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On a February morning in 1981 in South Philadelphia, an unbelievable thing happened to unemployed dock worker Joey Coyle. While driving home with two friends, he spotted a yellow crate lying at a curb. When he got out of the car to investigate, he found two white canvas bags inside, with Federal Reserve seals, which would prove to contain $1.2 million in unmarked bills. If Coyle genuinely believed, as he told people, that God and his dead father had arranged for him to have the money, is that any less plausible than the truth—that the money had simply fallen off the back of an armored truck?
Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, reported Coyle’s story for the Philadelphia Inquirer, publishing a three-part article in its Sunday magazine in 1986. His new book, Finders Keepers, is little more than a reprint of that piece, with a 10-page epilogue detailing the evolution of the story into a movie and Coyle’s tragic end. The facts are fascinating, but without additional reporting or analysis, Bowden’s update makes for a light meal as a book.
At first, Bowden saw Coyle as a kind of lovable loser, the neighborhood screw-up, or, as he says, a comic Everyman. Later, in the 1993 movie Money for Nothing, John Cusack portrayed Coyle as a symbol, the blue-collar victim of a changing economy. In reality, Coyle’s life was devoted to shooting methamphetamine, and coming into money didn’t alter that a bit. He was, in fact, on an unsuccessful mission to score crank when he found the cash, and everything that happened to him during the next seven days, until he was arrested trying to board a plane to Acapulco, was as much about drugs as about dealing with the dough.
The lure of Coyle’s story is its license-to-dream factor. You immediately put yourself into his shoes: What would I do if I found a million bucks? Most people would realize without much thought that keeping the cash would depend on two things: not letting anyone know you were the one who’d found it and not spending any of it until the police and the armored-car company gave up looking for it. Coyle was probably doomed by the mere fact that his friends were in the car with him when he found the money (and by his decision to cut them out, trying to buy their silence with a mere $100 each), but he seemed sure that it was destined for him. Although he was only 28, his justification to his friends was: “It’s mine. I worked hard all my life. My hands are all busted up. I got nothin’.”
Coyle was at least bright enough to realize that he couldn’t go around spending hundred-dollar bills without attracting attention, so he sought out a friend and pseudo-father figure, Carl Masi, whom he believed to be “connected” to the Philadelphia Mafia. “What happened next that evening is a part of the story that retreats into shadow,” Bowden writes. Though Masi would deny that the visit took place, Coyle told Bowden that Mario “Sonny” Riccobene, scion of a notorious crime family, came to Masi’s house to discuss how to handle the money. By this account, Riccobene proposed to launder it into smaller bills by playing it at a casino, and Coyle agreed, leaving Masi’s house without the cash, but feeling like a mastermind. When Coyle saw the story of the missing money on the news, Bowden writes, “Joey watched and felt powerful and proud, maybe for the first time in his life. He was the guy! He had the money!…Many men believe they are capable of functioning coolly in a crisis, but how many of them actually meet the test when it comes?”
The next day, paranoia set in. Coyle retrieved a third of the money from Masi and set about hiding it in his own house. He had a hiding place for his speed that the police had failed to detect on two previous searches, but after he put the money there, he began to imagine that this time the police would bring cash-sniffing dogs that would be able to find it. He retrieved the currency and took it to his basement, where he ingeniously hid it between the inner and outer walls of the water heater. But as soon as he’d finished putting the heater back together, he began to worry that somehow it would burn up the bills, so he disassembled the unit again and took the money out. This time, he unbolted an upstairs toilet and stuffed the money up into the base, then bolted it back down again. That satisfied him for a little while, but his fears—fueled by frequent shots of speed—returned, and he took the toilet apart and hid the cash again, this time by crawling through the attic to drop it in the space between the outer and inner walls of the house. When he was finished, he paced around the house and repaired the ceiling, which he’d fallen through while crawling around the attic, and got almost an hour’s peace before he was compelled to retrieve the money yet again. Bowden reports this frenzy matter-of-factly, letting Coyle’s behavior speak for itself. Far from being cool in a crisis, he was coming unglued.
Sensing he was in over his head, Coyle sought out another friend, Mike DiCriscio. By now, he was regretting his decision to ask his “connected” friend, Masi, for help. He could see that there would be little consequence if Riccobene disappeared with his money, and became determined to make the most of the $400,000 he had in his possession. The next day, he gave DiCriscio $238,000 to invest for him. About $22,000 had already vanished somewhere in a haze of drinking and shooting up, so Coyle was now in possession of only a little over 10 percent of his windfall. When a friend asked where the rest of the money was, he simplified his machinations by replying: “I buried it somewhere.”
By the sixth day, Coyle had decided he had to leave town, because of the realistic fear he would be caught by the authorities and the possibly paranoid belief that the mob was after the rest of the money. (And, though Coyle didn’t know it, DiCriscio had contacted the armored-car company through a lawyer about returning the money in his possession, and the police were about to find his friend’s car, which had been spotted the day he found the money—and would lead directly to him.) Coyle contacted yet another friend, whose ex-wife was a travel agent. This friend lent Coyle identification, bought him a ticket to Acapulco, and spent a last night with him in New York City before he was arrested at the airport.
Black Hawk Down succeeded in part because its chronicle of the Battle of Mogadishu—a botched raid by U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Forces in Somalia in 1993—was meticulous. Bowden interviewed not only the surviving Americans but also many Somalis who fought them throughout the raid and overnight standoff. As in Finders Keepers, Bowden told the story in chronological order, relating the actions of the Americans, and often the Somalis, hour by hour throughout the battle. But Finders Keepers is not so thoroughly researched; there are holes in its account of Joey Coyle’s week as a millionaire.
First, there is the matter of
Riccobene. Bowden recounts Coyle’s assertion that Riccobene was the laundry man at Masi’s house, but Masi contradicted him, and Bowden was apparently unable to corroborate either story.
Second, the book’s day-by-day structure exposes the fact that some days are pretty thinly documented. On Day 4, for example, all Bowden has Coyle doing is dyeing his hair black, to defy descriptions of the fair-haired man who found the money which were by then airing on TV and radio, and visiting his sister’s house to take a shower. On Day 5, all he apparently did was shop for clothes. This was a speed freak, a man in constant motion. Bowden conducted interviews over the course of several weeks and can’t be blamed if Coyle, years after the fact, was unable to account for his time. But there is simply more to the story than Finders Keepers delivers. The addition of the epilogue is not enough to bulk the narrative up to book-worthiness.
Bowden came to see Coyle’s tale as “a parable of addiction, of how hopeless and empty it is to assume success and happiness can be scooped up off the street or administered through a needle.” But the book is not just about addiction—it was chance that put the money in Joey’s path, and the story might have been even more interesting if it had been found by someone who was better able to think and plan how to keep it. Finders Keepers shows, as Frank Zappa said, that “you are what you is.” Joey Coyle was who he was before, during, and after he found the money, was arrested, went to trial, and had a movie made about his experience. He himself believed in fate, and his fate was so certain that not even the unexpected introduction of a million dollars could alter his trajectory that February morning. CP