Cybersleuth

How a former FBI agent with a yen for computers became one of the most powerful men in Miami

That humility can be traced to simple roots. His grandparents, descendants of Irish and German immigrants, farmed tobacco in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in rural Tennessee. Cochran's father, Howard, was raised in a small shack near Lewisburg. In 1918 Howard Cochran became the first member of his clan to continue study after high school, when he enrolled at a teacher's college in Normal, Tennessee. There he met and married Verley Shanklin. The two returned to Lewisburg following their graduation in 1922 and opened a one-room elementary school. "They were the only two teachers in town," says Cochran. "He was the principal and she was the teacher."

The Great Depression forced many farming families to flee to urban centers. The Cochrans followed the trend by moving to Detroit, where Howard found employment on an automobile assembly line. Verley became a housewife. The couple's first child, Gary, was born in 1938. Hugh followed seven years later. During the late Forties Howard opened a factory that manufactured concrete tiles. In 1954 just as the factory began turning a profit, Howard Cochran was diagnosed with cancer and soon died. Driven back into the work force, Verley renewed her teaching certificate and began providing for her sons, even helping them through college.

In 1964 Hugh Cochran enrolled at the University of Michigan. His high school sweetheart Victoria joined him on campus, and they married during their junior year. The couple graduated in 1968. He took two bachelor's degrees, one in mathematics and the other in physics. She earned a B.A. in psychology. They returned home to Detroit and landed jobs in the school district. He began teaching math at an inner-city junior high school; she became a guidance counselor at a suburban elementary school.

Though he was raised in Detroit, Cochran identifies more with his Southern roots
photo courtesy Hugh Cochran
Though he was raised in Detroit, Cochran identifies more with his Southern roots
Cochran as a boy
photo courtesy Hugh Cochran
Cochran as a boy

Soon Cochran became frustrated with the system. Three adolescent girls in his class reported they were raped by family members. One student came to school barefoot on a cold winter day. "It was a difficult environment to learn in," Cochran recalls. "It was a difficult environment to teach in."

Around this time he remembers viewing an episode of the television show It Takes a Thief. The plot involved an FBI investigation. One of the characters stated that the bureau was made up strictly of lawyers and accountants. That struck Cochran as odd. He and his wife debated whether the agency could hire nonprofessionals. To settle the dispute Cochran wrote a letter to the local FBI office.

Several weeks later the bureau responded with an application, which Cochran tossed aside. Then a lunchtime food fight at the school became so rowdy the staff evacuated the cafeteria and locked the students inside. Cochran was one of several teachers who watched the uproar from a second-floor balcony. "It was out of a prison riot scene in a movie, except they weren't fighting each other," he recalls. "No grownup could have gone in there." That night he looked more closely at the government paperwork and learned there was a chance to double his $7000 yearly salary. In 1969 Hugh Cochran entered the FBI academy and after three months of training, headed to the bureau's San Antonio, Texas, office.


Downtown Detroit in 1970. Cochran spends a few days at home preparing for his move south. He is proud of his shiny badge, FBI identification card, and service revolver. He feels invincible. Then a drugstore clerk refuses to cash his check, and it's back to earth for the G-man.

The following week Cochran and Victoria move into a one-bedroom apartment in San Antonio. His first case involves the attempted theft of a jet from Randolph Air Force Base. The plane is discovered in a heap just 100 yards from the end of a runway. Beer cans surround the fuselage. Cochran starts searching for suspects and finds an airman with cuts and bruises that, the soldier claims, resulted from a fall. But the FBI crime lab finds the airman's prints on some of the cans. Confronted with the new information, the airman confesses. He is discharged from the air force.

That case and others Cochran solved during his first year in the Lone Star state whet his appetite for bigger investigations. "Every new agent wants to work the best cases in the biggest cities," Cochran says. "I put in for Los Angeles. They gave me Miami." In 1971 South Florida provided a panoply of crime, but the long hours of detective work took a toll on his marriage to Victoria; the high school sweethearts divorced in 1976.

Three years later Cochran met his second (and current) wife Lynea on a blind date. Cochran took the tall, pretty, blonde to a simple dinner at TGI Friday's near The Falls shopping mall in South Miami-Dade. "It just grew from there and kept getting better," recalls Lynea, who was born on Long Island to Norwegian parents. "He was different from all the rest." They married in January 1981.

Cochran's experience paid off in the early Eighties. He helped solve some of the area's biggest cases. In 1983 thieves stole 30 boxes of gold wire worth more than one million dollars from an Eastern Airlines warehouse at Miami International Airport. Cochran, already working other airport thefts, was assigned to the case. Through an informant, he learned that a ramp worker had masterminded the crime with three helpers. The thieves sold the gold to a North Miami pawnshop for a fraction of its value. The four Eastern employees, along with the pawnbroker, went to jail. Most of the precious metal was recovered.

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