On a cold day in February 1981, erstwhile longshoreman Joey Coyle and a couple of his South Philadelphia buddies set out to score some drugs. They couldn't locate the dealer, but on their way home the trio came upon a large yellow container lying in the street, which contained two bags filled with unmarked $100 bills totaling $1.2 million. Flabbergasted and excited, Coyle picked up the money, placed it in the car and began to hatch a half-baked scheme to write his own rags-to-riches story. His two friends were skeptical, but they said nothing as Coyle immediately sought out an old pal of his late father, who allegedly brought in a Mob-connected accomplice to launder a substantial portion of the loot. Promising financial ease for all and dreaming of long-overdue medical care for his ailing mother, Coyle noted for a demeanor that could veer from rather endearing to out-and-out pathetic swore his cohorts to secrecy.
Almost hilariously, apparently spurred on by his newfound self-importance, he then set out to blab to others about his sudden good fortune. What Coyle didn't know was that the money he found had fallen out of the back of a Purolator armored car that had been making routine rounds only minutes before he found the container, and that the Philadelphia police were hunting high and low for the substantial cash. By the end of a week, Coyle had stashed piles of dough hither and yon, gambled in Atlantic City, dined in high style, bought expensive clothes, doled out cash gifts (sometimes to complete strangers) and planned a getaway trip to Mexico, before being nabbed in the nick of time by the FBI at New York's Kennedy International Airport.
Best-selling author Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down), formerly a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, offers a stark journalistic account of this thoroughly unlikely chain of events a story that takes on the air of a The Three Stooges episode, though the comedy of errors aspect is leavened by Coyle's annoying, delusionary belief that the money should be his by some cockamamie fatalistic fiat. His penchant for waving around a .44 Magnum often makes the tale more worrisome than whimsical. However, the subsequent trial contains many humorous and ironic elements, as earnest prosecutors are thwarted by both judge and jury, who can't bring themselves to be anything but sympathetic toward the plight of the poor Philly lad who stumbled onto a king's ransom, the vast majority of which was eventually recovered.
The coda to this story is particularly grim: three weeks before the 1993 opening of Money for Nothing, a Disney-produced film based on the actual events, Joey Coyle took his own life. Bowden's spare reportorial style makes for a quick, compelling read and a solid entry in the true-crime genre.
Martin Brady is a freelance writer in Nashville.