COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) ― A treasure hunter accused of cheating his investors out of their share of one of the richest hauls in U.S. history ― $50 million in gold bars and coins from a 19th-century shipwreck ― was captured at an upscale Florida hotel after more than two years on the lam.
Federal marshals tracked Tommy Thompson to a hotel in West Boca Raton and arrested him Tuesday. A warrant had been issued for him in 2012 in Columbus after he failed to show up for a hearing on a lawsuit brought by some of his backers.
The U.S. Marshals Service called him “one of the most intelligent fugitives ever sought” by the agency and said he relied on cash and employed other means to stay under the radar. Authorities gave no details on how they found him.
In this file photo taken in 1989, Tommy Thompson holds a $50 pioneer gold piece, retrieved that year from the wreck of the gold ship Central America. (AP-Yonhap)
Thompson, 62, made history in 1988 when he discovered the sunken SS Central America, also known as the Ship of Gold.
The sidewheel steamer went down in a hurricane about 300 kilometers off South Carolina in 1857; 425 people drowned and tons of gold from the California Gold Rush was lost, contributing to an economic panic.
In a modern-day technological feat, Thompson and his crew brought up thousands of bars and coins, much of them later sold to a gold marketing group in 2000 for about $50 million.
The 161 investors who paid Thompson $12.7 million to find the ship never saw the proceeds. Two sued ― a now-deceased investment firm president and the company that publishes The Columbus Dispatch newspaper and had invested about $1 million.
The dispute is a civil action. No criminal charges have been filed against Thompson over the gold.
Columbus attorney Rick Robol, who at one time defended Thompson’s company, has said there is no proof Thompson stole anything. He said Wednesday that he has been concerned about Thompson’s health, calling the arrest “the best thing that can happen for everybody.”
Thompson was arrested along with his longtime companion, Alison Antekeier. The pair had been paying cash for the hotel room, rented under a fake name used by Antekeier, marshals said. The hotel is in an upscale suburban area surrounded by golf courses, country clubs and gated communities.
Federal marshals said that the pair had no vehicles registered in their names and that Antekeier used buses and taxis to get around.
After the arrest warrant was issued, Thompson vanished from his Vero Beach, Florida, mansion, where a search found prepaid disposable cellphones and bank wraps for $10,000 in cash, along with a book titled “How to Live Your Life Invisible,” according to court records. One marked page was titled: “Live your life on a cash-only basis.”
The couple made initial court appearances Wednesday in West Palm Beach. Authorities will seek to return Thompson to Ohio.
Gil Kirk, former director of one of Thompson‘s companies, told the Associated Press last year that Thompson never cheated anyone. Kirk said proceeds from the sale of the gold all went to legal fees and bank loans.