Hiding in Plain Site
“The paramount mission of the United States Secret Service—protecting the President and other high-ranking national officials—allows no tolerance for error. A single miscue, or even a split-second delay, could have disastrous consequences for the Nation and the world.”— U.S. Secret Service Protective Mission Panel, Dec. 15, 2014
Secret Service agents watched every step as Lt. Commander Bobby Thompson sauntered up to the White House security checkpoint, hiding a limp under his undeniable swagger. Taking several deep breaths to quiet his nerves, he was thankful his double-breasted suit concealed the sweat that by now had to be showing through his light-blue dress shirt. He tried to act casual as he handed his ID to the Secret Service agent standing at the counter, while a second agent pecked quietly on a computer nearby.
Thompson had every reason in the world to be scared. He knew he was wanted for espionage, not to mention a string of frauds. And the ID he had just handed to the agent showed a name that wasn’t who he was; it was a stolen identity.
On the other hand, there were no crimes connected to the name Bobby Thompson. At least, not yet. It happened to be one of the many stolen identities he had claimed through his years as a professional chameleon. And frankly, it was the identity he liked the best. It wouldn’t have taken much to figure out that the “Lt. Commander” was a fraud. The only thing real on this ID was that the state of Florida issued it.
The birthday of Feb. 21, 1946, and the Social Security number were indeed connected to a Bobby Thompson. But there was no way the guy standing in front of the Secret Service agents was only 5 feet 7 inches tall, as the ID said. The real Bobby Thompson couldn’t reach 5 feet 11 inches unless he was wearing four-inch disco platform boots or stretched his arms out of their sockets.
If anyone had bothered to look, they would easily see that the man standing in front of them wasn’t the right Bobby Thompson.
Just a simple look back through Bobby Thompson’s history in some law enforcement databases should have made them do a double-take. These databases give agents the ability to look back years; they can see a hairdo captured in a driver’s license photo that you would rather forget or the license photos where you weighed a tad more than you wanted.
Both Bobby Thompsons were claiming the same Social Security number and date of birth but lived on opposite sides of the country, which should have raised the alarm. The real Bobby Thompson was 100 percent Native American—a Choctaw, whose caramel-colored skin was handed down through generations. This impostor claiming to be Thompson had pasty white skin and grew up in New Jersey. The real Bobby Thompson had an address on the West Coast and a full-time job working at a casino in the Seattle area. The man trying to enter the White House listed Tampa, Florida, as his home and claimed to be running the U.S. Navy Veterans Association full-time.
Two men can’t legally share the same name, birthday, and Social Security number. Though they can have two homes, they can’t physically work at two different jobs on opposite ends of the country at the same time. The problem was, no one even asked the fake Bobby Thompson about the discrepancies.
Getting into the White House was almost too easy—and this made the fake Bobby even more nervous.
If the Secret Service had taken the time to check military records, they could have stopped the White House visit before it ever started. They would have quickly found that the Navy didn’t have a record of any living lieutenant commander with the name Bobby Thompson. There were plenty of Bob, Bobby, or Robert Thompsons who served in the Navy, but none at that rank at that time.
There is no way this man should be allowed into the White House’s inner sanctum. But if no one caught on to those clues, Thompson was free and clear to continue his masquerade.
He took a shallow breath to slow down his heart rate. He didn’t want to be the reason someone would become suspicious. At the time, of course, Thompson was only guessing at what may be showing on the Secret Service agent’s screen. He couldn’t be sure what was on there; the only portion of the computer he could see was the cords hanging off the back. The agents’ steady, unemotional gaze, gave no clue whether Thompson’s cover would be blown in front of all the dignitaries.
That would be the worst part. He would almost rather be shot than humiliated among people who were barely his intellectual equals. These Secret Service agents were glorified security guards. He may have taken a deceptive route to get there, but he belonged more than they did.
