When Jeff Testerman rolled up to a ramshackle Ybor City duplex one August morning in 2009, he didn’t think he was walking into one of the biggest stories he’d ever write.
Testerman was more than 30 years into his career at the then-St. Petersburg Times, with a reputation as a relentless investigative reporter. That day, he was looking into the questionable military background of a local politician, and he had come to the Ybor City address hoping to grab a quick quote from an officer of a group that had made a campaign donation to the politician, the U.S. Navy Veterans Association.
The man who was having a phone conversation outside the duplex when Testerman arrived looked more like a vagrant — rumpled shorts and T-shirt, beer on his breath — than the director of a charity or, as he told Testerman, “Lieutenant commander, navy reserves, retired.”
His reaction to the reporter’s presence seemed strange — he was combative and evasive, even about his own background. He told the reporter that he had a relative who shared his name, that his personal credit had been corrupted, that “any check of his ID led to four separate people.”
It would lead to way more people than that. Testerman had just met the man who called himself Bobby Thompson. The reporter felt as if he’d “run into a buzz saw,” and he wanted to know more.
Working with Times researcher John Martin and editor Richard Bockman, Testerman discovered an astounding story about a fake charity that collected tens of millions of dollars and used much of the money to make illegal donations to conservative politicians across the country — a story with Thompson at its center. It became an award-winning series called “Under the Radar,” published in the Times in 2010.
Testerman retired in 2014, but it seems he couldn’t leave Thompson behind. He and co-writer Daniel M. Freed, a producer for CNBC’s documentary series American Greed, have published Call Me Commander: A Former Intelligence Officer and the Journalists Who Uncovered His Scheme to Fleece America. The Times series, it turns out, was just the first chapter of a wild and fascinating true-crime tale.
The first part of the book recounts how the Times team researched Thompson and his charity. The U.S. Navy Veterans Association, they found, employed a couple of large national telemarketing firms to do its fundraising, taking advantage of widespread pro-military attitudes in the years following 9/11. Those firms charged the charity a shocking but perfectly legal 85 to 90 cents for every dollar collected — but they raked in so many millions of dollars that even 15 percent was a huge haul for the veterans group.
Trying to find out what the veterans charity did with all that money was like diving down the rabbit hole, and an even bigger mystery was Thompson himself. Although the Navy Veterans Association had a sprawling website that claimed it had more than 60,000 members and chapters in 41 states, Testerman and Martin found it impossible to track down people connected to it, except for Thompson and a handful of well-paid lawyers. The address for its Washington, D.C., offices was a mail drop; the heads of all of its state chapters were untraceable. Its financial records were, to say the least, incomplete.
And Thompson’s personal history went back only a few years — yet his office walls and the website boasted photos of him partying and shaking hands with an array of prominent Republican politicians, including President George W. Bush. (Thompson put that photo on his Christmas cards.) Records showed that Thompson had made tens of thousands of dollars in donations to those politicians, despite having no job other than running the charity.
If Thompson was milking the charity’s funds, it was hard to see what he was spending them on other than those campaign donations. He didn’t own a house or car, and his unkempt appearance had more than once caused people to think he was homeless.
Yet he was clearly intelligent and could be quite persuasive, in person or in writing. And people who knew him were often intrigued by his hints that there were secrets in his past, perhaps even connections to intelligence agencies.
Thompson took issue with the newspaper’s investigation, sending threatening letters, refusing to hand over tax records, telling his attorneys to hire a private investigator to look into Testerman’s background — all this before a single story had been published.
By the time “Under the Radar” was in print, Thompson had long since decamped from Ybor City and, after some time in New York City, disappeared.
Call Me Commander tells the rest of the story, recounting the pursuit of Thompson by U.S. Marshals and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation that led all over the country, until they finally caught up with him in 2012 in Portland, Oregon, living in a rented room, walking with a cane and carrying a backpack with three wallets — and three separate sets of ID in different names.
With Thompson in a cell, investigators began the task of figuring out who he really was — a search that led from New Jersey to New Mexico, from Harvard Law School to the Philippines, from a tiny town in Arizona to the White House.
Freed, this book’s co-writer, joined the quest for the truth about Thompson in 2014 while working on an episode of American Greed about the con man. Freed and Testerman met and became friends, with the TV producer sharing his latest finds with the newspaper reporter. Although law enforcement investigators had uncovered a great deal about Thompson and his crimes, there was a gap of about 14 years in the record, from his disappearance from Sierra Vista, Arizona, in 1984 to his re-emergence in Tampa in 1998, and Freed couldn’t let go of it.
Call Me Commander reveals his discoveries, too. Despite its complex story and large cast of characters, the book is clearly written and crisply paced, with a structure that keeps it suspenseful all the way.
But mysteries remain. Thompson is serving a long sentence in an Ohio penitentiary, but he is still writing reams of angry letters and making legal challenges. And although some of the millions he stole from well-meaning donors has been accounted for — from campaign contributions to almost a million dollars found in a Portland storage locker, wrapped in pages of the Tampa Tribune — no one knows where the rest of it went. Except, of course, for the Commander.
Call Me Commander: A Former Intelligence Officer and the Journalists Who Uncovered His Scheme to Fleece America
By Jeff Testerman and Daniel M. Freed
Potomac Books, 464 pages, $34.95