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Hunting Navy Veterans fugitive Bobby Thompson, U.S. marshals play name game — and win

CLEVELAND — He had at least $1 million in cash, believed to be from donors who thought they were giving to the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. But he lived like a pauper, stocking up on beef jerky and bumming meals at homeless shelters.

He had a suitcase full of stolen birth certificates and credit reports, enough identities for a lifetime on the lam. But he used the same names repeatedly, leaving a trail of bread crumbs for investigators to follow.

The fugitive's fatal flaw was his penchant for picking unusual names. Any con man can disappear under a run-of-the-mill name like Bobby Thompson, the name he used for a decade in Tampa. Only a genius can hide in plain sight using names like Dale Booqua or Elmer Dosier.

At the end of April, the man who ran Navy Veterans, who called himself "Commander" and had his picture taken twice with President George W. Bush, learned he wasn't so smart after all. After two years on the run, he was caught by U.S. marshals tipped to his whereabouts in Portland, Ore., when he recycled an alias he had used a year ago in Providence, R.I.

The name: Anderson Yazzie.

There are three Anderson Yazzies in the United States, all Navajos, all in the Southwest. None had ever been to either Providence or Portland.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Bill Boldin, one of three investigators tracking Thompson, said searching the country for a "Joe Smith" would have been virtually impossible.

"But if you start doing database searches or asking your contacts in different jurisdictions to check hotels, businesses, bus lines for an Anderson Yazzie, that name jumps out," Boldin said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times Wednesday. "It's incredibly time-consuming, but it's an easy name to track."

The search

When Navy Veterans was exposed as a nationwide scam by the Times in March 2010, one of the first officials to react was Richard Cordray, Ohio's attorney general at the time. Though it was based in Tampa, the fake charity had solicited nearly $2 million from Ohio residents.

Cordray's office got a grand jury indictment of Thompson and his accomplice, Blanca Contreras, in October 2010 on charges of corruption, money laundering and fraud. Last year Contreras was sentenced to five years in prison. Thompson couldn't be found to stand trial.

After Cordray lost re-election in January 2011, he called Pete Elliott, the U.S. marshal for the northern district of Ohio, and asked him for help dealing with a tipster who would not stop pestering him. The man claimed Thompson was really a turkey farmer in West Virginia.

The tip proved bogus, but Elliott's men, who had known nothing about the Navy Veterans case, were hooked.

"He's the kind of guy we want to go after," said Elliott, whose team has captured 26,000 fugitives since it was formed in 2003. "I gave them the ability to go anywhere to follow the case. Every week we were one step closer."

By January, Boldin, Deputy Marshal Tony Gardner and Special Deputy Marshal Mike Caruso, a detective on assignment from the Euclid Police Department, were working the Thompson case full time.

The three men holed up in a windowless storage space used by Elliott's fugitive task force on the 12th floor of the federal building in Cleveland. Long ago someone slapped an official-looking placard on the door labeling it "The War Room." Inside, it looked more like a man-cave, with a dusty fake tree decorated with white Christmas lights and posters boasting that U.S. marshals always get their man.

On one wall, the newly formed task force had plastered photos of the man they knew as Bobby Thompson.

Outside another sign read: "What have YOU done to identify/capture 'Bobby Thompson' today?!"

Starting with one alias, the team quickly learned of others.

By running facial recognition software on its driver's license database, Indiana officials had discovered the target's photo on three identification cards issued in the early 2000s. In addition to Thompson, the fugitive had stolen the names of a man in Gallup, N.M., and a dead police officer who once worked on a Navajo reservation.

"He didn't use those names for years," Boldin said. "But he was preparing for the day he was going to go on the run."

When they weren't making calls and combing through databases like those of utility connections, video rentals, bus passes and hotel reservations, the task force hit the road.

They started by interviewing Thompson's former lawyer, his imprisoned accomplice and one of Navy Veterans' fundraisers to flesh out the man they knew only from photos.

They learned Thompson drank as much as a bottle of vodka a day. He lived a spartan lifestyle in a run-down apartment with roaches. He never drove. He carried $100 bills but shopped at Walmart and ate frozen turkey dinners.

Thompson dressed like a slob, in baggy T-shirts and cargo pants, looking like he'd just rolled out of bed. He would clean up only when he went to a political event. Then, he would put on a blue blazer and the glad-handing persona of a former Navy intelligence officer turned charity honcho.

Early in the hunt, Thompson's onetime attorney, Helen MacMurray of Columbus, told investigators she thought her client may have fled the country, maybe heading to Asia. But a check with the State Department's passport department was a dead end.

"Leaving the country involves additional scrutiny with passports," Boldin said. "He was smart enough to know not to subject himself to that. Trying to leave the country would be very difficult, and trying to leave with millions of dollars would be even harder."

The aliases

Just a few weeks after they took up the case, the investigators began to interview the real people behind the identities the fugitive had filched.

After Caruso and Gardner spent a few hours with the real Bobby Thompson, a 65-year-old full-blooded Choctaw who lives in Washington state, they became convinced the Seattle man was not involved in the scheme. Their effort to uncover how his life might have overlapped with the fugitive's yielded one tantalizing clue: The real Thompson had worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Albuquerque area. Several other aliases stemmed from the same place.

So the task force booked a trip south, trekking from Albuquerque to Gallup to Ganado, Ariz., across the Navajo reservation and back again. The investigators spent five days driving across the desert and launched a media blitz that included electronic billboards with Thompson's mug shot. They visited casinos, apartment complexes, homeless shelters, a VA hospital and a Navajo school trying to see if anyone recognized the fugitive.

Sitting down across kitchen tables from people whose identities had been stolen, they showed photos of Bobby Thompson and asked: Do you know this man? Do you know any of the other people whose identities he stole? Is there a chance you worked together, belonged to the same clubs, had been treated at the same hospital?

