Just like any treasure hunt, the details are sketchy, a modern-day version of a deserted island map, with an X marking the spot. But here’s what we know.
Back in 2010, famed treasure hunter Tommy Thompson told his girlfriend to show up to a self-storage facility in Fort Lauderdale. She had briefcases—they can’t recall how many—holding 150 pounds in gold coins.
Five hundred coins, to be exact—worth at least a couple million.
Thompson, now 66 and sitting indefinitely in federal prison, and his girlfriend say she passed the briefcases to someone Thompson found online, representing a company that was supposed to keep them safe. Maybe keep them in the storage facility. Maybe take them to Belize.
And from there, who knows what happened with the gold? Perhaps Thompson and his girlfriend made up the story to keep the fortune for themselves. Possibly, the person who took the coins made off like a bandit.
Or maybe, after continuing on with this story, by reading between the lines of Thompson’s tale, you’ll know exactly where to find the gold.
Before you start putting Xs on a map, here is a bit of background on Thompson. It begins in the mid-’80s in Columbus, Ohio, a Rust Belt city suffering at the time from a string of major closures. Westinghouse and the Ohio Penitentiary were among the places where thousands got pink slips.
Maybe after a string of bad luck, people in Columbus were ready for a get-rich-quick plan—which is what Thomas G. “Tommy” Thompson offered them.
Thompson had worked as an oceanic engineer at Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit research group in Columbus that has developed everything from armor plating for World War II tanks to the fuel used in the first nuclear submarine. Having become obsessed with the idea of finding sunken treasure, Thompson built an underwater robot he named “Nemo.” Showing it off to prospective investors from 1985 to 1986, Thompson convinced 161 people and companies to chip in $12.7 million to fund his plans. This wasn’t just friends and family—Thompson lured some of the city’s biggest companies at the time to invest, including the owners of the local newspaper, The Columbus Dispatch. Convincing the press to come on board would in part become his undoing.
With the money, Thompson created Recovery Limited, an ocean exploration outfit. It would search for a lost fortune that others had spent more than a century trying to find.
Thompson hired a crew, bought ships and headed out to deep water off South Carolina’s coast. Surprisingly quickly, they literally struck gold. In 8,000 feet of water, Thompson discovered the wreck of the SS Central America.
The ship had gone down in a hurricane in 1857. Four hundred and twenty-five people drowned. With them, 10 tons of gold that had originated in the hills outside San Francisco sunk to the ocean floor. In today’s dollars, the gold is worth $292 million.
By 1989, Thompson and his crew had pulled up three tons of gold. They reported that they had spotted even more nearby, just waiting for them to return to the wreck. They had explored just five percent of the site and figured over the course of the next few years they could pull up tons more in gold.