How a quiet Battelle engineer assembled a who's-who of Columbus investors, found the sunken ship Central America and began to lift from the ocean floor untold millions of dollars' worth of gold. This story written by Herb Cook Jr. was originally published in the December 1989 issue of Columbus Monthly.

This story was originally published in the December 1989 issue of Columbus Monthly.

When Tommy Thompson was growing up in Defiance in the 1960's, he could do a lot of things pretty well, but two things he could do better than almost anybody else. He could hold his breath underwater. And he could fix things.

"As a little boy I used to practice holding my breath all the time," Thompson recalls. "I was on swimming teams, and people could always beat me on the surface, but I got so I could hold my breath so long that nobody could beat me underwater. I loved seeing and doing things underwater."

When he wasn't submerged, Thompson used to hang around his house, hoping something would break down. "I was always a tinkerer," he says. "By the time I was 10, they tell me I could fix anything in the house, all the appliances. In high school I built a lawn mower that had four engines. There was one that drove the three-wheeled tractor, and it pulled the three rotary mowers. The problem was keeping all four engines running at once. I spent a lot of time working on that mower, but then it took me 20 minutes to mow the grass."

It took a couple decades, but the quirky Thompson kid finally figured out how to combine the two things he liked to do best. And last October, on a brilliant fall day in Norfolk, Virginia, some of Central Ohio's wealthiest citizens gathered to clap their hands and show Tommy Thompson just how pleased they were that he'd managed to put his talents together and make all of them even richer than they'd been before they met him.

As the high school band from Herndon, Virginia, blared out peppy marches and federal marshals carrying dull black automatic rifles glanced nervously around, Thompson, looking a bit bemused by all the hoopla, stepped off the research ship Arctic Discoverer. He and his partners, Bob Evans and Barry Schatz, had just supervised the transfer of about a ton of gold from the ship to two Brink's trucks, which already were en route to a very safe vault. The gold, worth anywhere from $20 million to $150 million depending on the mood and checkbooks of antiquarians when it's finally sold, had been recovered during the preceding four months from the worm-eaten ruins of the S.S Central America, more than 8,000 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. And there was a lot more gold-perhaps three or four times as much-still resting on the muddy bottom, waiting for Tommy Thompson to come back and start tinkering again.

For Thompson the elaborate welcoming ceremony on the Norfolk waterfront was the culmination of an eight-year quest. He'd set out to prove that if you combined the most advanced technologies, the smartest consultants, the best research techniques and a fail-safe management plan, you could go where man had never gone before and bring back treasures that everyone had considered lost forever. It had taken more time and cost more money than he'd thought it would, but now he'd actually done it.

Displayed on a table beside the microphone where Thompson stood were gold coins, gold bars and one huge ingot weighing 62 pounds-proof positive that he had triumphed against long odds. Almost instantaneously, Tommy Thompson was a celebrity. Soon he would be rich. He had every right to be a thoroughly happy man. And yet he found himself wondering, as he soaked up the sunshine and the adulation, if this might be the high point, not just of his treasure hunt, but his life. And what price would he have to pay for success? Could he ever go back and be just Tommy Thompson, the guy who used to hang out at the Ohio State library and read, for the pure joy of learning something new?

"Tommy's sort of a quiet guy, isn't he?" said Gil Kirk, a Columbus real estate developer and sometimes sports agent who invested $28,000 early in Thompson's quest. "He's probably one of the smartest guys I ever met."

It's an assessment that's echoed by others who decided to put their money behind Thompson's dream, knowing all too well that most such visionary ventures wind up as failures, worth only the value of their investors' tax deductions. 'Tommy is sincere, credible, and exceptionally competent" says Wayne Ashby, the accountant who played a key role in putting together the investors, currently numbering more than 160, who became known as the Columbus-America Discovery Group. "He has a great intellect and great creative capacity. And the best thing of all is, he's a very unassuming person and very easy to work with. He doesn't have an ego problem. It's not important to him to be the smartest person in the room, though he often is."

It was Wayne Ashby, then the senior partner at Deloitte Haskins & Sells, who introduced Tommy Thompson to some of Columbus' hardest-headed investors – guys who routinely throw 50 investments prospectuses into the wastebasket for every one they even bother to read. It was Ashby who showed Tommy Thompson how he might be able to pay for his quest with other people's money, yet still keep more than one-third of the profits, if there were any profits, for himself and his cohort – the guys who would actually do the work. But it was Thompson himself, Ashby says, who persuaded the investors to risk their money on a long shot.

