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Thompson (in 1991) was sued by investors who said they paid him $12.7million to find the treasure, but never saw any returns. Thompson went into hiding in 2012. Image Credit: AP

Treasure hunter notches 5th year in prison for refusing to forfeit gold coins

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

Thomas G. Thompson was the head of a salvage company that in 1988 found the SS 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, 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 Thompson, said Tuesday that 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,” Tigges said.

But in an October hearing, Thompson said he did not know where the gold was. He had previously told prosecutors that the gold had been turned over to a trust in Belize.

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

In a motion 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 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.

Thompson raised more than $12 million from 161 investors in the 1980s to fund his search for the Central America. But investors never saw any proceeds of the haul. In 2012, a federal judge ordered Thompson to appear in court in Ohio to disclose the location of the coins. Instead, Thompson fled and became a legal fugitive until deputy US marshals arrested him in 2015 at a hotel in Florida.