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A Famous Florida Treasure Hunter Was Busted After a Two-Year Manhunt

The daring Ohioan dug up a fortune lost in a mid-19th century storm, only to disappear when investors in his recovery project starting clamoring for their share.

by Allie Conti
Jan 30 2015, 10:21pm

Photo via Flickr user Mykl Roventine

When Tommy Thompson stopped paying rent and repairman James Kennedy was told to go inspect the Vero Beach, Florida, property, he found conditions befitting a squatter: mold, mildew, and an upstairs room with TV sets just stacked in a pile. Thompson and his companion, Alison Antekeier, were gone. "There's nothing living there now but rats and cockroaches," Kennedy told the Columbus Dispatch in October, 2012.

But Kennedy also found clues pointing to to Thompson's mysterious past—and why he'd taken off. There was a trove of throwaway cellphones, a book about assuming a new identity, and five or six empty coin boxes.

That's when the handyman started to put it together: The tenant was the man who had excavated $50 million worth of gold in 1988 and famously absconded with the fortune without paying his investors.

When Thompson disappeared two years ago in hopes of escaping lawsuits over the gold, a search was launched and a US Marshall deemed him "one of the most intelligent fugitives ever sought. The saga finally came to an end on Tuesday in Boca Raton, about 90 minutes north of Miami.

This distinctly Floridian tale begins in 1857, when a sidewheel steamer called the SS Central America launched from Panama straight into a category 2 hurricane near the Carolinas. It was carrying 30,000 pounds of California gold to a bank in New York. It never arrived, which apparently factored into an economic crash known as the Panic of 1857.

In 1985, Thompson was an engineer who mined the ocean floor for minerals. But he had his eye on scoring some of that sunken treasure and smooth-talked potential investors over lunch to help him find the Central America. "Everybody knew the probability of finding gold was zero," Thompson's former mentor told Forbes in 1996. "But people still wanted to invest."

Against all odds, Thompson and his Columbus America Discovery Group of Ohio successfully sent a $10 million remotely operated vehicle to recover artifacts from the wreckage in 1987. He claimed the gold was abandoned, but 39 insurance companies begged to differ—their forebears had paid out claims for the lost gold more than a century ago, they argued, and were therefore entitled to a payout.

In 1996, Thompson finally won the right to keep 92.2 percent of the treasure in appellate court. But apparently that wasn't enough: He abandoned his Vero Beach home and went on the lam, refusing to pay either the insurance companies or the workers and investors who helped him excavate the gold.

Authorities caught up with him through Antekeier, whom they trailed for seven hours on Tuesday. The 47-year-old took a series of taxis and buses, presumably to try and shake the police. But she eventually led them to a Hilton hotel, where Thompson might have been holed up the entire time.

A two-person suite at a chain hotel in suburbia hardly seems suitable for a man with $50 million in gold. But then again, when the police are using electronic billboards to bring you in, you probably don't want to spend much time outside. And it's hard to make it rain when you're on the run; Thompson and his partner stuck to a cash-only policy, which allowed them to use fake names.

Ted Thomas, a cousin of Thompson, told the Associated Press on Thursday that the quest for glory had ended in tragedy. "If he had to do it all over again, he wouldn't do it," Thomas said. "You don't throw away your life for something that's yellow and weighs a lot."

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