By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By 2003, Cobra had realized that hunting criminals was his true calling. He filed for bankruptcy, dissolved Hi-Rise Repair, and devoted himself full-time to private investigations. It was a feast-or-famine profession, but he was willing to roll the dice. And he earned a reputation for fearlessness.
"There aren't that many good people in the business, because you would starve if you didn't produce," Dicker says. "He's good at what he does; he's made a lot of connections."
"He is a relentless investigator, that's for sure," says Jeff Poole, a Broward County sheriff's deputy and friend of Cobra's. "He's after you, you're almost guaranteed to get caught."
Millman says Cobra's aggressiveness is an asset, especially when it's time to knock on a fugitive's door. "You think he's just full of crap," Millman adds. "But if you see him on the streets... he's the best of the best."
Of course, Cobra's also been accused of stepping over the line. Six years ago, he and Tank flew to Wisconsin to retrieve a fugitive couple who had skipped out on a Florida bond. In a federal lawsuit, they were accused of illegally transporting the fugitives across state lines. (The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court.)
Then there's the toll his job has taken on his personal life. In the late '90s, Cobra finally told his wife of 24 years about his secret life. By 2006, they divorced. Now she and his children live in Tallahassee, and child support bills take a big bite out of his monthly expenses.
Some days, Cobra is left feeling that he must prove to his family that his profession is a righteous one, not just some overgrown game of Rambo. He once took his mother with him on a job, just to prove to her that he was on the right side of the law.
On February 10, the 17-year-old who was babysitting Haleigh Cummings called police to say the child had disappeared from her bedroom the night before. Camera crews immediately descended on Satsuma, a rural town north of Ocala National Forest. Shortly after, a woman who advocates for missing children asked Cobra to investigate. Cobra left Fort Lauderdale for Satsuma on March 10, telling his girlfriend he would be gone for two days. He stayed nearly a month.
He says he spent 21 hours a day interviewing a colorful assortment of locals — many of them seemingly drug-addled and with the "I.Q. of a rock," Cobra says. The characters he encountered sounded ripped from the pages of pulp fiction: Mr. Snodgrass, Mrs. Lookadoo, someone named Nay-Nay. "It's a turmoil of shit up there," Cobra said. After combing the swamps and woods, he'd come back to his hotel room by 1 a.m. to catch CNN's Nancy Grace giving her latest spin on the story, then head out again by 4 a.m.
As usual, Cobra also brought camera crews with him. He invited Art Harris, an independent journalist from Atlanta who was working on a documentary about missing children, to shadow him in his search for Haleigh.
But this Hollywood-style investigation didn't impress Putnam County's law enforcement community. They thought Cobra was violent and resented him for sticking his nose in a case so far from his home base, Cobra says. Nor did the local bondsmen appreciate the out-of-town competition as Cobra interviewed people involved with drugs in the area and pulled the files of sexual predators — "diddlers," as he calls them. Cobra calls his detractors "jealous haters."
Lt. Johnny Greenwood of the Putnam Sheriff's Office characterizes Cobra's work more diplomatically. "He got relatively decent information while he was here, but he didn't get anything that was new," Greenwood says. "A lot of stuff he was doing just brought unneeded media attention."
Yet Cobra had a cheerleader in Haleigh's great-grandmother, Ruby Kanger, who signed a contract with Cobra to have him keep working on the case. Not for much money — she says she might have paid him five bucks and gave him $20 to get lunch. But she appreciated Cobra's dogged determination. "I think he's like us. He didn't want to leave any stone unturned," she says by phone. Kanger says Cobra has provided her with details that police never shared. "The police have been very tight-lipped... This case has just about killed us because we don't know anything."
Cobra started hearing talk about Daniel Snodgrass, a lean, gray-haired 55-year-old who had been arrested for capital sexual battery two years earlier, accused of sexually abusing a 9-year-old girl who came to him for unicycle lessons. Snodgrass had been out on a $70,000 bond since April 2008 and wore an ankle bracelet with a GPS tracking device.
Soon after Cobra arrived in Satsuma in March, he heard that Snodgrass had been trying to give away his furniture and sell his boat. He'd also been hanging around an office Haleigh's family set up to collect donations to aid in the search. Cobra wondered if Snodgrass might be planning to skip town and had a nagging feeling the man might be a suspect in Haleigh's case. "I just needed to rule him in, rule him out," Cobra says now.