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Treasure hunter still in jail after 6 years for refusing to disclose whereabouts of 500 gold coins found in historic shipwreck

"48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty reports on why Thompson was on the run for years
"48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty report... 03:38

A former deep-sea treasure hunter is preparing to mark his sixth year in jail for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of 500 missing coins made from gold found in an historic shipwreck.

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.

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.

tommythompsonap16121887543.jpg
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

Despite an investors lawsuit and a federal court order, Thompson, 69, still won't cooperate with authorities trying to find those coins, according to court records, federal prosecutors and the judge who found Thompson in contempt.

Thompson says he's already said everything he knows about the coins. Thompson pleaded guilty in April 2015  for his failure to appear for a 2012 hearing and was sentenced to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine. But Thompson's criminal sentence has been delayed until the issue of the gold coins is resolved.

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.

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.

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

After technology problems cancelled Thompson's latest virtual hearing last week, federal Judge Algenon Marbley scheduled a new hearing for Jan. 7.

Last year, Thompson appeared by video for his hearing.

"Mr. Thompson, are you ready to answer the seminal question in this case as to the whereabouts of the gold?" Marbley said.

"Your honor, I don't know if we've gone over this road before or not, but I don't know the whereabouts of the gold," Thompson responded. "I feel like I don't have the keys to my freedom."

Last year,  Marbley denied Thompson's request for release over concerns he's at risk for contracting the coronavirus behind bars. Marbley said Thompson didn't present proper evidence for his risk level, and also noted he remains a flight risk.

The investors still looking for their money say Thompson has no one but himself to blame for his incarceration.

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

"He would be out of prison by now if he had simply complied with his plea agreement and cooperated in locating missing assets when he was supposed to," attorney Steven Tigges said in a court filing.

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