Tommy Thompson’s troubles began when he dove deep into the Atlantic Ocean and unearthed the largest cache of gold in history – the forgotten treasures of the SS Central America that vanished over 100 years ago. Thompson had little time to rejoice because he was besieged by hundreds of people who wanted a share of his fortune the moment he set foot on shore.
His rich finding weighed down on him, and he gradually became a corrupted pirate. He refused to pay his due to his investors, refused to appear in court, and, eventually, vanished from the face of the earth. Ironically, the bright and successful treasure hunter was now the one being hunted.
Everyone is so obsessed with Tommy Thompson because he’s allegedly hiding a generous amount of gold somewhere and is refusing to disclose the location. Will he ever speak?
Who Is This Exploited Genius?
Tommy Thompson was born in 1952 in Defiance, Ohio. He was a bright little boy who always felt drawn to water. He loved how quiet the world got the deeper he dived. And when he was in the mood for some fun, he would challenge his friends to breath-holding contests.
“I was on swimming teams, and people could always beat me on the surface, but I got so I could hold my breath so long that nobody could beat me underwater. I loved seeing and doing things underwater,” Thompson told Columbus Monthly shortly after he embarked on his deep-sea mission.
His First Glimpse of Treasure Hunting
After Thompson graduated high school, he spent the summer working in Florida with a group of treasure hunters. The crew around him spoke of hidden treasures, sunken ships, and lucrative riches, all waiting to be discovered at the bottom of the sea.
Despite all the incessant chatter around him, none of the hunters really knew where to start looking. And, surely, none of them could afford it. Slowly, Thompson grew infatuated with the idea of exploring the ocean’s mysterious depths, and not so much for the gold, but because he wanted to reach areas on the planet no human had ever reached before.
He Has a Degree in Ocean Engineering
Thompson was set on working in deep water, and he knew he had the brains to do so. He enrolled at Ohio State University to study ocean engineering to develop the required technology to learn more about the world below him.
Following his graduation, Thompson began working at a research lab in Columbus, working on several sea engineering projects, including developing a technology that allowed the U.S. government to reach a sunken Soviet nuclear sub. “He was like a rock star,” longtime friend Keith Golden recalled.
Scientist Turned Treasure Hunter
According to Keith, it was never about the gold for Thompson. “He wanted to develop technology for deep underwater research, and the only way to do that is either you work for the government, or you look for treasure,” he explained.
While considering his options, Thompson’s treasure hunting buddies from Florida came to mind, and the thought of them prompted him to embark on his own little mission at sea. So, as it turns out, Thompson’s involvement in the treasure business never really came from a deep desire to discover gold. He just wanted a reason to fund his underwater research.
He Searched for the Perfect Wreck to Hunt
Now the question was – out of all the shiny wreckage waiting to be discovered, which one was deserving of Thompson’s time and effort? To answer that, he joined forces with scientist Bob Evans. After careful deliberation, the pair concluded that their target could be none other than the SS Central America, also known as the “Ship of Gold.”
Finding the long-lost gems of the SS Atlantic was the pinnacle of any treasure hunter’s career. It was like reaching Mount Everest’s peak. But with a slight difference. You don’t get any richer by climbing Everest (although the experience is surely enriching). But in finding the SS Atlantic, you can get around 20 tons of gold richer.
The Deadly Hurricane and the Devastating Loss
At the mid-19th century, at the height of the Gold Rush, the SS Central America embarked on a journey across San Francisco’s waters to New York, carrying tons of gold and approximately 580 passengers. The gold on board was then valued at about $1.2 million.
Tragically, the vessel never arrived at its destination. Overpowered by the turbulent weather, the Ship of Gold was battered by the swollen tides and eventually found itself in pieces at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The event was too horrific to fathom, and the loss of gold weighed heavily on everyone.
Finding the Ship Was Practically Impossible
Finding the Ship of Gold was no child’s play. It wasn’t a fun, pirate-like adventure with bottles of rum and colorful maps. To reach their goal, Thompson and Evans had to organize a logical search meticulously, covering every little detail about the sunken ship.
