Need or Greed

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

Shirley Harkins remembers Robert Cord as a calm, gracious man. He arrived at Crawford's home on January 15, 1997, neatly dressed. He'd heard about the Harkinses' ministry from Michelle Crawford, he said. Like her, he believed in its purpose and knew God would make it happen. At dinner, Cord said a prayer for the Harkinses. Later, he prayed before talking about how his investment strategies might be used to save the lives of unborn children.

Cord told the Harkinses that Winterhawk West Indies pooled funds from investors to buy a $10 million surety bond, which was used to insure certified gold reserves from the mining operation Cord owned near Henderson, Nevada. The gold certificates secured a line of credit that was then "placed in trade" overseas. About four weeks later, investors would start receiving the returns in monthly disbursements. In one year, a $200,000 investment in the "bond program," as Cord called it, could generate more than $1 million, plus the principal.

Cord also described a similar "cash program," as well as an investment in certificates of deposit that earned up to 12 percent per year. Bob and Shirley, their heads reeling from a whistle-stop tour of a world they had no idea even existed, told Cord to save his breath. We have no money to invest, they said.

To which Cord replied: "Pray, and the money will be there."
By mid-March, not even Michelle Crawford had heard from Robert Cord. Bob Harkins finally called the Winterhawk offices, and was surprised to learn that Cord had made a $5,000 investment on behalf of the Harkinses, and the payoff was expected soon. A few weeks later, when the returns still had not arrived, the Harkinses asked Cord to lend them the money to buy a 4,700-square-foot house they'd located in Montgomery County. Cord insisted the returns on the $5,000 investment were due any time, and that there would be no loan and no payback.

If the money came in, Cord said, then God wanted the Harkinses to have their residential crisis-pregnancy center. When Bob Harkins asked if God knew it would probably cost $250,000 to $300,000 to buy the house and get it in shape for a maternity home, Cord again told the Harkinses: "Pray, and the money will be there."

Prayer was what the Harkinses did for a living, so they left Robert Cord's office and went on about their business. Another two months passed before Bob and Shirley received a call from Cord's secretary: The closing on the Montgomery County property would take place on June 17. The Harkinses were there at the appointed hour, but Robert Cord was not. Neither was the money Robert Cord had promised.

It was raining hard that day, and there was lightning. After a while, the Harkinses were told that the wire transfer from Texas Coastal failed to go through because of the bad weather. They were told to come back in one week, and the money would be there. No one had to tell them to pray.

Billy Holcomb would later be unable to give a consistent answer to this question: Did the president of Texas Coastal Bank understand that the large deposits wired to Winterhawk's account were coming from investors?

Holcomb would later say that, on some occasions, he "assumed" they were investments in Winterhawk. Other times, he said he didn't know the source of the money, and in that case, what Robert Cord did with it was none of Texas Coastal's business.

Somebody cared, though. On May 8, 1997, Special Agent Tony Smith of the Houston office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation came by the Winterhawk office. Wayne Melson later recalled that Smith seemed hung up on why Cord had no driver's license or social security card. Cord explained that he had spent some recent years in Belize doing Christian outreach, so he used an international driver's license. As for the social security number, Cord simply refused to provide it, saying he had "been burned" by the government.

It's hard to know what Tony Smith took away from the conversation. Cord, however, didn't seem too concerned. When Melson asked him why the FBI was interested in Winterhawk West Indies, Cord replied that it was standard procedure for the feds.

"Hey, it's commonplace," Cord said. "They just want to find out what I'm doing, is all. Everything will be fine."

But Cord had known the FBI was closing in as far back as March, when he heard from a business associate that agents were calling around and asking questions about him. Cord even told Billy Holcomb what he'd heard, and there's no reason to think one or the other hadn't informed Wayne Melson.

The problem was --and it remains a problem for Holcomb and Texas Coastal Bank --nothing changed. Business went on as usual at Winterhawk. In fact, in March alone three different investors wire-transferred a total of $742,000 to the Winterhawk "bond program" account at Texas Coastal Bank. At least two of those investors say they talked to Billy Holcomb before transferring their money, and the banker never mentioned that the FBI might be checking out Cord's business.

Within three weeks of the FBI's visit on May 8, another $1 million in investor money had been wired to Texas Coastal, credited to Winterhawk's account. But for some reason, Robert Cord had decided to do business a little differently. And, as he would later admit, Billy Holcomb didn't stop to wonder why.

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