Treasure hunter pleads guilty to contempt of court
A deep-sea treasure hunter who spent years as a fugitive after refusing to testify about gold he discovered in a historic shipwreck pleaded guilty Wednesday to contempt of court.
Tommy Thompson, 62, pleaded guilty to the criminal contempt charge in federal court wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and handcuffs.
Thompson went missing three years ago amid demands he appear in court. He and his longtime female companion, Alison Antekeier, were apprehended in January at a hotel where he was living near Boca Raton, Florida.
Thompson has faced accusations of cheating investors since he discovered the S.S. America, known as the Ship of Gold, in 1988. The goldrush era ship sank in a hurricane off South Carolina in 1857 with thousands of kilograms of gold aboard, contributing to an economic panic.
Thompson, then an oceanic engineer at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, and his crew brought up thousands of gold bars and coins. He would later describe the treasure as “otherworldly in its splendor,” but much of it was later sold to a gold marketing group in 2000 for about US$50 million.
The 161 investors who paid Thompson US$12.7 million to find the ship never saw the proceeds. Two sued — a now-deceased investment firm president and the company that publishes The Columbus Dispatch newspaper.
The plea agreement calls for Thompson to forfeit the US$425,380 seized when he and Antekeier were arrested in Florida, assist in the 2012 civil case relating to the treasure by helping to identify and recover lost assets, and identify oth- ers who may have helped him while he was on the run.
The government agreed not to charge Thompson with any other offenses arising from the case if he complies with the plea agreement.
The deal also establishes a maximum prison sentence of two years and a maximum fine of US$250,000. Typically, the maximum sentence for criminal contempt is life in prison.
Thompson’s attorney Ben Dusing said in a statement he hopes the plea agreement is a first step toward ending a decade of lawsuits.
The agreement also asks that the court give special emphasis to Thompson’s rare medical condition when sentencing him. Dusing said Thompson suffers from a serious immune system condition requiring specialized treatment.
Thompson will remain in custody in Delaware County jail until his sentencing, which hasn’t been set yet.
Antekeier was also charged with criminal contempt last week. She pleaded guilty alongside Thompson Wednesday to that count and agreed to forfeit the cash seized when arrested and assist in the pending civil case. Her plea agreement includes a maximum prison sentence of one year. Judge Algenon Marbley approved her release from jail pending sentencing.
In this November, 1989 file photo, Tommy Thompson holds a US$50 pioneer gold piece retrieved earlier in 1989 from the wreck of the gold ship Central America.