The wreckage’s gross location was about 160 miles offshore of Charleston, South Carolina. The scientists divided the relevant area into squares, assigning each square a number based on the probability that it was the sunken ship’s spot.
He Looked Like a Mad Scientist
An expedition as ambitious as Thompson’s required a large sum of money. So, the scientist shifted into a salesman and formulated the best pitch he could think of to sell his mission to investors. He passionately elaborated on his project, trying to sound as professional as possible.
But Thompson didn’t look like your ordinary businessman. He was obsessed with his work, and it often came at the expense of proper sleep and food. He sported frizzy, unruly hair and wore simple suits from thrift stores. Despite his dubious looks, the mad scientist won people over with his enthusiasm and sharp intellect.
He Drew Everyone in With Promises of Enormous Returns
Thompson ended up recruiting 161 people, who, put together, provided him with around $13 million. He promised them massive returns for their generous contributions, flaunting calculations like being able to turn $200,000 to $10 million.
Incredibly, $13 million wasn’t the end of it. And, as the project wore on, Thompson collected additional millions. “The concept seemed pretty far out [but] I was certain of his credibility,” one investor explained to The Columbus Dispatch in 1989.
Their Vessel Was Their Secret Weapon
Thompson’s crew developed the best technology possible for their deep-ocean quest. Their seven-ton vessel named Nemo had advanced features that allowed the scientists to explore the wreck properly. With refined arms and various cameras, their technology was superior to any other submersible out there.
Finally, their mission to find the Ship of Gold was ready to go. In June 1986, the Columbus America Discovery Group, comprised of Thompson’s crew of 22 men, officially launched their search and submerged themselves into the deep end.
They Faced Several Difficulties
Seasickness, poor weather conditions, and sudden malfunctions in equipment were the tip of the iceberg when it came to the crew’s difficulties. They barely slept, and the only break they took was when they grabbed a few bites of fried chicken.
Their first round of exploration proved unsuccessful, and they wasted precious time exploring the wrong ship. Investors were impatient and, more than anything, worried. None of them wanted to admit that they might have poured a serious amount of cash into one person’s naïve dreams.
“We’ve hit the Mother Lode.”
Almost 200 miles from shore and at a depth of 7,200 feet, Thompson’s crew spotted the Ship of Gold. The wreckage was the most beautiful thing the crew had ever seen, and they hovered above the ruins in a state of awe and disbelief.
They spotted the ship’s massive sidewheel and all around it – gold. Tons of gold scattered around the wreckage site. It was impossible to fathom that such a radiant and valuable treasure lay undisturbed like that for 131 years. Thompson proudly announced to the control room, “We have hit the mother lode. It’s unquestionably the greatest American treasure ever found.”
How Much Gold Are We Talking About?
Slowly but surely, Nemo’s refined arms lifted the pieces of gold one by one. In total, the submersible managed to collect 532 gold ingots, 7,500 gold coins, and a hunk of gold weighing 80 pounds, the largest single piece to date. As if that wasn’t enough, Thompson’s crew announced there was plenty more waiting at the bottom.
Finally, investors had a reason to celebrate. “It gives you a very warm feeling,” one of them told the Dispatch upon hearing the announcement. Everyone involved in this marvelous finding was about to become filthy rich. Or so they thought…
The Find Was Close to $500 Million
When Thompson was put on the spot and asked how much money they were dealing with, he responded, “I get nervous about these estimates because we don’t want to disappoint any of our backers.” Still, he managed to give an answer – approximately $500 million.
Such an amount meant that investors who contributed as little as $50,000 could get a return of about $1.5 million. Becoming a millionaire overnight wasn’t a ridiculous dream anymore. It was a reality that many had eagerly waited for.
He Became an American Hero
When Tommy Thompson set foot on shore, he was no longer the starry-eyed scientist with farfetched dreams. He was now officially an American hero. He was the genius behind one of the greatest deep-sea salvages in history and the man who brought glorious riches to the mass.
“I can imagine him becoming as well known and famous as Cousteau,” one investor told Gary Kinder, author of Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea (1998). As it turns out, Tommy Thompson really did become famous and well known. But for all the wrong reasons.
