'Bubble gum bandit' comes clean

James McAuliffe was living the rock-and-roll lifestyle until the day he hit rock bottom.

The father of five had a career he loved, driving tour buses for some of music's biggest names. The pay was good, too. Or at least, it should have been.

Addicted to cocaine since he was 15 years old, McAuliffe convinced himself his habit was under control.

"I will never be that guy. I will never be that guy," McAuliffe said he'd tell himself. "And one day I woke up and I was that guy."

That guy was the one arrested by Coweta County Sheriff's deputies in March 2010 after he was caught stealing bubble gum machines from restaurants.

It wasn't the gum he wanted, McAuliffe said. It was the coins inside, quarters he could use to buy more cocaine.

McAuliffe was in jail for the first time in his life. Facing felony charges, he could have been sentenced to more than a dozen years behind bars. Instead, he pleaded guilty and applied to enter the county's drug court program, a grueling rehabilitation plan that required an extensive commitment.

On Wednesday, McAuliffe's case was closed. The 44-year-old was the first person to graduate from Coweta's drug court, having made it through 22 months in the program after spending 9 months in jail.

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.

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

Tears flowed as, one by one, those involved with McAuliffe's transition offered words of congratulations on the drastic life change.

"He had the desire within himself to make that change," McAuliffe's mother Diane Vaughn told the crowd. She, like McAuliffe, credits the drug court program with turning one man's life around.

The program was designed to be "intensive probation," Judge Joseph Wyant told the AJC.

The program, which now has 45 members, doesn't accept anyone with a violent history or drug dealers, Wyant said. Participants must make it through four phases, all while being tested for drugs three times a week. McAuliffe was required to get his GED since he quit high school as a freshman.

Even while driving musicians across the country, McAuliffe completed his commitments to the program.

"It's not something they skate through," Wyant said.

But for drug addicts like McAuliffe was, prison isn't the ideal solution, Wyant said. "There's a better way to fix people, and for less money."

Now clean of cocaine, McAuliffe said his life is better than ever. He has strengthened the bonds with his family, is involved with church and volunteers in the community.

McAuliffe wants to be a role model to others in similar situations. Being labeled the "bubble gum bandit" was shameful, but in the end, it changed his life.

"No amount of drugs has ever gotten me that high to be worth it," McAuliffe said. "It's the most shameful thing I've done in my life."

McAuliffe's life has turned around, and it couldn't have come soon enough, he said. A new song has begun.