Published March 30, 2012
Richard Cochran of Baton Rouge, La., is 79 years old and looking for work in the construction industry.
"I'm a tough, old construction manager," he said after six decades of building everything from gas stations to the Kennedy Space Center.
Cochran had the misfortune of investing in Certificates of Deposit at the Stanford Financial Group. Turns out, his hard-earned retirement funds went into a $7 billion international Ponzi scheme, and its mastermind, Allen Stanford, is slated for sentencing June 14.
Angie Shaw, the volunteer director of the Stanford Victims Coalition, said she gets about 500 emails a day from folks like Cochran.
"Their stories are horrific, and they're getting even worse," she said. "A lot of these people have died impoverished."
Cochran grew up in Indiana, getting up at 5 a.m. to dig ditches. "They use backhoes today," he said. "I used a pick and shovel."
He served in the Korean War, rising to the level of staff sergeant, and worked in the Army Corps of Engineers piping gasoline and diesel fuel to troops.
In 1962, he found himself in a boat in the Atlantic, watching John Glenn getting blasted into orbit. He said to himself, "I sure would like to see this thing go." He moved to Florida and eventually landed construction work at the Kennedy Space Center.
Over the years, Cochran helped build everything from oil refineries to nuclear power plants, and he did not retire until age 70. "I guess I should have just stayed working when I retired," he said, "but that's the way it goes."
His wife died in 1998. When he remarried, to a woman 22 years younger, his best man told him about Stanford.
Cochran said he was frustrated with his IRA account at Merrill Lynch, always losing whatever money it gained, and never really going anywhere but up and down.
The local Stanford rep ran Iron Man triathlons and "had an office that would impress the president," Cochran said.
"He said we'd have to be worth a million before we'd ever be considered for Stanford," Cochran said. "When I ran up my net worth, it was only $800,000. He said, "Let's just make that house worth a little more money, and that property--40 acres in Mississippi--let's just make that a little higher. That'll get you up to $1 million. Had he not done that, I would have never got in, see."
Cochran kept his money in Stanford CDs for five years, until one morning in 2009, when he saw a news report about an alleged Ponzi scheme and government regulators shutting the sprawling operation down.
"I turned sick," Cochran said. "I spent all my time nursing my retirement money. I knew when I went to bed at night, I had enough money to last me 30 years. Then I woke up the next morning and it was gone."
His wife has gone back to work as a nurse after seven years of retirement. And Cochran is not only looking for work himself, but dipping into his apocalypse account.
"My daddy always told me, be prepared," Cochran said. "Have something backed up if you lose your money. So I would buy gold and silver coins, and guns."
Cochran's father raised seven kids working as a welder. It turned out to be good advice, allowing Cochran to get by selling gold and guns.
He still has at least one shot to recover his money.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has sued the Securities Investor Protection Corporation, demanding it accept claims from Stanford investors. SIPC has argued that while parts of the Stanford empire are covered by SIPC, the Antiguan bank that issued the CDs weren't.
"I don't believe the people at the SIPC know what the SIPC stands for," Cochran said. "Every time I turn around, somebody isn't doing their job."
Shaw, the Stanford Victims Coalition director, said a court ruling is due out any day.
"People like Dick Cochran are living Social Security check to Social Security check, sitting on pins and needles, waiting for a court order that SIPC will probably turn around and appeal," she said.
Cochran said he's fit enough to put in the long hours construction work demands, but he wasn't planning on selling guns and gold to get through his golden years. "I would love getting up in the morning with no place to go, and nothing to do once I got there," he said.
He keeps moving forward, uncertain how things will turn out.
"If I was to get my money back that I lost, I'd have to invest it again," he said. "It scares the hell out of me."
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at email@example.com or tellittoal.com)