Facing a multi-agency investigation on the heels of being charged by federal prosecutors in a civil suit with running a multi-million dollar Ponzi scheme, Natalie Cochran sat down with The Register-Herald on Wednesday to address rumors and innuendo circulating on social media.
Robert Dunlap, Cochran's bankruptcy attorney with a practice in Beckley, accompanied her in the interview, and said the effort to start rumors about Cochran, prior to the conclusion of any investigation, seems to him to be cohesively orchestrated.
Both Cochran and Dunlap declined to comment on whether she is the subject of a criminal investigation. A West Virginia State Police spokesman on Tuesday also refused to state whether the police inquiry is a criminal one but said that State Police are working with federal authorities on the matter.
Cochran and her late husband, Michael B. Cochran, were the owners of Tactical Solutions Group (Tactical) and Technology Management Systems (TMS). While company websites promoted the businesses as government-contracted suppliers to the United States Department of Defense and other defense agencies, according to civil documents filed by U.S. Attorney Michael Stuart in U.S. Southern District Court, Tactical and TMS did not have a single government contract.
Instead, Stuart alleges in the documents filed July 23, that Cochran, who was a licensed pharmacist, ran a Ponzi scheme with her husband that stole at least $2.8 million from investors.
Stuart alleges that the companies were money-laundering operations using mail, wire and bank fraud.
"As a result of her fraud, Natalie Cochran obtained millions of dollars in fraud proceeds in her personal bank account as well as the Tactical Solutions and TMS business accounts," the filing states. "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."
Stuart said Natalie and/or Michael "solicited investments from a number of individuals" for government contracts, including a number of contracts supposedly for the Department of Defense. Stuart said investors gave the Cochrans money to purchase or invest in government contracts, with Tactical Solutions and TMS acting as brokers for the contracts.
"The Cochrans also used the illicit investment proceeds to support their outwardly lavish lifestyle by making luxurious purchases, dining out frequently, taking vacations and making payments towards the defendants' properties," Stuart stated.
Cocharan, along with Dunlap, declined Thursday to talk about the federal investigation into the two businesses. Instead, the two addressed public vitriol that they say has been inflicted on Cochran and her two children since the civil investigation started earlier this summer.
"It's been very public that Natalie was part of a business that everybody invested in, that did not work out," Dunlap said. "Yes, there have been allegations that the business was 'what-have-you.'
"But at the end of the day, that's something that would have to be proved," he said. "Bringing up every time Natalie or her husband had a tiff with somebody ... all of this (is) to make her look bad."
On July 24, Natalie filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy, listing assets of $397,000 with liabilities of $1.4 million. She listed her current monthly income as $502 in food stamps.
Among the 29 creditors listed in the filing, Cochran estimated her liabilities at $1.4 million, including $445,000 to LCF Group (a financing firm), $250,000 to Premier Bankcard, nearly $134,000 in student loans, $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, and a variety of other amounts less than $10,000.
Since her bankruptcy filing, federal prosecutors have notified a federal judge of their intent to claim three pieces of real estate owned by the Cochrans — the Cochrans family home at 4-H Lake Road in Daniels, which Stuart said was the main office of Tactical and TMS, and property at 219 N. Eisenhower and 210 Parkwood, which federal prosecutors say were purchased “during the time” of the alleged fraud.
Natalie said Thursday that she has reported all of her property in her bankruptcy filing.
"Nothing was intentionally left off the bankruptcy," she said. "It may not have been in my name.
"Maybe those assets were only in Michael's name. Maybe they were in the business name," she added. "I don't know that I can speak to that, but my bankruptcy was filed as accurately as possible."
During the time of the alleged fraud, the Cochrans — high school sweethearts who had grown up in Raleigh County and were familiar faces in their hometowns — were prominent supporters of Shady Spring High School and Shady Spring Middle School sports, donating a trailer to Shady Middle School for athletics use.
Through Tactical, they even donated semi-automatic rifles as prizes in a February bingo game. Held at Shady Spring High, the guns helped raise funds for the Shady Spring youth baseball program and Shady High volleyball, Cochran said. One parent held posters of the weapons in the air for bingo players to see their prizes, for collection after the event.
Dunlap said the weapons were a huge hit at the bingo game.
The Cochrans also had troubles with other Shady Spring parents. In 2017, a local "war" had broken out between two factions at what was then Shady Spring Tiger Football League, with Natalie, at the direction of a West Virginia Secretary of State official, reporting what she believed was financial wrongdoing to West Virginia State Police. An investigation exonerated the league board members of any wrongdoing in May 2017 but showed bad record-keeping, State Police Cpl. J.A. Marsh said Tuesday.
Other parents are still upset over the incident and have said they felt unfairly attacked by the Cochrans.
On Thursday, Dunlap noted there is still animosity from some in the league towards Cochran.
Since The Register-Herald first reported on the federal investigation, Facebook users have launched attacks against Cochran, he added.
"There's just a lot of people that had bad blood over the years, but now they have a mechanism to sit at their computers at night and pass all the venom they want, and it looks legitimate because people we know are putting their names to it, and that's hard to react to," said the attorney.
A prominent theme on social media platforms is that she is being investigated for causing the death of her late husband, who died Feb. 11 and was interred at Sunset Memorial Gardens following a private ceremony that she had planned, she said, in accordance to Mike's wishes.
Cochran addressed the rumors on Thursday.
