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 said. "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. He was given the sentence — the toughest in the country at the time — after being convicted of petty theft in 1997.
Although 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 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. A California judge, who ruled that Coe did not pose a threat to society, resentenced him to six years in prison for the petty theft. He was given credit for time served and released from prison.
Three days later, he and fiancée, Vickie Vines, were holding hands while walking on Hollywood Boulevard when he was asked by someone who he thought worked with a tour bus company if he would like a free sightseeing tour. He boarded the bus with about 12 other passengers.
The bus pulled up to the Dolby Theatre, where Coe was under the impression that 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" supporting actor Mahershala Ali and kissing Nicole Kidman's hand. After the engagement to Vines 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. Coe said he wasn't paid for his appearance, but he took home some mementos, including an Oscars sweatshirt and sunglasses that 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."
Nash has recommended that he become a motivational speaker. A recovering drug addict and alcoholic, Coe said he 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.
Now that he's done serving time, Coe said he hopes to build on the better person he believes he has become.
"Am I a changed person? Yes. Do I have regrets? Hell, yeah," he said. "But I can't be chained to the past."