Need or Greed

A Bible-quoting con man finds easy pickings among those looking for a miracle or a windfall

Karisa, who was only about 25 years old, never reciprocated Cord's attention, though she did allow him to buy her a house, a car and some jet skis. Later, Cord gave Karisa's daddy the money to start a trucking company that eventually failed. Though unrequited, Cord's love persevered, and he took to wearing a gold band on the ring finger of his left hand, a symbol of God's wish that Karisa become his wife.

Cord's destiny took an abrupt turn west in mid-August 1996, when his banker, Ronnie Wardwell, vice president of Community Bank & Trust's Vidor branch, said he didn't want First Federal's business anymore. When Cord asked why, Wardwell said he had never encountered the kind of trading programs First Federal offered, and in light of the large sums of money being wired into the account -- the banker had just verified a $334,000 transfer from two out-of-state investors -- he didn't like the smell.

Cord didn't make a fuss, nor did he close out his Community Bank accounts until much later. But, after his conversation with Ronnie Wardwell, Cord immediately moved $200,000 into an account at Texas Coastal Bank in Pasadena,where, as someone would later put it, he "received much more understanding treatment" from Billy Holcomb.

Cord opened the Winterhawk West Indies office on NASA Road 1 on January 9, 1997, with a staff of two: a secretary and Wayne Melson, whose title was associate financial consultant.

Of course, Melson wasn't expected to do much actual consulting. Cord traveled a lot, looking to buy, sell or trade any financial instrument that would produce a return. So Melson spent the majority of his time on the phone, reassuring people who had invested, or were thinking of investing, anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 with Robert Cord.

Maybe it occurred to Wayne Melson at some point that his job wasn't that much different from being a cop, at least in the way that the presence of a police officer increases everyone's comfort level in certain situations.

Working for Winterhawk certainly paid better than the Deer Park Police Department. Before long, Melson was driving a dark blue BMW convertible and making six times as much money as he did as a patrol supervisor and Swat Team leader. He learned, too -- or at least tried to learn -- how a sum of money, say, $183,000 or $250,000, can be invested overseas and, a short amount of time later, come back as a much larger sum. It was a complicated business. But although Wayne Melson was in no way qualified to be an "associate financial consultant," he was not a stupid man.

Neither was Billy Holcomb, which raises a few questions about what the president of Texas Coastal Bank was thinking when he started doing business with Robert Cord in August 1996. For example: Did Billy Holcomb, as the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System recommends, "know his customer?"

Holcomb didn't make the standard "hand-off" phone call to Community Bank's Ronnie Wardwell until one week after Cord opened his Texas Coastal account with a $200,000 wire transfer. As it turned out, Wardwell told Holcomb that he'd grown antsy about the type of activity taking place in Cord's Community Bank account. Wardwell said large sums of money were always coming in and going out. Often the balance would drift down to nothing before another deposit came in.

At one point, Wardwell told Holcomb, Cord wanted a loan. Wardwell needed financial statements, but Cord never provided them; nor did he ever inquire again about a loan. Wardwell told Holcomb he finally asked Robert Cord to move his accounts to another bank.

Despite Ronnie Wardwell's concerns, Holcomb didn't get all jammed up when Cord's social security number didn't check out. When asked about it, Cord said he'd mistakenly provided his taxpayer identification number and gave the banker another nine digits. Holcomb apparently didn't bother to verify the new number: Cord later said he made it up on the spot.

Holcomb did have Fred Taylor do some checking up on Cord. Taylor worked for the county constable, and was the security guard at Texas Coastal Bank. Holcomb had his security guard run Cord's name through a couple of law-enforcement computers, which, to the banker's apparent satisfaction, turned up nothing.

In his mind, Billy Holcomb was satisfied that Robert Cord was a legitimate businessman. He even agreed to take phone calls from Winterhawk's prospective investors, who had been told by Cord that, if it made wiring $100,000 to Texas Coastal Bank any easier, they should call the bank's president. Apparently, many of them did.

There is currently some discrepancy among interested parties -- specifically, lawyers for Holcomb and Texas Coastal Bank on one side and, on the other, about a dozen investors who claim the Winterhawk assets seized by the government belong to them -- over what exactly Billy Holcomb told the investors who called. The investors say Holcomb enthusiastically recommended an investment with Cord. These investors recall Holcomb telling them that Robert Cord was not just a good businessman, who kept his accounts in order and secured significant returns for his clients, but a person of high integrity.

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