Reporter's Notebook: Hunting Tommy Thompson

Michelle Sullivan
Photo from Thompson's original expedition

The morning in January when news broke that federal fugitive Tommy Thompson had been arrested, after more than two years on the lam, no fewer than 10 people approached me, called me, even texted me to relay their "Did you hear?!" and express excitement and disbelief. I, too, was surprised, but not just that they'd found the former hometown hero. I was shocked-disappointed even-by where they'd found him: a hotel room in Boca Raton, Florida. You've got to be kidding. Not only was he still in the U.S.-it had been widely rumored he was abroad-but he was less than 100 miles from his last known address. He had been hiding in plain sight.

I spent the better part of last year researching for a story about Thompson, a Columbus engineer who made history in 1989 when he and a crew of scientists and seamen hauled nearly 3 tons of gold from a historic shipwreck on the ocean floor. (My 17-page story about Thompson and the aftermath of his momentous discovery, "Man Overboard," made the cover of our November 2014 issue.) I talked to people who knew him when he was a brainy kid in Defiance, Ohio. I talked to those who were at sea with him when he and his crew discovered the SS Central America, a wood-hulled steamship that sank in 1857 with tons of gold in its hold. And I talked to the Columbus tycoons whom Thompson convinced to invest millions in his dubious mission.

The story of Thompson and the ship of gold gripped Columbus then and continues to hold tight now, thanks in large part to the two-year manhunt, now over, for Thompson and his assistant, Alison Antekeier, who disappeared after a federal judge in Columbus ordered them to appear in court. Though a portion of the gold Thompson recovered was sold for at least $50 million, none of the investors ever got paid. Two of them sued, launching a convoluted legal battle that has raged for 10 years.

Let me back up. In the 1980s, Thompson, a researcher at Battelle Memorial Institute, was fascinated by deep-sea exploration and the prospect of discovering long-lost shipwrecks. With the help of friend and fellow scientist Bob Evans, Thompson identified their target: the SS Central America, which they estimated contained between 3 and 21 tons of California gold. Before they could locate the wreck off the coast of South Carolina and develop the technology to retrieve its contents, they needed money.

Charismatic and whip-smart, Thompson persuaded the who's who of Columbus (and elsewhere) to invest more than $12 million in his endeavor.

Incredibly, Thompson and his crew pulled it off. But when he finally sold the gold in 2000-the treasure had been mired in admiralty court for a decade-investors heard nothing. More significantly, they were paid nothing. In 2005, two Columbus investors (including the owners of this magazine) sued, as did some members of the crew who helped locate the wreck. Thompson grew increasingly secretive and uncooperative, refusing to provide information regarding the whereabouts of the money or the gold coins that were supposedly never sold. In 2012, he failed to appear at a court hearing, and a judge issued a warrant for his arrest.

When he was found this year in a two-bedroom suite in a Hilton, with Antekeier and $420,000 in cash, it was a bit of a letdown. What an anticlimactic ending to such a dramatic pursuit. I'd imagined him living abroad, sailing from place to place. I wouldn't have been surprised to learn he had been found living in a rainforest or on a remote island somewhere and had established a self-sustaining community that had power and running water.

After spending so much time reading, thinking and talking about Thompson, I'd built him up to be a sort of mythical character in my mind. And, after poring over court records filled with testimony from and about Thompson and holding hours of conversation with people who knew him well, I never saw him as the crook he's often portrayed to be. I see him instead as a smart guy who did an extraordinary thing and wasn't prepared for the onslaught of legal minutiae that followed. I'm not condoning his behavior, but I don't think it was premeditated. Perhaps the pressure truly drove him mad. That's all very easy for me to say-he didn't take any of my money.

Investor Don Garlikov thinks Thompson and the directors who helped manage the money did everything they could to protect the investors. He sees Thompson as a victim.

"We're in a sad state of affairs," Garlikov says. "This shouldn't have happened in the first place. It was done for the wrong reasons."

Plenty of others see it much differently. Dispatch Printing Co. chairman and investor John F. Wolfe, who filed suit against Thompson and his directors, put it simply: "People need to be held to account for taking people's money and not paying anybody."

Thompson certainly isn't helping his image. He did, after all, evade arrest by U.S. Marshals, and he doesn't seem any more willing to 'fess up about the gold now than he was 10 years ago. After he was arrested in Florida, Thompson fought extradition to Ohio, claiming he had certain allergies and medical ailments "that are north" and could be deadly.

Investor Steve Skilken doesn't buy it. "Allergies? I'm allergic to courts and lawyers, too," he says. "I think it's a red herring."

Skilken never expected to see a return on his investment-he wrote "bye bye" on the check he gave to Thompson. But he does want to know what Thompson will have to say for himself when he has his day in court. "Another investor called me and said, 'If I can get a couple of seats in the court room, do you want to go?' I said yes. I think it would be fascinating."

My list of questions for Thompson rivals in number the list that names the original 161 investors. I'm still fascinated by the scientific and historic implications of his accomplishment. Thompson invented a robot that operated 7,200 feet underwater and used it to bring tons of gold to the surface. It's smart science today; in the '80s, it was groundbreaking brilliance. Of course, like everyone else, I'd like to know where all the money is and why Thompson ran instead of answering that question.

If he could go back and do it all again, would he? Some investors have said they'd still invest knowing what they know now because it was an opportunity to be a part of something profound. But they're out thousands. Thompson is out hundreds of millions and will likely see some jail time. So what would he have done differently? When did he realize the whole thing had gone sideways? When did he know the gig was up?

But my most burning question of all, and likely that of everyone else who has taken interest in this bizarre and twisted story, is this: Was it his plan all along? The optimist in me thinks not. The "House of Cards" enthusiast in me thinks maybe-and if he did, well, that's a long con that would make Frank Underwood proud. The realist in me knows we'll probably never truly find out.