Cochran to plead guilty

Natalie Cochran is escorted out of the West Virginia State Police office in Beckley in handcuffs, arrested on federal charges in October 2019. (Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald)

A former Daniels pharmacist, who is accused by federal prosecutors of operating a $2.8 million Ponzi scheme with her late husband, is set to plead guilty in U.S. Southern District of West Virginia to federal charges, but a West Virginia State Police investigation of potential state criminal charges is ongoing, according to the Raleigh County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Natalie Cochran, 39, was charged by U.S. prosecutors in September 2019 with 26 counts related to bank and mail fraud.

On Friday, federal prosecutors made a motion to request a hearing for a plea deal in the Cochran case, court documents show.

U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Deanna Eder declined Friday to confirm that her office has offered Cochran a plea deal.

“At this time, we cannot comment on the existence of a plea agreement or the terms of any plea agreement,” Eder said. “At the appropriate time, U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart looks forward to discussing this matter fully.”

Prosecutors allege that Cochran and her late husband, Michael Cochran, established two businesses — Tactical Solutions Group and Technology Management Systems (TMS) — and used the businesses to lure family, friends and local business owners to invest nearly $3 million in 2018 and 2019. According to prosecutors, the businesses were not legitimate, and the Cochrans spent investors’ funds on a lavish lifestyle.

In one instance, they hosted a bingo fundraiser for a private youth baseball league and the Shady Spring High School girls’ volleyball team at Shady Spring High School in February. The prizes at the sold-out event were semi-automatic rifles, similar to those used in school shootings in other states.

In another instance, Natalie allegedly promised full scholarships to several high school seniors although there was no money to fund the scholarships. 

In some of those cases, the seniors had declined to accept legitimate scholarships from other sources in anticipation of a promised four-year scholarship from Natalie.

Prior to the start of their freshman year of college, the teens learned the Cochran scholarships were bogus.

The federal charges stem from the alleged money laundering scheme. If Cochran pleads guilty to charges from the federal case, the federal case against her will be resolved.

West Virginia State Police are conducting a second investigation, Raleigh Prosecuting Attorney Special Investigator Jeff Shumate confirmed Friday.

“There’s still an investigation that is ongoing,” Shumate said. “We’re waiting on some information, before we proceed.”

The state investigation is not impacted by the outcome of the federal case against Cochran, he added.

West Virginia State Police in September 2019 said that at least one criminal charge was likely to come after an independent forensic auditor, James Quesenberry, conducted an audit of Shady Spring Youth Baseball League records.

Cochran had served as secretary for the private league while she and Michael owned Tactical Solutions and TMS and after Michael’s death on Feb. 11.

Quesenberry, a private investigator who is involved with the baseball league, reported that he found a number of discrepancies in record keeping and unauthorized expenditures, including a $1,364 debit card charge to Amazon in late January and charges to crowdfunder.com, a website that allows online users to invest in businesses.

Cochran and another league officer, Laci Treadway, were the only ones authorized to make purchases from the account, said Quesenberry.

The funds raised for the league by the semi-automatic rifle bingo game never made it to the league, said Quesenberry. He added that of the approximately $32,000 that was raised, Cochran made a $16,680 donation to the league, but the check bounced.

Shumate on Friday did not comment on the status of a criminal investigation into Michael Cochran’s Feb. 11 death.

In September 2019, Raleigh Circuit Court Judge H.L. Kirkpatrick ordered that Michael’s body be exhumed from Sunset Memorial Gardens.

Kirkpatrick made the order in response to a request by Raleigh Prosecuting Attorney Kristen Keller. Keller had worked in conjunction with federal prosecutors to seek exhumation.

Michael, 38, reportedly died after becoming extremely ill at the couple’s home around three days prior to his death.

Natalie was at the house on the day he reportedly became ill, and several adults were in and out of the home during the time that Michael was ill, witnesses said. Natalie called a West Virginia State Trooper and a medical worker who were friends of the couple but did not call 911 when he became ill and fell and hit his head inside the home.

He was in the house for several hours prior to being transported to Charleston Area Medical Center, witnesses reported.

Michael’s father and stepmother have publicly expressed questions about his death. 

Michael had been hospitalized in November for health complications, and Natalie had reported to family in 2019 that she had cancer.

Months later, she told The Register-Herald that physicians had misdiagnosed her, initially, and that she was later diagnosed with another, slower cancer.

Regarding the exhumation, Shumate said Friday that the county prosecutors are waiting on “findings in reference to that part of the investigation.”

Since Sept. 30, Natalie has been awaiting trial at her 4-H Lake Road home in Daniels, under a home confinement order issued by United States District Magistrate Omar Aboulhosn.

Natalie’s elderly parents moved into the home with her so her father could serve as her custodian. 

In December, Aboulhosn modified the terms of Natalie’s bond to allow her to leave the home, except between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Natalie was arrested in front of her children at their family home on Sept. 26 and placed in shackles, prompting critics to ask why police did not wait until the children were at school before arresting their mother.

Police responded that they had followed appropriate guidelines when making the arrest.

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