Left: The book written about Joey Coyle. Right: The movie made, starring John Cusack, about Joey Coyle.

Joey Coyle was still coming down off a meth high from the night before when he got in the passenger seat of a red Chevy Malibu with two childhood friends from South Philly. He’d promised his buddies — John and Jed — that he could probably score some blow if they’d give him a ride.

While they were driving around, Coyle, a 28-year-old unemployed longshoreman who was still living in his mother’s house on Front Street, told John Behlau to pull over the side of the road outside Purolator Armored Car Company at Swanson and Wolf streets –maybe there was some scrap metal or other materials they could swipe and re-sell.

That’s when Coyle spotted it: An unlocked tub of sorts with its wheels pointing up. Coyle pushed it, and out fell two big, white bags with lettering on the side reading “Federal Reserve Bank.” Coyle grabbed both bags, hopped back in the Malibu and told Behlau to gun it. He stabbed one of the bags with a ballpoint pen and peered inside: Hundred dollar bills.

That was 36 years ago Sunday, the day a pretty average Joe from South Philly literally stumbled upon a million bucks. Actually, to be exact, it was $1.2 million. All in hundred dollar bills that had come from casino earnings and were virtually untraceable.

That day, Feb. 26, 1981, set off a bizarre chain of events for Coyle that eventually led to his ultimate downfall. The story was turned into a full-length movie with John Cusack playing Coyle. But the best (and truest) version of the story was chronicled by former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden who wrote the book “Finders Keepers,” a recounting of Coyle’s story beginning with that fateful day.

“Despite his demons,” Bowden wrote of Coyle, “he was feckless and fun loving in a way that endeared him to those who loved him.”

How it happened

The call came into police at about 3 p.m. The caller said an armored car had dropped two bags of cash, and Purolator verified the haul was around $1.2 million. A witness told police they saw a man who “looked to be in his late twenties, early thirties… he had thinnish hair, blond or light brown” grab the bags and drive away in “a maroon Chevy Malibu with the right front fender painted blue.”

Meanwhile, Coyle’s two childhood friends were getting spooked. Coyle bought some meth and injected himself before they made their way to see an old family friend: A guy named Carl Masi, who Coyle said he wanted to visit because he had “connections.” Mob connections.

Masi had heard on the police scanner that cops had a description of the car (which was owned by Coyle’s friend’s father). So they ditched the car in Jersey and Masi urged Coyle to turn the money in sooner rather than later. Hell, there was a $50,000 reward up for turning in the money. And if he didn’t? Could be prison time.

On day one, it didn’t matter to Coyle. He went home that night to his 18-year-old girlfriend, told her what had happened without hesitation, and got high with her once again. Meanwhile, the story of the missing money was leading the news and a manhunt had commenced. The FBI was involved. And they were dogged.

It was the next day when more trouble came.

“Staring at all the green bundles, Joey felt suddenly overwhelmed by the challenge of hanging onto it,” Bowden wrote about Coyle’s experience by day two. “The idea of finding that much money was proving to be more thrilling than the actual experience, much as the highs he got by shooting speed had long ago stopped living up to his expectations.”

Bowden continued: “When Joey first found the money, it promised instant wealth, status and happiness. With it he would possess everything, just like when the drug worked, and he felt for a time like he owned the whole world. Instead, the money seemed to own him, just as the drugs owned him. How could he keep it? Where should he hide it? How would he spent it? What were the right moves?”

But Coyle made mistakes. His two buddies couldn’t keep their mouths shut, and both told their parents what had happened. Coyle’s young girlfriend knew. His sister could tell something weird was up. He even told his 8-year-old niece that he’d recently come into some money and they’d all be rich soon enough.

Masi had helped Coyle get rid of the some of the cash. He handed it over to a known mobster, who said he’d take care of a cut of it. The goal was to get the cash moving through systems like casinos — it wasn’t like he could go to the bank and deposit $1.2 million.

That week, Coyle started handing out $100 bills to people in South Philly, instantly cementing himself as a living legend. He stuffed a remaining $105,000 in 21 envelopes, put them in his socks, and made his way to Kennedy International Airport where he tried to check in for a flight to Acapulco, Mexico.

That’s where he was arrested. His South Philly buddies had ratted.

The fallout

Police charged Coyle with theft and got almost all the money back. At trial, Coyle’s attorney had managed to wrangle a ruling that the fact that Coyle was addicted to methamphetamine couldn’t be brought up. So to the jury, he was just a dude from South Philly who came upon some money and was temporarily insane because he didn’t know what to do with it.

He was acquitted in February 1982. Eight months later he was arrested for drug possession and was in and out of rehab and jail from then on.

That’s around when Hollywood stepped in and Disney wanted the rights to this seemingly made-for-the-movies tale. They hired Bowden, who’d been covering the story for The Inquirer, as a consultant, and paid Coyle $70,000. He blew most of it on meth. But that part of the tale wasn’t told in the movie.

“One thing Joey was not going to be in the film,” Bowden wrote, “was a drug addict.”

Even though the movie “Money for Nothing” had a stellar cast, it didn’t satisfy Disney. There wasn’t a big opening, there was no advertising and no widespread unveiling. Coyle’s girlfriend told Bowden that the film was “really bothering him” and that he was “so ashamed of the drug addiction” that it led him to paranoia at all times.

On Aug. 15, 1993 — three weeks before the movie was released and more than a decade after he played “Finders Keepers” with a couple of money bags — Coyle hanged himself with an electrical cord. He was 40.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.