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Coe revealed private side to very few

Former Judge Harry Lee Coe campaigns for state attorney at a Strawberry Festival parade.
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[Times files, 1992: Mike Pease]

By SUE CARLTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 14, 2000


TAMPA -- He was the gangly, baseball-playing kid who grew up to be one of Florida's best-known judges and a folksy, but controversial, state attorney.

He died Thursday much as he lived -- amid a cloud of secrets and speculation.

Even those who considered Harry Lee Coe a friend say they never knew a man so private. He would glide through the courthouse with a Diet Coke wrapped in his long fingers, smiling and hailing familiar faces with "pal," "tiger" or "friend," but rarely slowing to talk.

Coe, still known as Hangin' Harry even a decade after leaving the bench, glided through elections much the same way, dodging devastating headlines to emerge as the victor time and again.

He loved the crowds, but rarely got close.

"Harry was such a colorful figure," said Craig Alldredge, an assistant public defender who worked in Coe's courtroom for years. "He was such a character it's almost like the passing of something.

"Where do you get another Harry Coe?" he said. "You don't."

Born in Brooklyn in 1932, Coe grew up in Lakeland, a small Southern city where they still taught their boys to say "yes ma'am" and "yessir," and those boys carried that courtly manner through adulthood.

Whip-thin and rawboned, Coe won a dual basketball and baseball scholarship to the University of Florida.

"He pitched the only perfect game in high school that I ever saw," said Coe's lifetime friend, local lawyer Tony Cunningham. After college, Coe pitched for the Tampa Tarpons and played briefly for the Detroit Tigers.

He didn't have a 95-mph fastball, but his baseball talent was enough to put him through law school. The young Coe then settled in Tampa and took a job as a prosecutor, back when the office only had a dozen or so lawyers.

In 1970, Coe was appointed to the bench. Softspoken in his Southern accent, he garnered a reputation for giving first-offenders a break. But heaven help anyone who went before him a second time.

Coe was infamous for handing down triple-digit prison sentences that could make a defendant's jaw drop.

"We used to call him the Law West of the Alafia," Alldredge said. "He had his own idea of what justice was. He imposed it forcefully."

Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett, who knew Coe for decades, said his colleague became "certainly the most well-known judge."

But Coe's sentences were often reversed on appeal. That didn't stop strangers from calling out to him: "Hey, Hangin' Harry!"

Even then, Coe was becoming known as eccentric, a recluse. While some judges would invite prosecutors and public defenders who worked with them daily into their chambers, Coe rarely did.

"He was a very, very private person," Padgett said. "Nobody knew him, and he wasn't going to let anybody know him."

Lawyer Ty Trayner, a prosecutor in Coe's division who was considered one of Coe's friends, echoed that.

"He ate dinner in my house with my wife and I, and I called him my friend and he called me his friend, but I never knew a lot about him," Trayner said. "I never knew the majority of him."

Coe married and divorced twice. His son from the first marriage, Harry Lee Coe IV, 29, practices law at a Tampa firm. His two younger sons, ages 12 and 15, live with their mother in South Carolina.

Even with his own family, he kept some details of his life to himself.

His eldest son recalled how, at about the age of 12, he stumbled across a large plaque propped against a bed in his father's spare bedroom. Only then did he learn his father had been inducted into the University of Florida athletic hall of fame.

"That typifies him," the younger Coe said Thursday. "He was a very humble person, a person who didn't believe in bravado. If he achieved something, succeeded at something, he never talked about it."

A lifelong Democrat, Coe left the bench to run for state attorney against Republican incumbent Bill James in the 1992 election. Their campaign styles could not have been more different.

James was mild. Coe was everywhere.

"While Bill James was sitting there waiting for someone to talk to him, Harry Coe was going around the room, shaking hands, making everybody feel he was their best friend," Alldredge said.

Despite his legendary reclusion, Coe got another reputation: master politician. People joked that during campaign season Harry Lee Coe never missed a neighborhood crime watch meeting, a July Fourth parade, a wedding or a bar mitzvah.

"He was great," said Chris Hoyer, James' chief assistant. "I hated it at the time. He was folksy, cordial. No matter what you threw at him, he would field it or duck it."

