John Cody? Navy Veterans scam's Bobby Thompson? Jailed fugitive remains a mystery

Meet a now-jailed fugitive who changed his name, but not his ways.
Published October 13 2012
Updated October 14 2012

On Mother's Day in May 1984, a young lawyer in Arizona named John Donald Cody sent flowers to his mom in Clearwater.

Then he vanished.

Sought by the FBI for stealing and suspected espionage, Cody became a phantom who eluded capture for nearly three decades.

On Oct. 1, almost 30 years after he vanished, federal officials announced they'd finally caught their man. Now 65, he is sitting in a jail cell in Cleveland, charged with running a charity scam in Tampa under the alias Bobby Thompson.

As Cody awaits trial, authorities aren't commenting on the espionage charge or what else Cody might have been doing during those years on the run. No one yet knows whether he was a con man or a spook, or both.

Here's what is known: In the Army he was in military intelligence. In Arizona, he was a man of mystery before disappearing with clients' cash. In Tampa, he ran a veterans' charity charged with bilking donors out of nearly $100 million.

Cody isn't talking. But in a letter to his former landlady written soon after his capture, he perpetuated the intrigue.

Printing in bizarre block letters to disguise his handwriting, Cody wrote, "Mine is a political case though I suspect they will try to keep certain names out of it and pray I do not testify."

If he does, will anyone believe a word he says?

Cody was the only son in a close-knit family with an accomplished heritage. His maternal grandparents emigrated from Italy to New York City in the early 1900s. His grandfather had a doctorate in chemistry and held several patents. Married in the United States, the couple raised 13 children who were not allowed to speak Italian at home.

Cody's mother, Herminia, was a bookkeeper; his father, John V. Cody, a bank teller. The couple started raising a family in Hoboken, where Cody, called Donnie, was born in 1947. Two years later there was a daughter, Patricia.

The elder Cody passed away in 1971 and Herminia, who then moved to Clearwater, died in 2000. Patricia, a lawyer in Manhattan, declined to comment for this story.

Raised Catholic, Cody was a star debater at Steinert High School in Trenton's suburbs. The profile under his 1965 yearbook photo could describe any young American male of the era. He liked pizza and apple pie, "but not together;" football and fast cars, especially "a certain white Chevy II."

Cody went on to the University of Virginia, where he graduated with high honors in 1969. That year he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, but active service was deferred until he completed Harvard Law School in 1972.

Cody reportedly served in Washington, D.C., Hawaii and the Philippines before being discharged as a captain. In 1979, Cody got a master's degree in management at the Asian Institute of Management in Manila.

By mid 1980, Cody showed up in Sierra Vista, Ariz., ready to launch a law practice. He told people he'd spent time at nearby Fort Huachuca while on active duty. The base, 15 miles north of the Mexican border, is the hub of Army military intelligence.

Brandishing his Harvard degree — believed to be the first lawyer in the county with one — Cody quickly picked up business. He was assigned criminal cases by the court, but also handled divorces, wills and contract disputes. Cody may have had the only law office in town with Playboy magazines in the waiting room.

Cody stood out in other ways as well. He claimed his tear ducts were damaged in the military by radiation. So mid conversation or court presentation, without missing a beat, he'd squirt drops in his eyes until it looked like he was crying. Then he'd pull out a tin of petroleum jelly and rub it on his face.

When the skin around his eyes flaked due to the constant irritation, he'd pick it off as colleagues watched in amazement and disgust.

Cody's hair was an orangey-brown pompadour that everybody swore was a wig. His clothes were throwbacks to the '70s, wide-legged bell bottoms and wild ties in a town where Bolo ties were the norm.

Cody would sometimes join the other tenants in his office complex for a drink after work. The orthodontist upstairs had a full bar in his back room.

"But he was never very forthcoming," said Harry Chambers, then a stockbroker in the same building. "He wasn't part of the crowd."

Cody didn't fit in with the local legal community either.

"He would raise global constitutional issues in oral arguments during dime-store felony cases," said Paul Rubin, then a reporter for the Sierra Vista Herald. "And he almost immediately became antagonistic with the County Attorney's Office."

Cody lambasted the office, calling it "a kindergarten school of law." At one point, Cody claimed prosecutors hated him so much they'd hired a hit man to eliminate him.

Calling himself an anarchist, Cody apparently wasn't above trying to circumvent what he saw as a crooked system. In one case, he was suspected of sneaking hair dye to a prisoner so he could disguise his looks to confuse a witness.

Dennis Lusk, a prosecutor who routinely butted heads with Cody, said, "He just blatantly lied so much in court about things he claimed I said that I put him on a writing-only basis." Lusk said he still has a 2-inch thick binder of Cody's correspondence.

"I remember him saying it would be good background in case one day either of us achieved notoriety."

Animosity in the courthouse didn't keep Cody from winning some high-profile cases. He got a woman acquitted on self-defense after she shot her boyfriend in the face while he was eating cereal. Another client was found innocent by reason of insanity after stabbing a man 23 times.

"Sometimes he was absolutely brilliant," said Margaret Chapman, Cody's legal assistant. "But sometimes he was just crazy."

Chapman, who worked for Cody for about a year, said he used a tape recorder from home to dictate late-night memos, spinning conspiracy theories and threatening to shoot methamphetamine into the county attorney's brain. As time went on, he became increasingly manic, sleeping little and missing court dates. He'd lock himself in his office, Chapman said, emerging with white powder on his nose.