He tried not to telegraph his emotions. Even if they could discover the ruse, would they take the time at that moment to withhold entrance to a big presidential donor such as he? Yet he couldn’t completely squash fears that information on the screen would alert them to his charade. That’s when he realized that it didn’t matter at this point. He was just a few dozen yards from the White House, and Secret Service agents were at every exit. He had to be all in, and now, all he had to do was follow through.
Drawing another deep breath, he turned to his plus one, Grace Glatstein. The two had only been out a few times, and she wasn’t attracted to him anywhere near the way he was to her. But she was thrilled to be there. Her admiration for President George W. Bush ran deep. Deep enough that she was willing to go on one more date because this was a visit to the Oval Office.
Glatstein stood next to Thompson at the screening counter, and smiled broadly, oblivious to Bobby’s fears and his scams. She happily anticipated the impending meeting with President Bush. Thompson started one of his common soliloquies about his political views. It was something he couldn’t stop himself from doing, nor could anyone else. He wasn’t looking for deep conversion; it was an intended ruse to pass the time since it seemed the second hand on a clock was drumming in slow motion in his head. The security check took only minutes before agents handed back the IDs to Bobby and Grace. The agents said they could move on and directed them toward the White House.
Bobby strolled down the narrow halls leading to the Oval Office, exchanging greetings with and smiling at staff members as he walked by. Maybe they were just cordial, but some appeared to know him. They may have been told that he was a retired Navy lieutenant commander, the driving force behind a nonprofit group called the U.S. Navy Veterans Association.
The association claimed to be everything a benevolent, patriotic American would want: a grassroots organization, staffed by volunteers, who gave tirelessly to thousands of American troops and veterans yearly. That’s what Bobby claimed, though it wasn’t remotely true. But for ten years, Bobby Thompson collected donations through his shell organization, and no one was wise to the fact that the association was a sham.
Association “directors” in 41 states were fake, the state headquarters were nothing more than mailbox locations, and even the 60,000-plus members were pure fabrication. The only thing that was real was the money: donors’ contributions that Thompson strategically slid into the hands of politicians.
These generous and seemingly endless donations gave him access to any Republican leader worth knowing at the dawn of the 21st century. And there were many. Thompson attended parties with U.S. senators, dined with leading congressional officials, drank with governors, and gave generously to those considered up and coming in the Republican Party.
No matter where he went, Thompson always stood out. Some people, feigning politeness, would claim it was Bobby’s quirky nature. It was because Bobby didn’t look like the face of a successful national charity. He was usually a mess, literally, from head to toe. He sported a pompadour, the same hairstyle he had used since the 1960s. It was disheveled in the front, with a straggly mullet in the back that looked like he hadn’t combed it for days.
His attire was no better. His clothes were often wrinkly, unkempt, and in some cases, dirty. He often appeared as if he slept in his clothes, partied too hard in them the night before—or both. Thompson looked that way at every political gathering, but his visit to the Oval Office was different. This time, he wanted to look as though he belonged.
He chose a red silk tie and tied it into a reasonably decent knot, though it was crooked already, and it was only late afternoon. The tie stood out beautifully against his freshly pressed light-blue dress shirt, a shirt that would have been appropriate in every way if he only would have bothered to button it all the way up. Instead, he left a gaping, unbuttoned neckline, which made him look more like he was ending his day, not starting it. His grey suit was undoubtedly new, made of a fine thread, and absent any blemishes. The final touches were two pins on his left lapel, one of an American flag, and the other a purple heart ribbon, proving there was no end to how far he was willing to take this façade.
Couples moved in and out of the White House gathering. He might nod,
but Thompson didn’t know anyone. It was Oct. 21, 2008, the presidential election was just two weeks away, and he was waiting for “George” to arrive. Democrat Barack Obama was favored as the front-runner over Republican John McCain, meaning that this historic and powerful office could be about to go to the other side. President Bush had done his share of fundraising across the country for the Republican Party and was now thanking a few exclusive donors by inviting them to the Oval Office.
