U.S. marshals still don't know Bobby Thompson's true identity

Bobby Thompson is finally in federal custody on charges of money laundering, fraud and identity theft.

But the real identity of the man behind the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, a multimillion-dollar sham charity that operated from a duplex in Tampa, remains a mystery.

When Thompson was arrested Monday night in Portland, Ore., he refused to tell federal marshals his name.

He signed the booking sheet at the jail with an "X."

And when he sat in front of a federal judge at an identity hearing Tuesday, he spoke only to ask for a public defender.

Despite Thompson's silence, William Boldin, the U.S. marshal who arrested Thompson, assured the judge that the heavy-set guy with the salt-and-pepper hair was the man on the federal warrant, clearing a path for prosecution after nearly two years on the run. Officials said late Tuesday that a fingerprint analysis failed to reveal Thompson's true identity.

"We had to walk through alias after alias after alias," Boldin said of the intense manhunt for Thompson. "And we still don't know who he really is."

In addition to the eight aliases investigators uncovered during their search, Thompson was carrying three wallets when he was arrested, each with yet another stolen identity: a Sioux from South Dakota, a former firefighter from Gallup, N.M., and a female hair stylist in Arizona.

Authorities said the drivers' licenses and other ID cards in Thompson's possession appeared to be homemade. A New Mexico driver's license was such a bad forgery that "Albuquerque" was misspelled.

Pete Elliott, head of the U.S. marshals in northern Ohio, said his three-man team trailed Thompson around the country.

"He left clues every step of the way, from New Mexico and Arizona to Rhode Island, Boston, Indiana, Washington state and Oregon," said Elliott, who declined to say what led marshals to Portland. "He was on the move the whole time. We went from being 10 steps behind him to being five steps to being one step."

While on the run, Thompson apparently fell back into old habits. Elliott said he started a new charity in Boston: the Plymouth Rock Society of Christian Pilgrims. It is not known if the group solicited money from the public.

In March 2010, a series of articles in the Tampa Bay Times exposed Thompson's Navy Veterans as a sham. Though the charity, which started in 2002, claimed to have more than 40 chapters nationwide and more than 80 officers, the various state headquarters were nothing more than mail drops.

The officers, meanwhile, were fictional names created by Thompson to lend Navy Veterans legitimacy. Thompson, who gave generously to politicians, had his photo taken with President George Bush, Bush's adviser Karl Rove and Sen. John McCain. While that enhanced Navy Veterans' reputation and helped its fundraising efforts, there was little evidence that any of the money found its ways to the troops.

Elliott's task force began looking for Thompson in November at the request of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray. Cordray, now director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, aggressively pursued charges against Thompson after the Times series. Navy Veterans had been registered in Ohio as well as in Florida and had raised an estimated $2 million from Ohio residents. In June 2010, Thompson was indicted in Ohio state court; a federal warrant for Thompson's "unlawful flight" from those charges allowed U.S. marshals to get involved.

Though Florida initially pursued legal action against Thompson, the state dropped charges when he disappeared in mid 2010.

Thompson, who is believed to be 66, sat quietly during Tuesday's hearing in Oregon. He wore blue jail coveralls and a pink, long-sleeved undershirt. The bushy beard and mustache he wore while in Tampa had been shorn and replaced while he was on the run by a wispy goatee. In court, Thompson used reading glasses and shook his head while reading documents.

About a month ago, Thompson used Craigslist to find a room to rent in east Portland. He wound up paying Celia Moore $600 a month for a room in a modest house shared by four others. He said he wanted some place close to a bus line because he didn't drive.

Thompson told Moore his name was K. Donald Morsette, but he demanded to be called Don. "He said the 'K' stood for Kenneth but don't call him Ken or Kenny because his mother did and he didn't like it," she said.

Moore said her tenant claimed to be part Cree Indian, a former member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and a security consultant for Boeing. He warned Moore not to tell anyone of his connection to the aerospace company, however, because he had signed a confidentiality agreement.

Moore, who has been sharing her house with tenants for several years, said she never thought to check out the references of a guy she initially found charming.

Moore called Thompson a perfect tenant and said he kept the bathroom he shared with two others sparkling. Though he said he'd packed on 65 pounds recently, Moore said she seldom saw him eat anything other than string cheese and Pepsi. He played catch with Moore's dog, claimed to be an antigovernment Libertarian and never brought alcohol into the house.

He walked with a cane, claiming a knee injury from a kick-boxing accident in the 1980s, but never complained about his second-floor room. One of his recent purchases: a paper shredder from Wal-Mart.

Moore was stunned to see police surrounding her tenant Monday about 10:30 p.m. as he stood handcuffed in her front yard. Thompson had just gotten off the bus from Biddy McGraw's, an Irish pub about a mile down the street.

Though she had begun to be uncomfortable with Thompson's quiet, closed demeanor, Moore said she never would have guessed her tenant was among America's most wanted fugitives.

He had told her he was trying to lay low after a brutal divorce from his wife of 30 years.

"He said if his wife could find him, she'd take all his money," Moore said. "Now I know his wife was the U.S. government."

Thompson is expected to be sent to Ohio within the week.

Officials said Tuesday they were searching several properties tied to Thompson's various aliases, including a storage locker found in Portland. Meanwhile the door to his room at Moore's house has been nailed shut.

Other than about $100,000 discovered early in the investigation in several bank accounts, authorities have come up empty so far in their search for the millions of dollars Thompson raised, but never spent, on veterans.

Eric Mortenson, a reporter with the Portland Oregonian, contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at 727-892-2996 or khundley@tampabay.com. John Martin can be reached at 813-226-3372 or jmartin@tampabay.com.

U.S. marshals still don't know Bobby Thompson's true identity 05/01/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 3, 2012 12:01pm]

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