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Treasure hunter enters 5th year in prison for refusing to confiscate his loot

A former treasure hunter has completed his fifth year in prison for refusing to lead officials to gold coins he recovered more than two decades ago from a 19th century shipwreck.

Thomas G. Thompson was the head of a rescue company which in 1988 discovered the SS Central America, a steamship that sank in an 1857 hurricane off the coast of South Carolina carrying tons of parts. gold and bricks. Since its discovery, investors have been trying to collect their share.

In 2012, some eventually sued him, and in 2015, Mr. Thompson was found in contempt of court for refusing to cooperate in the recovery of 500 pieces missing from the loot. He has since been held in federal prison – an unusually long time to be tried for contempt.

Steven Tigges, a lawyer representing one of the investors suing Mr. Thompson, said Tuesday that Mr. Thompson “holds the keys to his release”.

“All he has to do is tell the court where the gold actually is, sign that power of attorney and otherwise help bring the gold back to the United States, and it’s out,” Mr. Tigges.

But during an October video chat hearing with a federal judge, Mr Thompson said he did not know where the gold was, The Guardian reported. He had previously told prosecutors that the gold had been turned over to a trust in Belize.

Mr Thompson, 68, is being held in prison, in part, for refusing to sign a document authorizing the court to state whether the trustee has the missing documents and, if so, where he is now, according to Mr Tigges .

In a petition Mr Thompson filed last week without a lawyer, he argued that plaintiffs had “no further claims” against his assets after obtaining a judgment in 2018 covering the value of the coins, around 2.5 million. of dollars. But Mr Tigges said his client had not been able to collect on the judgment and that the exhibits would cover part of what is owed.

Credit…Lon Horwedel / The Columbus Dispatch, via Associated Press

“You can’t keep him in jail for not giving the coins when they reduced her to a judgment,” Keith Eric Golden, the lawyer who represented Mr. Thompson in the case, said Thursday. .

Mr. Thompson, who does not appear to have legal representation, could not be reached for comment Thursday at the Milan Federal Correctional Facility in Milan, Michigan.

Mr. Thompson raised more than $ 12 million from 161 investors in the 1980s to fund his research in Central America. His rescue company, the Columbus America Discovery Group, discovered the wreck of the ship, a 300-foot paddle steamer, in 1988.

But investors never saw the proceeds of the transport, and some – including, according to Mr. Golden, descendants of the original investors – eventually took legal action. In 2012, a federal judge ordered Mr. Thompson to appear in Ohio court to disclose the location of the exhibits. Instead, Mr. Thompson fled and became a legal fugitive until Deputy U.S. Marshals arrested him in 2015 at a hotel in Florida.

He pleaded guilty to criminal contempt for not appearing in court and was sentenced to two years in prison and fined $ 250,000. But his plea deal required him to “assist” prosecutors in retrieving the exhibits.

Mr Thompson refused to do so, according to court documents, and in December 2015 another federal judge ordered him to stay in jail and pay a fine of $ 1,000 a day until he agreed to cooperate.

Since then, Mr. Thompson has been held in federal prison and has accumulated more than $ 1.7 million in fines.

He has repeatedly requested her release, including a 2017 petition to end his penalties for contempt of court, saying his imprisonment violates a federal law that limits the length of detention of an uncooperative witness to 18 months.

In his dismissal of the motion, Judge Algenon L. Marbley of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio wrote that the law did not apply to Mr. Thompson because his case involved “valuables. economic”.

“The usefulness of Mr. Thompson’s assets as proof is almost irrelevant; it’s the economic value treasure sought by the Court, ”wrote Justice Marbley. “Sir. So Thompson was not just ordered to testify or provide information.

Mr Golden said the affair had become “a matter of personality between individuals”.

Justice Marbley also denied an early release motion filed this year by Mr Thompson, citing safety concerns related to the pandemic and his declining health. Mr. Thompson set out similar reasoning in another petition filed last week to seek compassionate release. Judge Marbley has yet to respond to this case.

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