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How Treasure Hunter Tommy Thompson Found $50 Million Worth Of Gold — And Why He's In Jail Until He Admits Where It Is

Tommy Thompson
Tommy Thompson holds a $50 pioneer gold piece retrieved earlier that year—1989—from the wreck of the SS Central America.

Just like any treasure hunt, the details are sketchy, a modern-day version of a deserted island map, with an X marking the spot. But here's what we know.

Back in 2010, famed treasure hunter Tommy Thompson told his girlfriend to show up to a self-storage facility in Fort Lauderdale. She had briefcases—they can't recall how many—holding 150 pounds in gold coins.

Five hundred coins, to be exact—worth at least a couple million.

Thompson, now 66 and sitting indefinitely in federal prison, and his girlfriend say she passed the briefcases to someone Thompson found online, representing a company that was supposed to keep them safe. Maybe keep them in the storage facility. Maybe take them to Belize.

And from there, who knows what happened with the gold? Perhaps Thompson and his girlfriend made up the story to keep the fortune for themselves. Possibly, the person who took the coins made off like a bandit.

Or maybe, after continuing on with this story, by reading between the lines of Thompson's tale, you'll know exactly where to find the gold.

Before you start putting Xs on a map, here is a bit of background on Thompson. It begins in the mid-'80s in Columbus, Ohio, a Rust Belt city suffering at the time from a string of major closures. Westinghouse and the Ohio Penitentiary were among the places where thousands got pink slips.

Maybe after a string of bad luck, people in Columbus were ready for a get-rich-quick plan—which is what Thomas G. “Tommy” Thompson offered them.

Treasure Hunter Tommy Thompson
In August 1991, Tommy Thompson, left, stands at the helm of the Arctic Explorer in Norfolk, Virginia.

Thompson had worked as an oceanic engineer at Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit research group in Columbus that has developed everything from armor plating for World War II tanks to the fuel used in the first nuclear submarine. Having become obsessed with the idea of finding sunken treasure, Thompson built an underwater robot he named “Nemo.” Showing it off to prospective investors from 1985 to 1986, Thompson convinced 161 people and companies to chip in $12.7 million to fund his plans. This wasn't just friends an d family—Thompson lured some of the city's biggest companies at the time to invest, including the owners of the local newspaper, The Columbus Dispatch. Convincing the press to come on board would in part become his undoing.

With the money, Thompson created Recovery Limited, an ocean exploration outfit. It would search for a lost fortune that others had spent more than a century trying to find.

Thompson hired a crew, bought ships and headed out to deep water off South Carolina's coast. Surprisingly quickly, they literally struck gold. In 8,000 feet of water, Thompson discovered the wreck of the SS Central America.

The ship had gone down in a hurricane in 1857. Four hundred and twenty-five people drowned. With them, 10 tons of gold that had originated in the hills outside San Francisco sunk to the ocean floor. In today's dollars, the gold is worth $292 million.

By 1989, Thompson and his crew had pulled up three tons of gold. They reported that they had spotted even more nearby, just waiting for them to return to the wreck. They had explored just five percent of the site and figured over the course of the next few years they could pull up tons more in gold.

SS Central America
A contemporary painting of the SS Central America

At the time, the press portrayed Thompson as a swashbuckling treasure hunter who had combined modern-day technology with the gumption of a privateer. Having invested in his company, his hometown newspaper portrayed Thompson as a contemporary Robin Hood; someone who would spread a fortune around Columbus. “This gold is part of the largest treasure trove in American history,” Thompson said in 1989. “But the history of the SS Central America is … a celebration of American ideals: free enterprise and hard work.”

But, when he arrived back at the docks from one of his trips to the wreck site, a lawsuit waited for him. Thirty-nine insurance companies that had paid out on a policy that insured the SS Central America claimed they were owed the gold. The lawsuit became a morass of legal filings, appeals and reversed judgments. It would take a decade before the case was settled, with Thompson and his investors awarded 92.2 percent of the treasure.

“It was a shame the insurance companies were allowed to sue him,” says Gary Kinder, a Seattle author who wrote a book about Thompson. “It brought everything to a screeching halt.”

