When Battelle-geek-turned-treasure-hunter Tommy Thompson and his Columbus-America Discovery Group astonished the world by lifting more than two tons of gold from the bottom of the ocean in 1988 and '89, scores of Columbus high rollers celebrated what they thought was the investment of a lifetime. Estimates of the ultimate take ranged as high as $1 billion.

This story was originally published in the August 1997 issue of Columbus Monthly as part of a story about personal investments written by Dennis Read.

When Battelle-geek-turned-treasure-hunter Tommy Thompson and his Columbus-America Discovery Group astonished the world by lifting more than two tons of gold from the bottom of the ocean in 1988 and '89, scores of Columbus high rollers celebrated what they thought was the investment of a lifetime. Estimates of the ultimate take ranged as high as $1 billion.

Nine years later the 161 investors who bankrolled Thompson's Recovery Limited Partnership to the tune of more than $12 million have yet to see a dime, even though a federal judge ruled last November (after years of legal wrangling with insurance companies) that the partnership can keep 92.2 percent of the gold it has recovered from the sunken remains of the S.S. Central America. As far as the investors are concerned, all the treasure might as well still be where Thompson found it on the ocean floor, 100 miles off the coast of South Carolina.

One investor says the Columbus-America Discovery Group "is playing their cards pretty close to the vest. And it ain't my vest." Periodic letters to all partners "don't contain a lot of information," according to another investor. "Tommy Thompson doesn't really say very much these days." What he does say to his investors he says confidentially, requesting that they not pas it on to reporters or anyone else outside the group.

Thompson has even less to say for public consumption. In June, a three-paragraph written response to Columbus Monthly's request for information talked mostly about the group's scientific and technical achievements. "Although the business cycle has been longer than original predictions, as we now move toward closure, we expect that soon we will be celebrating the fruits of our labors," the statement concluded.

Some local investments experts doubted the limited partners will ever recover their investment. "This is the worst Columbus investment story ever," one says. "Some people got so excited about the thousands of percent return that they invested nest egg money into it. Not speculative money, not mad money. They can't afford to wait years for a return. And they really can't afford to lose it. And there's a strong chance they will."

Privately, some investors also say they've grown skeptical. Others remain hopeful. "I'm still optimistic," says retired accountant Bill Wright, who has a $50,000 stake. Investment adviser Donald Garlikov, with $225,000 on the line, is upbeat. "Everything from my perspective has worked out the way we wanted it to work out – except for the payoff wait," Garlikov says. He contends Thompson is "trying to maximize value for everyone in the group. He's done a damn good job. It's been masterful. Until he totally screws up, I'm sticking with him."

"Someday we'll look back and say, 'This was a good investment,' " says another investor. "When that day will be, I don't know."