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How Investigators Convicted a Charity-Fraud Scammer

Officials use fingerprints to connect John Donald Cody to his crimes

spinner image Episode 34 - The FBI's most wanted veteran's charity scammer part 3"

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Full Transcript


[00:00:01] Will Johnson: This week on AARP - The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:03] I think this, is my, what I truly believe, 75% of this has been uncovered. There's still another 25% out there that I just don't know.

[00:00:13] When I saw the case and I, I saw the degree to what he was doing, and the fact that he chose to victimize veterans, the, the prosecution as one of the most satisfying ones that I participated in.

[00:00:26] Will Johnson: Welcome back to AARP - The Perfect Scam. I'm Will Johnson your host. I'm here with my co-host, AARP's Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale. And we're going to talk about Bobby Thompson again, Part 3 of this story.

[00:00:37] Frank Abagnale: All right, sounds great

[00:00:37] Will Johnson: A lot of this story and Bobby Thompson who, as we learned last week, was caught after setting up this fake charity and then going on the run, a lot of this story we'll find out has to do with fingerprints and what's in the system, what's not in the system. It's pretty surprising in this day and age almost for someone not to have their fingerprints like in a database somewhere. I mean I know if I go to my kids' school and volunteer, you get fingerprints these days.

[00:00:58] Frank Abagnale: Well this is true, and this is what happened with me when the FBI was chasing me. Uh, they knew I was doing all this. My fingerprints were left everywhere, but they didn't know who I really was. They, everyone described me as being 30 or older when I was probably 18 or 19, and uh the FBI would check those fingerprints, but they realized there were no prints. And that's what I think originally raised suspicion for Joe Shay who started to say, how could this be a 30-year-old? Obviously, an American male, he's not a foreigner, who's never been fingerprinted? Fingerprinted for the draft, fingerprinted for a job, uh, so that's when he started to realize, maybe I'm not chasing a 30-year-old, maybe I'm chasing somebody a lot younger than that and has never been uh fingerprinted. So that was the exact thing that came in my case that took them awhile to figure out.

[00:01:46] Will Johnson: And fingerprint technology, I mean I guess if anything, we just have a, a, a vast database now of a lot of people living and no longer living. And their fingerprints, it's probably not changed though over the years, right? You still have to go dust and do all that stuff, right?

[00:02:01] Frank Abagnale: Yes, and the fingerprint center which the FBI has is in West Virginia, called CJIS, and basically, um, they have the prints of everyone that's ever been fingerprinted, whether by city police, county police, where they applied for a job, background checks, etc. When you are picking fingerprints, what's difficult is, it's not just as simple as getting prints, because if you press down too hard, if it's not a clear print, it's hard to get a match, sometimes you might just have one print, you don't have a match to the other prints, so but yes, most people today that would be anywhere in their, uh late 20s or so would probably have been fingerprinted for some reason along the way.

[00:02:41] Will Johnson: And I'm always amazed when I'm watching like a crime show and they're dusting for fingerprints, which they still do, right? That's how it's done?

[00:02:46] Frank Abagnale: Right, yeah.

[00:02:47] Will Johnson: Still seems rather, maybe archaic, but that's, that's how it's done, but the idea that you can find one person's fingerprint on a doorknob when there might be, you know, 75 different sets of fingerprints, it's pretty amazing how they're able to find with that.

[00:03:00] Frank Abagnale: And what's even more amazing than that, is that the FBI laboratory in Quantico is the DNA of all of these people, so you find just a little hair, or maybe you find something on the sweater, or something that belonged to someone, and you can go back years later and find out and match that DNA to someone.