A Legal Hell Storm
Money is a messy, messy commodity. And the term “filthy rich” is no random juxtaposition of words. In 1988, the Columbus America Discovery Group secured its wealth by claiming the right to retain possession of whatever they dug up. Understandably, the people on shore challenged that ruling straight away.
Thompson found himself smothered from every corner with relentless arms, each one stretching out to grab their share of the gold. Over 100 separate entities filed lawsuits against him, including insurance companies that claimed they deserved their share of the treasure because they ensured it when it sank in 1857.
Thompson Was Miserable
In addition to the insurance companies, Thompson was also attacked by a group of angry Capuchin monks who blamed him for stealing valuable information they owned about a sonar search that was done on that specific area.
The icky situation created a huge tear in Thompson’s relationship with his then-wife, Collette Davidson. In the midst of all the chaos, she filed for divorce. The treasure hunter was up to his ears with problems, and he didn’t find time to go to court.
What Was the Deal With the Insurance Companies?
Around 40 insurance companies attacked Thompson, shamelessly grasping for his fortune. But Thompson’s side argued that the SS Central America was located in a part of the ocean that belonged to no one. Moreover, any documents siding with the insurance companies’ claims had disappeared a long, long time ago. And contacting witnesses from the 19th century was, obviously, out of the question.
One attorney (in favor of the insurance companies) claimed that the gold was never abandoned, but they simply lacked the technology to retrieve it. In any case, all the lawsuits against him suspended any other retrieval operations. This meant that there was still plenty of glimmering gold down at the bottom of the sea.
From $400 to $100 Million
As time went on, Thompson’s predictions about the value of his findings began to shrink. From a proud and loud $500 million to a – still incredibly lucrative but significantly less – $100 million. His investors were still waiting on the money, and hearing him lower their fortune like that threw them off the edge.
Before, Tommy was America’s hero who boastfully discussed his retrievals. But now, he was a reserved, quiet guy who closed himself off from the public. In the few interviews he did here and there, he explained his silence as a way of protecting trade secrets.
Tommy Sold the Gold for $50 Million Behind His Investors’ Backs
Despite his precarious situation, in 2000, Thompson managed to sell his company’s portion of the gold to California Gold Group for a whopping $52 million. The transaction blindsided his partners, who had absolutely no idea he was even negotiating a sale like that.
They found out about the transaction only after the gold was sold. And the cherry on top? Thompson announced that his investors wouldn’t be seeing a cent. He said he had to use up all the money to pay off loans and legal fees.
The Plague of Gold
Thompson began to develop an idea that he was plagued by the “curse of gold,” or the “curse of the buried treasure”: a belief that unearthing buried treasure is frowned upon by the spirits because it is viewed as pure greed excessive craving, and selfishness.
His actions by that point were a clear reflection of his paranoia. In 2008, he was arrested after a police officer caught him at a routine traffic stop messing around and hiding things under his seat. As it turns out, Thompson was hiding fake IDs, almost $7k, and four cellphones.
He Stopped Coming to Court
By the early ‘00s, Thompson’s investors sued him multiple times, demanding to know where the rest of the gold was. They wanted to extract the SS Central’s remaining treasure and claim their fortune once and for all. But Thompson remained silent.
The years of long and stressful legal battles took their toll on Thompson. He gradually stopped responding, and, in 2012, he didn’t even bother to show his face in court. The judge immediately ordered officers to track him down. Thompson was now not only a greedy criminal but a federal fugitive.
We’ve Got a Man on the Run
Thompson ran off and took with him any speck of hope his investors might have had to recoup any of their money. Almost three decades have passed since they had first invested in this man’s vision. And now, he had turned his back on them.
Officers turned to Thompson’s ex-wife, Collette Davidson, for answers. Although she admitted she would often make jokes about Thompson running away from all the legal chaos, she never really imagined he would. Davidson, like the rest of the crowd, had no idea where Thompson was.
One Handyman Revealed an Ugly Truth
Thompson had been renting Vero’s historic Gracewood Mansion since 2006, and after his disappearance in 2012, the property’s landlord asked a handyman named James Kennedy to inspect the area. He walked up to the porch and pretended to call the landlord to frighten them.
