There's nothing new to report here (at least not yet), but in case you were wondering, Columbus Monthly published an article about the legal limbo of S.S. Central America figure Tommy Thompson.
Tommy Thompson with lawyer
As the video stream blinks to life, the bearded inmate appears, sitting impassively as he waits for his virtual hearing to begin. Thomas
Tommy Thompson, wearing a short-sleeve brown shirt, his graying hair in a ponytail, occasionally glances to his right, scratches his beard and sips from a plastic cup.
It's April 14, 2023, Thompson's 2,677th day behind bars for keeping a secret.
The road leading to this moment stretches back decades, to the day in 1988 when Thompson, then a Battelle scientist, made one of the biggest discoveries of sunken deep-sea gold in history. Heralded as a genius at the time, he's a legal oddity today as he sits in a cell in a federal penitentiary in Milan, Michigan, unable—or unwilling—to reveal the location of 500 coins cast from some of that gold. For his refusal, he's been declared in contempt of court by Columbus federal judge Algenon Marbley and held for more than seven years, racking up $2.7 million in fines—and counting.
Sept. 11 marks the 35th anniversary of the day in 1988 that Thompson, a research scientist and inventor, located the S.S. Central America, known as the
Ship of Gold. The gold rush-era ship sank in a hurricane off South Carolina in 1857 with thousands of pounds of gold aboard, contributing to an economic panic. A few weeks after the ship's discovery, a high school marching band played
When You Wish Upon a Star and other songs, and hundreds later cheered Thompson as he sailed into Norfolk, Virginia, aboard a ship laden with gold coins and bars.
Part of our American heritage, this was history in the form of a national treasure. And we had found it, Thompson wrote in
America's Lost Treasure, his account of the find.
His jubilation was short-lived. The very day that Thompson sailed into Norfolk—Oct. 4, 1989—39 insurance companies sued Thompson in federal court, claiming they had originally insured the gold that sank with the S.S. Central America. The treasure, they contended, belonged to them. Exacerbating Thompson's legal woes, a handful of his investors sued in 2005, arguing they paid him $12.7 million to find the ship but never saw any money. As his troubles mounted, Thompson moved into a mansion in Florida, refused to use his real name on utility bills and paid his rent with moldy $100 bills.
In 2012, federal judge Edmund Sargus ordered Thompson to appear in court in Columbus to disclose the whereabouts of the 500 coins minted from the ship's gold. Instead, Thompson disappeared. Three years passed before U.S. marshals tracked him down to a hotel near Boca Raton, where he was living with his longtime companion, Alison Antekeier. As recounted in court filings, the pair had taken numerous steps to avoid detection, counting
How to Be Invisible—a book about evading law enforcement—among their possessions.
In April 2015, Thompson pleaded guilty to failing to appear in 2012 and was sentenced to two years in prison and fined $250,000. Thompson's criminal sentence was then delayed until the issue of the gold coins was resolved. (Even if Marbley released him tomorrow on the contempt charge, Thompson must still serve those two additional years.)
Thompson's plea deal required him to answer questions in closed-door sessions about the whereabouts of the coins, which the government says are worth about $2.5 million. Importantly, he had to
assist interested parties in finding the coins under that deal. Despite that arrangement, including an hours-long interview in fall 2015, lawyers representing those suing him contended his responses weren't forthcoming.
On Dec. 15, 2015, Marbley found Thompson in contempt of court and ordered him to stay in jail—and pay that $1,000 daily fine—until he responded. In the years that followed, in hearing after hearing, Thompson would maintain there was nothing more he could say.
Federal law typically prohibits jailing defendants on contempt charges longer than 18 months. But such incarcerations can run much longer, with Thompson's tenure behind bars equaling a handful of others nationally. In each of those cases, judges ultimately released the individuals, ruling that further incarceration wouldn't change their minds.
Recent developments suggest Thompson may, too, finally see the light of day. Beginning in September 2022, Marbley hinted he was feeling conflicted about the situation.
Though the court has not found sufficient merit in Mr. Thompson's motions, the court does hold its own concerns about the duration of Mr. Thompson's incarceration, Marbley wrote in a court order.
The government is also ready to relent. In a May court filing, Glenn-Applegate said it was time to lift the contempt order and force Thompson to serve his two-year criminal sentence. He'd already said as much at the April 14 hearing.
Meanwhile, the legend of Thompson's discovery continues to grow. In January 2022, the largest S.S. Central America ingot ever offered at auction, an 866.19-ounce find known as a Justh & Hunter ingot, sold for $2.16 million through Dallas-based Heritage Auctions.
And on April 14—the same day as Thompson's latest hearing—National Geographic and BBC Studios' Documentary Unit announced the development of a three-part limited series, Lost Gold, that will tell Thompson's story. Next May, a 20th-anniversary edition of Gary Kinder's definitive history of the S.S. Central America discovery—
Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea—will be released by Grove Atlantic Books.
Marbley will likely rule later this summer whether Thompson might celebrate that release free from his contempt charge, though still facing more time for the criminal conviction.
To read the complete article, see:
Tarnished Treasure: Will Shipwreck Hunter Tommy Thompson's Legal Limbo Finally End?
Wayne Homren, Editor
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