"Hangin' Harry" Coe had been scrutinized by the media before. So nobody expected Hillsborough County's top prosecutor to kill himself because of it.
Especially when the attention focused on $12,000 in loans he'd paid back.
What made Coe's July 13 suicide even more unbelievable was that the very reporter who uncovered the loans was the one who found Harry Lee Coe's body under an expressway overpass.
Now, acting on orders from Gov. Jeb Bush (R), state investigators are sifting through whatever secrets the former semi-pro baseball player, circuit judge and state attorney left behind. As the public waits, it has been quick to lash out against the messenger.
It's a peculiar legacy that ended three days after WFLA investigative reporter Steve Andrews reported Coe had borrowed $5,000 and $7,000 from two employees he had considered "lifelong friends." The press speculated on whether employees might have felt pressure to make loans to their boss, although Deanna Easterling, who had worked with Coe for 30 years, said she hadn't.
As other reporters jumped on the story, they questioned why the 68-year-old Coe, who made $216,502 a year between his salary and judicial pension, would borrow money from anybody.
Through much of his eight-year tenure as state attorney, tales of a gambling addiction hounded Coe, who got the nickname "Hangin' Harry" for some of the stunning 100-year-plus sentences he handed down as a circuit judge.
After he ran and won as state attorney, Coe became the oddball of local politics when he reported two guns--and his underwear--had been stolen from his car. Then, when several other guns apparently vanished from the state attorney's office, he said that wherever they were, he was certain "they're where they ought to be."
The loans were just the latest incident to come to light.
"He has weathered darker days than this in the past, both in the media and in his life," said Coe's son, Harry Lee Coe IV. "You just never know. I think he was under a lot of stress and continued to internalize it. Obviously, he was feeling pressure financially, political pressure in the middle of a high-profile race in an election year, and he was probably experiencing emotions and forces and pressures that we don't know or understand."
Coe had long held a reputation as a gambling man who made too-frequent trips to local dog tracks. When asked about it, he said he had already quit gambling, that it wasn't a problem and he hadn't broken the law. But he was continually seen at the races. Andrews's stories led to questions of whether Coe was borrowing money to feed his gambling habit.
"I continue to regret that we didn't have it first," said Paul Tash, editor of the St. Petersburg Times of the loan story. "I am sorry it came to such a tragic result, but it is an absolutely fair question to be explored."
"I think that the TV and the news I saw was balanced and restrained," said Gil Thelen, executive editor of the Tampa Tribune. "The only case you could possibly make is, because it was sweeps time, [Channel] 8 was promoting its investigative report Saturday and Sunday in Wimbledon heavily. That could smack of audience-building and ratings-chasing in some people's eyes, but it is certainly normal practice in broadcasting."
Coe's former wife and close friend, Ida Felicione Coe, wondered what Coe, an avid tennis player, thought when he saw the promotions airing repeatedly.
"I'm not saying the media caused him to go to his death, but they certainly were a part of it," she said. "I'll always believe that."
WFLA news director Dan Bradley said the stories weren't timed to hit during the July sweeps period, but aired because that's when they were ready.
Andrews stayed on it, trying to nail down a story that Coe had been using his state-issued laptop computer to bet online. When Andrews requested Coe's Internet records through the Florida Open Records Act, he was handed a list with just two Web sites, which had been visited only in 1998. The station contacted law enforcement to see whether Coe violated public records laws by purging records on his computer.
On Wednesday morning, July 12, Gov. Bush ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate.
"After that, it was the lead story on four of the five news stations. Everyone was looking for Harry," Bradley said.
Coe left the office that afternoon and wouldn't return calls. By Thursday morning reporters and photographers from every newspaper and television outlet waited for Coe to show up for work.
"That's what the media does," Bradley said. "A public official is in the center of a story and the media wants a comment."
Coe's parking space was empty. Andrews called Coe's secretary and was told Coe wasn't there and she wasn't sure if he'd be coming in at all. Perplexed, Andrews and producer-photographer Gordon Dempsey drove to Coe's apartment complex.
They didn't know which apartment Coe lived in, but they saw his car and a car belonging to one of the prosecutor's friends.
They waited for about two hours, and saw one of Coe's former prosecutors drive up and look inside his car windows. "She looked nervous and upset," Andrews said. "I thought, 'I wonder if he's missing. I wonder if he's okay.' "
As she left, Andrews and Dempsey drove around the nearby area.
Andrews spotted a man sitting against a concrete pillar under the expressway, and assumed it was a homeless person. They decided to take a look after debating whether it might be Coe.
"I noticed the gun. It was, 'Holy God, what is this?' " Andrews said. "A hundred things were going through my head. We had no idea what we were coming up on."
Andrews realized he'd found Coe. Dempsey called 911, then the two called the station.
Sometime between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., Coe had held a .38-caliber revolver to his forehead and ended his life. The irony of Andrews finding the body was all the news, and the backlash was immediate and fierce.
Andrews says he is still chilled by the bold-lettered e-mail that called him "MURDERER!!!!!" He has lost count of messages asking, "Are you happy now?"
"You know, you can take a couple of 'you stinks, you're a rat, you're responsible,' but man, it was overwhelming," he said. "There were several very supportive notes from people who said 'Mr. Coe killed Mr. Coe, not Steve Andrews,' but it was hard working through that. As an investigative reporter, I've always felt good about sticking up for the little guy. Suddenly, there was this groundswell of hate mail that was directed at me."
Two letters were discovered after Coe's death. One, in his apartment, said he wanted to be cremated and didn't want a funeral. It was signed by witnesses.
The other, left in his office, was a one-sentence letter concerning Deanna Easterling, who had lent Coe $5,000. Their friendship had suffered when Coe, a Democrat, recently endorsed the Democratic county commission candidate who was running against Easterling's daughter, a Republican.
The second letter said, "I hereby authorize the termination of Deanna Easterling effective immediately."
Coe's death did not end the investigation into the prosecutor and his office. Many speculate that there is much more to come.
"Apparently," said his former wife Ida, "he had more concerns than we knew."