The nickname Hangin' Harry only helped. Coe beat James.

In the 1996 election, Coe was touting an impressive conviction rate and billing himself as "The Man Criminals Fear Most," while challenger Mike Kavouklis was trying to make hay of Coe's penchant for privacy.

"Where does he live?" Kavouklis asked. "Find me a place he's slept for six to eight months."

Hangin' Harry took the election yet again.

Even without the secrecy of the robes to shroud him, it was difficult to know the details of Coe's life.

Each day, he appeared in the courthouse in interchangeable gray suits. The Diet Coke was always in hand. Though he kept lean by playing tennis, he had a sweet tooth and liked the occasional Snickers bar or an ice cream sundae "as big as the Rock of Gibraltar," said Catherine Real, a lawyer.

The desktop in his office was unusually clean, except for a gavel and a Bible. He kept a framed picture of himself meeting Queen Elizabeth on her visit to Tampa.

It was rumored he could be moody, that he would simply stop speaking to someone who upset him.

And always, there was gambling. For as long as anyone could remember, Coe was said to have a fondness for betting on dog races.

"That's something people always knew," Judge Padgett said.

That fondness often was linked to the financial troubles he always seemed to be battling, despite a hefty judicial salary, and later his six-figure state attorney pay and judicial pension.

Bank records from the 1980s showed him withdrawing thousands of dollars from ATMs at or near dog tracks in Tampa and St. Petersburg. After his first divorce, he asked a judge to force his ex-wife to find work, saying he couldn't afford $550 in monthly alimony.

His net worth dropped to $15,500 in 1991 after his second divorce. That same year he had to borrow $1,000 from friends to pay his taxes.

Other controversy haunted his two terms as the county's top prosecutor.

In 1993, he was roundly criticized for his role in the nationally publicized trial of two white men charged with setting a black man afire. Columnists said his courtroom behavior was bizarre, bordering on incompetent. His co-counsel, Len Register, walked out mid trial in frustration and tears.

But later, Coe smiled at the final word: An appeals court affirmed the convictions of both men.

Another incident would prove more embarrassing. Two guns and some of his underwear were stolen from his car, and other guns were later discovered missing from his office.

In the kind of cryptic statement that had become his trademark, Coe had a news conference and said that wherever the guns were, "they're where they ought to be."

Hoyer said Coe would comment to him and his wife, Judy, who had also worked in the office, about the pressures of being the state attorney.

"From time to time, he would tell me or Judy that he never understood how hard it was going to be," Hoyer said.

During his most recent term, he was rarely seen in courtrooms. In recent weeks, he was hitting the campaign trail hard to fight off Republican challengers Mark Ober and Bill Jennings.

Then the latest scandal broke this week.

TV and newspapers reported that Coe had borrowed $12,000 from two of his employees. He wouldn't say why, only that they were lifelong friends and he didn't supervise them. There were also unsubstantiated allegations that he had used an office computer to make bets from his desk and that records of those transactions had been covered up.

Coe politely denied those accusations. Meanwhile, Gov. Jeb Bush ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to begin an inquiry.

In the fallout, some of Coe's close advisers thought he should quietly finish out his term and not run again. Others wondered if he should simply talk publicly about having a gambling addiction, which he denied. Privately, they were deeply worried about him.

Despite the headlines, Coe showed no outward signs of slowing. Last Sunday, he attended a cook-off for the Coalition of 100 Black Women. He brought Swedish meatballs and charmed the room.

Monday and Tuesday, his answers to a St. Petersburg Times reporter about the loans were vague but cordial. Afterward, he dished out some political gossip and courthouse controversies.

Sitting back in his leather chair in his darkened fifth-floor office, Coe even spoke of his own strategy for when he planned to put up his distinctive red "Harry Lee Coe" campaign yard signs.

They would not go up until after the September primary, he said. He did not want them to look forlorn and bedraggled from the summer rains.

Staff writers Graham Brink, Larry Dougherty, Linda Gibson, Amy Herdy, David Karp, Sarah Schweitzer and Jeff Testerman contributed to this report.

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