Among the proofs Idaho Rep. Mark Patterson offers of his innocence — despite his 1974 guilty plea to felony assault with intent to commit rape — is that a famed Florida judge ended his probation three years early. Patterson told the Statesman Judge Harry Coe III signed the papers terminating his probation as a 24th birthday present.
“He was known as ‘Hanging Harry,’ Patterson said in Oct. 31 interview. “He sent more people to prison than any judge in the state. And he didn’t terminate something two years into five years and do it on someone’s birthday as a present unless he realized they were not guilty.”
Patterson added that Coe had been “murdered” in 2000, when he was found below an expressway 100 feet from his Tampa home. Authorities ruled the death a suicide — citing physical evidence, a gambling addiction, $250,000 in debt and a pending investigation ordered by then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
But Patterson repeated claims by conspiracy theorists that Coe was the victim of a sophisticated hit and shot in the back of the head with his own gun.
On Sunday, after our first story on Patterson, the Republican lawmaker from Boise issued a news release, including a passage on Coe. “It is important for the people of Idaho to know that Judge Coe was no liberal or soft on criminals,” Patterson said.
A Florida legend before his death at 68 in July 2000, Coe’s passing became an even bigger story. For 22 years, Coe was a Hillsborough County judge. In 1992, the Democrat was elected state attorney, the equivalent of a county prosecutor in Idaho. He was seeking re-election that November.
Contrary to Patterson’s account, Coe was shot in the left lateral eyebrow, according to the medical examiner and a second investigation ordered by Bush.
State Attorney Bernie McCabe’s Nov. 27, 2000, report says Coe used his own .38-caliber Smith & Wesson to take his life, having cleaned it with a kit bought at Sports Authority five days before his death. Coe’s body was found by the TV reporter who’d been leading the coverage of Coe’s financial troubles.
McCabe reported that Coe had $47,000 in bad checks held by two local greyhound racing tracks; used public money from a “revolving credit account” for personal purposes; borrowed $36,500 from his employees and a friend; fraudulently claimed mileage reimbursements; and used his government laptop to access greyhound racing sites several hundred times in the 19 months before his death. McCabe also said Coe was distraught at the unexpected recent death of his niece.
Wrote McCabe to Gov. Bush: “Less than 24 hours prior to his death, he had been informed by your office of a pending Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation into the circumstances surrounding the employee loans and the public records issue regarding the laptop computer. It is our belief that the likelihood of the disclosure of aforementioned matters coupled with the negative impact on his campaign and community standing, along with the recent death of his niece, influenced him to take his life.
“There was no evidence found of any corrupt or external influences that could be a factor in the death; however, it should be noted that numerous rumors and innuendos were brought to our attention from a variety of sources. The allegations were investigated and found to be unsubstantiated and were therefore not made a part of this report.”
A St. Petersburg Times story on Coe’s gambling addiction quotes his son, Harry Coe IV, as saying he couldn’t explain his father’s suicide. “You will never have a straight answer on what overcomes a human being and causes him to kill himself,” Coe IV said. “There’s no rationality to it. You don’t get a final answer.”
In 2011, prosecutors in Florida said Kenneth McElwaney, a self-proclaimed member of the Aryan Nations, claimed he’d ordered the hit on Coe. McElwaney was being tried for mailing threats to another judge. Like Patterson, McElwaney had been originally sentenced by Coe, receiving probation in 1988 after pleading guilty to attempted sexual battery.
Also in 2011, Florida blogger Tom McLaughlin included Coe on his list of “unexplained deaths and apparent suicides” of political figures in Hillsborough County. McLauglin wrote that Coe’s death “has all the hallmarks of a professional hit, similar to Vince Foster.”