On May 6 and 7 of this year, Natalie Cochran stood on stage at Shady Spring and Independence high schools and presented select students with a certificate, framed in a handsome folio.
Everything looked on the up and up. The certificates were for a "Coach Michael Cochran Legacy Scholarship" that promised a full-ride scholarship for up to eight years, including an annual $7,500 stipend for personal spending.
Michael Cochran was Natalie’s husband who had died Feb. 11. He had been actively involved as a coach in youth leagues in the area and this was a way Natalie could "honor my husband,” she told The Register-Herald.
"I wanted something good to come out of something bad,” she said. "These were students that either reached out to me, or that my husband knew on a personal level.”
Graduating seniors and some students who had already graduated from Shady Spring, Independence, Woodrow Wilson and Huntington high schools were among the eight recipients. Two of the recipients were nieces of the Cochrans — Rachel Carrico and Abigail Jessup — along with a cousin, Cochran told The Register-Herald.
Students other than the nieces were Alexis Bolen, Adrian Coalson, Dylan Dickens, Cody Hawley, Justin Lovell and Dylan McCall.
Two months later, on July 24 with her personal and business finances in a mess, Cochran filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.
The scholarships went belly up, leaving parents and students scrambling to make up the difference with loans and other scholarships that they had stopped applying for.
A parent of one of the scholarship recipients, who spoke to the newspaper on the condition of anonymity, said once they received word their child was a recipient of the scholarship, they were told by Cochran to cancel all loans they had applied for because her scholarship was going to take care of it all.
"We also didn't apply for any more scholarships. We didn't feel it was fair to other students to be applying for scholarships when we no longer needed them," the parent said.
Their child was still able to accept the West Virginia PROMISE scholarship, but student and parents were told by West Virginia University officials that it was too late to apply for more scholarship assistance through them.
"They told us to try again next year," the parent said. "Luckily we were also able to get back a couple loans."
The student's parents were told by WVU officials that the scholarship Cochran awarded the students was illegitimate.
"When the scholarships were first given out, we thought we had hit the lottery. We even considered a bigger school, because the scholarship was supposed to be good for any school, anywhere," the parent said. "Looking back, I'm glad we didn't.
"We had heard others were getting this scholarship, so we reached out to apply," the parent said. "There was no application process; she just gave it out.
"There are so many people in Raleigh County hurt by this, especially these kids."
In her bankruptcy filing, Cochran listed $500 in an American Electric Power "other financial account," $13.57 at a First Community Bank checking account, and $8 in a Bank of Mount Hope checking account. She said she had $58 "cash on hand.”
A day earlier, on July 23, she had been charged by federal prosecutors in a civil suit with running a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.
Now, she is under criminal investigation by the Raleigh County prosecutor's office into her husband’s death, according to a source inside Raleigh County government.
The federal investigation, led by U.S. Attorney Michael Stuart, is targeting Cochran for money laundering and bank wire fraud, with prosecutors saying she scammed investors of at least $2.8 million.
The Cochrans, in their late 30s, were the owners of Tactical Solutions Group and Technology Management Systems (TMS). Stuart alleges that the companies were money-laundering operations using mail, wire and bank fraud.
Federal prosecutors say investors gave the Cochrans money to purchase or invest in government contracts, with Tactical Solutions and TMS acting as brokers for the contracts.
As a result of her fraud, the civil document says Cochran "obtained millions of dollars in fraud proceeds in her personal bank account as well as the Tactical Solutions and TMS business accounts.
"Using these illicit proceeds, Natalie Cochran engaged in numerous transactions in violation of the money laundering laws, including transactions that resulted in the purchase of the two real properties identified for forfeiture."
Prosecutors stated that the Cochrans lived a lavish lifestyle.
Federal prosecutors also claim the Cochrans solicited investments from a number of individuals for both Tactical Solutions and TMS. The problem, Stuart said, is there were never any government contracts. Instead, he alleged, the Cochrans used investors' funds to make partial returns on investment payments.
No investor has been officially named. But some had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars with the Cochrans – and saw little return on those investments. One investor sank $612,907 into Tactical Solutions, starting in September 2018. Another invested around $467,000 in January 2018. Yet another invested more than $407,000 with TMS in June 2017.
No criminal charges have come from the federal investigation.
Cochran declined to further comment on the scholarships during an interview with The Register-Herald, saying the scholarships were tied in with her business, now currently under investigation.
Investigators are looking for information about her husband's death, which occurred Feb. 11. Five days earlier, according to Cochran, her husband suffered a seizure, fell and hit his head. He died in a hospice, according to Cochran.
Cochran presented the scholarships at annual award assemblies at schools in Raleigh County, although it's been confirmed she did not go through Raleigh County Board of Education officials to discuss the scholarships, nor were they aware.
Raleigh County Board of Education officials, including Superintendent David Price, declined to further comment.
Several other parents who attended the assemblies, but who spoke to the newspaper on the condition of anonymity, claimed Cochran's character was "off" as she was presenting the awards, and said the logistics of the scholarships were "very strange.”
"She told them it was for a scholarship for a university of their choice, it didn't matter where it was, whether it was in state or not, it didn't matter," one parent said. "She told them it didn't matter what their grades were, and it didn't matter what they were studying — they were promised a full ride up to eight years. Eight years for eight different kids, that's a lot of money.
"I've always been under the impression you apply for scholarships, and they're awarded based on need and merit, where you get awarded for your hard work.”
Some families of the students declined to make further comment after confirming their children were no longer receiving scholarship monies.
The scholarships, primarily given as gifts, were not listed in the bankruptcy filing.
In her bankruptcy filing, Cochran, a licensed pharmacist from Daniels, listed assets of $397,000 with liabilities of $1.4 million. She listed $89,000 in wages from 2017 and a self-employed salary of $200,000 in 2018. She listed her current monthly income as $502 in food stamps.
Among the 29 debts and creditors listed in the filing were $445,000 to LCF Group (a financing firm), $250,000 to Premier Bankcard, $81,621 to CAMC HFS (a health care collection service), $17,515 to Duke Health, $15,590 to Sunset Memorial Park, $13,533 to Citi Cards, $8,329 to Raleigh General Hospital, nearly $5,000 in six different claims to the Sheriff of Raleigh County, a variety of other amounts less than $10,000, and nearly $134,000 in student loans.
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