Federal agents have finally caught one of the most frustratingly intelligent and elusive criminals they have ever sought: famed treasure hunter Tommy G. Thompson.
On the lam for more than two years, Thompson did virtually everything he could to become “invisible,” leading law enforcement officers on a storybook chase for a man with few financial limitations, an abundance of smarts and a dogged determination to leave no paper trails.
“Thompson was smart — perhaps one of the smartest fugitives ever sought by the U.S. Marshals,” Peter Tobin, U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of Ohio, said in a statement announcing his capture. Thompson, Tobin said, had “almost limitless resources and approximately a ten year head start.” And yet, Tobin noted, law enforcement agencies, using “all of our resources and ingenuity,” still accomplished “what some thought would be near impossible.”
Thompson had been wanted since failing to appear before a judge in 2012, in legal proceedings that stemmed from his headline-making discovery of a sunken ship laden with gold.
Thompson had found the treasure in 1988, but investors who helped raise the $12.7 million used to locate and excavate the ship said they were excluded from the profits.
When a warrant was issued for Thompson’s arrest in August 2012, he and his longtime administrative assistant and girlfriend Alison Antekeier disappeared.
To pull off their life in hiding, the couple did everything by the book.
From what law enforcement officials could tell, Thompson and Antekeier were practiced students of “tradecraft.”
Before they became fugitives, they had lived under the radar for six years — that is, if living in a Florida mansion could be considered a surreptitious lifestyle.
They paid rent for the multi-million dollar Vero Beach property in cold, sweaty cash that had become damp and moldy after being buried underground, according to court documents from 2013 that were unsealed this week. Thompson kept at least 12 disposable cellphones — each assigned to a different person or purpose.
Also found in the house were money straps stamped with “$10,000,” a bank statement bearing one of Thompson’s pseudonyms with a balance of $1 million, and a book called “How to be Invisible,” which details how to evade law enforcement.
At one point, the rental agent arrived at the property and found an unforgettable scene. “Tommy was in the cabana,” the agent, Vance Brinkerhoff, told the Columbus Dispatch. “When he came out, the only thing he was wearing was a pair of leather shoes, black socks and a pair of filthy underwear.”
By the time a handyman for the property realized who they were — after seeing media coverage of the contentious legal proceedings between Thompson and his investors — the couple had already packed up the few belongings they would take with them and high-tailed it out of town.
“They lived like squatters in there,” said James Kennedy, who tipped off agents about what Thompson and Antekeier had left behind, according to the Dispatch. “There’s nothing living there now but rats and cockroaches, and there’s junk everywhere.”
Armed with an enormous amount of money, a frightening intellect and a meticulousness that baffled the investigators hunting for him, Thompson had disappeared.
He wasn’t seen again until Tuesday, when he and Antekeier were arrested at a Hilton Hotel in Boca Raton.
Investigators, following the developing trail of dozens of leads, began closing in on the couple in the West Palm Beach area in December. They rarely left the hotel — and when they did, they primarily moved around town by foot, bus and taxi. Usually, though, it was Antekeier stepping out alone, leaving Thompson behind.
During one such outing on Tuesday, investigators tracked Antekeier for hours until she led them back to the hotel where she and Thompson had been living for nearly two years, in a more than $200-a-night suite booked under Antekeier’s fake name.
The two fugitives were arrested without incident. Thompson, agents said, did not try to hide his true identity.
He appeared in a Florida court on Tuesday and told the magistrate that he intended to fight extradition to Ohio — where he faces long-delayed civil and, now, criminal legal proceedings — because, he said, an illness he contracted some years ago from a mosquito in South America would be exacerbated by being forced to go to colder climates, according to the Associated Press.
He is scheduled to appear in court again on Wednesday. Antekeier will appear before the magistrate that same day. Both Thompson and Antekeier are being held without bond.
It is a stunning fall for a man who, for most of his life, left many who knew him in awe of his intellect, ingenuity and determination — all of which helped lead him to the sunken treasure aboard the S.S. Central America.
The 19th century vessel was the stuff of legends. Known as the Ship of Gold, it was carrying about 21 tons of gold in its underbelly when it wrecked off the coast of South Carolina in 1857 during a hurricane, killing more than 400 and sending a California Gold Rush fortune to the seafloor.
Then came Thompson more than 130 years later, to do what no one else had been able to accomplish.
“He set out to find the Central America in the middle of a whole vast expanse of nothing and found it, and did it with relative ease,” U.S. Marshals agent Mark Stroh told the Associated Press. It was, Stroh said, “like he was trying to find a set of car keys he misplaced in his house, but the house is hundreds of miles of ocean.”
Thompson had raised millions of dollars from investors, known as the Columbus-America Discovery Group, and with the help of a device he created, called Nemo, he finally found the gold, the Columbus Monthly wrote in 1989:
In just a couple of months, Nemo found and recovered the Central America’s 300-pound ships’ bell, proving once and for all that Tommy Thompson’s group had found the right site. Then Nemo recovered the first few pieces of gold.
It was that gold, two coins and one bar, that Thompson showed to nearly 100 investors at the Athletic Club in the fall of 1988. The project is a success, he told them. But please, keep it quiet. And, amazingly, they did. Through the winter of 1988-’89, it was as if the Columbus-America Discovery Group had vanished.
But when an even better Nemo, equipped with zoom video cameras and still more sophisticated equipment, began hauling up large quantities of gold last summer, Thompson decided the time had finally come to tell the world about his triumph.
But the sudden wealth proved to be too much, and his friends and family told the AP that it contributed to his 1991 divorce.
Thompson was beset by legal troubles. A slew of insurance companies claiming ownership of the gold sued, claiming they had insured it in the 1800s. Then, after Thompson reportedly sold many of the gold bars and coins to a marketing company for $50 million in 2000, investors who funded the expedition — most of them from Ohio — sued, claiming they never saw their profits.
With his arrest this week, Thompson’s legal troubles will continue, bigger than ever.
“If he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t do it,” said his cousin, Ted Thomas, who attended Thursday’s hearing. “You don’t throw away your life for something that’s yellow and weighs a lot.”