[00:03:17] Will Johnson: All right, well let's how the absence of fingerprints actually plays a, a big role in the identification of Capt. Bobby Thompson


[00:03:25] Will Johnson: After being on the run for almost two years, US Marshals finally caught up with Thompson at a bar in Portland, Oregon. Two years earlier, a warrant had been issued for his arrest with charges that he set up a fake, Navy veteran charity and stole close to $100 million along the way from unwitting donors. Agents have their man. What they didn't have was his true identity. His fingerprints didn't turn up a match, and he would sign documents only as Mr. X. So who was this strange man who had been photographed with Presidents and politicians and who seemed to know his way around complicated legal arguments? A man who went on the run and lived quietly in a boarding house but had $1 million stashed away in a storage locker. And what about the millions of dollars that his fake charity raised? Where had it all gone? Pete Elliott, the US Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio led the hunt for Thompson. For him, the case was only half solved.

[00:04:18] Pete Elliott: We uh, brought him back to Ohio, and um, you know flew him back to Ohio, so we got those fingerprints back, nothing in the file. We actually sent those fingerprints up to Interpol and the Canadian, Royal Mounted Canadian Police to run those fingerprints, and we still got nothing back on him. It bugged me, personally, um, you know, we've got tons of cases here and a lot of things to look at, a lot of cold cases to look at, but this is one that kind of just bugged me because one thing about Bobby Thompson, um, according to all those that knew him, he always had to be the smartest person in that room.

[00:04:56] Will Johnson: Something about that arrogance got to Elliott, and he wasn't giving up.

[00:05:00] Pete Elliott: About uh, six months later it was, after he was brought back here to Cuyahoga County, you know, I just started, been in this a long time and again, people are a creature of habit, so I just started Googling. I Googled things like um, you know military fugitives that were um, indicted but not arrested, because I always felt that Bobby Thompson was somebody that was probably in the military at some point, right, he had to be some kind of connection to the military, something that made him feel comfortable, um, over the period of time, and I thought he was probably somebody that was indicted and not arrested, because remember, if you're arrested, you can, your fingerprints are put into a national system.

[00:05:44] Will Johnson: What Pete Elliott finds next gets his heart racing. He remembers the day and the date.

[00:05:49] Pete Elliott: This is on a Friday afternoon, it was actually on a September 7th, you know, I found this website that was the 10 most intriguing white collar criminals by Business Insider. And I'm looking and halfway down the page, I forget what number he was, was a wanted poster of an individual named John Donald Cody. And I looked at the photographs of John Donald Cody who was wanted since 1986 on a similar type of scam, bilking people out of money, he was also wanted for you know questioning in connection with a, a espionage investigation. And the photograph at the far left of Mr. John Donald Cody, the hairstyle was exactly the same to me as Bobby Thompson's.

[00:06:37] Will Johnson: Pete keeps at it, and he finds that the details on Cody's wanted poster match up with Thompson. Height, same. Hair color and eyes, same. Approximate age and date of birth, same. He also learns that John Donald Cody had been an attorney. It's at that moment that things really start to click. Over the course of the six months since Thompson's arrest, Pete Elliott stayed in touch with Celia Moore, the woman who owned the boarding house where Thompson had been living.

[00:07:03] Celia Moore: One morning my phone rang, and this guy said, "Hi, this is Pete Elliott. I'm head of the US Marshal Service in the Northern District of Ohio. Would you talk with me about this Don Morsette you've had there?" I said, "Sure, what do you want to know?" And "does, does he have a college degree? Do you think he's smart? Do you think he's stupid?" I said, "No, I thought he was smart, I thought he was educated, and he seemed to know a little bit of other foreign languages." He just kept asking all these strange questions and I would answer them. And one day, and he'd hang up. He'd have to go, you know, he'd have a meeting or something, and he'd say, "I'll call you back later." And then he called the next day. And we kept doing this day after day after day.

[00:07:39] Will Johnson: Now with Cody's photograph in front of him, those conversations start to fall into place.

[00:07:44] Pete Elliott: And one of the things she said to me, um, was that you know, she felt he had some kind of law experience because he knew right where to run to the computer after an argument one time and, and find that, uh law. And you know here Mr. John Donald Cody was the top of his Har--, uh Harvard Law School class, and attorney, um, and another thing that stuck out to me when I asked the landlady, I said to her...