The official record at the Presidential Library doesn’t mention any of this; the log for this date and time shows an almost empty box with only the notation of “b(6),” meaning that details would be “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” 1 President Bush walked in as if he was meeting old friends. He greeted each individually, then gave a short collective welcome before sharing some history about the White House and taking questions.
The president was witty and welcoming, and Glatstein couldn’t take her eyes off him. She said she had long been a supporter, and it seemed surreal to be standing so close that she became entranced. So much so, that she momentarily forgot about her date. Thompson had moved behind her and was getting into position, waiting for the right moment. As a natural break formed in the conversation, he sprang out like a cat and did what many political opponents only dream of doing: He struck the president.
Or more accurately, he socked the president in the arm. The president, of course, is a man any visitors are firmly instructed not to touch. And Thompson had just socked the arm reserved for extending American greetings to world leaders. President Bush just smiled. Glatstein said she couldn’t move. To say she was stunned doesn’t quite cut it. Sure, the president had been on a first-name basis with Thompson that night. And it was clear Bobby was trying to further endear himself to 43, but this was not some backyard barbeque with the neighbors. You can’t strike the commander in chief, unless, of course, you are the fake Lt. Commander Bobby Thompson with grandiose delusions.
Glatstein turned to catch the eye of the closest Secret Service agent. She wouldn’t have been surprised if Thompson was about to be tackled to the floor. Surprisingly, at this soiree, a playful jab in the president’s arm from such a mega-donor didn’t seem to matter. The Secret Service agents didn’t budge. That evening at the White House would trigger an adrenaline and endorphin cocktail that would last for months. Bobby Thompson felt invincible. He had outsmarted the whole damn Secret Service bureau, and if no one stopped him going into the White House, who was going to stop him from anything?
That White House euphoria was gone now. John Donald Cody, the man who had claimed to be Bobby Thompson, shuffled to take a seat at the defense table and learn his fate. It was Nov. 15, 2013, barely five years after he reached the peak of his criminal game by entering the White House with a false ID. His limp was far more dramatic than it had been in the White House, though in fairness, the shackles and handcuffs he wore didn’t allow for a lot of room to move gracefully. For added insurance, an Ohio deputy sheriff remained at his side, ensuring that Cody’s leash was kept short.
His trademark pompadour was now flat from missing several days of showering. His arrogant demeanor and the stacks of binders he used as a wall between him and the witnesses were gone. A nearly empty table gave jurors an even clearer view of the unmistakable welt on Cody’s forehead. The wound was self-inflicted after repeatedly bashing his head on the wall of his holding cell just on the other side of the courtroom wall.
The trial had been one-sided from the start, even he could see it. And that little tantrum came after weeks of testimony against him. The prosecutor put one witness after another on center stage, giving a CliffsNotes version of how Cody carried out the scam.
It was weeks of testimony that could be boiled down into a few key highlights he carried out under the name Bobby Thompson. St. Petersburg Times reporter Jeff Testerman told jurors how he discovered the scam almost by accident. He was doing a story about a local politician who lied about his military service and just wanted a simple quote from the national charity based there in Tampa. Instead of outrage, Bobby Thompson defended the officeholder. That was nuts. A veterans group defending a military imposter? Certainly, other USNVA directors had to feel differently. The problem was, Testerman soon discovered he couldn’t find any. No one else existed.
The USNVA’s former lawyer then went on to tell jurors how Bobby bragged about his national contacts and how he made sure the U.S. Navy Veterans Association avoided states that did audits. Victims took the stand as well, including the real Bobby Thompson. He recalled looking at his credit reports and finding oddities, including one account in his name that he had never opened, and it had thousands of dollars. The money wasn’t his. Yet, it was clear his information had been used for this bank account. It wasn’t difficult for him to surmise someone was using his identity.
