1981: Joey Coyle wasn’t looking for $1 million. Until it fell off a truck

This series, Crooks, tells the forgotten stories behind some of the most outlandish crimes, and criminals, in Philadelphia history. See below for how to access these archives for yourself.

Joey Coyle’s methamphetamine high started fading.

He was sipping coffee on his Front Street steps on the morning of Feb. 26, 1981, waiting on the mailman carrying his $700 paycheck. But he decided his next binge couldn’t wait.

He persuaded two young neighbors, John Behlau and Jed Pennock, to drive him to his drug dealer’s house. But the guy didn’t answer the door. On the ride back, Coyle was slumped in the front seat of Behlau’s maroon 1971 Chevrolet Malibu, scanning the South Philly sidewalks for potential metal scraps, when he spotted it.

Sitting wheels-up on Swanson Street near Wolf was a yellow metal storage container. It would become his salvation, and then his downfall, a bizarre saga splashed across newspaper pages and the silver screen.

As the driver slowed to maneuver around it, Coyle opened his door and righted the container. The lid flaps split, and two canvas bags labeled “Federal Reserve Bank” spilled out.

He put one foot on the asphalt and pulled the sacks into the car.

After rolling into the shadows between waterfront warehouses, Coyle tore open the bags with a ballpoint pen. The kid in the back leaned over Coyle’s shoulder, and the driver’s eyes widened at the view: tightly wrapped cellophane bundles of hundred-dollar bills.

"Oh, man!" Coyle said. "What am I into now?"

He had hit the South Philly lottery: money that literally fell off a truck.

In over his head

But Coyle had a problem. Unlike the mythological trucks that South Philadelphians had used for generations to explain their sudden acquisitions of pricey new football jerseys or pairs of popular sneakers, this loot had fallen off a legitimate armored truck.

It was casino money. The total haul: $1.2 million,  more than $3 million in 2017 dollars.

Upon returning home, the 28-year-old, down-on-his-luck longshoreman immediately acquired and used more meth. His personality was constantly in conflict: He could turn on the charm, but he couldn’t turn off his addiction.

After conspiring to stash the car in Gloucester City, he set about mindlessly giving away his newfound fortune. He handed $400,000 to a friend for safekeeping. Another $400,000 went to "Sonny,” a mysterious mobster whom Coyle foolishly hoped would break the $100 bills down to smaller denominations and return it.

He handed $200,000 to another friend for a big drug buy, with aspirations of becoming a kingpin.

By late that night, Philadelphia Police Detective Pat Laurenzi had tracked down two eyewitnesses who had seen Behlau's car and glimpsed a twentysomething blond man with his hands full. A neighborhood search began.

After celebrating with his girlfriend, Coyle spent Friday morning at home with the stacks of money he still had on hand, injecting more meth and compulsively hiding the money, and then second-guessing the spot. With every injection, and every hour without sleep, he grew more paranoid.

For days, police couldn’t identify the lucky thief. But Coyle, it turned out, wasn’t safe with his own secret.

He shared his good news with anyone he saw — friends, family, even a random bartender. He offered $100 to, and promised to pay off the mortgage of, strangers in New Jersey after he inadvertently stumbled into their house. 

He also gave $100 to each of his two accomplices, but he concealed intentions to eventually cut them out. When the boys wanted to return the money for a $50,000 reward, Coyle refused and threatened them with a gun.

Meanwhile, Detective Laurenzi was desperate. He even had one witness hypnotized in an attempt to extract more information, but it failed.

And then he got lucky. Tucked among folders containing more than 500 tips and dead ends was a police report of an abandoned '71 Chevy Malibu in South Jersey.

By then, Coyle’s four sleepless days, incessant drug abuse, and anxiety had led to a breaking point.

So he headed for New York.

Grounded  

Coyle drove up with an old friend, got a hotel room, and started stuffing 21 envelopes with $5,000 apiece. He taped half the envelopes inside his socks and hid the rest in the room. Then they went looking for a prostitute. 

But they encountered a problem: Because of the envelopes, Coyle was concerned about taking off his pants. So they gave the lady $100 and instead spent lavishly in a French restaurant and spun through a nightclub before heading back. Unfortunately, neither man could remember which hotel was theirs. So they found another hotel and reserved another room. His friend slept in the room, but Coyle, high and drunk, was too suspicious. He instead walked down to the hotel’s parking garage, found a car with an open door, and crawled inside. 

The next morning, Day 7, they found the original hotel, grabbed the money, and caught a cab to John F. Kennedy International Airport. Coyle was arrested as he was checking in for a flight to Acapulco, Mexico.

With Coyle facing seven years in prison, his lawyer cleverly convinced jurors that temporary insanity, and not greed, had motivated Coyle’s actions.

The police were able to recover $1,003,400.

No happy ending

The wacky story was worthy of a movie script. But that also turned out badly.  

Disney turned it into a family movie, based on Mark Bowden’s three-part Inquirer Magazine series. It was panned by critics and audiences alike. 

Ramon Menendez, who directed Money for Nothing, starring John Cusack, told the New York Times that he wanted the film to illustrate "what it means for a kid like that to find money." But after polishing away Coyle’s real flaws, and adding fake ones that clashed with the character, the movie was bereft of authenticity.

Months before the film’s debut, Coyle — who was working regularly but couldn’t shake his addiction — was convicted of selling a single Dilaudid pill to a man out his back door. It counted as his sixth drug conviction.

The Hollywood attention, as well as his upcoming sentencing, proved too much.

Three weeks before the movie’s nationwide release in September 1993, 40-year-old Joseph William Coyle wrapped an electrical cord around his neck and hanged himself in his home’s stairwell.

With a front-row seat to Coyle’s life, Bowden saw a man brought low by regrets, embarrassments, and failures, despite having the opportunity to live every poor kid’s dream: He found and kept (if only for a few days) a million bucks.

The movie was another story. On its opening weekend, it grossed less than half of what fell off the truck.


About this series:
Using the digital archives of the Inquirer and Daily News, Crooks tells the forgotten stories behind some of the most outlandish crimes, and criminals, in Philadelphia history. *Search the archives for yourself and subscribe for full access.*