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Privately, Harry Lee Coe finally admitted he had a problem. But he feared the media and political enemies.
By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000
TAMPA -- Harry Lee Coe never stopped haunting the dog tracks, even as the last of his luck leaked through his fingers.
For years, many close enough to know his weakness for the greyhounds just shrugged. They figured a man so intensely private, who shunned alcohol and lived in the twin crucibles of public life and the Hillsborough courthouse, needed some valve for all that pent-up pressure.
Nobody can pinpoint when the gambling habit of Hillsborough County's top prosecutor degenerated into a full-blown compulsion, culminating in a six-figure debt, a web of lies, and suicide in July. But his second wife said his addiction was so bad by 1986 that it helped ruin their marriage.
"The money was just not there," said Anne Bivens, 50, now living in Sumter, S.C. "That kind of problem is so deep, it's very difficult to overcome. And I had two kids. I wasn't going down the tubes, too."
For years, Bivens said, she urged him to get help, but he brushed it off. Earlier this year, by phone, she asked the old questions again: Are you still going to the track? Has it gotten any better?
Finally, Bivens said, her ex-husband did what she hadn't heard him do before. He admitted he had a problem. Have you gotten any help, she asked.
"It's not that easy," she remembered him saying. "It's an election year." She said Coe feared the media and political enemies would seize on his weakness. "Being in the public eye, how do you seek help? "Ex-judge seeks help for gambling addiction.' If you seek help, it becomes common knowledge. There was no way out."
Coe's son, Harry Lee Coe IV, believes what drove his 68-year-old father to a freeway underpass with a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson in July will remain, on some level, unknowable. Yes, he was in a financial pinch, but he could have declared bankruptcy.
"You will never have a straight answer on what overcomes a human being and causes him to kill himself," said Coe IV, 30. "There's no rationality to it. You don't get a final answer."
But ask recovering gamblers what they think of Harry Lee Coe's disintegration -- or ask those in the gambling treatment business -- and they call it an old story, one that follows an achingly familiar path.
Phil Scherer, assistant clinical coordinator for addiction services at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, said pathological gamblers are at a 16 percent to 19 percent greater risk of suicide than chemical addicts. During the act of betting, a compulsive gambler's endorphin-flooded brain looks a lot like a drug addict's.
"They're wired very similarly," Scherer said.
At a Gamblers' Anonymous meeting in St. Petersburg on Friday, people said they saw a reflection of themselves in Coe. They spoke of his death as a warning, a confirmation they might have saved their lives by seeking help, a reminder that the addiction crosses socioeconomic borders. Like Coe, they borrowed too much, bounced checks and were able to hide the fact that they were addicts for years because their particular addiction didn't leave marks or induce the shakes.
They spoke of how the dog tracks and craps tables gave them moments of perfect oblivion, helping them forget whatever made them hurt, but eventually becoming the main source of pain.
"Gambling addicts are shooting money the way heroin addicts are shooting heroin," said Rick Benson, who runs a gambling treatment program in southwest Florida. "I don't think the alcoholic believes the next drink will solve his life's problems, but the gambler has the delusion that the next big win is going to solve his problems."
"The emotional churn and seething that goes on inside is at least as severe as it is in chemical dependency," he added. "But externally, you look pretty normal."
Crushed by debt, experts say, some gamblers come to believe they are worth more to their family dead than alive. Coe IV said his father's life insurance would pay out to his two young sons in South Carolina. He does not believe, however, that played a role in the suicide.
This week, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation revealed that, in addition to racking up $250,000 in debt and trying to destroy evidence that he visited gambling Web sites on his office computer, Coe bounced $28,000 in checks at the Derby Lane track in St. Petersburg and $19,000 at the Tampa Greyhound Track.
At the time he killed himself, the Tampa track claims, it didn't know Coe's gambling had run amok because until then he had only bounced a small amount of money. Track spokeswoman Hillary Fellenz said the track routinely sends bounced checks to the bank a second time, giving them another chance to clear.
Some in the recovery business say such practices exploit the vulnerability of compulsive gamblers, who fantasize that the next big bet will yield the win that catapults them out of debt.
"I think if they send a check (that bounces) to a bank once, that means the guy has some kind of problem," said Arnie Wexler, 63, of Bradley Beach, N.J., who runs consulting and training workshops for dealing with gambling addiction. "If the check is no good, and they let him cash another check, then they've pushed him over the edge and fueled the fantasy."
Jeremy Block, 52, a recovering compulsive gambler in Anna Maria Island, questions the ethics of letting check-bouncers slide.
"Instead of (the track) dutifully taking somebody to the State Attorney's Office, as would happen if you did it at the 7-Eleven down the street, they hold them," he said. "They hold the checks in the likelihood it will pay off.
"They're not going to tell a person of status in the community they can't cash a check because it just goes right into their coffers," Block added. "In that way, they play right into the insanity."
Fellenz, the track spokeswoman, called it a matter of personal responsibility. "It's not like we're kidnapping people at gunpoint and stealing their PIN numbers," she said. "People come here of their own free will."
Coe's son said he doesn't blame the tracks.
"A grown man's responsible for his finances and his actions," said Coe IV. "He knew what he was doing. It's not their responsibility to manage a grown man's finances."
Coe IV said his father turned to the track as a release. "He could relax, and completely be himself, to himself," he said. "He could get his mind off whatever was in his personal life, his political life."
Coe IV said he told his father several times he thought he should quit going, but his father told him not to worry.
Coe's frenzied betting on greyhounds contrasted markedly with his behavior on a jaunt to Las Vegas several years ago, said Tampa lawyer Ty Trayner, a longtime acquaintance who accompanied him there. Trayner said Coe spent his time playing a card game called Texas Hold 'Em.
"He was so conservative playing Texas Hold 'Em that it almost drove me crazy," he said. "He'd fold before the betting started."
Ida Felicione Coe, 63, his first wife, remembers him taking her to dinner at the track clubhouse more than 25 years ago. He told her she was lucky for him. "It was just his escape route, to get away completely from what he did all day long," she said. "No one knew he was that desperate."
Even to his first wife, who was married to him for 15 years, Coe could be incommunicative and inscrutable.
"I really believe he must have been a really lonesome person," she said. "He lived such a straight life that it almost hurt."
Bivens, his second wife, said that at the end, Coe knew he had to quit the track but didn't know how. "I think he didn't have time to get straight because there was too much press coming," she said.
"I think it's probably been a slowly escalating thing for years," Bivens said. "Other people took vacations and had retirement homes. He used his money to gamble."
- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.