NEW RICHMOND, Ohio – John Coyne called himself a "Freedom Fighter for Individual Liberty." He said so in white letters on the turret of the Army green World War II tank he defiantly drove on the streets of Clermont and Hamilton counties in the 1970s.
The New Richmond junkyard owner, 72, is one of the most colorful, controversial and condemned characters in Cincinnati history. John Coyne said he fought for personal freedom, but he killed a man and wounded two others in the process.
Many people think of Coyne as a crackpot because he constantly challenged and criticized judges, prosecutors and police and called them "the Southwestern Ohio Gestapo." He put swaztikas and signs condemning them on his tank and armored Army half-track and was arrested several times for driving on city streets or for parking them at the courthouse or on private property.
He told WCPO he wanted to get arrested because the publicity helped his cause: protecting constitutional rights against government intrusion.
It was no laughing matter, though, when Coyne shot to death an 18-year-old and wounded two 16-year-olds who were looting his Boot Hill Auto Graveyard on Aug, 28, 1981.
He went to prison for 17 years - he was acquitted in the killing - and served extra time because he tried to break out. He was caught before he got away.
In an interview with WCPO 35 years ago, Coyne traced his conflict with the government to his first arrest.
"In 1965 I was arrested for having a machine gun so I went out and bought this Sherman tank," he said. "Then Judge Ralph Hill told me I couldn't have this junk American tank on my own property and told me I had to go to jail or move my own tank off my own property.
"To me, that's not America. That's Nazi Germany and I'm the victim of the Gestapo and I hope I've been able to put my message across to see so your viewers out there see me as a victim of the Gestapo and not a Nazi."
Coyne refused Hill's order to remove the tank from his junkyard and went to jail for nearly six months until the judge accepted Coyne's argument that it was an historical vehicle.
Coyne was jailed again in Clermont County after parking his military truck in front of the courthouse and refusing another judge's order to remove it. He also refused the judge's order to turn over his historical vehicle tags.
Cincinnati police arrested Coyne for driving his tank on city streets, citing an ordinance that said only vehicles with pneumatic tires were allowed. He took his case to the District of Ohio Court of Appeals and the court ruled the ordinance unconstitutional.
Still in the '70s, Coyne was also arrested for parking his military vehicles in front of Anderson High School. He sued the Forest Hills Board of Education and the deputy who arrested him.
The shootings happened on a dark Friday night in 1981. Coyne, then 37, pleaded self-defense. He said he was sleeping in a car at the junkyard because he had recently been robbed. He had a semi-automatic rifle and semi-automatic pistol with him.
Coyne said he awoke to the sound of someone walking on the gravel paths. He said he saw figures carrying car parts and fired a warning shot, but they came toward him in the darkness.
The prosecutor said Coyne fired a full clip - 20 shots - from the rifle and one from the pistol. The pistol shot hit Phillip Osborne in the head. The 16-year-olds, Anthony Dotson and Leslie "Leo" Oberschlake, were hospitalized and survived.
The teens said Coyne never fired a warning shot, but they admitted they were looting the auto yard. Osborne had worked part-time there, and the teens said they came to steal a tire for his car. They had pot and beer before they got there. When police located Osborne's car after the shooting, several radiators and auto parts were stacked in the back seat.
Six months later, a jury made a surprising decision: it cleared Coyne on murder charges but convicted him on two counts of felonious assault against Dotson and Oberschlake.
Osborne's family was devastated. Coyne objected, too, but for a different reason.
"I was railroaded," he told WCPO. "Let's face it, that jury – no matter what they did – they couldn't please everybody. I would have preferred total acquittal and the opposition wanted my hide. They wanted me hanged."
At the time, convicted and awaiting sentencing, Coyne said he never set out to be a crusader or a thorn in the government's side. Or a killer.
"I really always wanted to be left alone," Coyne told WCPO during a rambling monologue. "I didn't want to be a pioneer freedom fighter for individual liberty. I didn't want to be a renegade, a maverick, a terrorist. I just wanted to be a captain of industry and my government wouldn't allow me to do so because of the success and expansion of my business – a very persecuted, prosecuted business of auto salvage – resource recovery - better known as junk before it became fashionably acceptable to call it resource recovery. And the more people persecuted and prosecuted me the more I resisted until finally we have this present occurrence."
Coyne was allowed to go free on $125,000 bond while he appealed. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case and he went to prison.
By then, Coyne's wife divorced him and he couldn't afford to pay the $75,000 settlement, so he put the tank and everything else in the Boot Hill Auto Graveyard up for auction.
A Kentucky businessman paid $23,000 for the tank.
Four years ago, Coyne bought a new tank. And he still has run-ins with the law in the name of personal freedom. Two years ago, he took his military truck to a cruise-in at Frisch's in New Richmond. The manager ordered him to leave.