Over seven years, the man known by the name Bobby C. Thompson raised $100 million from donors believing they were supporting American Navy veterans and their families. Then he disappeared.
The two-year manhunt for the mysterious fugitive, who had amassed dozens of false identities as he moved from city to city, ended last week with his capture in Portland, Oregon. On Thursday, he was heard in court for the first time, and his defiant message was no surprise to the authorities he eluded and the people he had tricked: He still doesn't want anyone to know who he is.
For more on Bobby Thompson, watch 'Nightline' tonight.
When a judge asked him if he had the educational background to represent himself in court, he refused to answer. "With all due respect to the court, the question you asked is an identity question," he said. "The state has alleged identity theft as part of their complaint. I believe, your honor, that the state has the burden of proof as to that."
Anyone with information regarding "Thompson's" identity is encouraged to contact the U.S. Marshals Service for the Northern District of Ohio at: 1-866-4-WANTED or text keyword WANTED and the tip to 847411 (tip411). Tipsters may remain anonymous and a cash reward may be available.
The story of how the sixtysomething man evaded capture defies the odds in an era of where so much personal information is collected, packaged, monitored and stored. And the mysteries surrounding his background and the fate of the tens of millions he is alleged to have stolen remain vexing questions for police to this day.
"He signs his name 'Mr. X' and he still to this day will not say who he is," said Pete Elliott, the U.S. Marshal who oversaw the manhunt. "Everything this individual has ever said appears to be a lie."
It is a tale ripped from Hollywood. U.S. Marshals who finally caught him believe he 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 boarding house.
Though he lacks the suave demeanor and dashing looks of DiCaprio's character, no one involved in his capture would sell short his gifts as an alleged con man. As the head of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, he oversaw a sophisticated charity operation with chapters in 41 states, and rubbed shoulders with prominent politicians -- even attending fundraisers and posing for photos with President George W. Bush, future House Speaker John Boehner, and U.S. Sen. John McCain.
He was so confident in his ability to give the Navy Vets organization the appearance of a genuine charity, he hired Helen Mac Murray, a former prosecutor of charity fraud in the Ohio Attorney General's Office, to represent the group. As the attorney for the group she was convinced he was legit.
"It reminds me of the Madoff scheme," she said. "He was able to convince a lot of really smart, sophisticated people."
In 2010, after a local newspaper began asking why they couldn't find any of the Navy officers he listed as board members, she vigorously defended him -- even guiding his charity successfully through an IRS audit. But when she started to see evidence he had practiced signing fake signatures of the charity officers, she went to the FBI with her suspicions.
Mac Murray was one of the last people to see Thompson before he walked out of a New York City hotel lobby and disappeared.
Navy Veterans Charity Collected $100 Million
For those who dedicate themselves to real veterans charities, the discovery that an estimated $100 million had been donated to Thompson's organization stung.
Paul Rieckhoff, of Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans of America, said the money "could have sent hundreds of veterans back to school. It would have provided mental health support for thousands. I mean, shame on him. This is the lowest of the low."
Authorities now say they believe Thompson had been laying the seeds of his vanishing act for years, creating false identities in cities around the country, and possibly stashing away millions of dollars in cash in storage lockers to help keep him flush. They first tracked him to Boston, and then Providence, where he lived in a small house on Broadway under the name Anderson Yazi.
"He's a master liar," said William Boldin, the deputy U.S. Marshal who helped lead the manhunt. "And what's interesting is, although all of his stories were lies, each identity that he stole belonged to a real, live, living person. If he would've been encountered by a police officer for any reason … it would have come back to a legitimate person who wasn't wanted by police."
The real Anderson Yazi lives on a Navajo reservation and had never traveled to Providence or Boston.
Elliott believes that when Thompson's story was featured on the television show "America's Most Wanted," the fugitive got spooked. Soon after it aired, he was back on the road. Traveling by bus, he is believed to have made stops in New Mexico, California, and Washington state.
Even though the agents arrived in Providence after Thompson had fled, they discovered a UPS box he had rented there. It had been abandoned, but the mail kept coming. That mail provided them with the clues they needed. Thompson had made purchases under the name Anderson Yazi, and those purchases could be traced to Portland, Oregon.
When the Marshals and investigators from the Ohio Attorney General's office arrived in Portland, they knew they needed to search local bars for signs of him. During his travels, Thompson had gained a reputation as a drinker who spent hours at bars debating politics with other patrons.
"He told me his name was Don," said Shane Wendell, a bartender who served drinks to the fugitive in Portland. "I asked him one day what he did for a living and he told me he was helping a friend in Ohio open up a new church."
'It Was the Rush of the Game,' Says DeWine
When Boldin walked into a bar called Biddy McGraw's, he spotted Thompson at a barstool, nursing a drink.
"I said hello to him. He didn't really acknowledge me and wasn't much interested in having a conversation," Boldin said.
Boldin alerted his fellow agents on his BlackBerry, and they followed Thompson as he shopped for groceries under the alias Alan Lacy, and rode the local bus back to his boarding house. Once they knew where he was living, they decided to pounce.
When they handcuffed him, he was carrying three different wallets -- each one holding the credit cards, drivers licenses, social security cards and professional IDs of a different alias.
Investigators searched Thompson's house and found keys to a storage locker where he had stashed two carry-on-sized suitcases. One held stolen birth certificates, social security cards, credit reports, and other papers needed to create new identities. In the other, wrapped in bundles of newspaper, was nearly $1 million in cash.
"I think there's more cash out there," said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who took over the investigation when he was elected last year.
But DeWine doesn't think the money was Thompson's real goal.
"The amateur psychiatrist in me says that it was about the game," he said. "It was the rush of the game. And you know, he pulled it off for a long time."