COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) - A federal judge in Ohio ordered a former treasure hunter to divulge the whereabouts of 500 missing gold coins or face another contempt-of-court charge.
Tommy Thompson, 65, has been in jail since December 2015 on a civil contempt charge for refusing to reveal the gold’s location.
At a hearing Friday, U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley ordered Thompson to sign a power of attorney allowing the federal government to investigate a Belize trust, which was revealed in court filings and may point to the location of the coins.
The coins were struck from gold recovered by Thompson in 1988 from the S.S. Central America, an ocean liner that sank in an 1857 hurricane, taking more than 400 people down with it. The ship sat undisturbed, more than a mile deep on the seafloor, until Thompson found it during an expedition in the late 1980s. The ship was said to be holding one of the largest reserves of lost bullion in modern history.
Court filings show various insurers came out of the woodwork after Thompson began pulling gold from the wreck, seeking reimbursement for insurance payouts delivered more than 100 years earlier, when the ship sank.
Other parties wanted a piece of the pie as well, including a band of Capuchin monks, who supposedly had been granted the rights to the sunken treasure, according to the court filings.
Thompson's attorneys battled through two admirality trials, and he was eventually awarded the majority of the treasure in 1993.
But the lawsuits kept coming.
Led by sonar expert Michael Williamson, a group of maritime contractors sued Thompson for several million in 2006, claiming Thompson never fulfilled his pledge to grant them a share of the treasure in exchange for their assistance in the search.
Two investors, Dispatch Printing Co., parent company of the Columbus Dispatch, and Donald Fanta, filed another civil claim, alleging they were left with nothing for their investment in the expedition. Thompson's company ostensibly sold off a significant portion of the gold, but the investors did not receive "any cash distributions," the investors' lawsuit says.
In August 2012, Thompson refused to abide by an Ohio court's order to divulge the whereabouts of 500 gold coins. Thompson claimed to be on a voyage, which made him unavailable for the court proceedings. U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus found him in criminal contempt for his lack of appearance before the court.
Thompson was then deemed a fugitive, and was tracked by U.S. Marshals to a hotel in Florida in 2015, where he and his assistant were arrested.
On Friday, after weeks of legal filings over the Belize trust and the location of the coins, Judge Marbley ordered Thompson to give the government power of attorney, through receiver Ira Kane, to search trust documents for evidence of the coins, which have a value between $2.5 million and $4 million.
Thompson's request for the appointment of civil attorney of his own to comb through the Belize trust records was rejected by the judge.
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