Judge Chet Tharpe's courtroom Monday was not a place where justice was being dispensed. I'm not suggesting he did any worse than other judges in the Hillsborough County courthouse. The courtrooms are so crowded, and you get the feeling from watching the faces that few of the defendants are particularly distressed about being in the room, except to the extent that they're inconvenienced by having to show up.
In Tharpe's case, his style only added to the vaguely surly atmosphere. One by one the prosecutors called the accused forward. Tharpe set about the day's real work _ moving cases. Long before the mean details of the crimes came up, the judge asked: Who was going to plead guilty? Who wanted a trial? Why weren't the attorneys ready? They were professionals, weren't they? And whose problem was it that some witness couldn't be found?
When a big, blond, sleepy-faced 15-year-old named Adam Dooley appeared, the judge looked no more irked with him than anyone else.
Adam, who was charged as an adult, was pleading guilty to breaking into a car, stealing a gun, a bunch of underwear and some other offenses. When the prosecutor said the victim was Harry Lee Coe, the judge didn't blink.
But a wave of twitters traveled across the benches before him. The bailiffs didn't bother to shush the audience. Everybody knows: This guy isn't just the state attorney who will almost certainly win re-election, no matter what ridiculous thing he does or fails to do. He could be a stand-in for Leslie Nielsen in the Naked Gun movies.
Adam Dooley also admitted he held up a gas station, and could get four to seven years in the can. Jim Rawe, the special prosecutor called in from Bradenton to handle this little bump in Harry Coe's curious life, offered Adam 18 months instead.
The defense hasn't accepted this ridiculously magnanimous offer, and it is possible that Tharpe might be even kinder when Adam Dooley comes back before him for sentencing next month. Forget Tharpe's mood Monday. This is Tampa. If anything goofy can happen in the courthouse, it will.
One thing almost certainly won't happen: We'll never know what really occurred.
Coe himself isn't sure.
He thought the car was burglarized late one February night at his south Tampa apartment complex. Adam Dooley said the car was at the home of a West Shore woman whom Coe visited before going home that evening.
Coe said the car was locked. Adam said it wasn't. The police agreed. The gun was loaded.
By then, the state attorney must have been suffering a serious case of deja vu. Another gun was stolen from his car two years ago.
Tell me: What sort of moonbeam leaves a gun in a car only to get it stolen twice?
At least the car was locked the first time.
Coe didn't have a permit to carry a concealed weapon, not now or then. He could argue that he didn't need one, given where and how the gun was hidden _ in a bag on the back seat this time, under the front seat the last time.
But you'd think as state attorney, the cop of cops, almost, he'd want to do everything by the book. Carrying a concealed weapon illegally can get you five years in jail.
The guns haven't been found. By now, somebody else may have had to stare down the barrel of them and empty their pockets and pray _ thanks partly to the state attorney.
It's been said Coe is so out of it he couldn't find the beach at an oceanfront motel, but my own theory is that these gun thefts are a subtle ploy on Coe's part to keep up the crime rate and so keep himself in business. Heaven help us.