Then there was Ronnie Brittain. The New Mexico man’s deposition had to be video-taped because he was too ill to travel to Ohio. At the time the deposition was taken, Cody was representing himself. (Bobby said no lawyer could provide him with a better defense. The judge disagreed and later insisted on representation.) Having Bobby ask questions for a deposition of a man whose identity he allegedly stole was beyond odd. It was clear his questions were trying to insist that no harm had been done. He asked if Brittain had lost any money because of the identity theft. Brittain snapped back. He didn’t. However, the use of his name and information was wrong, adding with a stern “it’s not funny.”
To seal Bobby’s fate, forensic accountants told jurors how they reviewed receipts of millions in donations given to the charity, yet they couldn’t find any relief given to veterans. There were just hundreds of thousands of dollars transferred from the USNVA accounts over to Bobby’s.
Even when Bobby’s defense attorney, Joseph Patituce, was given a chance to provide the defendant’s side of the story, it remained a one-sided show. That’s because the attorney didn’t call one witness to the stand—not a single person who could refute any of the claims. Not even Bobby—despite Patituce’s opening statement that he would testify.
All that is what led to Cody’s welt. It was the point in his life where his cocky arrogance finally collided with frustration and fear.
As he sat alone, waiting in the holding cell outside the courtroom, Cody slammed his head against the wall. Then he did it again and again until blood flowed down his face, and deputies restrained him. Cody later explained to the court it was a suicide attempt; the judge saw it more like an attempted stall tactic. Whatever the goal, it failed miserably.
In all, the jurors sat through more than 40 witnesses giving a play-by-play account of the scam. It was so damning that when the judge asked them to deliberate, it didn’t take long—less than three hours, to be exact, for the jury to decide that the U.S. Navy Veterans Association was a scam and Cody, aka Bobby Thompson, its puppeteer. He was found guilty on every count of money laundering, identity theft, and engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity. He sat uncharacteristically quiet as the judge read all 22 charges.
At least briefly, this charitable tragedy caught national attention. The newspaper that sparked the criminal investigation had its stories shared in papers all over the country. The man credited with creating a phony charity and pocketing millions is on his way to prison after Bobby Thompson eluded authorities for years. Both TV and print reporters seemed to value the news.
An Ohio judge today sentenced the mastermind of a $100 million charity scam, who had become a major Republican campaign donor, to 28 years in prison. Even trade press such as The Chronicle of Philanthropy joined in highlighting the coverage. An Ohio jury has found the former longtime fugitive known as “Bobby Thompson” guilty of operating a nationwide scam that bilked $100 million from donors who believed they were helping U.S. veterans.
The crime spree had the making of a great movie: A skilled con artist has the FBI, U.S. marshals, Secret Service, and IRS taking turns chasing him for more than 25 years while he carried out scams in plain sight. Cody liked to think of himself as someone akin to the famed fraudster, Frank Abagnale, in Catch Me If You Can. But if Cody’s life were a full-length film, the trial would appear around the halfway mark when the credits suddenly would begin to roll.
From my perspective, the nation considered the story over before anyone asked the really hard questions. Where did the money go, and how did he do it?
I had been part spectator, part participant through at least part of this saga. When news of the scam first broke, I was an investigator with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. I was assigned to help track Bobby Thompson until officials realized one state couldn’t do it alone; Ohio subpoenas would stall in other states until Ohio had a local judge force them to comply. It’s not an effective way to capture a slick fraudster on the run.
That’s also when I moved over to hunting for the missing money instead. I had tallied more than 50 bank accounts linked to the scam before another opportunity in life came calling. I left the AG’s office before Cody was convicted but continued to follow every development along the way. I was like a little gnat to those still working the case, relentlessly buzzing around to see what would happen next. It wasn’t long after the trial, though, when the response I got time and again was “nothing.”
