The War Profiteers - War Crimes, Kidnappings & Torture
August 12th, 2007 - Accused Major Remains a Hometown Hero
By Gary Contreras
San Antonio Express-News
August 12, 2007
Castor, La. - Within the pages of the 1984 yearbook at Castor High School, an administrator penciled in the word "Army" over a senior photo, depicting the career path of a student revered in this tiny town for what he had accomplished.
For John L. Cockerham, the student donning the turquoise cap and gown in that photo, it was a struggle to make it that far.
Cockerham, known around here as John L. or John Lee, was the third youngest of 18 children. He grew up in a home with no running water and lived hand to mouth. He had speech and learning impediments.
With his aspirations of becoming a lawyer dashed because of a lack of money, he joined the Army straight out of high school. Later when he rose to the rank of major, this rural town of fewer than 300 people, an hour's drive southeast of Shreveport, was so proud it held a parade for him in 2004.
Today, Castor is reeling.
A contracting officer for the Army now stationed at Fort Sam Houston, Cockerham, 41, is at the center of what officials say is the largest bribery scandal to come out of Iraq. He's accused of taking $9.6 million in kickbacks - and expecting $5.4 million more - in exchange for diverting lucrative military contracts to certain companies in Kuwait and Iraq, mostly while he was deployed to Kuwait during 2004 and 2005.
They are pending indictment along with one of his sisters, Carolyn Blake of Sunnyvale, near Dallas, who's charged with conspiring with the Cockerhams to defraud the United States and to launder money. She is out on bond, and her case was transferred to San Antonio last week.
To many Castor residents, the charges against John Cockerham are sharply contrary to the person they know - kind, generous, religiously devout and devoted to family.
They still talk about the quiet, humble boy who grew into an impressive man and did much to help the black community and others here, where options for advancement are few.
Mention of his name is received with lament at the town's heart, The General Store of Castor, where pickled quail eggs are sold under the same roof as plastic irrigation tubing by the foot. Here, Lance Harper, whose parents own the store, said: "Everyone is pulling for him."
"He's worked hard to get where he is," said Darryl Clark, pastor of Upper Zion Baptist Church in Shreveport, who graduated with Cockerham. "Given the conditions he grew up in, he could have quit, but he didn't. He made a conscious effort to succeed."
"It's just a shocker to anybody in Castor," added another longtime friend and schoolmate, Chris Guin of Castor. "It's a nightmare."
A simple country boy?
While most of Cockerham's family declined comment, two siblings said his relatives stand by him. One depicted Cockerham as a fall guy in the scheme.
Cockerham's friends and those who knew him only in passing also are leery of the government's allegations against him.
"My brother is no criminal," said Charles Cockerham, 58. "He's not even criminal minded. I promise you that's not John. He's a simple country boy who might have got caught up with some big wheels."
Asked if she believes Cockerham took bribes, his sister Mabel Cockerham said: "Why would he? My brother had all the things of value that he needed. He had life, family, friends, the joy of the Lord - the things that matter the most.
"His joy is in sitting around laughing, talking, reminiscing, eating and making other people laugh, never about, 'I wish I had this or I wish I had that,'" she said.
The government's portrayal of Cockerham diverges so widely it almost describes another person.
During his bail hearing in San Antonio on July 31, agents painted him as a calculating type who pretended to cooperate in their investigation after they found ledgers that documented the alleged bribes at his Fort Sam Houston home in December, then turned around to warn associates or witnesses about the case.
In a second search at his home July 23, the day the Cockerhams were arrested, federal agents found letters and documents they say encouraged the associates - whom agents did not name - to destroy or hide evidence, not to disclose certain information and to stall the probe. The documents, agents testified, even described "cover stories" that were to be given to agents - like claiming the money was donations for a private ministry in Texas.