[00:08:10] Celia Moore: "Does he wear glasses?" "No, but he wears cheaters." "Oh, okay." And I said, "But funny you should ask that," and he told me later, the police love it when they're interviewing someone who is then thinking about what they're asking and comes up with something out of left field, like I did. 'Cause I said, "Funny you should ask that, because when he left, he left behind two bottles of unopened eye drops," and, "Oh, did he?" "Yeah." And he said, "You still got them?" "Yeah, I got them." "Well that's interesting."

[00:08:50] Pete Elliott: Now why is that important? Uh, because on the wanted photograph, John Donald Cody, it says Cody reportedly does not have tear glands and uses eye drops constantly.

[00:09:01] Celia Moore: He would pull out eye drops and be pouring them into his eyes and said, "When I was in the military, they did medical testing on me, and they burned out my, the duct, my tear ducts." And he would have this stuff running down his face.

[00:09:16] Pete Elliott: Bingo, all good, all really good.

[00:09:19] Celia Moore: When I, when I said he left behind the tear, the, the Visine, he, that was, that was the, the moment that he knew he had found his guy. That one little, that one little thing. He told me later, he said he got up from his desk and he did a dance.

[00:09:36] Pete Elliott: Then I can remember I took the, you know, found some more photographs online of, of John Donald Cody, um, and just looked at the pictures of those in his military uniform, and he was former military intelligence, so connection to the military, um, and so on. So all good. Next step, we needed to, to find fingerprints.

[00:10:00] Will Johnson: John Donald Cody's case went back decades, but investigators in DC were still on the hunt. Elliott doesn't waste any time reaching out to them.

[00:10:08] Pete Elliott: I said, "Hey, look it, this maybe is nothing, it could be something. We've got this guy, we haven't been able to identify him, um, you know you guys have this case on a John Donald Cody," and they're like, "Well we think we're following him now in the Philippines and we're right behind him. We think he got married to somebody over there," you know, and I'm like, "Alright, well, if that's the case, no problem. Can you do me a favor. Is there any possibility that you guys have any fingerprints whatsoever?" And the agent, I can still remember, was this young dedicated agent and he was out there, he was off that day, and uh ran to his office and got the pair of fingerprints, and was able to email those to me, and send those to me, um, and prior to doing that I had a Cuyahoga County deputy sheriff who's a fingerprint examiner sitting in my office waiting for those fingerprints to come. He matched John Donald Cody's fingerprints to Bobby Thompson's saying they're one and the same. Now that's good, but I like to double-check and triple-check [00:11:08] everything, uh so I have a, I have a local--, we have a national expert in fingerprints that uh was retired from the police department here. I was able to get those fingerprints also to him, and he comes back and says, "Yes. They are one and the same." So, two for two, I figure I might as well go three for three and had those fingerprints uh sent over to the National uh, FBI database and they matched them up to John Donald Cody and Bobby Thompson being one and the same.

[00:11:38] Will Johnson: Elliott has his proof. He takes it right away to the county jail where Bobby Thompson is being held.

[00:11:44] Pete Elliott: Walked over to him. He was in Cuyahoga County Jail, had his back turned to me and remember, uh Bobby Thompson always had to be the smartest man in the room, or smartest person in the room, uh so he had his back turned to me and I was with a couple other officers, and I walked over and I had that wanted flier that you know, I was able to get basically off the internet at that time and I threw the wanted poster in front of Bobby Thompson and said, "Mr. Cody, your time is up." And he just very casually nodded his head back and forth, very carefully. At that point I think he knew that he was not the smartest person in that room, that we were.

[00:12:30] Will Johnson: Pete Elliott and his team and other law enforcement agencies stood before the press and proudly announced Thompson's real identity.

