WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A treasure hunter who vanished two years ago while he was in a dispute over one of the greatest deep-sea hauls in American history was in court Thursday, appearing ready to defend himself and saying he was in an "extreme medical situation."
Tommy Thompson, 61, was taken into custody Wednesday at a Florida hotel, where U.S. Marshals said he had been hiding in a suite with his girlfriend for two years. An arrest warrant was issued in Ohio in 2012 when Thompson didn't show up to a hearing in a lawsuit claiming he cheated investors out of their share of $50 million in gold bars and coins he recovered from a 19th century shipwreck.
Though Thompson's hearing lasted just 12 minutes, he suggested deep awareness of the accusations against him and a willingness to fight going to Ohio. He even briefly tried to explain to the judge the ownership details of a company involved in his treasure hunt.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Dave Lee Brannon advised him the case was garnering worldwide attention — "You made the BBC" — and that anything he said could be widely circulated. Still, Thompson persisted.
"Do you really want to talk about that case here now?" the judge said, saying it was only a preliminary hearing.
Shackled, curly-haired and bearded, and wearing a navy jump suit and black Crocs, Thompson was escorted into court by U.S. Marshals and smiled at two relatives. He told Brannon he's "been very ill for a number of years" with a type of encephalitis, an overactive immune system and sensitivities and allergies that would be exacerbated if he is taken north.
"I'm a citizen of Florida and there's very strong reasons why I haven't left here since 2005," Thompson said. "It's very major for me to be exposed to things up north."
When asked if he understood the charges against him, he replied: "Yes, very well."
Thompson said he had not yet been able to hire an attorney. He was ordered back into custody. Another hearing was set for Wednesday.
Thomson pulled off an amazing feat in 1988 finding the S.S. Central America, known as the Ship of Gold, which sank in a hurricane about 200 miles off the South Carolina coast in September 1857. Four hundred and twenty-five people drowned and thousands of pounds of California gold were lost, contributing to an economic panic. Much of the gold was sold to a gold marketing group in 2000 for about $50 million.
The 161 investors who paid Thompson $12.7 million to find the ship never saw returns from the sale. Two of them sued: a now-deceased investment firm president and the Dispatch Printing Company, which publishes The Columbus Dispatch newspaper and had invested about $1 million.
Thompson went into seclusion in 2006, moving into a mansion called Gracewood in Vero Beach, Florida. Six years later, after the arrest warrant was issued, Thompson vanished.
Ted Thomas, a cousin who came to the court hearing, said Thompson was driven to the treasure hunt by his love of science and technology and unattainable feats, but that it ultimately ruined his life.
"If he had to do it all over again, he wouldn't do it," said Thomas, who said he had seen his cousin in three years. "You don't throw away your life for something that's yellow and weighs a lot."
Thompson was taken into custody with his longtime companion, Alison Antekeier.
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