The world's only true "Ship of Gold" and one of the smartest fugitives ever drew attention at the same place and time. The ship was the American vessel called "Central America" and the culprit was a treasure hunter named Tommy Thompson.
In 1857, the SS Central America pulled out of Panama for what would become her final voyage. She was considered the "Titanic" of the 19th century. She pulled out into the thrashing, uneasy Atlantic carrying 580 passengers and brimming with gold ingots and freshly minted coins from California mines.
Shortly after a layover in Havana, she sailed into the very heart of a vicious hurricane. The ship sprung a leak that moistened the coal. Engines ground to a stop. A small boat was near enough to take the women and children off but all the men went to the bottom of the ocean among what was said to be $100 million worth of gold bars, bricks and nuggets.
For more than a century, the ship lay on the seabed 7,200 feet below, the surface soon covered with starfish. It took knowledge and boundless patience plus millions of dollars to find the ship. Thomas G. Thompson had all but the last. A research scientist from Ohio spent much time in the 1980s exploring the deep ocean.
The wreck's location is about 160 miles off of South Carolina, rediscovered in 1987. Shortly after, the invention called "nemo" started bringing up ingots, coins and rare pistols. Thompson became a celebrity. His personality changed and he became reclusive.
Tommy's dream became a reality. The first batch of gold had come ashore when a group of American and British companies that had insured the steamship cargo 135 years earlier claimed rights to the treasure and filed suit.
In the meantime, Thompson had been loading on debt to finance his gold-ship project. Every bit of the gold pulled up from the SS Central America in 2000 was used to settle lawsuits. Not one dime went to investors.
But where was Thompson? He failed to show up at hearings. A warrant was issued. Investors sued Thompson and the case was ongoing in 2012. An attorney who used to represent Thompson withdrew his counsel in November. Even those who know Thompson are puzzled. They say somewhere along the line he must have changed his ethics and outlook on the world.
Odyssey Marine exploration, a publicly traded Florida-based company that specialized in deep ocean shipwrecks, announced that it had been awarded an exclusive contract to recover remaining gold from the SS Central America. Experts claim the ship still holds anywhere from $343,000 to $1.4 million of gold.
Thompson and his partner, Alison Antekeier, escaped attention by renting a huge mansion and staying out of sight. It is said that they lived like squatters in there. Armed with an enormous amount of money, a frightening intellect that baffled the investigators hunting for him, Tommy Thompson disappeared.
They were later arrested in a motel in Florida in early 2015. Investors and insurance companies from 130 years ago started lining up. Thompson and Antekeier pleaded guilty in April 2015 to contempt of court.
The "Ship of Gold" goes down as one of the longest standing cases in history.