Fugitive Treasure Hunter Captured in Florida

Tommy Thompson to be tried next week for fraud

Jan 29, 2015
Outside Magazine
ss central america florida tommy thompson shipwreck treasure gold

The S.S. Central America sank in 1857 along with about 42,000 pounds of gold.    Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. Marshals Service arrested treasure hunter Tommy Thompson at a Florida Hilton on Tuesday, reviving a two-decade saga involving a search for what many have called “the greatest lost treasure in American history,” a group of angry investors, and a two-year manhunt for Thompson.

In October 1989, a Thompson-led team recovered an estimated $400 million worth of gold from the wreckage of the S.S. Central America, a steamer that sank in 1857 during a voyage from Panama to New York and took 42,000 pounds of gold with it. Thompson spent three years and $12.7 million of investors’ money executing the search, all the while racing competing treasure hunters.

Multiple parties sued Thompson after he recovered the treasure. Thirty-nine insurance companies claimed they’d insured the gold in 1857, two of Thompson’s 161 investors asked for their share (none have been paid yet), and nine members of Thompson’s crew sued in 2006. That year, Thompson moved into a Vero Beach mansion, paying all of his bills in cash. When he failed to appear at a court hearing in 2012, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest.

Thompson would remain on the lam for two years. Federal agents nearly tracked him down in 2012, arriving at an abandoned mansion, where they found $10,000 in cash, disposable cellphones, and a book called How to Live Your Life Invisible. “Thompson was one of the most intelligent fugitives ever sought by the U.S. Marshals,” Peter Tobin of the U.S. Marshal Service told the AP. “And he had vast financial resources at his disposal.”

Thompson, now 62, was scheduled to appear in a West Palm Beach court on Thursday, but a federal judge delayed his hearing to February 4 so Thompson could find a lawyer, the Palm Beach Post reports. He is scheduled to return soon to his home state of Ohio to face federal charges, but he has complained of health issues from encephalitis and hopes to remain in Florida, the Post reports.

A June 1998 article in Outside relays the details of Thompson’s treasure hunt.