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State attorney has lost his gun to theft before

Published Sep. 16, 2005

It would be embarrassing enough for Hillsborough's top law enforcement official to lose his gun to street criminals. But it has happened twice to State Attorney Harry Lee Coe, and neither weapon has been recovered.

A Tampa teenager pleaded guilty Monday to breaking into Coe's unlocked car in February and stealing his gun. Though that incident made news, an October 1994 theft from Coe's car never did. The crime was revealed in public records recently reviewed by the Times.

Coe declined to comment Monday on either case.

Coe has not had a valid permit to carry a concealed weapon in more than three years. His previous permit expired when he became state attorney in January 1993. State law requires a permit if a gun is hidden from view and readily accessible.

Coe did not report the most recent theft until after a woman found his state attorney identification near her house and called police. When Coe was first contacted by police, he said the theft occurred outside his home. He later said it happened outside a friend's house.

Initially, Coe told police his car was locked. But a police report filed three weeks later said the car was unlocked. It is unclear what Coe was doing at the time of the theft.

On Monday, Adam Dooley, 15, pleaded guilty to armed burglary and grand theft for breaking into Coe's car in the early hours of Feb. 2.

Dooley admitted stealing Coe's state attorney badge and identification, cellular telephone, a .38-caliber revolver, 20 T-shirts, 20 pairs of boxer shorts and various items of tennis equipment.

Dooley was charged as an adult because he had a record of prior arrests. He told police he stole the items from Coe's car while it was parked on Poe Avenue in the Sunset Park area of South Tampa.

He said he discarded most of the items but traded the gun for drugs to another teen. That teenager told police he gave the gun to a third youth, who said it was stolen from him. All three were charged with dealing in stolen property.

It is unclear how Dooley wound up in Sunset Park that night. He told police he walked by Coe's car and noticed the trunk was open.

He said he first looked into the trunk but didn't take anything. He then grabbed a small black bag off the back seat and a cellular phone and charging unit off the floor of the front of the car.

As he walked away he rummaged through the bag and found Coe's state attorney badge, identification, black snubnose revolver and some ammunition.

As he walked home, Dooley said the gun discharged as he played with it. He unloaded it and later tossed the cellular phone aside before trading the gun for some marijuana.

Coe told police he had been at the Poe Avenue house of a friend earlier in the evening and did not realize his car had been broken into until the next morning.

Still, Coe did not immediately notify police of the theft. When police eventually called Coe's office, someone there told the investigating officer that Coe was preparing to report the break-in.

The February theft is similar to an incident in October 1994 when Coe's car, then a 1991 Mercury Cougar, was broken into near his home off Bayshore Boulevard. Another car was broken into in the same parking lot that night and the victim of that theft said police thought the crimes were gang related. A ballcap, Coe's identification and state attorney badge were stolen, as well as a .38-caliber snubnose revolver kept under the passenger seat. The identification and badge were recovered nearby, but the gun was never found. Coe's car was locked at the time.

Coe first applied for a special judge's license to carry a concealed weapon in December 1989, according to records in the Secretary of State's Office. He was not obligated to have it renewed as long as he remained a judge. It expired when he became state attorney on Jan. 4, 1993.

Police tried to find the gun from the February theft without success.

"There's no telling where that thing took off to," Tampa police officer David Dagresta said.

Dagresta advised against leaving a gun in a car, locked or unlocked.

"It depends on your standard of security. To most people a locked vehicle is safe," he said. "Personally, I don't leave anything like that in my car."