CLEVELAND - People hear the word Marshal and think of something from another era.
And there’s a good reason for that: the U.S. Marshals are the oldest law enforcement service in the United States.
The term spans back to Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok, residing in peoples’ minds today along Tommy Lee Jones in “The Fugitive” or Timothy Olyphant on “Justified.”
“I continue to hear the same things, like, ‘Where’s your horse?’,” said Pete Elliott, the U.S. Marshal of Northern Ohio.
The reality is that the Marshals are not rogue cowboys or dogged hunters who break the rules to get their man.
Except, they will tell you, they always get their man.
In recent years, the U.S. Marshals Service of the Northern District of Ohio has carved out a notable place among the historic agency.
2013 marks ten years that Elliott has been the U.S. Marshal of Ohio’s Northern District; President George W. Bush appointed him to that position in 2003. Of the 94 current U.S. Marshals nationwide, he is one of the longest-serving in that position.
But 2013 also marks another major milestone for Northern Ohio’s U.S. Marshals Service; it marks ten years since Elliott formed the Violent Fugitive Task Force.
In 2003, the Northern Ohio Marshals, who are based in Cleveland’s federal building, had about 40 deputies to cover 40 counties. Simply put, that’s a handful of deputies tracking thousands of fugitives across half a state, and sometimes the nation, since Marshals have the broadest arrest power of any agency.
Since Elliott formed the task force, the Northern Ohio Marshals now partner with 125 law enforcement agencies across the region, involving more than 350 law enforcement officers. Elliott swears in hundreds of officers to the growing task force every year.
Their track record speaks for itself: the task force has apprehended more than 32,000 fugitives in that time, making it one of the most successful in the U.S.
Across Northern Ohio, mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs, and prosecutors have good things to say about the task force. But Elliott is just as complimentary about the task force partners.
“Three most important qualities of a leader need to be vision, enthusiasm, and humility,” Elliott said. “The vision was the task force, and ten years later, the vision is what I thought it would be. And it’s not because of me. It’s because of the men and women who partner in it.”
A day in the life of the task force consists of arresting people with outstanding warrants, fugitives wanted for violent crimes, people wanted for parole violations, or checking in on sex offenders. There are deputies who look for suspects in hot cases that come in, like fresh murders, and deputies looking for fugitives in cases that span back decades.
Putting the cuffs on criminals who fall short in the “criminal mastermind” category is literally just another day at work.
But sometimes a case comes along that stands out. The case of Bobby Thompson is something straight out of “The Fugitive.”
“He’s probably the smartest guy we caught,” Elliott said.
But it was not easy.
The effort to track down Thompson began in 2010. Investigators say Thompson organized the United States Navy Veterans Association as a tax-exempt organization to raise money for vets and their families. It reputedly raised more than $100 million.
One problem: the charity was a scam.
Money was supposed to go to care packages for troops overseas, not beer and male hygiene products, as an IRS audit showed.
The charity was run out of Tampa, but its victims reached Ohio. In 2010, then-Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray issued a warrant for Thompson. At this point, Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation believed that Thompson was dead. Even though he was “dead,” it was still unknown if Bobby Thompson was even his real name.
“He knew how to cover his tracks,” Elliott said.
But this brave new world has a great equalizer: the internet.
The Northern Ohio Marshals got the case in November 2011. At this point, all Elliott had was the warrant for Thompson, which included a recent picture of the suspect. The picture showed Thompson sporting a rather unique pompadour hairstyle.
But pieces began to fall into place faster and Marshals tracked Thompson to Portland, Oregon, where he was apprehended in 2012. An upcoming article will detail the deputies’ ground work in tracking Thompson.
With Thompson in custody, the Marshals now had his fingerprints, which were sent into the FBI database – but no results came back.
In September 2012, Elliott took to Google. He simply searched for unsolved fraud cases and the one of the first results that popped up featured an FBI wanted poster for a fraud suspect named John Donald Cody.
The FBI warrant said Cody spoke several languages, graduated Harvard Law, was in military intelligence, and, perhaps most oddly, did not have any tear ducts.
The picture of Cody
was an old one, featuring a man much younger than the current images of Thompson. But one thing stood out to Elliott: both men had the same unique pompadour hairstyle.
Since the wanted poster said Cody served in the military, the hunch was enough for Elliott to request military records for Cody.
