Tommy Thompson & The Sunken SS Central America

Tommy Thompson & The Sunken SS Central America
Tommy Thompson, the fugitive treasure hunter responsible for recovering thousands of gold bars and rare coins from the shipwrecked S.S. Central American and accused of cheating investors out of their share has been apprehended by authorities and was recently brought before a Florida court.

The S.S. Central American Boat Sets out for Sail in 1857

The S.S. Central America, a 280-ft steamer, later known as the Ship of Gold, operated between Central America and the eastern coast of the United States during the 1850s. In September of 1857, a trip from the Panamanian port of Colon to New York, turned into a nightmare when the steamer was struck and sunk by a Category 2 hurricane off the coast of South Carolina along with more than 550 passengers and crew and 30,000 pounds of gold. About 153 passengers escaped in a lifeboat, 50 were saved from the waters by a Norwegian boat and another three were rescued a week later from a lifeboat. However, none of the 30,000 pounds of gold - 10 short tons, valued at the time at approximately $2 million - were recovered.

Tommy Thompson Sets Out for Exploration

At the age of 31, Tommy Thompson convinced 161 investors to fund an underwater expedition to recover the treasure of the sunken S.S. Central American. Thompson was an oceanic engineer at Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio, was known for his brilliance. This shipwreck- underseabrilliance, coupled with an energetic charisma, drew investors to his vision like flies to honey. Though Thompson was following in the footsteps of countless others who failed to find the wreckage, his methodology was sound after years of preparation and study. Thompson and his company, Columbus America Discovery Group, found the shipwreck on October 1, 1988. They excavated about 5 percent of the sunken gold and by early the next year, he and his crew docked a ship in Norfolk, Virginia, loaded with thousands of pounds of gold that had sat undisturbed at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean for 131 years.

Gold Fever

Not long after Thompson's 1989 victorious return to the Virginia dock, he became entangled in decades-long legal battles with investors, insurers and crew members who claimed to have been cheated of their share of the gold. First up were 39 insurance companies claiming their company insured the cargo ofthat steamer in 1857. The issue was resolved in 1996 when a court awarded Thompson 92 percent of the haul, the rest to be divided among shipwreck-battling-ocean-wavesinsurers. The court's decision gave hope to investors that they'd be compensated soon. In 2000, Thompson sold 532 gold bars and thousands of coins to the gold investment company for about $50 million. But by 2005, 161 investors still hadn't seen any compensation. Two of them, a now-deceased investment firm president and the Dispatch Printing Company, who together invested about $1.2 million, sued Thompson. The following year, nine of Thompson's crew members piled on with suits of their own. On Aug. 13, 2012, a federal judge found Thompson in contempt of court after he failed to appear at a court hearing and a warrant was issued for his arrest. His was located and arrested on Tuesday, January 27, by U.S. Marshals who followed his companion and fellow fugitive Alison Antekeier to a Hilton hotel in West Boca Raton where it is believed the two had been living for a long while.

Thompson reappears in Court

Late last month, the fugitive treasure hunter appeared in a Florida court in shackles after his capture ended more than two years of running from authorities and the investors who funded the expedition that brought him unimaginable fame, wealth and, ultimately, grief.