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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (04/2015) Headlines (02/2015) Headlines (06/2015)   Vol. 49 April 2015 
Treasure In The Headlines
As seen in the April 2015 edition of W&ET Magazine

FEDS CHASE TREASURE HUNTER TURNED FUGITIVE

One of the last times anyone saw Tommy Thompson, he was walking on the pool deck of a Florida mansion wearing nothing but eye glasses, leather shoes, socks and underwear, his brown hair growing wild.

It was a far cry from the conquering hero who, almost two decades before, docked a ship in Norfolk, Virginia, loaded with what’s been described as the greatest lost treasure in American history— thousands of pounds of gold that sat in the ocean for 131 years after the ship carrying it sank during a hurricane.

On that day in 1989, Thompson couldn’t contain a grin a hundreds cheered his achievement. But his victory was short-lived.

For the past two years, the U.S. Marshals Service has hunted Thompson as a fugitive— wanted for skipping a court date to explain to investors what happened to the riches. The rise and fall of the intrepid explorer is the stuff of storybooks, a tale receiving renewed attention amid a new expedition begun this year to the sunken ship.

“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.”

Around 1983, Thompson grew obsessed with tracking down the SS Central America. When the ship went down off the South Carolina coast in 1857, 425 people drowned and gold worth millions was lost.

Thompson, an oceanic engineer at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, convinced 161 people to invest in his quest, raising $12.7 million. On Oct. 1, 1988, he finally found the treasure, which he would later describe as “otherworldly in its splendor.”

But his joy faded fast. Thirty-nine insurance companies sued Thompson, claiming they had insured the gold in 1857 and that it belonged to them. In 1996, Thompson’s company was awarded 92 percent of the treasure, and the rest was divided among some of the insurers. Four years later, Thompson’s company netted $50 million after selling 532 gold bars and thousands of coins to a gold marking group.

Yet his legal troubles weren’t over.

By 2005, Thompson’s investors still hadn’t been paid, and two sued— a now-deceased investment firm president who put in some $250,000 and the Dispatch Printing Company, which publishes The Columbus Dispatch newspaper and invested about $1 million. The following year, nine members of Thompson’s crew also sued, saying they too, were promised some proceeds.

Thompson went into seclusion, moving into a mansion in Vero Beach, Florida. After that, his behavior turned bizarre.

Thompson refused to use his real name on his utility bills, telling realtor Vance Brinkerhoff that his life had been threatened and asking him, “How would you like to live like that?” Brinkerhoff recounted the exchange in a court deposition.

In another deposition,maintenance worker James Kennedy recalled once going to the house and seeing Thompson on the pool deck wearing only socks, shoes and dirty underwear. “His hair was all crazy,” Kennedy said. “After that, me and (a friend) referred to him as the crazy professor.”

It’s not clear exactly when Thompson disappeared. On Aug. 13, 2012, he failed to appear at a hearing in the court battles, and a federal judge found him in contempt and issued an arrest warrant. Not long after, Kennedy went inside the Florida mansion and found pre-paid disposable cellphones and bank wraps for $10,000 bills, along with a book called “How To Live Your Life Invisible.”

The Marshals Service has splashed Thompson’s face on electronic billboards and run down hundreds of tips— from the guy who thought he might have shared an elevator with Thompson to a report that the name “Tommy” was signed on a memorial website for a dead friend of the treasure hunter. Nothing has panned out. A “Wanted” poster even hangs in the barge making a new voyage to the Central America in a new expedition to recover more treasure from the “Ship of Gold.”

Since April, Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration has brought up millions of dollars in gold and silver bars and coins. That work will continue indefinitely, an Odyssey spokeswoman said, and Thompson’s original investors are expected to receive part of the recovered riches.

An attorney for the investors who sued did not respond to requests for comment, nor did a number of the investors.

As to where Thompson, now 62, might be, theories abound. The crew members’ attorney, Mike Szolosi, asserts that he’s seen records indicating Thompson took 500 gold coins with $2 million and took potentially millions from his own company on top of his approved compensation.

