THOMAS J. SHEERAN
CLEVELAND — A fugitive on the run for more than two years has been arrested on accusations that he ran a scam that collected $100 million in donations from people in dozens of states who believed they were helping U.S. Navy veterans, Ohio’s attorney general and the U.S. Marshals Service announced Tuesday.
The man, who uses the false identify of Bobby Thompson, was indicted in Ohio in 2010 on theft, money laundering and other charges related to the Florida-based charity. He disappeared in June 2010. Little, if any, of the money collected by the charity was used to benefit veterans, authorities have said.
Authorities acting on a tip tracked Thompson to a bar in Portland, Ore., on Monday night, followed him home and made the arrest, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said. He had multiple fake ID cards from Canada and a backpack containing cash, DeWine said.
Thompson refused to speak to investigators, authorities said.
At a hearing Tuesday, U.S. District Judge John Acosta of Portland ordered Thompson to be returned to Ohio. Thompson, who limped into the courtroom, spoke frequently with his public defender during an hour-long hearing to establish he was the man authorities were looking for.
DeWine said authorities hope to have the man returned within 10 days to Ohio, where he will be tried in state court in Cleveland. The alleged fraud, which DeWine called “despicable,” spanned 41 states, including up to $2 million in Ohio.
People who contributed gave small amounts, ranging from $5 to $50, DeWine said. “The bulk of this was not huge contributions,” he said. “But these were patriotic Americans who gave money believing that that money was going to help Navy veterans.”
Authorities still don’t know the man’s real name, but investigators uncovered information earlier this year that led them to believe he may have lived recently in New Mexico.
Ohio investigators also tracked Thompson through Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Washington and West Virginia.
Elliott said Thompson fled New England the day after an episode about his case aired on “America’s Most Wanted” in March 2011.
The arrest closes a search dating back several years and involving a Tampa, Fla.-based charity known as the U.S. Navy Veterans Association.
The charity’s former legal counsel said she long accepted Thompson’s explanations for irregularities in the group’s financial records, but ultimately changed her mind after flying to Tampa two years ago where Blanca Contreras, another agency official, denied her access to many records. Thompson was gone by then, Helen Mac Murray said.
“He was a very brilliant man,” said Mac Murray, of New Albany in suburban Columbus. “He had an answer for any questions that popped up about any kind of irregularity.”
Mac Murray said she took her concerns to the attorneys general of Ohio and Florida and the FBI in 2010 and has been cooperating ever since. She says she is not a suspect of the investigation. Cleveland-based U.S. Marshal Pete Elliott confirmed her cooperation.
Mac Murray said she last saw Thompson at a board meeting in New York City in June 2010. She doesn’t know what Thompson was doing in Oregon, although he had frequently mentioned contacts he had there and in New Mexico. She also doesn’t know who he really is or what is name is.
“He lied to all of us,” she said.
Contreras of Tampa, Fla., was sentenced to five years in prison last year for her role in the scam. Contreras had pleaded guilty to theft, money laundering and other charges related to allegations she handled nearly $475,000 in Ohio donations for the charity.
Former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray had also investigated Thompson and had worked with the Hamilton County prosecutor’s office on an arrest warrant issued from Cincinnati, where in 2003 the man set up a UPS mailbox to collect donations for the association.
Authorities say the real Thompson, a Choctaw who worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, wasn’t connected to the association and had his identity, including his Social Security number and date of birth, stolen.
The association made a few sporadic contributions that benefited veterans, but public records show the man behind it contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to political candidates around the country, Cordray said in 2010. Authorities didn’t know the motives for those contributions, he said.
Cordray’s office froze the association’s bank accounts and drop boxes and ordered it to stop operations in Ohio.