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Treasure Hunter Notches 5th Year in Prison for Refusing to Forfeit His Loot

A former treasure hunter has completed his fifth year in prison for refusing to lead officials to gold coins that he recovered over two decades ago from a 19th-century shipwreck.

Thomas G. Thompson was the head of a salvage company that in 1988 found the S.S. Central America, a steamship that sank in 1857 in a hurricane off South Carolina carrying tons of gold coins and bricks. Ever since his discovery, investors have been trying to collect their share.

In 2012, some finally sued him, and in 2015, Mr. Thompson was found in contempt of court for refusing to cooperate in the recovery of 500 coins missing from the loot. He has been in federal prison ever since — an unusually long time to be held in contempt.

Steven Tigges, a lawyer representing one of the investors suing Mr. Thompson, said on Tuesday that Mr. Thompson “holds the keys to his release.”

“All he has to do is tell the court where the gold really is, sign that power of attorney, and otherwise assist in getting the gold back to the United States, and he’s out,” Mr. Tigges said.

But in an October hearing over video chat with a federal judge, Mr. Thompson said he did not know where the gold was, The Guardian reported. He had previously told prosecutors that the gold had been turned over to a trust in Belize.

Mr. Thompson, 68, is being held in prison, in part, for refusing to sign a document authorizing the court to advise whether the trustee has the missing coins and, if so, their current whereabouts, according to Mr. Tigges.

In a motion Mr. Thompson filed last week without a lawyer, he contended that the plaintiffs had “no further claim” against his assets after they were awarded a judgment in 2018 that covers the value of the coins, about $2.5 million. But Mr. Tigges said that his client had not been able to collect on the judgment and that the coins would cover a portion of what is owed.

Mr. Thompson with a gold piece retrieved from the wreck of the S.S. Central America.Credit…Lon Horwedel/The Columbus Dispatch, via Associated Press

“You can’t keep him in jail for not giving the coins when they’ve reduced it to a judgment,” Keith Eric Golden, the lawyer who represented Mr. Thompson in the case, said on Thursday.

Mr. Thompson, who does not appear to have legal representation, could not be reached for comment on Thursday at Milan Federal Correctional Institution in Milan, Mich.

Mr. Thompson raised more than $12 million from 161 investors in the 1980s to fund his search for the Central America. His salvage company, the Columbus America Discovery Group, found the wreckage of the ship, a 300-foot steam-powered paddle-wheeler, in 1988.

But investors never saw any proceeds of the haul, and some — including, according to Mr. Golden, descendants of the original investors — eventually sued. In 2012, a federal judge ordered Mr. Thompson to appear in court in Ohio to disclose the location of the coins. Instead, Mr. Thompson fled and became a legal fugitive until deputy U.S. marshals arrested him in 2015 at a hotel in Florida.

He pleaded guilty to criminal contempt for failing to appear in court and was sentenced to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine. But his plea deal required that he “assist” prosecutors in the recovery of the coins.

Mr. Thompson refused to do so, according to court documents, and in December 2015, a different federal judge ordered him to remain in prison and pay a fine of $1,000 a day until he agreed to cooperate.

Ever since, Mr. Thompson has been held in federal prison and has racked up more than $1.7 million in fines.

He has several times petitioned for his release, including a motion in 2017 to terminate his contempt sanctions, claiming that his imprisonment violates a federal law that limits to 18 months the amount of time an uncooperative witness can be held.

In his rejection of the motion, Judge Algenon L. Marbley of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio wrote that the law did not apply to Mr. Thompson, because his case concerned “objects of economic value.”

“The utility of Mr. Thompson’s assets as evidence is almost beside the point; it is the economic value of the treasure that the Court seeks,” Judge Marbley wrote. “Mr. Thompson was therefore not merely ordered to testify or provide information.”

Mr. Golden said the case had become “a personality thing between individuals.”

Judge Marbley also denied a motion for early release that Mr. Thompson filed this year, citing safety concerns related to the pandemic and his waning health. Mr. Thompson noted similar reasoning in another motion filed last week petitioning for compassionate release. Judge Marbley has not yet responded to that filing.

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