[00:12:37] Pete Elliott: Well, welcome everybody. You know, déjà vu, five months ago we stood in the same office talking about the arrest of Bobby Thompson, five months ago today. Much has developed within the last 72 hours. Bobby Thompson is wanted fugitive, John Donald Cody.

[00:12:56] Will Johnson: Elliott has his man. The old wanted poster and charges were federal charges having to do with theft of materials in Arizona in the mid-1980s. But the details of Cody's life are astonishing. Brad Tammaro with the US Attorney's Office is eventually the lead prosecutor at Thompson's trial.

[00:13:14] Brad Tammaro: He'd graduated from the University of Virginia undergraduate. He went to Harvard Law School, he had joined the Army, uh, he was in, and, and before he took off, he was in the Army in uh in Arizona in the Reserves.

[00:13:29] Pete Elliott: Served under US Army, is a Captain of military intelligence. He traveled the world and spoke a number of different languages.

[00:13:36] Brad Tammaro: He'd been passed over; I think what his spiral downhill started when he got passed over for a promotion from Captain to Major. He got passed over a second time, and then they uh, they discharged him. I mean you don't get; you don't get promoted in the reserves uh after a second time then you get discharged. And the fact that he got passed over and couldn't get promoted and he couldn't understand why that was and it, and it, I think, and that's my own personal opinion is that I think that at that, that, that put him on the downward spiral. Things started getting out of control.

[00:14:14] Will Johnson: Jodi Andes, the Ohio investigator who chased the stolen money early on in the investigation is still digging into Thompson's life to this day.

[00:14:23] Jodi Andes: He lived an unremarkable childhood really. I mean he grew up in a middle class family in New Jersey. His mom was a bookkeeper, um, his father worked, got, was a bank clerk. His high school friends never, never thought that this would happen. He was a quiet, he was studious, he was kind of like the teacher's pet. Um, he had a little prankster side, but he was smart enough where he wouldn't get caught, so if he might, he might convince you to do something and you were the one who would get, um, in trouble with the teacher, but not him. Um, so a lot of his classmates were shocked.

[00:15:00] Will Johnson: Whatever led John Donald Cody to the dark side, it was clear he had pretty much disappeared the first time after getting a felony charge in the mid-‘80s. But he eventually reemerged as Capt. Bobby Thompson, and he wasn't afraid to flaunt it.

[00:15:14] Pete Elliott: I've never seen anybody hide in plain sight like this with the President of the United States, and with top level politicians. Either he wasn't afraid, or he didn't care, um, but there was something there, because he was literally hiding in plain sight.

[00:15:32] Will Johnson: A trial date was set and Brad Tammaro would serve as lead attorney for the state, but Cody was prepared for a fight.

[00:15:38] Pete Elliott: He wanted to go to prison and probably go to prison for the rest of his life and die in prison without anybody knowing his true identity.

[00:15:48] Brad Tammaro: He was, he was staunchly opposed to admitting that he was John Donald Cody.

[00:15:53] Will Johnson: As the trial goes on and the weeks go by, Cody starts to show signs of breaking down.

[00:15:58] Brad Tammaro: If, if you look at photographs of him during the trial, you know, he see a progression where he looks, he starts looking progressively worse as things are going along. He started that trial thinking, you know, hey, he, he did not see it as slam dunk. He had his theory that he was a super spy for the CIA and that uh he was going to, and that somehow that was going to be relevant to the, to the trial. Um, and he was, he was just confident. I mean and, and when you talk to people that knew him back in Arizona, like a judge, that's the way he is. He just thinks that he's smarter than everybody, and he thinks he knows more than everybody and that includes the judge, the other opposing counsel and anybody else in the room. That's just the way he is. And as the case went on and the evidence started mounting, it's, the realization started to dawn on him that he was not going to win. And then he started looking for different things to try to get a mistrial. He would, he would try to pull some kind of antics. One time he came out, hair was all askew, [00:16:58] he came, he looked like he'd just come out of, after a weeklong bender. What he was looking to do was, he was looking to present himself in front of the jury like that, and then you know, oh, well, geez, Judge, mistrial, because the jury's going to think, you know something bad because of the way they saw me. Unfortunately, when he did that, the jury wasn't in the room. He didn't know that, and he came walking out. And when he came walking out, there's all kinds of photographs of it, the judge immediately lectured him, told him to get back in, you know, had the deputies take him back. He had to, you know straighten himself up and come back out, and he'd better not do that again.

