Seven Questions: “Call Me Commander” Co-Authors on the Strange Saga of John Donald Cody
Jeff Testerman knew something wasn’t right.
Driving back to the office following the August 2009 encounter, the reporter for the St. Petersburg Times kept thinking about the man he’d just met, Bobby Thompson. Why was a retired U.S. Navy lieutenant commander and director of a large national charity living in a dilapidated Tampa condo? And why did Testerman’s relatively benign questions make Thompson so hostile? The encounter wasn’t supposed to be a “gotcha” moment; Testerman was rounding out a story that tangentially connected to Thompson, and the reporter hoped to get a quick quote from him. But now Testerman’s investigative antenna was up, and he knew he needed to learn more about this odd, scruffily dressed man with pompadour hair and his organization, the U.S. Navy Veterans Association.
Twelve years later, that initial meeting has led to “Call Me Commander,” a new book from Testerman and his co-author, Daniel Freed, about the strange saga of the man Testerman met on that August morning, whose real name turned out to be John Donald Cody. The book documents how Cody pulled off one of the biggest charity scams in U.S. history while making impressive political connections, including posing for a photo with then-President George W. Bush. It also digs into the mystery of his true identity: a Harvard-trained attorney and a former Army intelligence officer who had been on the run since 1984, when he was accused of theft and fraud in Sierra Vista, Arizona.
“Call Me Commander” also explores the many Ohio connections in the case. The Navy Veterans Association’s general counsel was New Albany lawyer Helen Mac Murray, the former chief of the Ohio Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Section, who enlisted her one-time boss, former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery, to help Cody’s organization beat an IRS tax audit. Ohio authorities—including then-Attorney General Mike DeWine—also eventually brought Cody to justice, arresting him in 2012 in Portland, Oregon. Mac Murray cooperated with investigators and ended up testifying in Cody’s trial in Cuyahoga County in 2013, as did Testerman. (Cody is now serving a 27-year prison sentence in Mansfield Correctional Institution on theft, money laundering and other charges.)
Columbus Monthly recently spoke with Testerman and Freed about their book, which was released by the University of Nebraska Press’s Potomac Books imprint in February. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Why did you decide to write this book?
Daniel Freed: I first started working on the John Cody story in 2014 when I produced an episode of American Greedon CNBC about it. That’s when I met Jeff, and that’s when I caught the bug of trying to solve the mystery of John Cody. Few times in my career had I really encountered such a fascinating story. When you find something like that, it just becomes this quest to really know what exactly was going on and who exactly the person was.
Jeff Testerman: Of course, I am the reporter that discovered the guy by happenstance in 2009. I ended up spending six months with a partner, John Martin, writing a series called “Under the Radar” that drew back the veil on this phony charity. Thompson disappeared, and a couple years later, he was captured and brought to trial in Ohio. By this time, I had taken early retirement, and I ended up being the first witness in the trial up there in Cleveland. Then a couple years later, I got a call from Daniel, and Daniel said, “You know, this is an intriguing character, and I don't think the whole story has been told, and why don’t we put our heads together and tell it?” Daniel always likes to say that I’m the reporter who would show what this guy was not, and he wanted to be the guy that would show what he was.
Do you feel like you were able to figure out who he really was?
Freed: Certainly, some questions remain, but one of the main parts of my investigation was trying to figure out where Cody had been during a 14-year period from 1984, when he disappeared from Sierra Vista, up until 1998, when he reemerged and started calling himself commander Bobby Thompson and started the United States Navy Veterans Association. In various legal filings since his arrest, he’s claimed that not only was he an Army intelligence officer, but that he worked for the CIA, and that even after his disappearance from Sierra Vista, he had been working for the CIA all throughout the ’80s and ’90s, that he had in fact created the United States Navy Veterans Association at their behest and then had been left to hang out to dry when he had been arrested.
