Watch CBS News

Treasure hunter stuck in jail for refusing to disclose location of gold coins faces judge; ingot from shipwreck sells for $2.16 million

"48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty reports on why Thompson was on the run for years
Fugitive treasure hunter wanted for fraud arrested 03:38

The long-running case of a former deep-sea treasure hunter marking his sixth year in jail for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of missing gold coins from an historic shipwreck has hit yet another roadblock after a judge on Monday ordered the man to find a new lawyer.

The hearing came just days after a massive ingot from the shipwreck sold at auction for over $2 million.

Research scientist Tommy Thompson has been  held in contempt of court since Dec. 15, 2015, for that refusal. He is also incurring a daily fine of $1,000. A hearing held Monday in hopes of helping draw the case to a conclusion ended with a federal judge giving Thompson two months to find a new attorney ahead of yet another hearing.

In this November 1989 file photo, Tommy Thompson holds a $50 pioneer gold piece retrieved earlier in 1989 from the wreck of the gold ship SS Central America. AP Photo/The Columbus Dispatch, Lon Horwedel

Thompson's case dates to his discovery of the S.S. Central America, known as the Ship of Gold, in 1988. The gold rush-era ship sank in a hurricane off South Carolina in 1857 with thousands of pounds of gold aboard, contributing to an economic panic.

Despite an investors lawsuit and a federal court order, Thompson, 69, still won't cooperate with authorities trying to find 500 coins minted from some of the gold, according to court records, federal prosecutors and Algenon Marbley, the judge who found Thompson in contempt.

Thompson has previously said, without providing details, that the coins - valued at about $2.5 million - were turned over to a trust in Belize. After a federal judge ordered Thompson in 2012 to appear in court to disclose the coins' whereabouts, Thompson fled to Florida where he lived with his longtime female companion at a hotel where he was living near Boca Raton. U.S. marshals tracked him down and arrested him in early 2015.

Thompson pleaded guilty in April 2015 to  skipping that hearing and was sentenced to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine. But his criminal sentence has been delayed until the issue of the gold coins is resolved.

Thompson, who has gone through several attorneys, is currently housed in a federal detention center in Milan, Michigan. Thompson told Marbley on Monday that he's having trouble finding a secure phone or computer connection to discuss his case with potential attorneys. A message seeking comment was left with the facility.

Thompson also said he continues to suffer the effects of systemic exertional intolerance disease, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome, which also affects his short-term memory.

Tommy Thompson, a former deep-sea treasure hunter, is seen in an undated photo provided by the Delaware County Sheriffs Office.
Tommy Thompson, a former deep-sea treasure hunter, is seen in an undated photo provided by the Delaware County Sheriffs Office. Delaware County Sheriffs Office via AP

"It's hard to explain the number of roadblocks," Thompson said. "I don't rest on my laurels; I'm working all the time here. It's hard to communicate here."

Marbley gave Thompson until March 21 to find an attorney to argue pending motions Thompson has made, including for compassionate release because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus behind bars.

"None of us wants this matter to drag on interminably," Marbley said.

Federal law generally limits jail time for contempt of court to 18 months. But a federal appeals court in 2019 rejected Thompson's argument that that law applies to him, saying his refusal violates conditions of a plea agreement.

On January14, one of the largest S.S. Central America ingots ever offered at auction, an 866.19-ounce find known as a Justh & Hunter ingot, sold for $2.16 million through Dallas-based Heritage Auctions.

"Given that Justh & Hunter bars recovered from the S.S. Central America numbered 86 ingots of varying sizes, their experience and integrity ranked them among the most trusted and well-run assay establishments of the momentous Gold Rush era," Heritage Auctions said

Treasure from the  S.S. Central America has fetched millions of dollars over the years. In 2019, multiple relics from the shipwreck hauled in more than $11 at auction. In 2001, an 80-pound ingot was bought by a private collector for a record $8 million

The ship sank in September 1857, along with 425 passengers and crewmembers and 30,000 pounds of federal gold from the new San Francisco Mint to create a reserve for banks in the eastern U.S, The ship was located by Thompson and his team in September 1988, more than 7,000 feet below the surface.

Treasure Hunter Fugitive
This undated drawing made available by the Library of Congress shows the U.S. Mail ship S.S. Central America, which sank after sailing into a hurricane in September 1857 in one of the worst maritime disasters in American history; 425 people were killed and thousands of pounds of gold sank with it to the bottom of the ocean. AP
View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.