(CLEVELAND) — Opening arguments are scheduled to get underway Monday morning in the trial of a Florida man who vanished after being accused of running a bogus $100 million U.S. Navy veterans charity, and using some of the proceeds for political donations to high-ranking politicians including former President George W. Bush.
The defendant, a mustachioed man who called himself “commander” and who went by the name Bobby Thompson, intends to argue that his charity operation was blessed by the CIA as part of an elaborate plot to court political support, his lawyer says.
Prosecutors say he’s just a con artist with a big imagination.
Thompson has been held on charges of running a sham foundation, of absconding with donations meant for vets, and of hiding under a series of stolen identities as he fled. The trial promises to be the latest dramatic chapter in a saga of intrigue that began to unfold three years ago when questions first surfaced about the U.S. Navy Veterans Association.
Over the past three years, ABC News chronicled Bobby Thompson’s curious case — his abrupt disappearance, the manhunt that led to his capture, and the puzzle that surrounded his identity — a mystery made all the more unsettling by his ability to gain access to the White House for an event with President Bush, and to pose for photographs with political leaders including Sen. John McCain and House Speaker John Boehner.
It was a tale ripped from Hollywood. U.S. Marshals who finally caught him believe Thompson modeled his life after the famous imposter from the blockbuster Catch Me If You Can. A copy of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie was among the few personal possessions he kept at a Portland, Ore., boarding house.
Prosecutors told ABC News they believe when they lay out the case against the man, whose real name was eventually revealed to be John Donald Cody, a jury will find it boils down to a simple set of facts.
“A man that had no other source of income, had no job, no nothing…and as soon as questions are asked, he disappears with a suitcase?” said prosecutor Brad Tammaro of the Ohio Attorney General’s office. “If I don’t have a job other than as a trustee for this charity, and then I end up with a million dollars in a suitcase somewhere, there’s the conclusion right there.”
But Cody’s lawyer says that as the case unfolds in a Cleveland courtroom over the next several weeks, his client plans for the first time to explain the real reason he ran the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, and the true story behind his flight from the law under a series of assumed identities. Defense lawyer Joseph Patituce says his client will explain that the entire enterprise was run with the blessing and financing of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“He’s legitimately some form of American intelligence,” Patituce said, adding that his client is “not a kook.”
Cody’s biography appears to offer hints of past work with the intelligence community — he carries a degree from Harvard Law School and was documented to have done a stint in military intelligence. And when he was ultimately identified by U.S. Marshals, it was in part because he had appeared on an FBI most wanted poster in connection to a decades-old charge of espionage.
The trial will offer Cody the first opportunity to explain how those details from his past tie in to the veterans charity he ran from a Tampa, Fla., townhouse under a false name. Patituce said his client has told him the CIA had blessed the charitable operation as a means of raising money to donate to prominent politicians.
“According to my client, they were starting to look into programs and policies that would help strengthen [the] intelligence community,” Patituce said.
Patituce said his client was also expecting U.S. intelligence officials to bail him out of trouble after U.S. Marshals tracked him down in Portland, Ore., and brought him back to Cleveland to face the state fraud charges.
“He assumed that’s what was going to happen,” Patituce said. “That he would be pulled out of this by the people handling him.”
That is why, the lawyer said, Cody repeatedly refused to identify himself when he was finally captured — signing his name only as “Mr. X” when he was checked into a Cleveland jail.
Prosecutors are, to say the least, skeptical of Cody’s assertions. “I think there’s as much evidence of that as he is a NASA astronaut,” Tamarro said.
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