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It's not clear when the uncertainty began to gnaw at Wayne Melson, but he knew when the federal government showed up that any assurances were null and void.
Melson was in London that first week of August 1997, when a van-load of feds from the U.S. Marshals Service came to the offices of Winterhawk West Indies, Ltd. on NASA Road 1 in Seabrook and started emptying file cabinets and boxing up the contents. Melson was an associate financial consultant for Winterhawk, which specialized in high-yield investment programs, mostly overseas. The company was owned by his friend, Robert Cord, who had convinced Melson to abandon a 22-year career in law enforcement for the opportunity to play international high finance.
It wasn't a particularly hard sell for Cord, though perhaps it should have been. Wayne Melson had been a cop all his life, from the military police to the force at Deer Park, where he was a patrol supervisor and Swat Team leader. While police work won't make anyone rich -- Melson's yearly salary had peaked in the mid-$50,000 range -- he and his wife, Debbie, who sold commercial real estate for a Re/Max franchise in Seabrook, lived comfortably.
Debbie had actually been the one to introduce her husband to Robert Cord, who at one point in his life wanted to be a preacher. He even studied at a Southern Baptist seminary and became an ordained minister. Cord never had his own church, at least not in the physical sense. But he knew how to make money, which eventually became Robert Cord's unique ministry. In the temple of Robert Cord, riches were not regarded within the usual context of power and status. The accumulation of capital was one-half of a single prayer; the other half was a plea that the needs of others someday be fulfilled.
Cord knew the Melsons shared his Christian principles. They were among the first people he befriended after moving to the Pasadena area in the summer of 1996. Wayne and Debbie were members of Sagemont Baptist Church, and they had recommended Cord for membership .
In late November 1996, Cord started looking for someone to run the day-to-day operations of his investment business, Winterhawk West Indies. He paid a visit to the Melsons' home one evening and offered the job to Wayne, even though the police officer had no training or experience handling other people's money. And despite Cord's attempts to explain it, Melson could manage only a crude understanding of how the Winterhawk investments were supposed to work.
Had someone else made such an offer, Melson might have politely turned it down. But, when Robert Cord bowed his head, thanked Jesus Christ for good friends, then asked God for His blessing and guidance, Wayne and Debbie prayed right along with him.
At approximately the same moment U.S. marshals were shutting down Winterhawk West Indies and seizing its records, the U.S. Attorney's office in Houston was laying claim to almost $2.1 million in the Winterhawk accounts at Texas Coastal Bank.
The government told the bank's president, Billy Holcomb, that the money in at least a half-dozen Texas Coastal accounts opened by Robert Cord belonged to people from Kemah to Melbourne. The government told Billy Holcomb that Cord had promised enormous returns on their investments, but never delivered. Instead, Cord had used the investors' money to buy houses, cars, boats and real estate for himself and others. Worse, Robert Cord coaxed investments from people by telling them their principal was guaranteed by a surety bond or certified gold certificates. He had been telling people that for at least a year, the government said, and had collected $5 million before someone figured out he was lying.
At the time, Billy Holcomb didn't tell the government that, after Robert Cord opened his first Winterhawk account in August 1996, the banker had spoken to many of those same people. At the time, Holcomb didn't really know what to say, especially when the government told him they were pretty sure Robert Cord didn't even exist.
"Well," Holcomb managed to ask, "who is he then?"
"We don't know," the government replied. "Yet."
This is the version of Robert Cord's life that Wayne Melson and Billy Holcomb, among others, have heard: He was born December 12, 1954, in Fort Stockton. He joined the Army at age 17, stayed for six years, then became a district manager for Denny's Restaurants. That lasted about a year before Cord went to work for the government as an international banking and trade consultant. Cord said the government gig was actually with the CIA, and the way he explained the fancy title, he was a bagman: When Congress wouldn't give the agency money for an intelligence operation, Cord would find a few high-yield investments that could generate large sums of cash quickly. Though he never discussed it much, Cord felt burned by his government and quit its service in 1989. He told Wayne Melson he had "given up" his social security number in protest.
In 1990, Cord went into business for himself as a financial consultant. He never married, though it was not for lack of effort. Apparently, Cord was passing through Channelview when he met and fell in love with the daughter of a truck stop owner named Tinsley. In June 1996, Cord professed his undying devotion to Karisa Tinsley, then hired her as a project manager for his new investment firm, First Federal Assurance.