When I first started on this, I asked people, including Mike DeWine, about these claims and was told there’s just no way to know. Well, when I started to look, I figured out that there was a way to know and that records indicated that it seems very likely he did at some point work at the CIA in the ’70s and ’80s, which made me then wonder, “OK. Well, there’s some truth to this that’s kind of been pooh-poohed by officialdom. Could there be any truth to his story that he was always working for the CIA when he set up this charity?” I wanted to find an answer. I didn’t want to just allow Cody to make that claim. So, in looking through his 14-year dark period, I was able to work backwards from Florida and find out that in the years preceding that scam, Cody had run predecessor fundraising schemes in both Seattle and Vancouver throughout the 1990s, and all throughout that time, he had leaned on his actual intelligence background.
So, I think at the end of this, the answer is that Cody is a guy with an actual intelligence past, but for all intents and purposes, since the mid-1980s when he fled Sierra Vista with $100,000 allegedly belonging to elderly clients there, he’s been a conman. I think he was just getting lots of kicks out of seeing what he could get away with.
Former Ohio Deputy Attorney General Helen Mac Murray, who served as the association’s general counsel, is a key figure in your book. Jeff, what were you interactions with her like as you broke the story?
Testerman: I think I’d talked to her a couple of times, and almost immediately the interaction became written. I think I had one call with Mac Murray early on, and she sort of fired a shot over my bow and said you really shouldn’t trifle with this group and with all the works that they do. It was not a long conversation. I wouldn’t call it threatening, but it was sort of like, this is a legitimate group and their records and their good works are there for the world to see, and so kind of watch your step. It was interesting. When we got to trial in Cleveland after they did capture this guy, Ms. Mac Murray and myself met in an elevator. We’d never met face to face.
Did you say anything to each other in the elevator?
Testerman: She introduced herself, and, honestly, it was a little bit cheery, and I was a little bit taken aback. Let’s face it: It had been an adversarial relationship. I’m trying to, as a reporter, get information from a client that is reluctant. The client is obviously duplicitous—again, the kindest word I can come up with. Ultimately, I think you have to look at her position, which was discovering late in the game, as far as I know, that she represented a sham client and a conman and a guy who spun a tale that fooled everyone from the regulators to the attorneys to the telemarketers to the politicians to the Secret Service that protected the president of the United States. This was a story went from this sort of falling-down duplex in a bad part of Tampa all the way to the White House, and everybody in between fell for it—except for the journalists who kind of looked at it and said, “This doesn’t feel right.”
Have you had a chance to speak with Cody since he’s been incarcerated?
Freed: I have had letters and emails from him. I’ve never spoken with him on the phone and never been able to interview him on video. There would be times when I’d be sitting at my desk at my office, and here would come, in one day, 15 envelopes from prison from John Cody in which he would express to me the number of thoughts about his case, how unfairly he’d been treated, the fact that one day the true connections between the CIA and the Navy Veterans Association would come to light, and he would be set free.
In hindsight, it’s hard to believe so many people fell for Cody’s scam. There were a lot of red flags. How did it happen?
Testerman: That might be the $64 question. These were smart attorneys. Helen Mac Murray and Betty Montgomery and Samuel Wright [a politically connected Virginia attorney who worked for the USNVA] are sharp, smart, well-credentialed, canny sort of attorneys, but they acknowledged, through the records that we were able to obtain from the state of Ohio, that in the final analysis they didn’t do that much vetting. They never met any of the directors that were on that first page of the website. Every time Helen Mac Murray came to Florida to sit down with the commander, he said, “Well, I’m out of Tampa. I’m out of town. I happen to be in Orlando that weekend. Or Jacksonville. Let’s meet at a restaurant there instead.” So, they never did what I did, which was lay eyes on the place where he was living, which was almost a dead giveaway.
Freed: I would also add that at the point that they met him, John Cody had been on the run for 24 years. He was pretty good at making people believe about him what he wanted them to believe. And I think he understood people’s motivations and what it was that they wanted from him and could give them what they needed.
This fraud was uncovered by a local newspaper that gave its reporters a significant amount of time to dig into the case. Given the economics of the media business, are these kinds of stories still possible?
Freed: I think reporting like Jeff did at local newspapers is becoming more and more rare at a time when it’s becoming more and more necessary. I think it’s kind of apparent that, had Jeff not been given the freedom that working at a great newspaper affords to spend six months on this story, one, we never would’ve written this book, but two, you might right now be receiving a call from either the United States Navy Veterans Association asking you for money, or some other charity that John Cody had concocted.