[00:17:35] Will Johnson: With Cody's antics in the courtroom packed with press, the trial seemed a bit like a circus at the time.

[00:17:40] Brad Tammaro: He was trying to make it that.

[00:17:41] Will Johnson: As the trial continues, a string of people take the witness stand for the prosecution, including Jeff Testerman, the newspaper reporter from Florida who wrote the article that exposed Thompson's crimes

[00:17:51] Jeff Testerman: I uh, testified for about 2 or 2½ hours, I, I believe I was the first witness up on the stand.

[00:17:57] Will Johnson: Also taking the stand, the lawyer who turned her client in, the USNVA's General Counsel, Helen MacMurray. What was that like being in that trial, that room with him, you're, you're a lawyer, so you're used to that setting.

[00:18:08] Helen MacMurray: So I kept trying to make eye contact with him. And it was just comical how he, I mean I sat there for a really long time, and only once and that was inadvertent that he and I make eye contact. And uh, that was very satisfying for me. I wanted him to know that uh, I was glad I was there.

[00:18:29] Will Johnson: After more than six weeks, the jury comes back with guilty verdicts, and Cody's fate was in the hands of a judge.

[00:18:36] Brad Tammaro: And it was a difficult thing. I mean there was multiple charges with multiple uh, uh sentencing ranges in there.

[00:18:42] Well the man accused of creating a phony veteran's charity and pocketing millions is now on his way to prison.

[00:18:47] A judge in Cleveland hands down a prison sentence to a Harvard law grad who used a bogus charity to cheat veterans out of millions.

[00:18:54] Brad Tammaro: The final result was 28 years. On appeal, they reversed one set of charges, his sentence only went from 28 years to 27. I believe he was 66 went he went in. So I felt that, you know, you can always get longer, but realistically, I think that that's, that's an adequate sentence in this instance for him.

[00:19:16] Will Johnson: Buy the mystery of the money, that $100 million in donations that Thompson raised for his fake charity remained and remains to this day.

[00:19:24] Brad Tammaro: Of the $100 million that was collected nationwide, uh, that's all we've ever been able to really recover was the one suitcase that was found with a million dollars in it. He was very smart in how he did this. He didn't dirty, if you want to say, he didn't dirty his hands trying to collect the money. He hired professional fundraisers to do it. Well, when you hire professional fundraisers, they charge a fee to collect the money, and a large chunk of the money went to them, but then there's still a, a, a ton of money that would have been collected by him or would have been paid to him and put in the bank accounts that just disappeared. And to this day, nobody knows where that money is or what, what basically happened to it. He's the only one that's going to know the answer to that question. He's not going to tell anybody. Uh, you know it was just fortunate that we did recover the almost a million dollars and that was distributed at the end of the prosecution to the uh, to the veteran's organizations that [00:20:24] rightfully should have got the money to begin with.

[00:20:26] Will Johnson: Investigative reporter, Jeff Testerman is still wondering what happened to the money.