“I kind of tried to do the intimidation thing. I picked up my cell phone, and I said it real loud. I was, like, ‘Well, Vance, I don’t think they’re going to give you anything,’” Kennedy recalled; “You probably ought to call the police.’”
It Looked Like a House From Hoarders
Kennedy’s little ploy didn’t work, and no movement was seen in or around the estate. The puzzled handyman eventually barged in. And he was completely startled by what he saw. The home’s chaotic situation was way worse than anything he had ever seen before.
There was mold, fallen-down cabinets, and large plastic bags scattered all over the estate. “It look[ed] like that show on television, Hoarders… I opened up one cabinet door that was still hanging in the kitchen, and there was a stack of paper plates there, and there were three rats on top of that,” Kennedy recalled.
Kenny Was Stuck in the Middle
Amidst all the disorder around the house, James Kennedy managed to find a copy of Gary Kinder’s Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. Flipping through the pages, he came to realize that the protagonist of the book was the same Thompson U.S. Marshalls were after.
A feeling of confusion overwhelmed the stunned handyman. He was torn between sympathizing for the fleeting treasure hunter and feeling sorry for the abandoned investors. “It seems, like, every single time anybody finds anything that’s worth five cents, there’s 500 worms that come out of the woodwork to steal it from you,” he said.
Everyone Was Praying That Thompson Would Make a Mistake
Thompson was one sly and smart fugitive. And it felt like the only way to catch him was if he would make a mistake. Ultimately, he did. The fleeing treasure hunter wasn’t on the run alone. He was with his girlfriend, Allison Antekier. And, in January 2015, police caught her wandering out and about.
Officers spotted her wearing a big floppy hat and taking multiple taxis to make sure no one was following her. But she was out of luck this time. And officials followed her trail right back to Thompson’s hotel room.
A Hilton Hideout
Thompson and Antekier had been staying at the Hilton hotel in West Boca Raton, Florida, for almost a year. They registered with fake names and paid for their room in cash. When police stormed in, they spotted a pale, sickly looking, wide-eyed Tommy staring back at them in shock.
Officials raided the room and found dollar wraps of $10k, metal pipes that they believed were used to shove cash underground, 12 cellphones, and (how convenient) a book called How to Live Your Life Invisible.
Thompson Was No Jack Sparrow
“I think he had calculated it, whatever you want to call it, an escape plan, a contingency plan to be gone,” U.S. Marshal Brad Fleming told the press. But according to former partner Bob Evans, there was no way that Thompson had planned on living life on the run.
Indeed, the last time anyone saw Thompson was in his backyard, yelling into his phone in his underwear. “My old friend, boss, and colleague was simply not that colorful or swashbuckling,” he said; “He was hardly Jack Sparrow or Blackbeard. Think more along the lines of Dilbert in charge of the operation.”
He Faked a Tropical Illness to Escape Justice
The pair appeared in front of a judge in Florida who demanded they be shipped back to Ohio to face the fate they had been escaping for years. Thompson clumsily made up an excuse of being incapable of going back to the north because of a mosquito bite that left him sick with a tropical illness.
The judge rolled his eyes and responded, “Your health condition is in no way relevant to the issue of whether you are the individual wanted up in Ohio or not.” Shortly after, Tommy Thompson was shipped back. Interestingly, U.S. Marshal Brad Fleming noted that the captured fugitive was in a good mood on his way back. It must have been a relief to come out of his hideout.
Allison Antekeier Was Just Trying to Save His Life
On April 8, 2015, Antekeier appeared in front of Judge Algenon Marbley in a prison jumpsuit and chains. Her attorney argued for an easy sentence, claiming that Antekeier was simply trying to save Thompson’s life. The distraught girlfriend explained:
“Mr. Thompson was so sick at the time, I really felt there was no other option. I wanted to save his life.” But Antekeier’s excuse, similar to Thompson’s creative mosquito theory, received little sympathy from the people in the courtroom. “Fidelity is meant for the Marines, not for people engaged in criminal activity,” Judge Marbley exclaimed.