Two years later, in 2000, Thompson unloaded his company's gold to the California Gold Marketing Group for $52 million. Thompson has said the proceeds went to pay his expenses and legal fees, and some investors would claim in court papers that they saw none of it. In 2005, The Columbus Dispatch owners and another investor sued Thompson, seeking a full accounting of his company's finances. Nine people who had worked to salvage the gold sued next, and in 2006 a federal judge ordered Thompson to turn over a full inventory. Thompson's company filed for bankruptcy in 2012, claiming there was no money left for investors.

In August 2012, Thompson was expected to show up to a court hearing in one of his many legal cases. He was supposed to tell the judge what happened to 500 coins that were still unaccounted for; that never made it into the big sell-off of the treasure.

Captain Herndon
Captain Herndon went down with his ship after doing all he could for his passengers and crew aboard the SS Central America

Instead, Thompson ran.

Thompson began his life on the run by renting a mansion in Vero Beach, according to court papers. He brought along his former assistant-turned-girlfriend, Alison Antekeier. They lived like squatters, with few pieces of furniture or clothing, they paid for everything with cash, and they hid their money in pipes buried in the ground.

Marshals in Columbus learned in October 2012 where they were hiding. But Thompson and Antekeier fled days before they arrived. Inside the home, police found a dozen cell phones, a book on how to live off the grid and straps used to hold stacks of bills, stamped “$10,000.”

Thompson and Antekeier then lived for a year at the Hilton Boca Raton Suites in Boca Raton, using a fake name for registration and paying in cash. When marshals arrived, they found Thompson in a Lincoln parked in front of the hotel. According to an arrest report, he had $6,500 in cash and four cell phones.

Back in Ohio, a federal judge ordered Thompson to reveal the source of the money he was using while on the run. Attorneys for his former investors claimed he had pocketed the 500 missing gold coins.

Thompson told the court the story about the self-storage facility in Fort Lauderdale. He claimed he didn't remember many of the details. Where the gold coins are now, that's anybody's guess, he said.

“I wanted them to be safe,” Thompson said during five hours of meandering testimony this past November. At one point, he claimed he didn't know where they were located, but then under pressure from attorneys, he said he believed they were his compensation for the years he spent working to find the wreck.

Garden of Gold
“Garden of Gold” on the site of the SS Central America at a depth of 8,000 feet in 34 F water

“I'm supposed to have the keys to my freedom by telling where the coins are, but I don't know where the coins are,” he said. “I put them in an off-shore trust. The trustee can put them anywhere he wants.”

In court, Antekeier said she moved the missing coins around over the course of four years, shipping them between California and Jacksonville. Antekeier testified that in 2010, Thompson told her to bring the coins to a self-storage business in Fort Lauderdale. She put the coins, weighing about 150 pounds, in four or five suitcases. She claims she handed them over to a stranger and simply walked out.

In late November, a jury awarded Thompson's investors $19.4 million in a civil case that claimed he had cheated them. Just how they will collect the money, however, isn't clear.

The federal judge in Thompson's case, Algenon L. Marbley, has refused to believe Thompson's claims that he doesn't know where the missing coins went. “As long as you are content to be a master of misdirection and deceit to the court, I am content to let you sit,” Marbley said in court.

The judge ordered Thompson be held in federal prison on contempt charges until he came clean about where the coins are located. In court papers, Marbley wrote that the case has a “tortured history” and “littered the dockets of so many courts, just as the Central America's treasure once littered the floor of the Atlantic.” For every day Thompson sits in jail, the judge fines him $1,000. The daily tally is added to a $250,000 fine Thompson was already assessed for refusing to tell the court where the coins went.

Tommy Thompsonand Alison Antekeier
Police released photos of Tommy Thompson and girlfriend Alison Antekeier after they went on the run.

And that's, at least upon this writing, where Thompson has remained. Thompson, inmate No. 07332-104, has called the low-security Federal Correctional Institution Milan in eastern Michigan home, and maybe he will for the rest of his days.

If Thompson knows where the gold coins are located, the secret just might die with him. He left clues, though. The meeting in Fort Lauderdale. The reference to Belize. The briefcases.

Perhaps someone can scour his hundreds of hours of testimony and depositions for clues. Maybe there's a witness out there to this secret 2010 meeting. A modern-day treasure hunter might just come up with this fortune. It just might be you.