Gary Alan Coe — now known to the world as “Gary from Chicago” after he stumbled onto the Oscars telecast Sunday — is hoping for a Hollywood ending to his own life story.
Released from prison just three days before the awards show, Coe found himself thrust into the spotlight as the unwitting star in a bit purporting to feature star-struck tourists. His 15 minutes of fame quickly devolved into an examination of his criminal history, a past that Coe says represents a journey of redemption.
“I want to show people if you don’t give up on yourself, anything can happen,” Coe told the Tribune on Tuesday. “People let public opinion crush them, but I served my time. I’m a changed man.”
Coe, 59, was imprisoned for 20 years under California's “three-strikes” law, which carried a mandatory 25 years-to-life sentence upon an offender's third conviction, according to court records. He was given the sentence — the toughest in the country at the time — after being convicted of petty theft in 1997.
Though Coe was accused of stealing three perfume sets valued at $279 from a department store on New Year’s Eve 1996, it was considered a felony under California law because he had two previous grand theft and two prior shoplifting convictions, court records show. His criminal record in Illinois also includes a conviction for attempted rape in 1978, a robbery in 1982 and a burglary in 1991, according to public records, which meant he met the standards under the three-strikes law.
Coe’s circumstances changed, however, when California voters passed a 2012 ballot measure that altered some aspects of the three-strikes law. In Coe’s case, he became eligible for resentencing because his third offense was not a violent crime.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office opposed his release, saying his attempted rape conviction showed he was still a danger to society. Coe’s attorneys argued the incident occurred when Coe was 18 and he had not been accused of another serious violent crime.
On Feb. 14, a California judge, who had ruled that Coe did not pose a threat to society, resentenced him to 6 years in prison for the petty theft, records show. He was given credit for time served and released from prison Thursday.
Three days later, he and fiancee Vickie Vines were holding hands while walking on Hollywood Boulevard when he was asked by someone he thought worked with a tour bus company if he would like a free sightseeing tour. He said he had no idea one of the stops would be the Oscars when he boarded the bus with about a dozen other passengers.
The bus pulled up to the Dolby Theatre, where Coe was under the impression they were about to see an Oscars exhibit.
“Lo and behold when they opened the door, I was in the house,” he said.
Within minutes of entering the theater, he was holding an Oscar won by “Moonlight” star Mahershala Ali and kissing Nicole Kidman’s hand. After their engagement was revealed, Denzel Washington “married” the couple in front of the audience.
Coe, who introduced himself as “Gary Alan Coe from Chicago,” became an instant social media star for his everyman charm and willingness to carry Vines’ purse as he shook hands with celebrities. The Bears, Bulls and Gino’s East offered him swag in celebration of his newfound fame. Coe said he wasn’t paid for his appearance, but he took home some mementos, including an Oscars sweatshirt and a pair of sunglasses Jennifer Aniston gave to Vines.
His attorney, Karen Nash, believes his appearance — and subsequent stories about his criminal history — could have an even wider impact.
“People instantly loved Gary and Vickie. It’s so great, people can see the face behind these draconian sentences,” Nash said. “I would hope people would understand redemption is possible.”
Coe said his immediate priority is finding a job in Southern California. He said he took classes in electrical wiring, computer programming, small engine repair and janitorial services long before his freedom seemed possible.
His attorney has recommended he become a motivational speaker in part because he mentored other inmates. A recovering drug addict and alcoholic, Coe said he also counseled young prisoners on the importance of sobriety.
“I’ve always wondered how I could take the pain and suffering I endured and turn it into something good,” Coe said.
Coe said he met Vines through her nephew, a young inmate he mentored at the California State Prison in Corcoran. They corresponded through phone calls and cards before getting engaged in June. They plan to marry this summer.
In the meantime, he hopes to reconnect with family members, including his three children, eight grandchildren and a great-grandson. He was born in Memphis, Tenn., and moved to Chicago at age 12 in 1969. He lived in the South Shore area and moved to the West Coast after being released from prison in 1992.
Coe's daughter, Jacqui Williams, 36, a Chicago native who lives in Lafayette, Ind., said she did not see the initial Oscars telecast, but her phone was buzzing with messages early Monday.
“He's a really sweet, genuine, loving-type of dad. He's the best. I'm proud of him,” Williams said.
Now that he’s done serving time, Coe said he hopes to build on the better person he believes he has become.
“Am I changed person? Yes. Do I have regrets? Hell yeah,” he said. “But I can’t be chained to the past.”
Chicago Tribune’s Liam Ford and the Los Angeles Times’ Richard Winton contributed.
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