Deep-sea secrets and the ‘Ship of Gold’: Why a treasure hunter sits behind bars as bounty tours nation

A treasure hunter, a historic ship laden with tons of gold and a bunch of angry investors. The saga of the S.S. Central America and the man who found it deepens by the day.

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A treasure trove of artifacts recovered from a 165-year-old shipwreck at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean is about to go on a nationwide tour while the man responsible for the discovery sits behind bars for a sixth year.

Tommy Thompson, a deep-sea explorer who found the S.S. Central America shipwreck in 1988, could get out of the federal prison in Michigan if he would just reveal the whereabouts of 500 gold coins.

Thompson, who turned 70 while sitting in his cell last month, is being held in contempt of court and fined $1,000 a day for every day he doesn’t answer the government’s questions about the gold. He’s racked up more than $2 million in penalties so far and there’s no sign he’s close to being released.

“I feel like I don’t have the keys to my freedom,” Thompson said at a hearing in 2020, adding that he’s told the government everything he knows.

The saga of the ‘Ship of Gold’ 

Thompson is now far removed from his life as one of the most successful treasure hunters in the U.S., a feat accomplished when he and his team discovered the S.S. Central America, also known as the Ship of Gold. The Central America was laden with California gold rush booty when it sank in 1857 off the Carolina coast; 425 people drowned and the wreckage remains 7,000 feet below sea level.

Soon after Thompson announced his momentous discovery of the Ship of Gold, a group of insurance companies laid claim to its treasures without proof they had insured them. A court battle ensued, with Thompson and his team ultimately coming out on top. 

In 2000, Thompson’s company sold 532 gold bars and thousands of coins to the California Gold Marketing Group for about $50 million. Thompson said the bulk of that money went toward legal fees and bank loans.

Meanwhile the group of investors who paid millions to fund Thompson’s dream of finding the ship never saw any returns. In 2005, they sued Thompson, who went into seclusion in Florida and in 2012 became a fugitive after an Ohio judge issued a warrant for his arrest.

Thompson managed to elude authorities for more than two years, hiding in a hotel under a fake name and paying for everything in cash. 

He was captured in 2015, and more than $425,000 in cash was seized from the hotel.

Later that year, Thompson reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and was sentenced to two years in prison for failing to appear in court. 

But Thompson hasn’t served a single day of that sentence, instead racking up year after year in contempt of court for violating his plea agreement, which stipulated that he answer questions about the gold.

The judge in the case appears prepared to wait Thompson out indefinitely.

“He will contemplate cooperation in confinement,” U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley said at a hearing in February 2017. “The fortunate part of it is I have life tenure, too. So we’ll always have a special place to accommodate him and others like him who don’t believe that laws apply to them and who act in absolute defiance of the law.

The search for 500 gold coins

Dwight Manley, a former high-profile sports agent who bought the gold and the rights to Thompson’s life story, said the treasure hunter has turned into a victim.

“He did something very wrong … he should be punished,” Manley said. “But he’s paid far too big a price for a financial issue. There’s people that kill people that get out sooner than that.”

Not everyone involved in the saga agrees.

“It’s a cliche but he’s made his bed and now he has to sleep in it,” said Bob Evans, who was part of Thompson’s team that discovered the S.S. Central America.

“He’s running out the clock on himself,” Evans said. “I don’t feel particularly sorry for him because so much of it was self-inflicted.”

At various points in his court case, Thompson has said he put the 500 gold coins in a blind trust in Belize. At others, he has said he doesn’t remember where the gold is. He insists he is unable to track it down and has filed multiple requests to be released from prison, though Marbley has said he will not rule on them until Thompson obtains an attorney. 

Thompson has said he’s trying to obtain an attorney but is bogged down by medical problems and only has the use of a prison phone for seven minutes a day. 

“It’s hard to explain the number of roadblocks,” Thompson said earlier this year. “I don’t know any deep-water oceanographers that are lazy … I’m working all the time here. It’s hard to communicate from here.”

Marbley hasn’t bought any of Thompson’s explanations over the years.

“He sounds like the savvy treasure hunter that he in fact is, who is an engineer. His mind is sharp, his wit is acerbic, and he seems to be possessed of a steely will that will require him to just wait out all of his investors and everyone,” he said in 2017.

No new court date has been scheduled and Thompson’s most recent filing is a request for more time to hire an attorney. 

Treasures of S.S. Central America on tour

As Thompson remains in legal limbo, the life of the ship of his dreams goes on.

This month, hundreds of artifacts recovered from the ship between 1988 and 2014 went on display for the first time ever.The tour began at the Old West Show just outside of Sacramento in Grass Valley, California.

USA TODAY was given an exclusive first look at the artifacts, which include personal letters, clothing, a saloon sign, a pistol in its holster, a photograph nicknamed “The Mona Lisa of the Deep,” and a first edition of “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

“It’s like time capsule,” Manley said. “It’s the human side of the story.”

As a USA TODAY Network photographer captured pictures and video of the artifacts, an armed security guard in a bulletproof vest watched closely. Each of the items ranges in value from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million.

Evans, who has been on every voyage to the Central America and remains in charge of preserving its treasures, said they’re worth far more than that.

“What stories do these objects have to tell, that’s the real thrill,” he said.

The items will make at least six stops across the nation (in California, Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, Connecticut and New York) between May and September before being auctioned off in the fall.

More exclusive reporting from USA TODAY