Melissa Cockerham, 40, and Blake, 44, are accused of meeting contractors' representatives in Kuwait to accept millions of dollars in kickbacks on John Cockerham's behalf and putting the cash in safe deposit boxes in Kuwait and Dubai so it could be parked later in offshore accounts in the Caribbean.
The Justice Department will not divulge details beyond the arrests and charges. It refused to identify the companies or people suspected of paying the bribes, saying the case remains under investigation.
Cockerham's lawyer, Jimmy Parks Jr., said much of the matters in question appear to come at a period when Cockerham - unprepared to handle highly complex contracting - was pressed into service because the Army had a shortage of contracting officers in Kuwait and Iraq.
"He didn't get the training he needed until he came back," Parks said.
To hear agents tell their version in court, it would seem Cockerham would be rolling in money. That is not so evident.
No one interviewed for this report said they saw Cockerham flash signs of sudden wealth. One friend said he was careful with his money and tried to live within his means.
He drove a 1994 Isuzu pickup, or "clunker," disputed what he believed was a $10 overcharge on a car rental, and even complained that his wife bought a minivan he thought they couldn't afford, according to K.C., an Army buddy from San Antonio who served with Cockerham at Fort Polk, La., in 1997.
"If he had some money, he sure had some incredible restraint," said K.C., who refused to be identified by his full name for fear of retribution. "He was a miser. I saw him contest a $10 charge once. I was like, 'Let it go.' That's the way he was. If he had any money, I didn't see it."
Cockerham owns property in Louisiana - the land he grew up on near Castor is in his name and worth $3,500 - and a plot of land he bought by paying the $187 taxes due at a tax sale in Plain Dealing, 30 miles north of Shreveport. That property is valued at $13,800, and contains the run-down remnants of a building supply company that closed 20 years ago. Hackberry trees, tall grass and ivy overrun the property, which is in central Plain Dealing, but in an area that shows signs of blight.
Property records show Cockerham bought the land in 2003, a year before any of the criminal activity is alleged to have taken place. Mabel Cockerham said buying land at property tax sales is a common practice and disputed its relevance. But U.S. Magistrate Judge Pamela Mathy, who denied the Cockerhams bail on July 31, cited it in her written order, saying John Cockerham's failure to disclose his ownership during the court's pretrial background investigation seemed to lend weight to agents' contention that Cockerham was deceptive.
Beyond that, there is a career Army man who chose to live in military housing, put in long hours at work and supported a wife and three young children - a 2-year-old daughter and 7-year-old twin boys - on a $5,000 monthly salary.
K.C. said he knows Cockerham as a kind man and mentor who influenced him to become more active in his Christian faith. K.C. described Melissa Cockerham as subservient, always doting on the kids.
"He used to be 280 pounds and 6-foot-2," K.C. said of John Cockerham. "You see him and think, 'This guy must be an animal.' But he was just the sweetest, sweetest soul. Talk about somebody you wanted to be like if you wanted to be a good person, that was Cockerham."
Cockerham was born John Lee Cockerham Jr. in Shreveport in January 1966. He was the 15th of 18 children (two died in car accidents and a third died from pneumonia as an infant), born to John Lee Cockerham Sr. and Clara Cockerham. Cockerham Sr. died 10 years ago, and Clara passed away about four years ago, Charles Cockerham said.
Charles Cockerham, who had to pause to count his siblings, said his father had other children with other women.
"My daddy got around. He was a stepper," he said.
Cockerham Sr. worked at a sawmill in Castor, which has been closed for years. Clara, who had 13 siblings of her own, cared for the children, but also took up odd jobs to help make ends meet.
"For the longest time, he only made $40 a week," Charles Cockerham said of his father. "There were many times we didn't know where our next meal would come from. At one time, we ate grits and oatmeal so much, we thought there ain't nothing else."
They lived in a four-room house Cockerham Sr. built on 80 acres of pine-studded woodlands the family has owned for generations. They call the main part of the land "The Hill" because the house sits on a sandy hill that has slowly eroded over time.