Brad Kastan, a stockbroker who invested in Thompson's dream, says Ashby has it precisely right. "They asked me to take the deal to some folks," Kastan recalls, "and I said I wouldn't do that. But I did give Tommy seven names. The four who talked to him invested, and the three who didn't talk to him didn't invest. It's all in the guy's personality."

Are we dealing with a Svengali here? A bearded, curly-haired, almost diffident 37-year-old guy who can gaze deeply into rich people's eyes and persuade them to part with large amounts of cash? Anyone who's tried to talk John W. Wolfe, the tough-as-nails chairman of the Ohio Company and the Dispatch Printing Company, into parting with any of his cash when he didn't want to knows Thompson must have used something beyond hypnotic suggestion to talk Wolfe into putting up $33,000 back in 1985, and nearly $300,000 more in subsequent phases.

Investors describing Thompson's sales techniques like to talk about the same kinds of simple Midwestern virtues Wayne Ashby touts – integrity, lack of pretense and ego, careful planning, perhaps the way Thompson pauses, sometimes for 10 or 15 seconds, before answering a question. Talking with Tommy Thompson, anyone who knows him well will tell you, can be a bit disconcerting. If he's not sure how he wants to respond, he simply says nothing. When the answer finally comes though, it's straightforward, clean and honest.

It was Thompson's ability to look at any situation head-on, without gloss or self-delusion, that helped persuade Bob Evans, then a 27-year-old geologist and mineralogist, to begin researching the Central America and other deep ocean shipwrecks in 1981. Thompson and Evans had met during the winter of 1977-'78, when a raging blizzard froze coal supplies and forced Columbia Gas to shut off commercial customers and reduce residential gas pressure. Evans lived in one half of a house on West Sixth Avenue, just a couple blocks from the modest brick double which now houses Columbus-America Discovery Group's offices. Thompson's girlfriend was renting the other side of the house, and Thompson was in the basement, trying to figure out how to increase the gas supply and get more heat.

"Tommy tried to kick down the door between the two halves of the basement so he could find out where the lines ran," Evans says. "I happened to be down there, and I said something like 'Yo!' We talked for a while through the door, and I told him where the lines were and how the stopcocks were set. It was too cold to go outside, so we never formally met until a few months later."

Thompson, who had graduated from Ohio State in 1975, was then an ocean engineering consultant, specializing in shallow water recoveries. He'd majored in machine design at OSU's engineering college, but had taken an extra year to add courses in marine geology and aquatic biology, spending considerable time at the university's Stone Laboratory on Lake Erie.

After graduating, Thompson gravitated to Florida and wound up scuba diving and consulting with several groups searching for old wrecks and the treasure they supposedly contained. He met and worked briefly for Mel Fisher, the man who would later claim the gold from the Nuestra Senor de Atocha, a 17th-century Spanish galleon. Thompson tried to introduce the groups that hired him to new technologies like side-scan sonar and radio positioning systems, but some of his employers seemed more interested in swashbuckling adventure than in rigorous, systematic search techniques. "A lot of these shallow water operations have virtually no technology and they're run sort of haphazardly," Thompson says. "It was frustrating. They'd take a survey and they'd throw a buoy out with a cinderblock attached to a mark spot. That buoy would only be there for about two weeks before the wind would blow it away.

For a young man whose belief in research and planning was so devout as to almost religious, the swashbuckling approach to finding wrecks held no charm at all. Moreover, Thompson began to realize that most of the wrecks lying in the warm, shallow water probably had already been found and picked clean. And the remains of those that hadn't been stripped were likely to have been recovered by thick layers of sediment after decades or centuries of continuous wave action. The place to look for valuable wrecks, Thompson became convinced, was not in shallow water but in the deep ocean, beyond the continental shelf. Except, of course, that nobody had figured out how to recover anything from a deep-water wreck, even if you could find one.

In 1981 Thompson took a job in the ocean engineering section of Battelle Memorial Institute. He came to Battelle highly recommended by Donald Glower, then dean of OSU's engineering college, who considered Thompson one of the best students he'd ever had. Far from getting lost in the shuffle at Battelle, Thompson thrived. "Battle is an amazing organization," he says. "It's big, but it's primarily a grassroots organization. Things are managed from the bottom up. It's a very interesting, very creative environment. You can't imagine how much I learned there, just from the interaction with so many people who know so much."

