A federal judge in Columbus has ordered an elusive shipwreck salvager to appear in front of him at 9 a.m. today or face arrest.
U.S. District Judge Edmund A. Sargus Jr. made the ruling last week after deciding that Tommy Thompson has not followed a court order to reveal the whereabouts of millions of dollars worth of gold coins.
The ruling is part of a 6-year-old federal lawsuit against Thompson by nine people he hired to help him find the SS Central America, a steamer that sank in 1857 with tons of gold in its hold. Thompson and his company, Columbus America Discovery Group, found the shipwreck in the late 1980s and brought up part of its treasure.
Since then, the treasure has been mired in lawsuits. Thompson, who originally sought notoriety for the find, has stayed out of sight in recent years. He lives in Vero Beach, Fla.
In the federal case, crew members say they were guaranteed part of the treasure's proceeds and didn't receive it. Thompson has fought the claim through his attorneys, saying that the crew members were paid for their work and aren't owed more. He also argues that the expedition and subsequent lawsuits were so costly that no profits remained after the gold was sold.
If Thompson does appear in court today, it will be the first time in years that many of those involved in the case have seen him.
In a federal hearing in July, attorneys for the crew members introduced evidence that Thompson received 500 gold coins worth between $1 million and $2.5 million in 2007 from Columbus Exploration, one of Thompson's companies. The coins were "restrikes" -- commemorative coins minted from gold bars found in the wreck. Attorneys for the crew members also told the court that Thompson had received $250,000 from a "termination trust."
After the hearing, Sargus prohibited Thompson from selling the coins and ordered him to inform the court of their whereabouts and the whereabouts of the termination-trust money. Thompson did not attend that hearing but responded that the coins had been placed in a family trust through Orion Corporate and Trust Services, a company that sets up offshore accounts in Belize.
He said the termination-trust money was "used for various expenses" and is "long since gone."
Sargus found that information insufficient and ordered Thompson to appear at today's hearing.
"Thompson will be given one opportunity to explain why his actions do not constitute contempt, why his transfer of the gold restrike coins was not a fraudulent conveyance and what happened to the Termination Trust," Sargus wrote in the order, issued last week.
Sargus has chastised Thompson in the past. In 2009, he ruled that Thompson was "willfully contemptuous" of the court's orders and fined him $234,982, which Thompson paid.
Also pending in Franklin County Common Pleas Court is a 7-year-old lawsuit against Thompson filed by investors Donald C. Fanta and The Dispatch Printing Company, owner of The Dispatch. That suit says that none of the investors has received a return on the millions they lent Thompson for the treasure hunt.
The investors have been trying to have a receiver take over Thompson's companies -- Recovery Limited and Columbus Exploration. In March, Recovery Limited filed for bankruptcy, halting the receivership action. Weeks later, Recovery Limited rescinded the filing.
A hearing in that case is scheduled in October, said Steven W. Tigges, an attorney for the investors.
Thompson's companies sold most of the treasure of Gold Rush-era bars, coins, nuggets and dust from the shipwreck to California Gold Group for $50 million to $100 million in 2000. Since then, the gold has been sold and resold.
According to court records, the recovery of the treasure cost $23.5 million.
Christopher L. Trolinger, who represents Thompson's companies in the federal lawsuit, did not return a phone call seeking comment. Richard T. Robol, who represents Thompson's companies in the state case, said he could not comment.
On Friday afternoon, Columbus lawyer Avonte D. Campinha-Bacote notified the court that he is now representing Thompson and asked for a continuance. The defendants opposed the request, noting that Sargus had told Thompson more than a year ago to obtain a new attorney and Thompson had not done so. Sargus denied the motion on Friday afternoon.
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