TAMPA — The mysterious subject of a years-long St. Petersburg Times investigation appears on America's Most Wanted this weekend.
A man who called himself Bobby Thompson — which turned out to be a stolen identity — is under investigation by the FBI and several states after the newspaper revealed that Thompson's Tampa-based U.S. Navy Veterans Association was a sham.
Times reporter Jeff Testerman and researcher John Martin tried to find the 85 officers listed on Navy Veterans' tax returns, as well as some evidence of a claimed membership of 66,000 and beneficial gifts in the tens of millions of dollars.
It all led back to one man — "Thompson," who since vanished.
Now, after being indicted by an Ohio grand jury, the man called John Doe by authorities is wanted on charges of identity theft, racketeering, money laundering and stealing more than $1 million from Ohio residents alone.
"There are just so many questions," said William Clark, who produced tonight's Most Wanted episode. "What were you thinking? How did you do this? Who are you?"
The oddness of the story, in addition to Thompson's eccentric appearance in photographs with high-ranking officials including former President George W. Bush, sparked Clark's interest.
"He didn't have a past. He doesn't have a future, a present even. That's what's so weird," Clark said. "Nobody has been able to piece together what his life is really about."
Testerman and Martin tried.
It began after Testerman visited the self-proclaimed Navy veteran to question him about a separate story in the fall of 2009. The reporter was curious about the man's defensive behavior and began researching his group.
Seven months later, the Times series, Under the Radar, sparked investigations, regulatory agency crackdowns and more questions. The series was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
"It's kind of a reporter's dream," Testerman said, "to knock on the door of somebody and unravel a huge scam that is nationwide, that involves millions of dollars, politicians around the country and a man who took on a false identity and essentially hijacked the good faith of the charitable public."
Clark said the television show has a great success rate, with 1,146 fugitives caught so far after 1,059 episodes.
"He's got to be somebody's neighbor," Clark said. "He's got to be somebody someone went to school with or might have even dated, God forbid. Somebody knows who he is."
Testerman's hopeful, too.
"If we knew the last chapter, it would make a great book," he said.
The episode airs at 9 tonight on WTVT-Ch. 13.
Reach Kim Wilmath at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.