He credits his four years at Battelle with teaching him the basic techniques of project management and points out that he's never formally left the institute, but remains on an extended leave of absence. "Who knows?" Thompson says. "I may want to go back and retire there." He keeps in touch with many of his former coworkers, and Columbus-America Discovery Group pays Battelle for engineering consultation.

In 1995 Thompson told Don Frink, the head of ocean engineering at Battelle, that he wanted to take a leave to find and recover the gold from the Central America. Frink, like a lot of other people, thought Thompson was taking a big risk with only the tiniest hope of success. But Battelle has created quite a few future clients over the years by encouraging its researches to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. The institute gave Thompson its blessing.

By that time Thompson and Evans had become friends. They had put in four years of desultory but productive preliminary research. Evans, who says he's happier in a good library than almost anywhere else, had done a lot of reading about shipwrecks, famous and not-so-famous, trying to narrow the field to three or four that offered some possibility of success. Evans had been supporting himself as a consulting geologist for oil companies, but after petroleum prices collapsed in 1984 he decided the time was right to sign on with Thompson full-time.

It didn't take long for Thompson and Evans to identify the Central America as a prime target. "The Central America has been a part of standard treasure-hunting lore," Evans says, "just because there was a lot of gold and there is a historical record of it. It's on everybody's list." The ship, a paddle-wheel steamer, sank in a hurricane in September, 1857, about 200 miles off the coast of South Carolina. It was carrying nearly 600 passengers, more than 400 of whom drowned, including the captain, Navy Commander William Lewis Herndon. It was no coincidence that when the Columbus-America Discovery Group brought its booty back to Norfolk, it invited the Herndon High School marching band to play at the ceremonies. The small Virginia city, not far from Washington D.C., is named after the captain who went down with his ship.

What made the Central America an attractive salvage target was its cargo of gold – perhaps as much as three tons of gold dust, gold coins and gold bars, many worth far more as collectors' items than as raw gold. The coin department of Christie's auction house, hired as numismatic consultant to the Columbus-America Discovery Group, won't even hazard a guess at the total value of the Central America's gold on today's market. Other estimates of the treasure's total value range from $200 million to $1 billion. Those numbers, Thompson figured, made it worth risking several million dollars to find the wreck and recover the gold. The potential loss if the project failed seemed minimal compared to the potential gain if it succeeded.

Evans had spent a lot of time researching accounts of the Central America's sinking, paying particular attention to what survivors and their rescuers said about the ship's position in the hours before it went down, weather and sea conditions, and anything else that might help in a search for the sunken remains. "We constructed sinking scenarios,' Evans says. "It was a very mathematical, iterative and reiterative process. All kinds of things about the Central America looked very good, and the more we scrutinized the record, the better it looked."

What clinched the decision, as far as Evans was concerned, was the arrival, late in 1983, of a Xerox copy of document stored in a library in Savannah, Georgia. "It was a coordinate taken by the captain of the barque Saxony, which picked up five of the survivors from another rescue vessel, the barque Ellen conveyed them to Savannah," Evans says. "His shipping notice, which was a tiny little bit at the bottom of this badly microfilmed paper, showed a coordinate which was out in the vicinity of two other coordinates which we already had. This gave us a third coordinate in the same basic area of the ocean, and affirmed in my mind that the whole concept was not a lot of hooey. We now had enough coordinates and enough supporting data that if we gathered everything we could, we might be able to apply modern search theory."

Armed with their data, Evans and Thompson went to see the high priest of modern search theory, Larry Stone, who happened to be attending a college reunion at Antioch, in Yellow Springs Ohio. Stone had spent years as a consultant to the Navy and Coast Guard, developing and refining computer techniques for finding lost objects. Search theory is an arcane branch of mathematics, but at its core it's not much different from the thought process anyone goes through in deciding where to look for a lost pair of reading glasses. First you look in the most likely place, then in the next most likely place, and so forth. It's all a matter of probability.

What Evans and Thompson showed Stone was nine-page computer printout, incorporating and relating the information they had gathered., including eye witness accounts, wind and weather data, all weighted according to the credibility of its sources. "Dr. Stone was, I think, expecting a much less organized body of information," says Evans. "Until he saw the data correlation matrix, he was maintaining a healthy skepticism. Modern search theory had never before been applied to a historical body of information. But he was immediately enthused by the quality and the quantity of our data. Stone agreed to sign on as a consultant.