[00:20:30] Jeff Testerman: You know, we, we had developed three theories back when we were first uh researching this, and I, and the first theory was this guy was just a lone wolf that's out there trying to survive. He might be a fugitive on the run from something, and our second theory was that he was just a front man for the telemarketers that was uh, creating uh window dressing, uh so that the telemarketers could bring in a lot of money, most of which they'd keep. And our third theory was that he was part of a, uh, when we began to see uh his political contributions, and his connections and standing with the President and that sort of thing, we began to see a third theory which was that maybe he's part of some dark uh money uh, right wing political conspiracy. And honestly, to this day there are elements of all three of those theories that attach to him. Uh, I, I think I lean uh I'm, I'm more 1 in 3 to tell you the truth. He's more a lone wolf that's [00:21:31] out doing what he wants to do that uh for, for some reason went on the run uh as a lawyer when he stole some money from clients back in 1984 and disappeared. Uh, but then uh he, he came to Tampa, set up a, this uh grand illusion of a charity and it became very, very politically connected. And then uh he will tell you to this day uh with the writings he's doing out of prison that uh, you know, I was working for the CIA. I was part of a uh, an operation that uh, uh in truth laundered money from the public uh to help fight the war on terror. And with his background in intelligence, and with his connection to the CIA, you can't completely dismiss that theory. I think part of uh, the charm and the fascination with John Cody and Bobby Thompson, is nobody but him to this day knows exactly [00:22:32] who he is or why he did what he did.

[00:22:35] Will Johnson: The case still bugs a lot of people. The amount of money that was taken, the fact that it's missing, and for Celia Moore, John Donald Cody's landlady in Portland, Oregon, it's the fundraising angle that bugs her the most.

[00:22:47] Celia Moore: He used hired telephone solicitors and they got in some cases my understanding is, they got 90% on the dollar. What those callers were doing was entirely legal. But it was, it was just morally bankrupt.

[00:23:05] Brad Tammaro: The fact that he used a legitimate fundraising tool and separating himself from that tool was amazing. I mean uh that he was able... and you know, again, the professional fundraisers take a large chunk of money for their services. Uh, but he didn't care about that because it wasn't his money. He, it wasn't going to go to any kind of charity in his mind, it was going to him.

[00:23:29] Will Johnson: Another fact that emerged other than these legit fundraisers, Cody was the only person running the whole operation.

[00:23:36] Brad Tammaro: There was no real person other than him. Everybody else was either a fictious person where he used combination of names, or he actually dug up names from a, from individuals, and we don't, you know, how he got those names. Uh, we found job applications that he had. We found uh, ID materials that he had, that he accumulated, and he just started using, he'd use that person's name, he'd use some personal identification information from that. He'd make the name up and attach other people's personal identification information to it. He was very detailed in how he, he created a whole world.


[00:24:14] Will Johnson: Today, John Donald Cody is sitting in jail, still filing appeals. And there's still a lot we don't know about him. His childhood, his upbringing, like the missing money perhaps only John Donald Cody knows. What we do know is that he had a sister, an attorney living in New York at the time of the trial.

[00:24:30] Celia Moore: He has a sister, and I think she's still alive, I'm not sure. She wouldn't tell the police anything. She refused to cooperate. Period.

[00:24:40] Brad Tammaro: You know it's interesting too is one of, the only things, he had very few possessions in that uh, in that property that uh he was renting out in the Portland, Oregon, area. But one of the things he had there was the um, movie, Catch Me If You Can. So, he probably liked that whole world thinking nobody was ever going to be catch--, be able to catch him, um, is my guess. He kind of probably fancied himself as being the guy that can never be caught. He just uh, again, had to be the smartest guy in the room all the time, um, but he wasn't going to do that against us.

[00:25:25] Will Johnson: Thompson, or John Donald Cody, isn't talking much to people on the outside these days. But one person he has let into is Jodi Andes. She's the former newspaper reporter turned Ohio State Investigator who was pulled into the case as US Marshals were on the hunt.

[00:25:40] Will Johnson: You are also in the process now or have recently spent time talking to him in person, is that right?

[00:25:46] Jodi Andes: For about the past year I've been visiting him in prison. Um, I will see him again later this week, so it's something I do on a monthly basis.

[00:25:54] Will Johnson: Can you describe what it's like going to see him, maybe that first time, and then we can move into going more recently, but over a period of time you've been, been going to see him behind bars.