None of them had even donated to Navy Veterans.

"We were looking for a common thread," Boldin said. "We never found one. Did he open up the Gallup phone book and randomly pick some names? We still don't know."

Nor was the public response much help, according to Boldin's boss.

"We got some stuff, but nobody called and said, 'I know where this guy is,' " Elliott said.

The scent in Boston

Calls to local officials in Boston, where Thompson had been seen at an ATM in July 2010, yielded a promising lead. He had rented a UPS box there under one of his aliases. It had been abandoned, but mail kept coming for several people, including three Navajos in New Mexico.

Included in the mail was information about an apartment the fugitive had rented in Providence, R.I.

The investigators were pumped as they headed to the Northeast in February. "We thought it was possible he was still there," Boldin said.

No such luck. The fugitive had been in Providence just three months before he left suddenly in March 2011, immediately after a repeat airing of an episode of America's Most Wanted that featured Thompson's story.

But the task force didn't go home empty-handed.

The man who rented Thompson the apartment above a dry cleaner's on a busy street had stashed a bag of his belongings in the basement: camouflage shorts, a Leatherman pocketknife, empty backpacks and a stash of beef jerky.

"Survivalist gear," Boldin said.

And people in the neighborhood who recognized Thompson's photo described a man who walked the streets for hours, haunting nearby bars and homeless shelters where he would eat.

The landlord said when he entered Thompson's abandoned apartment, one room had shredded paper covering the floor and a paper shredder in the middle of the room. A new $3,500 box spring and mattress had been shoved into a corner.

The living room was arranged like a make-shift chapel, with a podium, religious artifacts on the wall and rows of folding chairs. Wires hanging from the ceiling suggested webcams might have once been installed in the room.

Investigators also found evidence that Thompson was trying to get a new charity/scam off the ground in Providence: the Plymouth Rock Society of Christian Pilgrims. A source who recognized the fugitive's photo told the task force that Thompson asked him to be an actor in a documentary he was filming for PBS comparing the Puritans' pilgrimage to America to a modern-day American's pilgrimage to Africa.

His chance at stardom vanished with Thompson.

The catch

In Providence, the investigators also landed a crucial clue. While there, Bobby Thompson had used the name Anderson Yazzie. The task force added it to the list of aliases they were watching and waited for a hit.

It came in late April, when the Yazzie name resurfaced in Portland. Within days, the guys from Cleveland were on a plane.

Before they got to Portland, local police had used information about Thompson's habits to come up with a list of neighborhoods where he might be living. They looked for low-rent areas near downtown that were on a bus line and within walking distance of bars, a grocery and a liquor store. Local detectives came back with word that a few trusted sources who had been shown Thompson's photo said they may have seen him in a working-class neighborhood in northeast Portland.

"We felt pretty good about our chances," Boldin said of the stake-out. "But we didn't want him to get wind of us, or we were afraid he'd go packing."

Less than eight hours after leaving the hotel on their first day in Portland, the men from the U.S. marshals had their man. While his colleagues and about a half-dozen police waited outside, Boldin strolled into Biddy's, an Irish pub on Northeast Glisan Street, about 6:30 p.m.

The only people inside were the bartender, a woman drinking coffee and tequila shots and Thompson, who sat at the bar nursing a tall draft beer and staring out the window. He ignored the bald guy in a polo shirt and blue jeans who sat down next to him and ordered a bowl of chili.

Boldin immediately texted the others: "It's him. He's sitting right next to me."

The team did not move in right away, because they wanted to follow Thompson home in hopes of discovering his real identity.

After an hour at Biddy's, Thompson wandered slowly five blocks to a Fred Meyer discount store, leaning heavily on a cane. While investigators shadowed his moves, the fugitive rode a motorized cart through the aisles, picking up groceries and a money order for his rent.

"He was oblivious to us," said Boldin, who said most fugitives have a tendency to keep looking over their shoulders for the law. "He wasn't at all paranoid. He thought he was the smartest guy in the room and had nothing to worry about."

After leaving the store and driving the cart to the edge of the parking lot, Thompson climbed onto a bus, only to get off a few blocks later and walk into the Hour-Glass pub, known for its cheap fried chicken. Law enforcement waited outside, not worried he was going to elude them.

"We were pretty sure he wasn't going to outrun us," Boldin said. "At this point, we're just trying not to laugh."

An hour later, Thompson emerged and turned onto a nearby street. When he stopped in front of a Victorian home and began fumbling in his pockets, agents moved in. Thompson did not resist. When asked his name he said, "I invoke my constitutional right to remain silent."

The aftermath

The day after the arrest, as the investigators were going through the evidence found in Thompson's pockets and backpack, they found a business card for Rose City Self Storage, along with an access code. In the closet-size unit, they found two small suitcases.

The first one, soft-sided, held batches of birth certificates, credit reports and other identifying information for about 20 people.

A second, hard-shell case was packed with stacks of cash, bundled with pony-tail ties and wrapped in an old newspaper. Gardner's reaction: "Holy crap."

When the stacks of $100s, $50s and $20s were finally counted, the total was $981,650.

Three days after arresting Thompson, Gardner and Caruso were wedged in next to him on a commercial flight back to Ohio. The two were passing the time trying to figure out a crossword puzzle in the back of the in-flight magazine when Caruso came across a clue that seemed particularly timely. Nudging his colleague, he turned to Thompson.

"Hey Bobby," Caruso asked his prisoner. "What's another name for 'swindlers'?"

Kris Hundley can be reached at (727) 892-2996 or khundley@tampabay.com.

Hunting Navy Veterans fugitive Bobby Thompson, U.S. marshals play name game — and win 05/12/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 1:48pm]

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