By this time, early in 1985, Thompson knew he'd taken the project as far as he could without money. So he went to see his mentor, OSU engineering dean Donald Glower. "He said, 'You know, that could really work,' " recalls Thompson. Glower quickly set up a luncheon at the Fawcett Center for Tomorrow, where he introduced Thompson to Ashby, OSU fund-raiser Herb Lape, and a few other well-connected people. It took three or four months and several more conversations before Ashby became as enthusiastic as Glower. But when Thompson told him he'd been to New York to talk money with a billionaire from South Africa, to Los Angeles to talk with executives of a cash-rich publishing company, Ashby decided the time had come to act.

"Wayne said, 'We've got to do this here,' Thompson says. "He introduced me to a number of businessmen and we talked to them, and they would introduce me to other people, and it went on and on. I guess they call it networking."

"Not many who sat down with Tommy didn't make an investment," says Ashby. "There was the lure of a very high return multiple. There was an exceptional risk-reward relationship. An investment opportunity like this is going to come along maybe once in a person's lifetime. It's not an illogical investment with a certain small portion of one's assets."

Seeking $200,000 in seed money to get the project underway, Ashby introduced Thompson first to friends like Art Cullman, a retired OSU marketing professor who has invested in a number of local start-ups over the years, including the Limited and Columbus Monthly. Cullman immediately liked the bright young engineer. He became one of the first investors and has invested more money at every opportunity since. With more than $200,000 in the project Cullman and a number of close relatives stand to gain as much as $10 million when the gold is finally sold. But Cullman says he'd have been almost as happy if Thompson had given the project his best shot and come up empty-handed.

"I guess I'm like Don Dunn," says Cullman of one his fellow investors. "The money isn't as important to me as what Tommy has accomplished, and the fact that it's a bunch of people from Columbus who have done it, and shown up all those East Coast people who got there too late or said it couldn't be done."

Dunn, president of the Plaskolite Corp., proudly recalls that he stood up at an investors' meeting at the Columbus Athletic Club in 1988, before most investors knew that the first gold coin had been recovered, and declared the project already a success. "I got up and said, 'Tommy, speaking for myself and all the other investors, if we don't get a nickel out of this, it's still been a thrilling investment.' "

Not all the investors may feel as altruistic as Dunn, but it's impossible to find any these days who'll complain about the project. There were some grumbles back in 1987, when it became apparent the project would run out of money before recovering any gold, and it seemed the recovery phase might be stalled in federal court for months or years. But nobody quarrels with success.

Altogether, the Columbus-America Discovery Group has raised about $12.7 million in five partnership offerings. The first three rounds, totaling about $5.2 million, were planned from the start, and many of the same investors participated in all three, paying more for equivalent new shares as the rick decreased. The highest returns will go to the original group of investors who put up the $200,000 in seed money in May, 1985, and the $1.4 million in July, 1985, to finance the search for the Central America. Those financed what was supposed to be the final, $3.6 million recovery phase in December, 1986, will get a considerably lower return on their investments.

The lowest returns, but also the lowest risks, belong to those who paid $7.5 million in December, 1987, to fund recovery operations in 1988 and 1989. That group, known as "Class B" investors, stands to make four times its investment if the ultimate value of the treasure is $200 million, eight times if the treasure is worth $400 million, and so forth. But those investors also benefit from a "last-in, first-out" clause in the partnership offering. They must at least get their money back before any earlier investors are paid off.

Even though the project to date has cost more than twice as much as the $5 million Thompson originally projected, he and "core group" partners Evans, Barry Schatz and a few others have managed to retain ownership of about 34 percent of the ultimate proceeds of the venture – only a minor step down from Thompson's original 40 percent share as general partner. The remaining 66 percent will be divided among the limited partners.

Among those who invested during the early stages, in addition to Ashby, Cullman, Wolfe, Kastan, Dunn and Kirk were Ohio Company president Don Fanta; insurance agent Bob Hoag; Worthington Industries boss John McConnell; Wendy's president Jim Near; developer Steve Skilken; former Beverage Management owner Butch O'Neill; lawyers Harrison Smith, Bill Arthur and Jack Chester; and Casto organization executives Frank Benson and Don Casto III. Most of the investors were less well known, but all had to affirm that they were well off – either earning at least $200,000 a year, or worth at least $700,000. Tommy Thompson's deal wasn't for widows and orphans.

