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U.S. Navy Veterans Association charity fraud trial ends with Bobby Thompson guilty on all counts

CLEVELAND — He claimed to be a retired Naval commander and raised more than $100 million from generous Americans for his charity in Tampa.

He told his lawyer he got funding for U.S. Navy Veterans Association from a "black box" CIA budget and said in court filings that he was working under "non-official cover" for the agency.

But in the end, a jury here decided that Bobby Thompson, 66, was less James Bond and more run-of-the-mill con man. On Thursday, they convicted him on 23 counts of fraud, money laundering and theft in a charity scam first brought to light by a Tampa Bay Times investigation in 2010.

Facing a minimum 10-year sentence, it is likely the defendant, whose real name is John Donald Cody, will spend the rest of his life in an Ohio prison.

Thompson, looking gaunt but emotionless, was handcuffed by a sheriff's deputy after the first guilty verdict was read at 9:15 a.m. Standing next to his court-appointed lawyer in a black suit from Goodwill, he did not flinch as the judge read page after page of guilty findings.

The jury's decision — reached late Wednesday but announced Thursday morning — came as little surprise to spectators. After a six-week trial and more than 100 exhibits, the 12 jurors deliberated only three hours.

While the prosecution called more than 40 witnesses to testify that Thompson ran a sham charity, siphoned donations for personal use and stole more than a dozen identities, his court-appointed attorney called none.

And despite his attorney saying that his client would speak in his own defense, at the last minute, Thompson declined to take the stand. His attorney offered no closing argument.

After the verdict, juror Andre Price, 40, said the panel was waiting for "one little thing" from the defense to counter the mountain of evidence from the state against Thompson. After the defendant declined to take the stand and his attorney offered no closing argument, Price said the message was clear. "You guys have nothing to give us."

In response to the verdict, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine issued a release saying, "There is no defense for the scam that John Donald Cody pulled on Americans in the name of our country's veterans."

The case's prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Brad Tammaro, declined to comment. But before court was convened, the prosecution team, anticipating victory, passed out doughnuts and sang Happy Birthday to the bailiff.

Defense attorney Joseph Patituce said, "I'm disappointed, but I think the jury did their job."

He declined to say what if any comments his client had on the verdict, though Patituce said Thompson fully expected the outcome.

Price, an Army veteran from Cleveland, said Thompson came across as smart but arrogant. When he saw the nearly $1 million found in the defendant's possession when he was arrested, he wondered how much belonged to hard-working Ohioans who had donated to Navy Veterans.

"I know I'm going to do some investigating before I give to a charity," Price said.

Another juror, Traci Onders, 44, said the turning point in the trial for her was when the real Bobby Thompson — a Washington state man whose identity was hijacked for years — took the stand. "We had heard the name so much, seeing him made us realize this could happen to you," she said.

Nor was Onders affected by Thompson's disheveled appearance in the final days of the trial.

"It was disgusting," she said of seeing the defendant in court with his shirt unbuttoned and hair in disarray during the last two days of the trial. And when Thompson refused to take the stand after his attorney said he would, Onders said, "obviously it was hard to believe him."

Nor was she impressed with the enlarged photos on a poster board showing Thompson shaking hands with President George W. Bush. "It showed you can pay big bucks to get close to politicians," Onders said.

The judge scheduled sentencing for Dec. 16 and ordered a mental health assessment for Thompson. He banged his head against the holding cell bars a week ago, raising a red welt still visible on Thursday.

Patituce said he expects — and has advised — his client to appeal the verdict on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. Thompson had represented himself until about a month before trial when he decided to turn the case over to Patituce.

"Given the amount of time I had to prepare, to get out subpoenas and call experts, the verdict was no surprise," said Patituce, who will not be handling Thompson's appeal.

The verdict caps a three-year Ohio effort to hold Thompson accountable for operating Navy Veterans, which investigators found gave little assistance to vets. Though the state of Florida filed criminal charges against Thompson in mid 2010, it didn't pursue them once he fled the state.

During the trial, the prosecutor portrayed Thompson as a master of deception. A former Army military intelligence officer, the defendant is a Harvard-trained lawyer who became a fugitive in 1984 after being accused of stealing from a client's estate. As Cody, he had been on the FBI's most wanted list since 1987.

Among many facets of its case, the state used bank records to show how Thompson and two cohorts, Blanca Contreras and Karmika Rubin, used ATM withdrawals and checks to pull donations from Navy Veterans' accounts for their personal use, grounds for the money laundering charges.

Contreras pleaded guilty to charges for her involvement and is serving a five-year sentence in an Ohio prison. The prosecutor has said in court documents that he plans to indict Rubin, a lawyer in Hernando County, for her role.

"Every single dime vanished," Tammaro said.

But perhaps nothing in the trial was as damaging to the defendant as the pile of fake IDs also found in a storage unit rented by Thompson.

Jurors saw photos of driver's licenses, permanent resident cards, Social Security cards and employee badges bearing a dozen different names but each bearing a photo of the same man: Bobby Thompson.

The prosecutor called witness after witness who said they had no idea how the defendant got their names, birth dates and Social Security numbers.

Some of those duped by Thompson's charity scam were glad to hear the case was over.

Kathleen G. Davis was head of the Long Beach, Calif., chapter of England's Royal Naval Association in 2007 when Thompson became an associate member and donated $200 to the group.

"We heard he traveled all over the country and met with the president," said Davis, 93, who got Christmas cards showing Thompson shaking hands with President Bush. "We thought he was somebody."

Now Davis says she's "very bitterly disappointed" with Thompson. "I hope he serves his time," she said. "Otherwise I wouldn't put it past him to cook up something else."