Once Cody was behind bars, no one had time or interest in ferreting out any more details of this story. The U.S. marshals who arrested Bobby Thompson had to go back to hunting the thousands of other wanted criminals who were late for prison. And if the Secret Service had ever been curious to learn how someone got by them with a stolen identity, it no longer seemed to matter.
Nor could I find any evidence that any agency had investigated why Bobby Thompson’s fingerprints were not in a national database. Even state governments that once wanted Bobby held accountable for scamming their veterans had decided that what Ohio did was good enough. After all, Bobby was 66 years old when the court sentenced him to 28 years in prison. It was a virtual guarantee he would spend the rest of his life behind bars. Why bother with another trial?
Even Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, Cordray’s successor, wasn’t interested in taking the case any further, despite his prosecutor previously saying he may want to go after others such as Karmika Rubin, a law-school graduate who spent years helping Bobby carry out the scam.
Although the man who claimed to be Bobby Thompson was sitting in an Ohio prison with at least some answers to these mysteries, getting anything out of him would be an obstacle. He was not exactly gabby when it came to talking about his charges. Several cops and agents tried to interview him, but Cody just sat there. And reporters didn’t even have a chance to try; the Ohio prison system wasn’t allowing Cody to accept interviews, even if he was willing.
There were, at least, glimpses into Cody’s thought process as he began filing his appeals. These mostly handwritten tirades were part legal theory and part rambling opinion. According to Cody: This was not a theft. The USNVA was orchestrated and run by the (George W.) Bush administration. It was all part of their efforts to raise support for the War on Terror. Bobby was the ID he was given by the CIA in his role as a nonofficial cover.
As an investigative journalist at heart, the notion of Bobby Thompson being CIA or the government sponsoring this scheme seemed ludicrous to me. If the CIA—or any intelligence agency, for that matter—wanted to rally support in the fight against terrorism, why would they utilize a liar like John Donald Cody? I always thought spies were supposed to blend in and go unnoticed. Unless this was a way to hide him in plain sight, this was the man who stuck out in political crowds with his unkempt mullet and bizarre behavior. This just made no sense.
Still, I at least wanted to hear about his claims. In my opinion, John Donald Cody was a skilled liar, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t tell the truth from time to time. The difficulty, of course, would be in separating fact from fiction. I wrote to him a few times after his conviction and waited for a response that I thought might never come.
When he did reply, I wasn’t surprised when he said he recognized my name as an investigator in the case file and had no interest in dealing with anyone who may have helped in putting him behind bars. Nothing good ever comes easy. As a former newspaper reporter known for investigations who only got involved in the case after landing a special investigative role at the Ohio attorney general’s office, he was presenting the kind of challenge I relish.
The case was already becoming an obsession because no one seemed to care. It became a puzzle I couldn’t put down. The first piece that raised a flag for me was if the FBI wanted to arrest John Donald Cody—a known identification thief who was wanted for questioning in an espionage case so secret the FBI wouldn’t comment—why hadn’t they put his fingerprints in the national database? No prints in the system almost ensured no one would ever catch John Donald Cody.
The second piece was the equivalent of the proverbial elephant in the room. We want our U.S. military to defend us at all costs, yet when Thompson defrauded the veterans on a massive scale, no one wanted to help them learn who was to blame?
That left the veritable coup de grace of national security. The White House purportedly is one of the most secure buildings in the world, yet the Secret Service couldn’t discern a stolen ID from a legitimate one? Its clear Secret Service looked at Bobby’s ID at the White House checkpoint. He didn’t look anything like the person he claimed. Grace Glatstein saw it. What went wrong? This lack of scrutiny raised the questions had Secret Service agents been lazy and didn’t notice the wildly different physical descriptions for the same man, or was Bobby’s entrance into the White House indicative that politics can override the customary White House security checks?