Thompson says he told the investors about all the risks – intrinsic risks like not being able to find the wreck at all, or finding the gold and not being able to bring it to the surface. And extrinsic risks like competition, legal hassles, or running out of money and being unable to raise more. Thompson, Evans and Barry Schatz, a high school classmate of Thompson's who joined the project in 1985, worked out endless risk assessments, endless "what if" scenarios. And always, despite all the risks, they wound up believing they could find and recover the gold.

"I think the project really sold itself because of all the planning that went into it," Thompson says. "When I looked at some of those shallow water ventures, a lot of them didn't even get off the dock. They didn't legitimately promise their investors a commitment to trying to make it work. Even though I told all our investors it was a high-risk thing, it seemed like a tremendous responsibility, because everybody was counting on me to make it happen. With those kinds of pressures, you try to do everything in your power to lower the risk. For four years we've managed the project by asking what things lower the risk and what things increase the risk, and if things increase the risk, then we won't do those things."

"When I would talk to people, they would ask questions: What are you going to do if this? What are you going to do if that? We'd already thought about what we were going to do if this or that. I'd say, 'Well, that is a problem, and this is how we intend to handle that.' I think the project was perceived, even in the early days, as something that was well thought out."

As things worked out, finding the Central America was the easy part. In the summer of 1986, riding a rented research ship and towing a side-scan sonar at the end of a couple of miles of cable, Thompson and his crew began sweeping the area where their probability matrix, as refined by Larry Stone, told them they were most likely to find the wreck. And within three weeks, not very far from the area of highest probability, they found it. Or at least they thought they had found it. "There are a lot of anomalies on the ocean floor," says Evans. "They range from 55-gallon drums to shipping containers that can look very much like a ship on sonar. But there was a pretty good chance we had imaged the Central America."

All that remained, it seemed, was to return in the summer of 1987-sea conditions in that part of the Atlantic allow only about four months of good diving per year, from June through September-and start hauling up treasure. That assumed, of course, that Thompson, the inveterate tinkerer, would be able to build something to haul the treasure up with.

And sure enough, by May 1987, Thompson had fashioned Nemo, a squat, boxlike contraption constructed mainly from four-foot aluminum cubes. Nemo bristled with electronic gear and sported one long arm, something like a giant lobster claw, strong enough to left a 300-pound ship's bell, but sensitive enough to pick up a single gold coin without marring the finish.

What Nemo actually picked up in 1987, though, were a few pieces of anthracite coal, relics from the Central America's boiler room. These were rushed back to the U.S. District Court in Norfolk and declared to be "artifacts" for purposes of establishing Columbus-America Discovery Group's exclusive right to wreck site. The reason for haste, as the group's admiralty lawyer, Rick Robol, explains it, was that at least two other groups were mounting efforts to find and salvage the Central America. Unless Thompson could establish a legal claim, 1,400 square miles of the Atlantic Ocean were about to become the setting for a gold-grabbing free-for-all.

Fortunately for Thompson, Robol's legal argument-that brining even one artifact into federal jurisdiction allowed the court to take charge of the entire site, and in turn to grant sub-custody of the wreck to Thompson-prevailed. Federal Judge Richard Kellam, now 81 years old, issued a temporary restraining order, a preliminary injunction, a permanent injunction and even a contempt of court order against one would-be competitor, an oceanographic subsidiary of Columbia University. "We asked the other group to identify themselves at sea," recalls Evans, "and when they came back they identified themselves as the trustees of Columbia University. So when we got the injunction, we enjoined all the trustees of Columbia University, individually. Their group scared me, though, because of their level of competence. It's a topflight oceanographic institute."

The good news in 1987 was that a federal judge had given Tommy Thompson control of the wreck site. The bad news was that the legal maneuvering ate up most of the summer, there was still no gold, and the Columbus-America Discovery Group's money was running out. So, during the winter of 1987-'88, Thompson dusted off his investment pitch, raised an additional $7.5 million and built a new, improved Nemo, an 11,000-pound behemoth with better video cameras, more sensitive grabbing arms and more sophisticated electronic systems. Before the 1988 diving season, the group, through a related corporation, purchased its own research ship, the Arctic Discoverer, and modified it to accommodate Nemo and extensive below-deck computer systems.

Work on Nemo and the new ship delayed 1988 diving operations until August, but once at sea the new equipment performed well. "In 1988," says Evans, "we went back out with a serious Nemo and began doing serious excavation." 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.