[00:26:05] Jodi Andes: I really wasn't sure what to expect the first time. He comes out and he is much thinner than you've seen in any pictures. And he, his limp has gotten a lot worse. And um, he comes over, he's very cordial at first. Um, and he's very guarded. Uh, but he's very chatty, um, on things he wants to talk about. It's hard to just direct him to keep him on the topic that you know, of, of my interest.

[00:26:35] Will Johnson: Sitting down in a loud packed room with other inmates and visitors, Jodi spends over two hours talking to Thompson on each visit.

[00:26:42] Jodi Andes: I don't have any kind of emotion for him or against him. Ultimately, I would just like to get to the bottom of the story.

[00:26:49] Will Johnson: If you got to the bottom of the story, what are your inclinations of what that might look like or be?

[00:26:57] Jodi Andes: There are several different things that I wanted to, to find out. One, where did the money go? That was part of my goal of trying to determine where the money went. And so some of it is, I can account for, and some I think is still out there. There's a couple theories that investigators have that I have run past Bobby and gotten some very interesting answers. Um, and um, he, he, he always holds back a little, but I think that, I think that there is more money that's out there, and perhaps people have even found some of it already and just haven't come forward.


[00:27:42] Will Johnson: And I'm back with AARP's Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale. Alright, Frank, so we, we finally have Bobby Thompson behind bars. We heard from Jodi Andes there at the end who is one of the few people who is talking to Thompson or John Donald Cody, I should say, at this point, regularly, and meeting with him uh in, in prison. And actually, after we spoke with Jodi, she sent us an email and she met with, with Cody and he had a question for you. So I'm going to tell you what he asked. His question is, "Did you ever get put in the position where you had to fly or help fly a plane?" So I don't know if we're in the position of regularly taking questions from, from scammers and fraudsters, uh, but I thought we should ask.

[00:28:29] Frank Abagnale: Well the answer is, the short answer is no, but you have to understand that even though I was so young, I was very smart that, for example though I impersonated a Pan Am pilot, I never boarded a Pan Am plane, because I knew it would come to the point where someone would say, "Well, you know, I'm based in San Francisco, I've been out there 16 years, how come I never met you before?" Or someone might say, "You know, your ID card is not exactly like my ID card." So I purposely, in everything I did, and, in every impersonation, I made sure that I wouldn't put myself in a position uh like that. The closest I came, you know, I would board these planes and end up riding sometimes in the jump seat, many times the flight attendant would come back, and they'd tell me there was a seat open in coach, and I'd go back and sit there, 'cause it was much more comfortable. The closest I ever came was I was on a BLAC flight, which is now British Airways, and they were flying over 35,000 feet, and when the captain got up to go back and use the restroom, back in those days a flight engineer and a copilot had to go on oxygen. They didn't like [00:29:29] to, because it was a big mask you had to put over. So if you had a jump seat pilot, you would normally say to the jump seat pilot, "Will you take my seat?" And they'd slip into the seat and just sit there. So when the captain, and that was the only time, turned to me and said, "Go ahead and take my seat." I did, but I knew the copilot was sitting next to me, the flight engineer was a licensed pilot, was behind me, um, so...

[00:29:52] Will Johnson: What were you thinking? Were you terrified?

[00:29:53] Frank Abagnale: I was thinking one thing. I was terrified, but I was...

[00:29:55] Will Johnson: You have a lot of people that were trusting you.

[00:29:56] Frank Abagnale: Right. But I was thinking one thing, and that was, if the copilot had said to me, you know what, I'm going to go back and get a cup of coffee too, I was going to say, "Hey, I need to tell you a story about this kid who got a uniform and a phony ID."

[00:30:09] Will Johnson: You were going to go into full confession mode.

[00:30:09] Frank Abagnale: And I would confess the whole thing right there

[00:30:12] Will Johnson: Nothing...