“Presumably all of that is still somewhere with Tommy,” he said.

Attorney Rick Roble, who defended Thompson’s company until he withdrew from the case last month, said there’s no proof Thompson stole anything.

Author Gary Kinder, who chronicled the treasure hunt in “Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea,” said nothing in his time with Thompson gives him any insight into his whereabouts. “I don’t know what it would entail to hide like that. Get your teeth fixed? Buy a blond wig?”

Agent Fleming believes Thompson is likely still stateside, although “we definitely never rule out... that he may be abroad or at sea.”

If caught, Thompson would be asked to account for the missing coins and explain where proceeds from the treasure’s sale went. He could face jail time and hefty fines if he refuses.

Gil Kirk, a former director of one of Thompson’s companies, said he put $1.8 million into the treasure hunt. Though he hasn’t gotten any of that back, Kirk still supports Thompson and insists he never bilked anyone.

To Kirk, Thompson remains an American hero, “like the Wright brothers.” The tragedy, he said, is that Thompson’s dream became his doom.

“Tommy used the word, what’s the word?” Kirk said. “Plague of the gold.”

From The Daytona Beach News-Journal, submitted by Willard R. Smith III, Naperville, IL, Zoueva Grossmann, Palm Coast, FL, and Jeff Kehl, Avon, MN.



HISTORY BUFF MINES GOLD RIVER FOR CHARITY

Danny Hennigar couldn’t contain his enthusiasm, despite sodden feet and clothes drenched through to the skin.

“If I didn’t enjoy it, I definitely wouldn’t be out here, especially on a day like this,” he grinned as he wrapped up his tour recently in the torrential rain one afternoon of old gold-mine workings on the banks of Gold River, Lunenburg County.

“I just like showing people history,” said Hennigar, known to many for his work organizing tours of Oak Island, and sharing his knowledge of Chester-area history.

It’s a history to which he’s deeply attached. He has his grandfather Lohnes’s mining helmet and lamp at home under lock and key. He hopes to share it with the public at the 2016 opening of a mining museum in the Municipality of the District of Chester.

While Beech Hill is not one of the better-known gold mining areas in the province, Hennigar said the 2,000-hectare Gold River site produced about 218 kilograms in the mid- to late 1800s.

At the time, the province told prospectors and gold mining companies they had to report their finds and give the government three per cent.

“And, of course, everybody told the government exactly what they got. Sure they did,” Hennigar grinned. “I’ll leave it up to your imagination how much was actually found.”

The 60-year-old has been stumbling around this land since he was a little boy. In 1967, his father built a cabin on the riverbank, a popular place for Hennigar and his friends in their teens.

It was while groggily emerging from that cabin one Sunday morning that he met the site’s last prospector— Clarence Kaizer.

Actually, Hennigar heard Kaizer first, hitting on a rock and cursing and swearing as he and his dog looked for gold.

“He was quite an eccentric guy,” Hennigar said.

Over the years, Kaizer showed him the land and old mine workings from the first miner, Daniel Dimmock, and a little later those of a British colonel who ended up building a cabin in the woods where he and his wife lived.

Kaizer showed Hennigar the remains of Col. Briscoe’s cabin, which burned down years ago. Hennigar got down on his hands and knees and pulled aside some moss and rock to find what he calls his biggest treasure on the site— a two-tined hors d’oeuvre fork.

“I couldn’t help but think about Mrs. Briscoe sitting there tap, tap, tapping this fork, thinking, ‘How am I going to get out of this?’ and definitely not keen on sharing her fare with grubby miners,” Hennigar said.

As he stood on old tailings from an 11-metre shaft and 4.5-metre, hand-dug trenches, Hennigar explained the government created a mine apprenticeship program in the late 1920s that saw 300 young men come here and learn how to mine.

He also threw a long wooden pole into a water-filled, 21-metre deep mine shaft with moss-covered timbers shoring up its sides.

Hennigar has a section of the ladder that was in that shaft, made from timbers cut on site. It will be part of the mine exhibit that will also deal with mining for magnesium and radio crystals in the Chester region.