As soon as they were old enough, the kids were put to work. They hauled water in buckets from a nearby stream to drink and to heat up on their wood-burning stove to bathe.
Today, the house has an old, worn mobile home addition and has signs of heavy wear and tear, although Charles Cockerham lives in it and tries to maintain it. A pavilion the family built a few yards from the house about 10 years ago has served as a place for family reunions, Charles Cockerham said.
He said John Cockerham has planned to return to the property one day.
A flagpole in the center of "The Hill" flies a tattered U.S. flag that Charles Cockerham said John Cockerham put up about two years ago.
"He loves his country," Charles Cockerham said.
When he was younger, John Cockerham worked part time at the sawmill with his father. He studied hard, was in the Future Homemakers of America, was a candidate for most handsome boy at school and played power forward on the basketball team. The work, school and away games wore him down, said his friend Guin.
"He used to sleep in class because he'd get up at 3 a.m. to go work in a dairy farm pumping cows," Guin said. "He was doing it to support his family. And he was still playing ball."
The extracurricular activities did not appear to interfere with his studies.
"He was no 'A' student, but he exerted the best effort possible," said Olivia Gray, one of his eighth-grade teachers who helped him overcome his stammering and other hurdles. "I don't think he had a learning disability, but some students are quick to catch on. John was a little slow and would need extra help. He would voluntarily, deliberately stay after school to get that help. He tried so hard he made you want to help him because he showed concern for his learning."
By his freshman year, he was on the honor roll and made it each year thereafter.
With few options and no money for college, Cockerham joined the Army after graduating from high school.
He was stationed at Fort Knox, Ky. There, he met Melissa Jean Jordan, who was born in November 1966 in Elizabethtown, Ky. They married on the post May 18, 1986.
After being discharged from the Army in 1989, John Cockerham enlisted in the Louisiana National Guard and used his GI Bill to go to Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe, La., where he graduated in 1993.
That year, he also earned his commission through officer candidate school in the Army and was stationed in Monroe and Fort Polk before he transferred to military housing at Fort Sam Houston in late 2003. Shortly after the move, he was deployed to Kuwait.
He got his master's degree in international contracting upon returning to Fort Sam in 2006 at Webster University, which has a branch at Fort Sam, according to a summary of his Army file obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Since January 2006, he has been assigned to the U.S. Army Contracting Activity - The Americas. His detachment is the 410th Contracting Support Brigade at Fort Sam Houston, and he was on special assignment to Guantanamo Bay from June 2006 to December 2006.
Jesus, then family
Throughout his life, God played a vital role, friends and relatives said.
"His first priority is Jesus Christ and spreading his word," said Mabel Cockerham. "After Jesus Christ, family is his heart."
Cockerham was baptized at age 7 at his family's church, New Friendship Baptist, about a mile from his childhood home, said Verba Egans, the church's secretary, closest neighbor to the home and a friend of the family.
The day before his arrest, John Cockerham was in Castor, baptizing his twin boys, Justin and Jordan, at New Friendship, Egans said.
In Texas, the Cockerhams attended Resurrection Baptist Church in Schertz, where 80 to 85 percent of the 3,500-strong congregation has some ties to the military. There, John Cockerham and his family were active in religious activities. Family deacon Ray Wynn and other Resurrection members described them as nice people.
"Sometimes we'd have military appreciation day," Wynn said. "He'd come in his uniform spit and polished. That showed me he was proud of his uniform."
He was so devout that he had the Army take his donation to New Friendship from his military paycheck while he was away, Egans said.
Guin, who runs a charitable organization that promotes morality and helps out the needy, said Cockerham donated $1,000 to it in 2005.
"I fully believe that even if he did it, he would do it to help somebody out," Guin said. "I don't believe he is greedy. If he did it, he should be punished, and when he gets out, he should give God his glory. But if somebody is railroading him, I hope they go down hard."
Express-News Researcher Michael Knoop contributed to this report.