[00:30:13] Frank Abagnale: But that's the closest that I ever came to ever doing anything like that.

[00:30:16] Will Johnson: But you did have to learn a fair amount about flying planes, right? You did your research.

[00:30:19] Frank Abagnale: I did my research, plus you know it's kind of like watching when you watched your dad drive a car, it was me watching every day, sitting there with these pilots hearing all the jargon, hearing what they were doing, what the stuff was. I learned a lot about rate of fuel, rate of take--, take speed of takeoff, all that kind of stuff, so that I could answer those questions that if I was ever questioned about it. So I picked up a lot of that.

[00:30:41] Will Johnson: Either as a pilot or when you were making off to be a, a doctor, do you remember a specific question that, that, I mean I guess you were probably pretty good at like dodging questions. But like one that really threw you, you didn't know the answer to or what you would do if not a specific question?

[00:30:57] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, I mean, when you live a, a chameleon existence, you basically learn to be, to be able to handle those questions, and you also learn that when you know someone can ask you a question and say, hey, do you know uh, Robert Johnson down at uh TWA? And the first time they get that question, you go, "Yeah, I know Robert. Uh, I met Robert a few times." Then the next, ... "Well you also know..." By the time you're getting the second question or the third question, you know that they're starting to test you so there may not be somebody by that real name.

[00:31:27] Will Johnson: Right, like that's an old trick, right?

[00:31:27] Frank Abagnale: Right. So you, you learn to know, is this a legitimate question or is now this person actually checking me? And then that's where you would go, "No, I don't know that person, I never met him."

[00:31:37] Will Johnson: Well it has been quite a saga to hear about Capt. Bobby Thompson, aka John Donald Cody. Frank, as always, thanks for your, your feedback, your stories, your thoughts.

[00:31:46] Frank Abagnale: Any charity that you're going to give money to, please check them out either with the Better Business Bureau or call the Fraud Watch Network or call the Attorney General's Office in your state and consumer uh agents that are there will basically be able to tell you if that's a legitimate charity, if they've had complaints against that charity, uh, so you can make a good decision, do I want to give money to this charity? I don't want people to stop giving money, I just want people to be careful about who they give money to.

[00:32:12] Will Johnson: And if you have donated to a charity, is there any recourse, like you know if you’ve given money?

[00:32:17] Frank Abagnale: If it turns out to be fraudulent, you can file a complaint with the Attorney General's Office, and again, they're the one law enforcement that actually goes out and pursues those and goes after those charities to try to get their people's money back.

[00:32:29] Will Johnson: As always, thanks to my team of scambusters, producers Julie Getz and Brook Ellis, our audio engineer, Julio Gonzales, and of course, my cohost, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you or someone you know has been the victim of a fraud or scam, call AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline. 877-908-6360.


"Bobby Thompson" was once a respected fundraiser, generating millions of dollars for his charity, the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. When a Florida journalist uncovers that the charity is a scam, Thompson goes on the run. Eventually, he starts a new life as Don Morsette, in Portland, Ore. Living in a boardinghouse and claiming to work as a consultant for Boeing, Thompson thinks he’s outsmarted the U.S. marshals hunting him. He even keeps a DVD of the movie Catch Me if You Can and $1 million in cash in a storage locker. But the marshals arrest him outside his home, ending their two-year manhunt. Although they know that Thompson is the man they’ve been looking for, they still don’t entirely know who he is. Thompson refuses to give his real name, signing court documents as Mr. X.

Who is John Donald Cody, and what led him to steal money meant for veterans? Federal investigators are determined to answer these questions. While he sits in jail awaiting trial, they dive back into the case, speaking to people who knew the man who called himself Bobby Thompson. 

TIPS:  If you think you’ve been a victim of a scam or would like to report fraud call The Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360Anyone can become the victim of a scam, it’s important to be vigilant and know your vulnerabilities. For instance, if you are looking for a job you are more vulnerable to a work-at-home scam.

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