US & Canada

US fugitive treasure hunter appears in Florida court

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Media captionThe BBC's Rajini Vaidyanathan says that Tommy Thomson was described by officials as the "most intelligent fugitive" they had ever come across

A US treasure hunter has appeared in a Florida court following his arrest after two years on the run.

Tommy Thompson was arrested on a criminal contempt warrant for evading a civil case brought by his investors.

They accuse him of cheating them out of promised proceeds from one of the biggest shipwreck hauls in US history.

In 1988 Mr Thompson, bankrolled by financial backers, recovered millions of dollars' worth of gold from a ship that sank off America's coast in 1857.

The 62-year-old, whom the US Marshals Service have called "one of the most intelligent fugitives ever sought", was arrested in a hotel on Tuesday.

He had been living in the Hilton suite in West Boca Raton, south Florida, with an associate, Alison Antekeier, who was also arrested.

They had been at the hotel for two years, paying cash for their room under a false name and using taxis and public transport to avoid detection.

Room rates at the hotel start at $224 (£150) a night, according to the hotel's website.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Mr Thompson and Ms Antekeier were arrested on Tuesday

The duo are due to be extradited to Ohio, where a civil arrest warrant was issued in 2012 after Mr Thompson failed to attend a court hearing centring on the lawsuit brought by his investors.

In court on Thursday, Mr Thompson told the judge he had an "extreme medical situation", including encephalitis and allergies that would be exacerbated by returning to the northern US state, suggesting he would fight the extradition.

Previous reports have estimated Mr Thompson's haul, aided by sonar and robotic technology, at about $50m (£33m). This was the amount he received for selling most of the haul to a gold marketing group in 2000.

But the criminal complaint unveiled on Wednesday said the gold bars and coins he recovered from the seafloor were worth up to $400m (£260m).

A total of 161 investors had given Mr Thompson $12.7m (£8m) to find the ship on the understanding they would see returns on their investment.

Two of the investors later sued - a now-defunct investment firm and the Dispatch Printing Company which publishes The Columbus Dispatch newspaper, AP news agency said.

Cash-only lifestyle

Mr Thompson went into seclusion in 2006, living in a mansion in Vero Beach, Florida. He went on the run in 2012.

According to the criminal complaint, he and Ms Antekeier used 12 different mobile phones and paid rent with damp bank notes that they had buried underground.

Image copyright Natonal Maritime Museaum
Image caption The SS Central America sank to a depth of 2.2km (1.3 miles) in 1857 during a heavy storm while sailing from Panama to New York
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The SS Central America was carrying gold bars that were intended to prop up cash-strapped American banks

A book called How to Live Your Life Invisible was found at the Vero Beach mansion, marked at a page entitled "Live your life on a cash-only basis".

Gil Kirk, a former director of one of Mr Thompson's companies, told AP last year that the treasure hunter had not cheated anyone, and that the proceeds from the gold sale were spent on legal fees and bank loans.

The S S Central America sank in a hurricane about 200 miles off the South Carolina coast in September 1857, killing 425 people and contributing to an economic panic with the loss of its gold.

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