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U.S. Marshals Seize Treasure Hunter’s Assets

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) - U.S. Marshals seized a hoard of cash from the alleged hotel-room hideout of Tommy Thompson, a treasure hunter who authorities say has been stealthily dodging lawsuits for years over his discovery of an 1857 shipwreck.

An agent from the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force testified last week that his team searched Thompson's room at the Boca Raton Hilton and seized two bundles of cash totaling $340,000, among other assets. The room also contained paperwork concerning expatriation and asylum, the agent testified.

Thompson was arrested on Jan. 28, after federal authorities tracked him down to the Florida hotel. He was charged with failing to appear in Ohio civil court, where his former associates are fighting him for a share of the riches pulled from the S.S. Central America, a shipwreck that Thompson found in 1988.

According to U.S. Marshals, Thompson has maintained a residence in Florida for years along with his assistant Alison Antekeier. He rented out a mansion, used fake names and obtained a cache of cell phones to keep himself under the radar, the marshals claim. At times, he and Antekeier lived off stacks of "sweaty" cash made moist from being hidden underground, the marshals claim.

Thompson was "one of the most intelligent fugitives ever sought ... and he had vast financial resources at his disposal," the U.S. Marshals Service said in a press release announcing the arrest.

In Federal Court, Thompson, sitting without counsel, challenged officials' attempts to send him to Ohio to face his purported creditors. Citing an unspecified immune system disorder, Thompson claimed he was in a delicate state. He said that being moved to a federal prison would pose a danger to his health and prevent him from achieving "homeostasis."

The magistrate, Dave Lee Brannon, told Thompson that his health issues will not prevent the preliminary elements of the criminal case from moving forward.

"This matter needs to be resolved," Brannon said before rescheduling Thompson's extradition hearing.

Thompson is being held at the Palm Beach County detention center, a jail worker told Courthouse News.

If and when he is transported to Ohio, he will be back in the midst of the long-drawn legal wrangling spawned by his discovery of the S.S. Central America, an ocean liner that sank in an 1857 hurricane, and took more than 400 people to a watery grave.

The ship reportedly sat undisturbed on the seafloor, more than a mile deep, until Thompson found it during a high-tech search expedition in the late 1980s. It was said to be holding one of the largest reserves of lost undersea bullion in modern history.

Court filings show that after Thompson began pulling gold from the wreck, various insurers came out of the woodwork and sought reimbursement for insurance payouts delivered some 130 years earlier in connection with the ship's sinking.

Other parties wanted a piece of the pie too, 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 admiralty trials, and he was eventually awarded the vast 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 dollars in 2006, alleging that Thompson never fulfilled his pledge to grant them a share of the treasure in exchange for their assistance in the search effort. Despite assurances from the "defendants' attorneys and Thompson himself," the contractors were never fully compensated for their role in locating the S.S. Central America, the lawsuit states.

Two investors (Dispatch Printing Co. and Donald Fanta) filed yet another civil claim, alleging that they were left with nothing to show for their combined $1.25 million contribution to the recovery expedition. Thompson's company ostensibly sold off a significant portion of the gold from the shipwreck, but the investors did not receive "any cash distributions," the investors' lawsuit says.

In August 2012, the litigation boiled over as Thompson allegedly failed to abide by an Ohio judge's order to account for the whereabouts of 500 commemorative gold coins.

The judge had had enough of the notion that Thompson was on a voyage and unable to attend court proceedings.

"The excuse that Thompson is out to sea has been used repeatedly in this case. Thompson has never yet appeared in this case's six year history," Judge Edmund Sargus wrote.

After the judge found Thompson in criminal contempt, Thompson was deemed a fugitive, and he came into the sights of the U.S. Marshals South Florida division.

The marshals say they were tipped off by a maintenance worker at Thompson's rented Vero Beach mansion.

By that time, however, Thompson was gone.

The maintenance worker purportedly told federal authorities that the residence had been abandoned, left moldy and "decrepit," with various items scattered around. Inside, the worker found a copy of the book How to Be Invisible, money straps, a bank statement, Post-It notes regarding the ongoing litigation, and hundreds of microcassette tapes, according to the U.S. Marshals.

According to the marshals, one of the microcassettes had a "voicemail message stating emphatically that Thompson should call about all of the various [court] hearings" which he was missing.

Over the course of the investigation, the marshals tracked Thompson and Antikeier from the Vero Beach mansion down to the Hilton Suites in Boca Raton. The duo were peacefully taken into custody, the marshals say.

"The multi-year investigation spanned the globe but ended not that far from the last documented sighting of the couple in Vero Beach, Florida. The U.S. Marshals Service in Southern Ohio worked in conjunction with the U.S. Marshals in West Palm Beach ... to conduct an exhaustive investigation that culminated in the arrest of Thompson and Antekeier at a local hotel. The couple offered no resistance at the time of the arrest and readily admitted to being the targets of the extensive investigation," the marshals' press release states.

The Williamson lawsuit and the investor lawsuit against Thompson are pending in Ohio court, and the plaintiffs are awaiting Thompson's arrival.

Thompson's attorney, Judy Graves, did not respond to a request for comment.

As for the S.S. Central America, the effort to pull more gold from the wreck continues.

Odyssey Marine Exploration announced in March 2014 that a court-appointed receiver involved in the Thompson litigation had enlisted Odyssey to begin scouring the wreck area for what's left of the sunken bullion, the proceeds of which would be split between Odyssey and the receiver.

Odyssey claims it has since recovered more than 15,500 gold and silver coins, as well as multiple artifacts from the vicinity.

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