And Cody’s fingerprints showed a match for Thompson. The elusive connection finally made. They were the same man.
Elliott called Thompson’s former landlady and asked if Thompson left anything behind before disappearing. She said he left behind two big bottles of eye drops. Something a man with no tear ducts would need. Someone like John Donald Cody.
Since Thompson was actually Cody – which meant he was in the military – his fingerprints would be on file. So why weren’t his prints actually in the FBI database when the Marshals first requested them?
There are possible answers to that question.
After he was caught, Thompson started spinning tales, including a claim that the United States Navy Veterans Association was a secret CIA operation and that he was a nonofficial cover agent. If Thompson was some sort of former secret intelligence agent who broke the law, his connections would not help him in this case.
“When we get a warrant, we’re not there to determine their guilt or innocence,” Elliott said. “When a warrant is issued, there’s nobody better [than the Marshals] to get that person. If you don’t believe me, ask Bobby Thompson.”
That includes what appears to be very high influence. Both Elliott and Thompson have something in common: both have met President Bush. In fact, just Google search Thompson and the former President and their photos together pop up. To have that kind of access to the most powerful man in the world is one of the reasons why Elliott agrees that there is something to Thompson’s stories.
“I’ve never seen anybody hide in plain sight like he did, taking pictures with the President and everybody else,” Elliott noted.
In the end, having big connection, spinning tall tales, and touting a Harvard Law education did not help Thompson. On November 14 th, 2013, a jury convicted him on 23 charges, including theft, money laundering, and identity fraud. In court, his pompadour was no longer highly-coiffed, but dangling about his bruised face in straggly strands, above an unbuttoned shirt.
Thompson is set for sentencing in December 2013. He is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison.
After Marshals took Thompson into custody, his former landlady had a surprise for Elliott: she mailed him a package. When he opened it, Elliott discovered the big bottles of eye drops that Thompson had left behind, with a note from his landlady that read: “To Pete Elliott for meritorious service in tracking down the wily John Donald Cody (Yes, these are the actual bottles!)."
The case of Bobby Thompson is one of the more notable, recent cases for Elliott, who’s been in law enforcement for thirty years. In fact, October 10 was his thirty year anniversary.
Elliott began his career with the West Shore Enforcement Bureau of Lorain County Narcotics and became Deputy U.S. Marshal in 1987. In 1992, he joined the ATF, before President Bush appointed him as the Marshal of Northern Ohio in 2003.
“It was good to get back,” Elliott said, “thought it was a position I could make change in.”
Serving in law enforcement runs in the family: his father was a Marshal from 1969 to 1990. Elliott has always been a Northeast Ohioan. He grew up in Lakewood and graduated from St. Edward High before attending Capital University.
Over the years, Elliott and his deputies cannot help but notice a worrisome trend on the streets.
”Different society now, more shootings, more violence, more drugs,” Elliott said. “The whole moral structure is breaking down. As I’ve heard over the years from people on the streets, ‘I’m here one day, and could die the next.’ The structure of the family has gone down. There’s a lot of good families out there, but there’s a lot of kids growing up in a non-structured environment. A lot of times, kids join gangs because they don’t have structure in their life, and this way they feel a part of something.”
But Elliott hopes to combat that. He wants to get more deputies into the schools to visit with students, and steer them away from the bad influences into the right direction.
Faced with rising crime, it’s an uphill battle for law enforcement, let alone the U.S. Marshals. On a daily basis, the Marshals have deputies that handle custody of federal inmates, protect judges, apprehend fugitives, seize criminals’ assets, and protect witnesses.
While the Violent Fugitive Task Force helps, Elliott also utilizes the help of the media. Think back to the billboards or segments on the local TV news. If you can picture the Fugitive of the Week, the Dangerous Dozen, or the Agonizing 8, you saw mug shots of fugitives that the Northern Ohio Marshals are actively looking for.
Getting these flyers and mugshots out into public eye does work. Elliott said tips come in
because people care about their community.
“We’re never satisfied,” Elliott said. “It’s another day. Even after Bobby Thompson, we said great job and we were onto the next day. No shortage of bad people, but the good people outnumber the bad, and that’s why we continue to get tips and tips and tips.”
If you have a tip, visit: http://www.usmarshals.gov/district/oh-n/index.html .
[ In the coming weeks, look for more entries from Colin McDermott’s web series about the world of U.S. Marshals of the Northern District of Ohio.]