The man known as Bobby Thompson goes on trial in state court in Cleveland today.
He faces up to 40 years in prison on charges of fraud, theft and money laundering for his role as head of U.S. Navy Veterans Association, a charity in Tampa that raised over $100 million in donations but turned out to be a total charade. Its state chapters were mail drops, its directors nonexistent. It gave little aid to veterans.
During the trial, which is expected to last at least six weeks, prosecutors say they'll show that Thompson siphoned money from the charity's accounts for personal use and used dozens of stolen identities to cover his tracks.
But Thompson, who ran Navy Veterans from a roach-infested duplex in Ybor City, yet became a major Republican donor and had his picture taken — twice — with President George W. Bush, has a different explanation.
The group, he has claimed in court filings, was a secret CIA operation.
Thompson, who was in military intelligence in the 1970s, said he was still working for the CIA as a "nonofficial cover" agent while he was running the charity. NOC agents are covert agents who spy while working in non-government jobs. They are trained to deny any connection with the CIA.
In a handwritten court motion, Thompson alleged that the Tampa charity was not a criminal enterprise but "a U.S. intelligence community/White House and Republican Party manipulated operation."
Thompson's court motions, all written in block letters, also have blamed the Obama administration for the collapse of Navy Veterans, demanded to know if the CIA gave him mind-altering drugs and petitioned for two freshly laundered suits, size 44, for the trial.
His court-appointed attorney, Joseph Patituce, suggested that Thompson's covert experience was well known by the politicians who benefited from his generosity.
"Bobby Thompson appears on White House logs," he said. "I'm pretty sure everybody who met him there knows who he is."
Patituce, who said his client will take the stand, tried to subpoena several prominent Ohio Republicans who got campaign donations from Thompson. They included House Speaker John Boehner and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office is prosecuting the case.
But on Friday, Judge Steven Gall granted the prosecution's motion to quash the subpoenas. DeWine has called the charity's political donations "kind of a sidebar to the scam."
Jury selection begins today and opening statements are expected later in the week. Prosecutors intend to call as many as 75 witnesses. Among them: Navy Veterans' lawyers, Thompson's plastic surgeon, and nearly a dozen men whose identities prosecutors say he stole.
The state's argument to the jury: CIA or not, Thompson, 66, should spend his remaining years in jail.
Catch me if you can
Thompson will be prosecuted under the stolen identity he assumed in 1998, shortly before launching Navy Veterans.
But fingerprints show his real name is John Donald Cody, a Harvard-trained lawyer who spent eight years as an intelligence officer in the Army.
By 1980, Cody had left the military and was running a small law firm in Sierra Vista, Ariz.
When a client accused him of stealing $100,000, Cody disappeared. His orange Corvette was found, painted blue, at the Phoenix airport. The keys were in the ignition.
In 1987, the FBI placed Cody on its Most Wanted list for alleged fraud as well as for questioning in an espionage investigation.
While agents were searching for Cody, he moved to Tampa and started Navy Veterans.
Using professional telemarketers, the charity brought in more than $20 million a year at its peak, ostensibly to send care packages to troops overseas.
But receipts submitted by Navy Veterans for an IRS audit in 2009 show the charity was spending money on things like Natural Ice beer, two window air-conditioning units, Just for Men hair dye and tubes of Pinaud's mustache wax.
Thompson, who got hair implants while in Tampa, wore a handlebar mustache while posing as the Navy Veterans' "Commander."
Patituce, Thompson's lawyer, said that Navy Veterans passed four IRS audits and that the charity only kept about 10 percent of the over $100 million raised nationwide.
"The professional fundraisers got the rest and they haven't been asked to give any money back," he said.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, have said in court filings that they will produce records showing Thompson and two co-conspirators withdrew donations from the charity's accounts, siphoning off donations for their personal use.
One of those co-conspirators, Blanca Contreras of Tampa, a former strawberry picker with an eighth-grade education, pleaded guilty to theft and money laundering charges in August 2011 and is serving a five-year sentence in Ohio.
The other, Karmika Rubin, is a lawyer with offices in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Hernando counties. She served as special counsel to Navy Veterans.
Thompson, who represented himself until late August, said in court filings that if he used Navy Veterans' money to pay for personal expenses, there was no wrongdoing.
The purpose of the organization was to help members, he wrote.
And he was a member.
Solving the mystery
In his filings, Thompson blamed Navy Veterans' demise on a political conspiracy carried out by a "pro-Obama, anti-Bush domestic and foreign policy, Democratic Party adherent," Tampa Bay Times reporter Jeff Testerman.
Testerman, now retired, wrote a series of stories that ran in the Times in March 2010, exposing the charity as a fraud. The Times reported that the charity's 85 officers were nonexistent and few donations ever reached needy veterans.
The newspaper's investigation also found that Navy Veterans had donated at least $300,000 to political candidates, mostly Republican.
Within months, Florida and Ohio had charged Thompson. By then, he had once again vanished.
With Thompson on the lam, Florida dropped its case. But Ohio investigators, under then-Attorney General Richard Cordray, began a cross-country pursuit that lasted nearly two years. U.S. marshals followed clues and fake identities finally tracking the fugitive to Portland, Ore., last year.
Along with Thompson, the marshals found a storage unit with more than $980,000 in cash. When he was booked into custody in Portland, Thompson's fingerprints were sent to the FBI's national database, but no match came back.
Authorities had no clue about the real identity of the man they had in custody.
Six months later, U.S. Marshal Pete Elliott, searching the Web for leads, came across an old FBI "Wanted" photo.
He thought it bore an uncanny resemblance to the man in the Cuyahoga County jail.
The picture was of John Donald Cody. And a fingerprint comparison done using Cody's military records showed a match.
It remains a mystery why Cody's fingerprints were not in the FBI database that officials first checked against their suspect.
But Thompson's lawyer said it's evidence that his client had friends in high places.
"The U.S. State Department had his fingerprint cards removed for a reason," Patituce said.
Said Elliot, the U.S. marshal: "All I can tell you is they should have been in the national database and they were not."
Though there have been several attempts at a plea bargain, Thompson's lawyer said a deal is unlikely. Even if he is acquitted in Cleveland, Thompson won't immediately go free.
U.S. marshals are standing by to deliver Cody to federal court, where he faces the 26-year-old fraud charges that first landed him on the FBI's most-wanted list.
Kris Hundley can be reached at [email protected]