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Sue Carlton: The unmasking of Bobby Thompson

Bobby Thompson was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

Bobby Thompson was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

There he sat in a Cleveland courtroom, disheveled and bleary-eyed and looking in need of a good scrubbing.

The man known as Bobby Thompson seemed more like a pathetic homeless person than a Harvard-educated lawyer, former military intelligence officer and slick opportunist who scammed well-meaning people out of millions in the name of charity.

Do you suppose his look was yet another scheme to pluck at the heartstrings?

Too bad. The catch-me-if-you-can karma of the man who ran a charity in the name of Navy veterans officially ran out this week with his 28-year prison sentence on racketeering, money laundering and identity theft charges. Barring one last dash of that improbable Bobby Thompson luck on appeal, he will stay locked up until he is at least 76, maybe for the rest of his life.

What an inglorious and fitting end for the man who ran his scam from a rundown duplex near an abandoned cigar factory in Ybor City. His real name, by the way, is John Donald Cody. But "Bobby" sounds so much more trustworthy.

Photographs show him posed with local big shots and major politicians right on up to President George W. Bush — all in the name of a noble-sounding charity to help Navy veterans in need.

Except it mostly didn't, as the Times' Jeff Testerman and John Martin revealed in a 2010 investigation.

The U.S. Navy Veterans Association raised $100 million over eight years from people who wanted to help, except it turned out to be more about the man who created it helping himself.

The Washington, D.C., headquarters for a charity he said had 60,000 members across 40 states turned out to be a rental mailbox at a UPS store.

I bet he liked those news stories that described him as a "mastermind." I wonder if he fancied himself a roguish James Bond type, only with a darker bent.

He was on the run, smoke and mirrors, a cardboard cut-out. Turned out he'd been wanted by the FBI since the late 1980s. In a photograph of him shaking hands with a local sheriff before the scam was exposed, you would swear the beard on "Thompson" was as fake as Halloween.

He could have been something out of a movie except for the very real damage that was done here. People trusted and gave and got burned. And maybe they won't take that chance again.

You read about similarly bogus charities and think there must be an army of black-hearted people in the world, busy coming up with every possible way to play you and take your money.

They call the elderly late at night and pretend to be a grandchild in terrible trouble and desperate need of immediate cash. Please, help me. Nothing is too ugly to try.

At Thompson/Cody's sentencing this week, the judge added a caveat: He is to spend every Veterans Day in solitary confinement. Most of the $1 million he had when he was busted — of course he had a million bucks, plus plenty of birth certificates for becoming somebody else yet again — is to go to real veterans causes.

None of which replaces the trust he took.

Still, there is a satisfaction to seeing a Bobby Thompson unmasked at last — no longer a mastermind, just another grifter on his way to prison.

Sue Carlton: The unmasking of Bobby Thompson 12/17/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 17, 2013 8:59pm]

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