Chapman became suspicious when Cody had her make several $5,000 withdrawals from his accounts, all in $20 bills. When he asked her if she knew anyone who made fake IDs, Chapman decided it was time to leave. A few months later Cody told his new assistant he had an emergency meeting in Tucson. His orange Corvette, painted blue, was found weeks later at the Phoenix airport with the keys in the ignition.

Cody was gone.

• • •

Shortly after his disappearance, Cochise County officials charged Cody with stealing about $100,000 from clients' accounts. But many townspeople doubted that was enough to make him abandon a seemingly successful practice.

There was talk he had been targeted by drug lords or the mob. Others, who'd heard hints of his past in military intelligence, wondered if it might have been something else.

Teri Sorisso may have been Cody's only friend and sole defender in Sierra Vista. A few weeks before he disappeared, the two were at the Sorry Gulch Saloon when he gave her a cryptic warning.

"He said he was investigating the drug trade and corruption involving officials in town and if things went bad, he'd have to leave without warning," Sorisso said. "He wouldn't tell me where he was going because he didn't want me implicated in any way."

Her suspicions increased when she went to the auction of Cody's possessions months after he fled. She'd never been in his shabby, one-room efficiency and was shocked to find it packed with books in five languages, including German, Russian andSpanish.

"I thought, 'Holy crap, who is this guy?' " Sorisso said. "I thought maybe he'd been a spy."

A federal indictment issued in May 1987 did not end the speculation. The official charges were fairly mundane. In addition to taking money from clients' probate accounts, Cody allegedly tried to open brokerage accounts and get loans in Virginia using two aliases. He also claimed $195,000 in income from two nonexistent companies, one in Kuwait, the other in Mexico.

Then came the kicker: The FBI also wanted Cody for questioning regarding "an ongoing FBI espionage investigation."

No further details were given at the time and the FBI has been unwilling to elaborate since his arrest.

Tim Weiner, a former New York Times reporter who has written extensively on espionage, the FBI and the CIA, said it's unlikely Cody was ever a spy.

"In the first place, a cold case like this — a 25-year-old allegation of espionage — generally doesn't sit and molder in the FBI's files if it's a big deal," Weiner said. "They tend to want to nail people like that."

More likely, he speculated, Cody's name may have come up as someone trying to peddle supposedly secret information to a foreign agent. But Cody's fugitive status would have precluded his access to fresh information, thus limiting his value. Real spies, Weiner pointed out, keep working for the FBI or CIA by day, selling secrets at night.

"The person who disappears without a trace sounds like he'd make a fine candidate for being a secret agent, but that's in the movies and cheap spy novels," Weiner said. "That's not how life works in the real world."

The suggestion that Cody could have been a spy apparently came as some consolation to his mother, who hired a private investigator to try to track down her son.

"She thought he got involved in something with the government and it was part of their idea to make him disappear," said John Kiraly, Cody's cousin. "She thought it might be CIA."

In 1997, Cody's mother and sister had him "presumed dead" in a Pinellas County court. Relatives believe neither of them heard from Cody after 1984.

• • •

After Cody's disappearance, former acquaintances would occasionally get calls from investigators. They were told he had popped up in Mexico, California and the eastern United States. Chambers recalled being told that Cody had run a commodities scam in San Francisco. In 2004, 20 years after Cody vanished, Lusk said FBI investigators questioned him about the case.

By then, however, Cody had adopted a new identity — Bobby Thompson, founder of U.S. Navy Veterans Association. Working out of a rat-trap duplex in Ybor City, he had fabricated a charity that claimed to have chapters and officers nationwide.

It was all a charade. The chapters were mail drops, the officers nonexistent. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations went to political contributions instead of to veterans, giving the fugitive access to the top echelons of power. While on the FBI's most wanted list, Cody, aka Thompson, had his photo taken twice with President George W. Bush. At other events, he posed with House Speaker John Boehner, Sen. John McCain and Republican adviser Karl Rove.

A spokesman for the Secret Service said last week that though names of participants at fundraisers are checked, fingerprints usually are not.

Even if the Navy Veterans' founder had been fingerprinted, it wouldn't have set off bells. Despite his "most wanted" status, Cody's prints, taken in the military, had never been entered into the FBI's system. A spokeswoman for the agency declined to comment on the omission.

It was only by luck that a U.S. marshal in Cleveland, determined to learn the identity of the man arrested for the Navy Veterans' fraud, linked Thompson to Cody. Stumbling across Cody's wanted poster online in late September, the marshal was intrigued by parallels between the cases, as well as similarities in appearance. Though his hair was thinner, his leg was bad and his tear ducts apparently intact, fingerprints showed it was Cody in custody.

• • •

Even in his reduced condition, Cody seems unwilling to relinquish his reputation as a man of mystery. In a letter to his former landlady last summer, he suggested the book or movie rights to his story might be worth as much as $5 million.

"ABC … NBC Dateline and CBS 60 Minutes are all putting intense pressure on me for interviews — they won't get any — but it shows there has to be a sellable story here," he wrote.

But maybe his tale has already been written.

In the late 1980s, seven action novels were published featuring "John Cody," an ex-Marine and CIA operative whose four-man team takes on terrorists from the Philippines to Lebanon. Stephen Mertz, who wrote the "Cody's Army" series under the pseudonym Jim Case, has lived since the late 1980s in a little town about 40 miles from Sierra Vista.

Mertz said he has never met Cody. The stories, he said, are total fiction.

Times staff writers Lane DeGregory and Michael LaForgia contributed to this report. John Martin can be reached at (813) 226-3372 or [email protected] Kris Hundley can be reached at (727) 892-2996 or [email protected]