The Story of How America’s Greatest Treasure Hunter Became a Most Wanted Fugitive

If anyone in the world knows exactly where Tommy G. Thompson disappeared to, they sure as hell aren’t telling the US Marshals Service.

Thompson, the marine engineer from Columbus, Ohio, is a legend for discovering the astonishing lost treasure of the shipwrecked S.S. Central America. Now, he is at large for failing to appear at a court date set to reconcile the funds he owes numerous investors for their role in helping him to literally strike gold via private partnership deals.

The chronicle of the bold explorer is only now receiving attention because of a new mission to the sunken ship that began earlier this year. Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration has since brought up millions of dollars in gold and silver bars and coins. A spokeswoman said that they will continue doing so until the ship is bare.

The ship went down during a hurricane off the coast of North Carolina back in 1857, taking with it 425 people on board and an unbelievable 21 ton fortune. Hidden 8,000 feet below the Atlantic Ocean, the S.S. Central America was said to have been carrying with it hundreds of millions of dollars in newly minted Double Eagle coins and bars.

ss CentralAmerica

It was the kind of treasure you only hear about in fairy tales; one so great that it’s not supposed to exist. And if it did, no one was ever supposed to actually find it.

“Everybody knew the probability of finding gold was zero, but people still wanted to invest,” says Donald D. Glower, retired dean of Ohio State University’s College of Engineering and a guru to Thompson. “I always thought he was honest.”

On that unforgettable day in 1988, when Thompson and his crew pulled up the fortune that he called “otherworldly in its splendor,” investors were anticipating a high payout. Unfortunately, to this day, their waiting continues.

No one is aware of just how much treasure was truly recovered because those details have been kept secret at the reclusive voyager’s request. Although, at one point, he did brag that his find was worth upwards of $1 billion.

Some of that money went on a national tour, while an estimated $100 million was sold in sales and auctions and a remainder split between some 39 insurance companies who claimed the gold belonged to them.

“I think he was dishonest from the word go,” says John G. McCoy, former chief executive of Bank One. He and his wife invested $219,000.

Thompson went into seclusion shortly after all these legal battles.

But while he may have made himself some enemies along the way, there are still folks like Columbus insurance broker Donald E. Garlikov, who gave him $200,000, that still believe Thompson is an American hero. “He’s brilliant,” says Garlikov. “I’d happily give him more if he asked for it.”

Tommy ThompsonAttorney Rick Roble, who defended Thompson’s company until last month, said there’s no verification that Thompson stole anything and should be a free man.

“I think he had calculated it, whatever you want to call it, an escape plan,” Marshals agent Brad Fleming said. “I think he’s had that for a long time.”

Whether or not his investors end up getting a payout on the treasure they initially helped fund, Odyssey Marine Exploration is expected to hand over a portion of the riches they uncover.

Now 62, Thompson’s last known whereabouts are vague. Nobody knows for sure when he actually disappeared. Some people account seeing him walking outside a Florida mansion looking mad, wearing only a pair of filthy underwear, eye glasses, socks and leather shoes. Others claim he was taking cover in a trailer park.

Maintenance worker James Kennedy recalls entering his Florida mansion and seeing pre-paid disposable cell phones, bank wraps for $10,000 and a book titled How to Live Your Life Invisible.

His face may be plastered across billboards, and on a “Wanted” poster hanging in the barge heading to collect more treasure from the “Ship of Gold,” but Marshals are having a difficult time tracking him down, especially since they do not have a current photo on hand.

Wherever the fugitive treasure hunter may be, and whatever his ultimate motive was, the tale of how Thompson discovered America’s greatest lost treasure, and managed to elude the entire world, will surely be one that lives on forever. All I know is that if he ever resurfaces, I would love to be the first one to interview him and hear all about his wild adventures; that is, if he was willing to spill them.

“Everything to him is a deep, dark secret,” said attorney John J. Chester Sr., who invested $180,000.

A deep, dark secret, just like the treasure that once remained hidden beneath the ocean for all these years.