Cochran said she and Mike had "living wills" drawn up in 2007. In December 2017, after they had had a second child and their relatives were getting older, they decided to make new wills regarding who would have custody of their children and new documents granting medical power of attorney, she said.
Cochran shared the notarized document with The Register-Herald.
"I was my husband's (power of attorney). He was mine," she said.
Mike also named Chris Davis, a family friend and local attorney, as his second power of attorney, Mike's living will shows.
She said that Mike had been hospitalized twice in the three months immediately prior to his death for an unidentified illness. Mike had a seizure, she said, five days before his Feb. 11 death, ultimately leading to his demise.
"The (rumor) that he died at home is incorrect," she said. "And the fact that people are saying he died with just me, that's incorrect.
"Somebody was at our house that whole time," she reported. "We had two first responders at the house within 20 minutes of his seizure.
"We had a physician's assistant and a state trooper at the house within 20 minutes of his fall."
She added that Davis came to the house on the same day that the first responders came, in order to help get Mike to a hospital.
Mike died at Bowers Hospice House on Feb. 11, Natalie said. The State Medical Examiner ruled the manner of death to be of "natural causes." Natalie said that Mike had been burned badly as a teen and had told Natalie he did not want to be cremated. She said she honored his wishes.
Despite rumors, she said, Mike's remains have not been exhumed.
Cochran said Mike was a "private person" who kept a tight circle of friends. According to her, Mike had left specific advance directives.
"Mike didn't have any family," she said. "He had his mom and his stepdad he talked to, but he didn't speak to his stepbrothers.
"He didn't speak to his dad," she said. "He had no relatives he had any type of relationship with, and that was just the nature of him.
"He had a very tight circle," Natalie reported. "He was very private."
According to Cochran, Mike had not spoken to his father and stepmother, Michael and Pat Cochran of Raleigh County, since 2010, after Natalie and Mike refused to allow Pat to babysit their children, leading to a contentious phone call between Mike and Pat. According to Cochran, Mike hung up on Pat in 2010 and refused to take phone calls over the next "few years" when his dad and stepmom tried calling him.
"I was under the directive (from Mike) that (Mike's dad) wasn't even allowed to come to the funeral," she said. "I was talking to my mom, and I was like, as a mother, if that was my child, I would want to be there, so I invited (Mike's dad) to come.
"But Mike had advance directives. We were told 'closed ceremony, only his small circle, no outsiders, no wake'."
Michael's father and stepmother had expressed hurt at the private ceremony in a Sunday local news segment. They also called their late son "healthy." They have planned a memorial service for Aug. 17 at the cemetery — a move Cochran said Mike would not have approved.
"Mike would've hated a memorial," she said.
Several attempts to reach Michael and Patricia Cochran were unsuccessful.
Natalie added that neither she nor her children had been invited to the service and that her children heard about it from media reports.
"We didn't know about it until it was put in the news," she said. "But my kids have already buried their father.
"I'm not going to put them through that emotional trauma, again. I love my kids more than anything," she added.
Dunlap said rumors about Mike's death has resulted in undue pressure on the Cochran children.
"What bothers me most about what's happening to my client is this is a time she should be helping her children focus on grief counseling," said Dunlap. "But instead, she's consumed every day with people contacting her with salacious comments about her, investigation components no one's heard of, the rawest, hatefulest stuff and family members that haven't had contact with her or her children in 10 years jumping on (a TV broadcast)."
Natalie said that she has heard rumors that she and Mike, who worked in the technology field and once worked for Work Force West Virginia, had signed a prenuptial agreement.
"That's a lie," she countered. "We were high school sweethearts.
"We didn't have a prenup because we, literally, had nothing to our names."
She said they met when Mike, an Independence High School student, came into a sporting goods store at Crossroads Mall where Natalie, who attended Greater Beckley Christian School, was working.
"We just started dating and have been together 22 years," she said, adding that she turned down a "full ride" to Concord College to study broadcasting and classical piano, took out student loans and followed Mike, a pharmaceutical student, to West Virginia University.
Natalie, who recently left a job at Access Health, got the pharmacy degree, while Mike got a degree in computer management. They married a year into college.
"He was my best friend, and I would give anything to have him back," she said. "But you know, there's good and bad with everything.
"It hurts me that people think I could hurt him, and he was a giant.
"He was bigger than life."
Cochran, too, had battled health problems in the months prior to Mike's death. She said that she battles chronic illness. After she had heart surgery, a doctor at Charleston Area Medical Center diagnosed her with lymphocytic leukemia, which is blood and bone marrow cancer.
She said CAMC referred her to Cleveland Clinic, but it did not accept her insurance, leading her to go to Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C., for treatment.
At Duke, she said, doctors told her she did not have lymphocytic leukemia. Duke physicians diagnosed Natalie with myelofibrosis, a rare form of bone marrow cancer that has a slow progression rate but results in patients feeling weak due to severe anemia.
"It's still a battle I'm waging," she said. "I'm not being seen at Duke anymore.
"I'm being seen local."
She said the $17,515 debt to Duke Health listed on her bankruptcy filing is for her medical bills, not Mike's.
Cochran, who worked as a pharmacist until November 2017, said that she resigned from her job and was not fired from any position. She declined to offer the reason on Wednesday.
"It will come out," she said. "If it ever goes to trial, I'll get my day.
"It will come out."