Deep-sea secrets and the 'Ship of Gold': Why a treasure hunter sits behind bars as bounty tours nation

A treasure hunter, a historic ship laden with tons of gold and a bunch of angry investors. The saga of the S.S. Central America and the man who found it deepens by the day.

A treasure trove of artifacts recovered from a 165-year-old shipwreck at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean is about to go on a nationwide tour while the man responsible for the discovery sits behind bars for a sixth year.

Tommy Thompson, a deep-sea explorer who found the SS Central America shipwreck in 1988, could get out of the federal prison in Michigan if he would reveal the whereabouts of 500 gold coins.

Thompson, who turned 70 sitting in his cell last month, is being held in contempt of court and fined $1,000 a day for every day he doesn't answer the government's questions about the gold. He's racked up more than $2 million in penalties, and there's no sign he's close to being released.

Tommy Thompson, a former deep-sea treasure hunter, has spent six years in jail for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of 500 missing coins made from gold found in a historic shipwreck.

"I feel like I don't have the keys to my freedom," Thompson said at a hearing in 2020, insisting he told the government everything he knows.

The saga of the 'Ship of Gold' 

Thompson is far removed from his life as one of the most successful treasure hunters in the USA, a feat accomplished when he and his team discovered the SS Central America, also known as the Ship of Gold. The Central America was laden with California gold rush booty when it sank in 1857 off the Carolina coast; 425 people drowned, and the wreckage remains 7,000 feet below sea level.

Soon after Thompson announced his momentous discovery of the Ship of Gold, a group of insurance companies laid claim to its treasures without proof they had insured them. A court battle ensued, and Thompson and his team came out on top. 

In 2000, Thompson’s company sold 532 gold bars and thousands of coins to the California Gold Marketing Group for about $50 million. Thompson said the bulk of that money went toward legal fees and bank loans.

A lithograph by artist John Childs depicts the “Wreck of the Steamship Central America.”

The group of investors who paid millions to fund Thompson's dream of finding the ship never saw any returns. In 2005, they sued Thompson, who went into seclusion in Florida and in 2012 became a fugitive after an Ohio judge issued a warrant for his arrest.

Thompson eluded authorities for more than two years, hiding in a hotel under a fake name and paying for everything in cash. 

He was captured in 2015, and more than $425,000 in cash was seized from the hotel.

That year, Thompson reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and was sentenced to two years in prison for failing to appear in court. 

Thompson hasn't served a single day of that sentence, instead racking up year after year in contempt of court for violating his plea agreement, which stipulated that he answer questions about the gold.

The judge in the case appears prepared to wait Thompson out indefinitely.

"He will contemplate cooperation in confinement," U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley said at a hearing in February 2017. "The fortunate part of it is I have life tenure, too. So we'll always have a special place to accommodate him and others like him who don't believe that laws apply to them and who act in absolute defiance of the law.

The search for 500 gold coins

Dwight Manley, a former high-profile sports agent who bought the gold and the rights to Thompson's life story, said the treasure hunter has turned into a victim.

"He did something very wrong ... he should be punished," Manley said. "But he's paid far too big a price for a financial issue. There's people that kill people that get out sooner than that."

"It's a cliche, but he's made his bed, and now he has to sleep in it," said Bob Evans, who was part of Thompson's team that discovered the SS Central America.

"He's running out the clock on himself," Evans said. "I don't feel particularly sorry for him because so much of it was self-inflicted."

At various points in his court case, Thompson has said he put the 500 gold coins in a blind trust in Belize. At others, he said he didn't remember where the gold is. He insisted he is unable to track it down and filed requests to be released from prison, though Marbley said he will not rule on them until Thompson obtains an attorney. 

Thompson said he's trying to obtain an attorney but is bogged down by medical problems and only has the use of a prison phone for seven minutes a day. 

"It's hard to explain the number of roadblocks," Thompson said this year. "I don't know any deep-water oceanographers that are lazy ... I'm working all the time here. It's hard to communicate from here."

Marbley hasn't bought any of Thompson's explanations over the years.

Tommy Thompson, right, talks with Bob Evans on the Arctic Discoverer as they depart Norfolk, Va., on  June 18, 1991. Thompson led a group that recovered millions of dollars worth of sunken treasure only to end up involved in court cases brought by dozens of insurance companies laying claim to the treasure.

"He sounds like the savvy treasure hunter that he in fact is, who is an engineer. His mind is sharp, his wit is acerbic, and he seems to be possessed of a steely will that will require him to just wait out all of his investors and everyone," he said in 2017.

No new court date has been scheduled, and Thompson's most recent filing is a request for more time to hire an attorney. 

Treasures of SS Central America on tour

As Thompson remains in legal limbo, the life of the ship of his dreams goes on.

This month, hundreds of artifacts recovered from the ship from 1988 to 2014 went on display for the first time.The tour began at the Old West Show outside Sacramento in Grass Valley, California.

USA TODAY was given an exclusive first look at the artifacts, which include personal letters, clothing, a saloon sign, a pistol in its holster, a photograph nicknamed "The Mona Lisa of the Deep" and a first edition of "The Count of Monte Cristo."

"It's like a time capsule," Manley said. "It's the human side of the story."

The team that discovered the SS Central America in 1988 nicknamed this area of the Atlantic Ocean seabed filled with some of the ship's sunken treasure "The Garden of Gold."

As a USA TODAY Network photographer captured pictures and video of the artifacts, an armed security guard in a bulletproof vest watched closely. Each of the items ranges in value from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million.

Evans, who has been on every voyage to the Central America and remains in charge of preserving its treasures, said they're worth far more than that.

"What stories do these objects have to tell? That’s the real thrill," he said.

The items will make at least six stops (in California, Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, Connecticut and New York) from May to September before being auctioned off in the fall.

More exclusive reporting from USA TODAY