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When he was a teenager, he bought and fixed up an amphibious car, and he loved pranking his friends by driving unsuspecting passengers into a lake. Rife with lore, the hunters spoke of ships sunken somewhere out in the ocean with more gold than could ever be spent. However, nobody knew quite where to start looking, nor could they afford the technology necessary to undertake the search. Following his graduation from The Ohio State University with a degree in ocean engineering, Thompson went to work for the Battelle Memorial Institute, a prominent research lab in Columbus that has developed everything from kitchen appliances to nuclear weapons.

There, he was able to work on deep-sea engineering projects, at one point developing technology that allowed the U. Thompson wanted to work exclusively in deep water but was routinely warned that such jobs were hard to come by. So he began looking for other ways to pursue this heady scientific passion. It was actually the means to an end. One of the first orders of business was to find the perfect wreck to hunt. Thompson worked with Bob Evans, an equivalently intelligent polymath and professional geologist, to winnow down the list of candidate ships.

The Central America ferried passengers to and from California at the height of the Gold Rush in the mid 19th century. Six hundred people, and up to 21 tons of gold coming from California, were aboard the Central America when it disembarked to New York from a stopover in Cuba on September 3, Five days later, the ship found herself floundering in the middle of a terrifying hurricane.

Passengers attempted a hour nonstop bucket brigade to keep the ship afloat, but the engines flooded and the storm ripped apart masts and sails. The ship was doomed. The vessel let out a final tortured groan as it sank on the evening of September 12, sucking souls down in a horrifying vortex. The loss in gold was so profound that it was one of the factors precipitating the Great Panic financial crisis of Finding the Central America would be no easy matter — proportionally it would be like finding a single grain of sand in the floor plan of a four-bedroom house.

The key, Thompson knew, was to undertake a logical and hyper-organized search. Bob Evans used every known detail about the fateful voyage, including passenger and crew accounts of the weather as the ship sank, and worked with a search theory expert to determine that the wreck was likely somewhere in a 1,square-mile grid miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina, in part of the ocean that was nearly a mile and a half deep.

Each square on the grid was assigned a number based on the likelihood that the ship had ended up there, and the idea was to trawl a sonar apparatus up and down the grid and take in-depth readings of the most promising results.

Obsessed with his work, Thompson was said to be indifferent to food and sleep, dressed in a thrift store suit and hair afrizz. As a result, the high-powered investors waiting in their upper-floor offices and elegant conference rooms were often skeptical of his bewildering presence.

But time after time, Thompson would speak to them reasonably, thoroughly and intelligently. He was realistic about the low probability of success, outlined various contingencies, and emphasized that the mission offered the chance for the investors to participate in a journey of good old American discovery. Investors soon found themselves chuckling in delight at the audacious fun of the project and the inspiring confidence they felt in Thompson. Wayne Ashby told the Columbus Dispatch in Thompson was the head of both.

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Under the aegis of these companies, Thompson outfitted a search vessel, put together a crew, and developed a seven-ton remotely operated vehicle capable of withstanding deep-ocean conditions. They also conducted various other experiments useful to the recovery, such as purposely giving Evans the bends.

As Gary Kinder writes in Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, the deepest an unmanned submersible had gone previous to this was 6, feet. That vehicle had been difficult to control, with only one arm that could perform rudimentary functions.

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The technology Thompson and his crew developed in secret streamlined and refined the submersible so that it was much easier to control and could perform the delicate tasks needed for the recovery of the ship. It was one of their secret weapons, and the mission to find the Central America was officially launched in June The mission was subject to numerous difficulties: seasickness, short tempers, errant weather, malfunctioning equipment, little sleep, and a stretch of time when the only food served was fried chicken.

Investors groused about the delays, but Thompson always managed to assuage their fears. In late summer , the crew sent the submersible robot down to check out an overlooked blip on the search grid.

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The control room aboard the ship, with its walls of monitors and technology that made it look like an alien craft from an old movie, exploded with profoundly human joy. Gold and artifacts were brought to the surface starting in fall , the beginnings of a haul that would grow to include gold ingots, 7, gold coins, and, at 80 pounds, one of the largest single pieces of gold ever discovered and at the time the most valuable piece of currency in the world. Wayne Ashby told the Dispatch when the discovery was announced. When asked by a reporter to estimate the value of the haul, Thompson demurred.

