Reporter's Notebook: Seeing Tommy Thompson

Michelle Sullivan

Everyone standing in the federal courtroom Wednesday held his or her breath as the Columbus treasure hunter-turned-fugitive Tommy Thompson, shackled at the wrists and ankles and wearing an orange jumpsuit, shuffled in. Or maybe it was just me. The frail 62-year-old man, with curly, graying hair and a thick beard, is a virtually unrecognizable version of the handsome, dark-haired engineer who made history in 1989 when he discovered a sunken ship off the Carolina coast and hauled up nearly 3 tons of gold.

The hot and stuffy room had filled nearly to capacity in anticipation of Thompson's appearance. The usual suspects-lawyers and business types buttoned up in suits, reporters scribbling in their notebooks-lined rows of benches, but there were others, too. A handful of folks who appeared to have personal connections to Thompson-relatives, perhaps-congregated to one side. A woman and a young, bearded man sat together on the other side. Though I didn't recognize any of them, I wouldn't be surprised to learn a few of the people who originally invested in Thompson's endeavor-and still await their promised return-were in the room. There was even a pair of filmmakers who are producing a documentary on Thompson and his discovery. Thompson's entrance hushed the idle chitchat and brought all eyes to the back of the room.

Standing before U.S. District judge Algenon L. Marbley, Thompson and his girlfriend, 47-year-old Alison Antekeier, pleaded guilty to contempt charges issued in 2012. They were hunted for more than two years by U.S. Marshals until they were captured in January at a Hilton in Boca Raton, Florida, less than 100 miles from their last known address. The charges stemmed from their failure to appear in federal court and provide financial accounting for the treasure Thompson had sold for around $50 million. More than 160 investors funded his project but have not been paid their return. Two, including Columbus Monthly's parent company, sued Thompson in 2006. That case remains open.

Though Thompson's movements and speech during the arraignment were slow, his wide eyes darted quickly around the room, surveying faces in the large audience. He clearly recognized some, including his old friend Bob Evans, who helped him discover and recover the lost treasure of the SS Central America. Thompson even briefly greeted his old friend Bob as he exited the courtroom after the hearing.

Guilty pleas from Thompson and Antekeier were expected. In March, they each agreed to plead guilty and to account for missing assets, including the whereabouts of 500 missing gold coins. Thompson's deal requires him to forfeit $425,380 in cash-the amount he was carrying when he was arrested-and to identify anyone who helped him while he was on the run. In exchange, his sentence was limited to a maximum two years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. Antekeier's sentence was limited to a maximum of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Sentencing dates have not been set.

It was all over in less than an hour. The judge ordered Thompson back to Delaware County jail, but released Antekeier pending sentencing. The pair left the silent courtroom and those who still wait eagerly for answers. Now, they're a little closer to finding them.