Barry Schatz, who'd been a newspaper reporter in Key West and written an excellent preface to the group's paperback compilation of accounts of sinking, published in 1988, was in charge of publicity. Like everything else the group had done, the publicity surrounding the discovery of the Central America's main gold storage area was meticulously planned. First a Washington Post reporter, Ken Ringle, was invited to come aboard the Arctic Discoverer at sea. Ringle's exclusive story revealing the gold find was distributed by the Post's wire service and ran prominently in papers across the country, "just the way we planned it," says Evans.

The group hired a public relations subsidiary of the huge Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency to promote the discovery, and soon four-color information packets were circulating. "It is anticipated," wrote Ogilvy & Mather vice president Paul Costello, a former press secretary to Ohio Governor Dick Celeste, "that the gold will represent the greatest American treasure trove ever recovered … If you would like more information on the S.S. Central America project, do not hesitate to call."

And then, finally, it was Oct. 5 and the Arctic Discoverer was tying up at the pier in Norfolk, the marching band was playing, the Ogilvy & Mather types were doing their best to keep the press in one area and the investors in another, the U.S. marshals were holding their automatic rifles and looking uncomfortable, and the investors, some 40 of them, were having a ball. They'd flown in on corporate jets or private planes, the weather was perfect, the gold was shiny, and Tommy Thompson had vindicated everyone's hunch bets.

"I'd like to thank especially my mom and Tom's mom," said Barry Schatz when it was his turn at the microphone, "for letting us take off in February one year when we drove 900 miles through the snow to get to Quebec City to attend the winter carnival. We were about 16 years old, and we had $18 in cash and a Shell credit card … To me the gold has not been the important thing, at least not so far. What's important is not the destination, it's the getting there. And Tom and Bob are two of the best traveling companions there are."

That drew a round of applause. But Bill Wolfe, a Dispatch vice president and a project investor, standing at one side of the crowd, was checking out the Arctic Discoverer, and he wasn't entirely pleased with what he saw. "I think they ought to repaint the boat for next year," Wolfe said. "It doesn't look too good with all that rust on it."

With or without fresh paint, the Arctic Discoverer will be back out on the Atlantic late next spring, carrying Thompson, Evans, Schatz, and 20 shipmates and the 1990 edition of Nemo, the homely but efficient $5 million robot. With flat seas, good planning and a little luck, Thompson thinks all the gold can be recovered by the time the weather turns sour again next October.

Then-assuming the courts have upheld Columbus-America Discovery Group's right to the gold-Thompson will turn his managerial skills to turning the treasure into cash, and turning the cash into payoffs for himself, his partners and his crew. It's been a tight-knit organization so far, with remarkably little bad blood, despite stresses of a two-year stretchout in the recovery schedule and the long weeks at sea. Even the occasional on-board shouting match has generally worked out for the best, clearing the air and letting everyone get back to work.

But Thompson knows there are pitfalls ahead. No matter how he divvies up the insiders' share of the spoils, someone will be unhappy, even though the crew has been well-paid throughout the search and recovery phases. "On the upper end of things," Thompson says, "we're going to have so much money that bonuses will be very easy to come by. But at some point I'm going to have to make some hard decisions. We have sort of a flat organization. It's not hierarchical, so I'm not used to playing the role of God."

When he's handed out the last bonus and mailed the last investor check, perhaps sometime in 1991, will Tommy Thompson buy himself a house in Wexley and live the life of a wealthy, retired treasure hunter? Not likely. "The bottom is like a vast museum of historic sailing vessels," Thompson wrote to his investors in 1988. "Our sonar technologies can locate these sites, and because of their state of degradation, they are relatively easy to evaluate and recover … Since one fully loaded Spanish galleon can be worth over $1 billion at today's prices, the recovery of the gold from the Central America will put us in a unique position to take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity."

That doesn't sound like a man who's ready to donate Nemo to the Smithsonian Institution and take life easy. But then there's the other Tommy Thompson, the one who worries, sometimes, that he's missed four years of his three children's lives, that he hasn't been entirely fair to his family or to his own love of learning. "There have been times, months, when it's taken a lot of energy just to maintain focus, to maintain drive," Thompson says. "For the most part my friends and family have been very understanding. But I feel like I've missed out on about four years of my life, in a real sense. My philosophy now is the philosophy of the organization. There's no time for any other kind of thinking. Self education, that's out the window. That's a big personal sacrifice for me."

So what'll it be, Tommy? Cash out and slow down? Or build a bigger, better Nemo and head right back out to sea, hunting for that billion-dollar galleon?