COLUMBUS, Ohio — In the late 1980s, Tommy Thompson was the hunter, searching for and retrieving millions of dollars in gold bars and coins from a ship that sank in a hurricane off the North Carolina coast.
Now, he’s the hunted, the subject of an arrest warrant for failing to appear in court in Ohio in one of the lengthy legal fights that followed the discovery.
A federal judge in Ohio ordered the warrant for Thompson this week after he failed to appear in court in a case that has gone on for more than six years. U.S. Marshals said they’re following tips from the public in hopes of locating Thompson, who is believed to have a home in eastern Florida.
The situation stems from a lawsuit by seamen who claimed they’re entitled to about 2 percent of sale proceeds from the treasure found in the S.S. Central America, which went down in 1857 and Thompson and his crew found.
The gold was sold for a total of more than $50 million, leaving about $30 million after the cost of the recovery efforts, and the seamen believe they’re owed a portion of that in addition to what they were paid for their work, said Michael Roy Szolosi, an attorney for them.
The plaintiffs asked the court to block the transfer or sale of 500 restrike gold coins, and the court did so temporarily. It also ordered Thompson to disclose the whereabouts of those coins and money from a trust.
The coins, made from some of the found gold, were part of deal in 2000 to sell rights to the remaining treasure to the California Gold Marketing Group, and the plaintiffs believe Thompson later took the coins.
They’ve sought information about what happened to the coins as they tried to assess Thompson’s assets.
“It’s important to our clients that those questions be answered, and apparently the only way that they’re going to get answered is to have him in court under the contempt sanctions,” Szolosi said. He estimated the coins are worth $2 million based on the amount of gold involved.
Thompson has suggested the trust money is gone and the coins are in another trust, according to records.
His lawyers unsuccessfully tried to get the court to delay this week’s hearing over whether he should be held in contempt, and he again didn’t show up in court. That prompted the judge to issue a warrant for his arrest.
If Thompson were taken into custody for civil contempt in the U.S., the process of bringing him back to Ohio could take days or months, depending on how he responds to the case, Deputy U.S. Marshal Brad Fleming said.
Attorney Avonte Campinha-Bacote, who recently began representing Thompson, said his client has been at sea but plans to address the court at some point.
Thompson also has faced legal tussles over claims to the gold by insurance companies and rival salvagers and over returns that were expected by investors in the search effort, including The Dispatch Printing Co., which publishes The Columbus Dispatch.
Phone numbers listed under Thompson’s name in Florida’s St. Lucie County have been changed to new owners or appeared to be disconnected.
Credit: The Associated Press.