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Bobby Thompson's true identity revealed

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Published Oct. 12, 2012

The mystery of Bobby Thompson's identity has been resolved.

But the answers just lead to more questions.

Officials with the U.S. Marshals Service announced Monday that the man who used the Thompson alias while running a multimillion-dollar veterans charity from Tampa for nearly a decade is John Donald Cody, a former military intelligence officer who is also a wanted man.

Cody has been on an FBI wanted list, charged with fraud and espionage, since 1987. But authorities so far are not talking about the allegations against him or how he managed to live for decades on the lam.

Federal marshals caught up with him in Portland, Ore., in April after a months-long manhunt that started when Cody — using the name Bobby Thompson — disappeared as authorities closed in on his scam charity. Since being found, he has been sitting in a jail cell in Cleveland, booked in as Mr. X and refusing to divulge his real name.

The link between Cody and the man known as Thompson was made by Pete Elliott, the U.S. marshal for the Northern District of Ohio. After his men tracked Thompson down last spring, Elliott became obsessed with uncovering his identity.

Hoping to discover a clue, Elliott began searching FBI wanted lists, including a list of those wanted for fraud. A couple of weeks ago he did a double-take when he saw an early picture of Cody featured in an online story about fugitives.

On Friday, he learned Cody's fingerprints matched the man he had in custody.

In the early 1980s, Cody was a lawyer in Sierra Vista, Ariz., claiming degrees from the University of Virginia and Harvard Law and a past as an Army Airborne Ranger and intelligence officer.

Harvard confirmed Monday that a John Donald Cody with the same birth date as the fugitive earned a law degree there in 1972.

But for all his sterling credentials, colleagues at the courthouse found Cody to be more than a little strange. He wore outdated bell bottoms and his hair in a pompadour that everyone swore was a wig.

He would spout wild conspiracy theories and once accused county prosecutors of wanting to kill him.

He would bring a big jar of Vaseline into the courtroom, then slather it on his face during presentations.

Margaret Chapman went to work for Cody as a legal assistant in 1982, soon after he started his general law practice in Sierra Vista.

She never saw a Harvard Law diploma on his wall. And the military ID photo he showed her looked a lot like a photo in his high school yearbook.

"He was incredibly smart and fun to talk to," said Chapman, who now lives in California. "But he was just a nut job."

Cody would dictate letters in the middle of the night, telling how he planned to inject methamphetamine in the county attorney's brain. He started sending Chapman to withdraw $5,000 at a time from his bank, in $20 bills.

"That was a lot of money back then," Chapman said. He would lock himself in his office and emerge with white dust on the tip of his nose, she said. Then, out of the blue one day, Cody asked Chapman if she knew anyone who made fake IDs.

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In May 1984, after a judge threatened to cite him for contempt for making false statements, Cody vanished. His orange Corvette was found at the Phoenix airport weeks later, painted blue, keys in the ignition.

Prosecutors initially charged Cody with skimming nearly $100,000 from clients' accounts and trying to get a $25,000 loan in Virginia using false identities, according to news reports recounting his case.

But three years later, in May 1987, a federal warrant was issued for his arrest. In addition to fraud, he was wanted by the FBI for espionage, according to his FBI wanted poster.

Chapman had quit her job about six months before Cody disappeared, leaving his office intact. She said when investigators went through his desk drawers, they found documents showing he had had multiple plastic surgeries while living in the Philippines.

James L. Riley, a former deputy county attorney and retired Cochise County Superior Court judge, said Cody's clients couldn't quite believe the lawyer they loved had walked out on them.

"He had an amazing ability to establish rapport with his clients," Riley said. "They thought he walked on water."

The rumor mill worked overtime when Cody disappeared.

"We wondered if he had irritated a drug lord," Riley said of the speculation. "We figured like Jimmy Hoffa, we'd never find him."

Fast-forward to 1998. A man calling himself Bobby Thompson showed up in Tampa and by 2002 had founded U.S. Navy Veterans Association in a rundown duplex in Ybor City. The charity claimed it had branches nationwide and Thompson told people he was a former military intelligence officer. The charity claimed it collected nearly $100 million in donations over the next eight years. But it funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to conservative political campaigns and did little for veterans.

Thompson, who lived in the other half of the charity's roach-infested duplex, regularly put on a blue blazer to hobnob with top Republicans at pricey dinners. He got his picture taken with Karl Rove, John McCain and twice with President George W. Bush.

A spokesperson for the FBI would not answer questions about Cody. The FBI issued a short statement crediting the U.S. Marshals Service for identifying Cody and stating it would release no further information.

During his high-level hobnobbing, only Thompson knew his charity was a fiction: directors were made up names or stolen identities, "branches" were UPS mail drops.

Even Thompson's name wasn't authentic, but stolen from a man in Washington state. When the Tampa Bay Times published stories in March 2010 exposing the charade, the man known as Thompson vanished.

It was a picture of a young man in a military uniform, flag in the background, that brought an end to the U.S. marshal's Internet searching. The photo, believed to have been taken in 1969, shows a man looking to one side with an odd pompadour on his head. It was one of the FBI's pictures of the fugitive Cody. But to Elliott, the eyes, chin and shape of the face were Thompson's.

Elliott showed the photos to the marshals who found Thompson. They were sure it was a match. Several experts in facial recognition concurred.

Elliott just needed Cody's prints. On Friday, he got them; they had been taken during Cody's years in the military. It is unclear why they had not been included in the FBI's fingerprint database.

Federal authorities told Elliott they believed Cody had disappeared somewhere in the Philippines, where he had once worked as an intelligence officer.

As Elliott waited for proof he had found his man, he kept wondering how to square one of Cody's reputed idiosyncrasies with the man in the Ohio jail.

Cody had told colleagues in Arizona that he had been subjected to radiation poisoning in the Army, damaging his tear ducts and forcing him to constantly use eye drops. Nobody had ever mentioned that trait about Thompson.

But then he spoke to Thompson's landlady in Portland. Among the possessions her tenant left behind were two large, unopened boxes of eye drops.

Information from Times wires was used in this report. John Martin can be reached at or 813-226-3372. Kris Hundley can be reached at or 727-892-2996.