There is no legal prospecting going on in the area now.

“To prospect, you should have a licence and permission from the landowner, and when you prospect, you’re not allowed to do anything more, really, than lift the moss off of rocks and look underneath.”

But there has been some illegal prospecting, as evidenced by some dangerous holes that have undermined the roots of trees that have fallen. “It makes property owners sour when people do things like that,” Hennigar said.

But he said not all prospectors operate that way. Many are ethical and carry out what they carry in, Hennigar said.

There was some diamond drilling on the site in 1959 and a mining company looked at tailings to see if there was enough there to recover, but nothing came of either.

But Hennigar hopes that won’t stop people from wondering and learning.

From the Chronicle-Herald, submitted by Daniel Finch, Halifax, Nova Scotia.



TIME CAPSULE FOUND AT MASSACHUSETTS STATEHOUSE

Crews removed a time capsule dating back to 1795 recently from the granite cornerstone of the Massachusetts Statehouse, where historians believe it was originally placed by Revolutionary War luminaries Samuel Adams and Paul Revere among others.

The time capsule is believed to contain items such as old coins and newspapers, but the condition of the contents is not known and Secretary of State William Galvin speculated that some could have deteriorated over time.

Officials won’t open the capsule until after it is X-rayed at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to determine its contents.

Originally made of cowhide, the time capsule was believed to have been embedded in the cornerstone when construction on the state Capitol began in 1795. Adams was governor of Massachusetts at the time.

The time capsule was removed in the mid-19th century and its contents transferred to a copper box, Galvin said. Its removal was due to an ongoing water filtration project at the building.

Pamela Hatchfield, a conservator at the museum, slowly chiseled away at the cornerstone to reach the box, a process that took several hours to complete. Galvin said the plan is to return it to the site sometime next year.

The excavation came just months after another time capsule was uncovered from the Old State House, which served as the state’s first seat of government. That long-forgotten time capsule, dating to 1901, turned up in a lion statue atop the building and, when opened, was found to contain a potpourri of well-preserved items including newspaper clippings, a book on foreign policy and a letter from journalists of the period.

From the AP, submitted by Marty Maher, Langlois, OR.



ENVELOPE CONTAINING OVER $127,000 IN MATURED BONDS FOUND

When Phil LeClerc, of Weymouth, found an envelope filled with a long-lost portion of one family’s savings, he was originally searching for something else: a missing knob.

The knob belonged to LeClerc’s latest purchase, a $40 Governor Winthrop secretary desk. The piece of furniture is fairly common, Marg-E Kelley said, adding that the desks pass through the doors of Kelley Auctions “all the time.”

This particular desk had come to the Holbrook auction house when Kelley Auctions was hired to clean out and sell the furniture from a local home, according to The Enterprise.

The man who hired the company had been taking care of his 94-year-old father, and decided to sell his father’s home to help pay for the assisted living facility the elderly man was moving into.

Although they are a common item, Governor Winthrop desks have developed a reputation over the years for hiding long-forgotten items in the secret drawers and compartments that fill the desks.

However, when LeClerc found an envelope containing over $127,000 in matured bonds he wasn’t looking for hidden items. Instead, he was searching for a missing knob that had fallen into a space between desktop and the drawers.

“I banged the desk forward and when the knob came out the envelope dropped,” LeClerc said. “The first thing I saw was a $500 bond.”

Upon realizing the value of his discovery, LeClerc, who has been visiting Kelley Auctions since the business opened in 2004, contacted the auction house to try to return them to the original family.

“The family had been looking for them for years,” Kelley said.

The family that owns the bonds requested that their name not be used.

“He was so happy. It could not have happened to a nicer guy,” Kelley said, about the man who had hired the auction company.

“We love stories like this. It’s why we do what we do,” she added.

LeClerc said that he was happy the bonds could be returned to their rightful owner. “It was a great find,” he said. “It was even better after hearing the story of the family.”

From AOLNews, submitted by Marty Maher, Langlois, OR.























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