The first haul of gold was taken from the ship straight into armored cars by guards carrying machine guns amidst cheering investors, well wishers, and descendants of the survivors of the Central America wreck. But as it would turn out, that brief glimpse was the closest any investor would ever get to the treasure found at the bottom of the sea. I n , the Columbus-America Discovery Group had secured its right in admiralty court to excavate the Central America site and retain possession of whatever they discovered beneath the sea. But this ruling was challenged almost as soon as Thompson set foot back on the shore.

Thompson and his companies were sued by no less than separate entities, including 39 insurance companies that had insured the cargo on the original Central America voyage. Things got even more complex when an order of Capuchin monks sued Thompson, alleging he had copped the intel given to them by a professor from Columbia University whom they had commissioned to do a sonar search of the same area.

The estimated location of the S. Central America. Illustration by Yunuen Bonaparte. Recovery operations were suspended in because of the lawsuits, leaving the fate of the gold brought to the surface in legal limbo — and tons of gold still on the wreck at the bottom of the sea.

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The back-and-forth continued until and in the process established case law in admiralty court when Thompson and his companies were finally awarded Coupled with a significant devaluing of the rare coin market, a few investors wondered about the future of their investment. The pressure mounted as Thompson attempted to balance his obligations to his crew, his companies, and his investors while being a dad to his three kids. He was right there, every time there was a hearing.

He read every page of every brief, and a lot of times he was helping with the writing, too. Army, but this later proved to be a myth. Meetings with investors became less frequent, they said, as did updates and newsletters. Once lauded for his openness, Thompson appeared to go into a shell. Thompson said that his silence was necessary to protect trade secrets. By , some of the investors were fed up with the way Recovery Limited Partnership was being run and made moves to establish another company, this time with the investors in charge.

The companies were restructured, with the reworked Columbus Exploration as a partner company to Recovery Limited Partnership. Thompson was again the head of both entities, though it was stipulated that he would draw a salary only from the former and not the latter. Much of it was sold to gold and coin dealers, and some of the treasure was displayed in a lavish traveling exhibit across the country, with Thompson sometimes making an appearance alongside his discovery.

Photos courtesy Donn Pearlman.


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Thompson then allegedly told investors that they would not be seeing any of the proceeds, as all the money went to pay off the loans and legal fees that had accrued since the mission began. Thompson took the coins without approval from the board, though his attorney Keith Golden maintains there was nothing clandestine about it. Nonetheless, in , two former investors filed lawsuits against Thompson for breach of contract and fiduciary duty: Donald Fanta, president of an investment firm, the Fanta Group, and the Dispatch Printing Company, owned by the family that ran The Columbus Dispatch.

Dispatch scion John W. However, he died and his cousin John F. Convinced that Thompson was ripping him off, the cousin pushed the lawsuit ahead. Thompson was next sued by a group of nine sonar techs from the original mission who claimed they had been duped out of 2 percent of the profits from the gold, plus interest.

The two cases were combined with a third into a mega-lawsuit in federal court, creating a labyrinthine legal situation with a rotating cast of attorneys and thousands of motions and maneuvers that bewildered even seasoned courtroom players. Missions to the Central America were once again put on hold as Thompson put his mind to work filing legal briefs and appeals. Once having bragged of being the subject of more than 3, articles, Thompson had long since stopped talking to the press, and now spent half the year living in a Florida mansion rented under another name.

Thompson began to show symptoms of the gilded affliction. In he was arrested in Jacksonville after a sheriff observed him hiding something under the seat following a routine traffic stop. In July , U. Organ had never actually met Thompson and claimed that he was out to sea. But Judge Sargus shook his head and declared bullshit. The two were presumed to be together and, some of the investors speculated, in possession of millions of dollars in cash and the gold coins. On top of the civil suits against him, Thompson was charged with criminal contempt of court, and U.

Marshals were tasked with tracking down him down.