Antekeier’s altruistic confession was overruled. But her punishment wasn’t too severe. After serving one month in jail, she was given a $5,000 fine and two months’ probation. Thompson, on the other hand, was given a two-year sentence and a $250,000 fine.
As part of their plea deal, the pair returned nearly half a million dollars in cash from Florida and agreed to confess to the remaining gold’s location. But as it turns out, forcing a confession about the coins’ whereabouts was going to be a lot tougher than people thought.
Locked Away in Belize
Thompson finally spoke up about the gold coins. But his answer didn’t satisfy anyone. According to the former fugitive, he deposited them into a trust account in Belize. Allison Antekeier backed up his claims and confessed to packing 500 coins into four suitcases, which she then passed on to some guy who took them to Belize.
Thompson announced that he had made the transfer five years ago and had no idea how to retrieve it. According to Thompson’s attorney, Belize is under no obligation to grant him access without the named beneficiaries’ permission (it’s unclear who they are).
He’s Being Fined $1000 for Every Day He Refuses to Speak
In 2015, Judge Marbley ordered him an indefinite jail sentence until he decides to reveal more about the remaining gems whose worth is estimated between $2 to $4 million. As if an indefinite jail sentence isn’t bleak enough, Judge Marbley ordered him to pay a $1,000 daily fine until he provides a proper answer.
Thompson argued, “Your honor, I don’t know if we’ve gone over this road before or not, but I don’t know the whereabouts of the gold.” To which Jude Marbley responded, “As long as you are content to be a master of misdirection and deceit to the court, I am content to let you sit.”
Sticking It to the Man? Or Securing His Children’s Future?
Five years later, Thompson is still in jail. His fines are likely at around $2 million, which makes his case all the more baffling. Why doesn’t he just talk? According to attorney Steven Tiggs, “He would be out of prison by now if he had simply complied with his plea agreement and cooperated in locating missing assets when he was supposed to.”
Several speculations are surrounding this mad scientist’s motivation. Some people believe it’s a matter of principle, and by keeping his silence, he’s “sticking it to the man.” Others say he’s taking the fall for his kids to secure their financial future.
The Mission Carried on Without Him
Probably one of the most heartbreaking moments in Thompson’s scientist turned treasure hunter turned fugitive career was seeing his life’s work continue without him. After he had seemingly vanished from the face of the earth, the excavation of Central America carried on without him.
In 2014, a company called Odyssey Marine Exploration retrieved more valuable treasure from the Ship of Gold. The operation went well, revealing approximately 15,500 coins, 45 gold bars, and hundreds of artifacts. The gold was once again sold to the California Gold Marketing Group.
He Had Stashed Gold at the Bottom of the Sea
The amount of gold found in the 2014 excavation was startling primarily because it was neatly lined up in trays at the bottom of the sea. “And by trays, I mean trays you buy from Target, not trays from 1857,” attorney Quintin Lindsmith confirmed.
This really made it seem like Thompson had purposely left the gold underwater to hide it from his investors. When confronted, Thompson explained he had left them there as bait in case anyone dared to enter the wreckage site without authorization. The only problem with this is explanation was that he left $5 million worth of bait.
Investors (Maybe?) Got Some of Their Money’s Worth
The golden items retrieved from the 2014 excavation were put on display in Los Angeles four years later, in February 2018. Coin collectors worldwide came to catch a glimpse and hopefully own some of the historical treasure.
The California Gold Marketing Group manager, Dwight Manley, happily announced, “we’ve estimated the display’s value at $40 million, but these extraordinary treasures are priceless.” There was talk of distributing the money to Thompson’s forgotten investors, but we’re not sure how that turned out.
Only Time Will Tell…
In total (and after many tiring trials), it has been determined that Thompson owes his investors almost $20 million. But whether they manage to collect it is a different issue. In any case, Thompson is still behind bars, and from what we know, he’s still paying $1,000 every day he keeps his mouth shut.
As for Alison Antekeier, the time she spent with Thompson was far from the Bonnie and Clyde romance she might have imagined. Today, she keeps a low profile and hasn’t responded to the press despite their numerous attempts to hear her thoughts.
Only time will tell if the remaining gold ever resurfaces.