with.”

And he’s had a relapse. McAuliffe recalled one night when the pressure was too much for him.

“As soon as I did it, I knew that I’d just made a huge, huge mistake,” he said. “If I start doing this again, my life is going to be exactly what it was then.”

He was flooded with memories of his former life. Only this time, McAuliffe was strong enough to get help, although he lost a job.

When he was drug-free again, McAuliffe said another bus company took a chance on him. Before he started work, a boss told him he’d need a thick skin to deal with the “Bubble gum bandit” jokes.

James McAuliffe, shown with his mother and step-father, Diane and Harley Vaughn, had a chance to catch up at a concert earlier this year in Cobb County.  (Photo: Special to The AJC)
Caption
James McAuliffe, shown with his mother and step-father, Diane and Harley Vaughn, had a chance to catch up at a concert earlier this year in Cobb County. (Photo: Special to The AJC)

McAuliffe had an idea, and a tattoo artist helped bring it to life. His left arm is now adorned with a cartoon character holding a gumball machine.

“It couldn’t be any more perfect,” he said. “I thought it was the funniest thing. It went over really good.”

Now 52 and a grandfather of two, McAuliffe said he’s again in a good place, free of drugs and happy. When he calls his mother back in Coweta, it isn’t to ask for money.

“He’ll call and say, ‘I had to hear my mom’s voice today,’” said Diane Vaughn, McAuliffe’s mother.

Vaughn said she previously blamed herself for her eldest son’s problems and wondered what she could have done differently. She continues to instill her faith in McAuliffe, reminding him that no one is perfect.

“Make the right choices. Walk down the right path,” Vaughn tells him. “It’s a battle you have to fight every day.”

McAuliffe tells his story to help others as an example of what not to do, he said. He has finally overcome his battle with drugs.

“I’m doing what I love, and a lot of people don’t get that chance. They don’t get the opportunity,” McAuliffe said. “I’m not done. I’m still chasing the dream.”

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