Neither the Bush archives or the Secret Service would provide any records concerning Bobby’s visit. I interviewed dozens of state and federal investigators for the book, and the general consensus was that politics was to blame. Many explained their rationale this way: Secret Service agents are men and women who are willing to die, protecting the president. It seems illogical that they would, by choice, gloss over the background checks of presidential guests; such carelessness would put everyone in the White House at risk. These outsiders surmised that not looking too deeply, had to be a directive.
Whatever the reason that Security Agent’s missed Bobby’s stolen ID, how can the Secret Service guarantee that this oversight won’t happen again? Bobby Thompson playfully punched the president in the arm, but what would the next con artist try?
That is, of course, why any missteps of the Secret Service are usually heavily dissected. The stability of our country depends on it. The press had a field day in 2009 after Tareq Salahi and his former wife Michaele Salahi made it through two checkpoints to join a White House state dinner in honor of India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hosted by Barack and Michelle Obama. They, of course, had not been invited. The couple had time to pose for pictures before the error was recognized, and they were escorted out.
The incident understandably prompted a full federal review. So why would a suspected spy who got into the Oval Office with a fake ID and while wanted for questioning in espionage not merit the same type of review?
I wanted to get Cody to talk to me, but to do so, I knew I had to pique his interest. I followed up with one question on an otherwise blank page: By now, he realized his fatal flaw, didn’t he? I had no interest in providing the answer just yet, but it at least sparked a conversation that evolved into face-to-face interviews starting in early 2018.
It turns out; John Donald Cody did have a lot to say. His letters, though, were largely limited to a few central themes: he was innocent; he did everything at the request of the CIA; the case against him was nothing more than “fabricated charges;” and he was a great American patriot who loves his country.
When Cody writes, he is never that succinct. He wrote his themes and delivered them in long-winded tirades that were difficult to follow and often contradicted previous statements. “I am CIA to the core,” he wrote in 2018. The Ohio Attorney General’s Offices says, “I lie to misrepresent the relationship of my government to my mission. By definition, that includes lying about my identity.” However, it is the prosecutor, attorney general, U.S. Marshals and others who “own some other notion of what ‘country’ means in the criminal courts. (Lying) is the least of the Machiavellian things I would do for my country.”
The letters sent over several years also offered different explanations for the same events. For example, he repeatedly said his work with the USNVA was directed by the CIA, but then another time he seemed to blame the Republican party. “I can be enraptured pretty fast into believing I was entering the “CIA’s Deep NOC’ program when in fact I was working for them, the Republican party, (and paid fairly well, on average), ” he wrote in a letter, while adding a footnote. If Republicans did trick him, he wants them to know he is not bitter.
However, he is just a little bitter that the CIA hasn’t bailed him out. Mostly, though, the letters were a maze of tangents that were difficult to follow. “I, too, regret that I have only one life to lose for my country, but if I am killed, as it appears is only a question of time, in this hellhole of an Ohio prison by the representatives of the State of Ohio, especially its Democratic Party machine and its minions the thus who put me here, and keep me here, in order to suit their version of “their” country, “their” state, “their (sic) Government and most certain of all their careers, then I die with the same smile on my face that I know (Nathan) Hale had on his, because, and they should personally make no mistake about it, whether they or their society care or not, just as Hale’s war was not ever over with his death, neither will mine be. That’s the only reason for laughing at the gallows and the thing that gives every true patriot spine.”
Cody is referring to Revolutionary War soldier Nathan Hale, who is often credited with the line “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” though some historians point out there is no proof he actually said that. It is clear, though, Cody saw similarities with Hale. Both were American soldiers. And both were spies. What he leaves out, though, is that is where the similarities end.
Hale’s story has always been straight forward: He crossed enemy lines to be a spy for the colonists and send back intelligence; the British discovered and executed him. Cody, on the other hand, revels in mystery. In fact, his intent seems to want to keep people guessing about what exactly happened. His attitude seemed aptly summed up in one sentence he wrote to me about his defense: “As with the CIA in general, anything is and everything is reasonably in doubt.”
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