The $1.2 million that just fell off the truck

October 13, 2002|By Daniel J. Kornstein | By Daniel J. Kornstein,Special to the Sun

Finders Keepers, by Mark Bowden. Atlantic Monthly Press. 208 pages. $23.

What might have been a boring account of a botched crime becomes, in Mark Bowden's versatile hands, a taut, fast-paced tale with larger meaning. Finders Keepers is the true story of a pathetic loser who, more than 20 years ago, found $1.2 million that accidentally fell out of an armored car.

Joey Coyle was a sad, mixed-up, self-destructive, paranoid high school dropout who at age 28 still lived in his mother's house in South Philadelphia. An unemployed longshoreman most of the time, he did drugs, drank too much, and kept a .44-caliber Magnum around the house.

Immediately after finding the money, impulsive Joey went on a drug-and-drinking spree with his 18-year-old girlfriend, who later died of an overdose. He told almost everyone he met, even strangers, that he had found the money. He gave most of it away for "safe keeping" and laundering by the mob. Just about all the rest disappeared through equally astute investments. Within a week, the FBI arrested Joey.

These facts, neatly recounted by Bowden, soon gave rise to myths. The newspapers portrayed punk Coyle as an urban folk hero, a modern Robin Hood. Then the criminal trial allowed Coyle's lawyer to persuade the jurors that Joey should be acquitted on grounds of temporary insanity (the money made him nuts). Finally, Disney made a feature movie, with John Cusack as Coyle, a "lovable, simple, charming character" who had virtually nothing to do with the real Joey.

For all their spin, however, the myths described so well by Bowden, who wrote the best sellers Killing Pablo and Black Hawk Down, point the way to some disturbing deeper truths about Coyle's caper. Joey felt a sense of entitlement to the money. "I worked hard all my life," he cried. This was his chance. In Joey's mind, it was the armored-car company's fault for losing the money. Finders keepers.

Then there is the more appealing notion of Joey as a blue-collar victim of economic forces. As became clear during the voir dire of potential jurors at his trial, many people identified with Joey, who only did what they would have done.

Perhaps the deepest meaning in Joey Coyle's story is the changing idea of the American Dream. The old American Dream, inherited from generations of ancestors, is represented by Joey's friend Frank, who "was a success, the kind of guy who saved his money and invested it, who got ahead in a low-key, steady fashion."

The new dream is Joey's dream of instant wealth by windfall. As Bowden writes: "And who hasn't dreamed of finding or winning or inheriting a million dollars?" If this really is a shift in the American Dream, it may have profound consequences for all of us.

In describing Coyle's mistakes, Bowden shows how to commit the perfect crime. Make sure the risk-reward ratio is good. Work alone. Tell no one what happened. Open bank accounts in scattered locations, and don't start spending the money for a long time.

I would add two more: Know a good criminal lawyer, and make a list of countries having no extradition treaty with the U.S.

Daniel J. Kornstein is a founding partner at Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard, LLP, in Manhattan. He has conducted more than 90 trials, argued more than 60 appeals and published three non fiction books: Kill all the Lawyers? Shakespeare's Legal Appeal (Princeton, 1994), Thinking Under Fire (Dodd Mead, 1987) and The Music of the Laws (Everest House, 1982).

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