Former treasure hunter in jail for six years on contempt of court charges

Author Ed Anderson

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Tommy Thompson jailed for contempt of court since December 15, 2015Lon Horwedel

The SS. Central America set sail for New York City on September 3, 1857. It carried 10 short tons of gold and 101 crew members. Captained by William Lewis Herndon, the ship was not expected to encounter trouble from mother nature.

Three days after it departed, a tropical storm developed off the east coast of the Bahamas, and it picked up strength over time and became a category 2 hurricane on September 9. The same day the SS Central America entered the Atlantic Ocean.

As the storm intensified, the crew worked to keep the ship afloat. By the 11th of September, the sails were ripped and torn from the winds. The boat was pushed back and forth, thrown off course.

Making matters worse, the boiler threatened to quit working, and water poured in from a broken seal. Morale amongst the crew was low, and many believed they would die on the ship.

When the storm seemed to subside, they cheered. Bucket brigades started trying to reduce the amount of water in the ship, and their efforts failed as the water continued to rise, thanks to the second part of the storm.

Hurricane 2 of 1857 succeeded in sinking the SS Central America. While there were survivors, the majority of those on board drowned.

The gold they were carrying was lost with the ship.

After The Disaster

The world went into mourning when people learned the SS Central America sank. Families and loved ones mourned the loss of life. William Hendron was hailed a hero for saving as many of his crew as possible. And for going down with his ship.

Authorities in the United States rewarded his courage by naming two navy ships after him. Hendron, Virginia, was also named for the captain. Also of note, his daughter married Chester Arthur, a future president.

As the mourning subsided, practicalities replaced them. Word spread that $8 million in gold went down with the ship. Investors were skittish about the news, helping usher in the Panic of 1857. The financial crisis nearly destroyed the stock market.

Insurance companies paid claims to those who owned the gold bars. The matter was thought to have been settled.

Until it wasn't.

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Tommy and his crew found 3 tons of gold and other valuable itemsPixabay via Pexels

Searching For The Gold

On the 133rd anniversary of the SS Central America's sinking, a crew set out to find the wreckage. The effort was led by Tommy Thompson, a treasure hunter from Ohio, and he used the Bayesian Theory to locate the ship.

Using a remotely operated vehicle, the crew discovered artifacts and the gold; an appraiser valued the found gold between $100 and $150 million. The recovery crew celebrated their victory! Life would be good for them; they were sure.

The celebration was short-lived. After the discovery of the gold, the insurance companies that paid damages in 1857 sued the crew. They argued the gold belonged to them since their money had covered the cost of losing it. Crew members, including Tommy Thompson, argued that the gold was abandoned.

As the judge looked at the case, tensions between the sides rose. Finally, the verdict came in. 92% of the gold belonged to the crew, 8% would go to the various insurance companies.

With the decision, everything seemed to return to normal. Tommy Thompson released a book about his adventure discovering the SS Central America. Everyone was living the good life. Money was plentiful, and nobody had any complaints.

That changed in 2005.

On The Run

Those who invested in the 1988 expedition sued Tommy Thompson in 2005. They alleged he had not paid them the money they were owed from the find. After taking their initial investment, he had absconded with the money and not even spoken to several of them.

The following year, several crew members filed a lawsuit. They alleged that Tommy owed them money from the discovery, and he had also shut them out. As evidence was presented in the lawsuits, it was discovered that the treasure hunter had an off-shore bank account.

With that discovery, some investors began to argue they were scammed. They believed Tommy misled them intentionally and never planned on sharing the loot with them.

Proving their point, Tommy Thompson disappeared in 2013. After a judge issued an arrest warrant for him, police went on the hunt. They looked everywhere; they believed he could be hiding. Clues were maddeningly short on supply.

It seemed incomprehensible that a person could vanish into thin air, even with a lot of money.

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After fleeing, Tommy was found in Boca RatonInfrogmation via Wikimedia

Do Not Pass Go

Authorities found him in Boca Raton. Tommy Thompson was brought into court and faced the judge. He was asked why he didn't appear before the court; no answer was given. The judge sentenced him to 2 years in jail and a $250,000 fine.

As part of the deal that was struck, Tommy was to tell the court where the gold was hidden. He refused to do so. The court reminded him it was part of the deal to tell them where the gold was and assist in bringing it back to the U.S. They were met with more refusal from the treasure hunter.

By mid-December 2015, the judge was tired of Tommy's game. The treasure hunter was found to be in contempt of court. This charge usually only requires a defendant to be in jail for 18 months. As with everything else about the case, nothing was simple or traditional.

Over the past five years, Tommy has been intermittently asked about the gold. There is hope that he will come out and tell them where it can be found every time. Each time, he disappoints them and says he has no idea. Even suggesting that he forgot.

Which earned a rebuke from the judge; in an official court record, his honor asked how someone could design and patent a submarine but not remember where they put gold.

In October 2020, Tommy appeared in court via video. He and the judge went through their usual routine, frustrating the court even more. It was noted that the former treasure hunter has spent 1,700 days in jail and owes more than $1.8 million in fines. He told the judge: "I feel like I don't have the keys to my freedom." 

Tommy appeared in court for the sixth year in a row. However, technical difficulties forced the judge to reschedule the hearing for January 7, 2022.

It appears as though the hunt for the SS Central America gold may be on once more. This time, there are people alive who can help find it.

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Ed Anderson is a true crime and gossip writer from Detroit, Michigan. Ed is the author of several true crime books, most recently Cold Cases From Around The World.

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