Treasure Hunter Tommy Thompson Jailed 6 Years, Fined $2.1M for Not Saying Where Loot Is

A former treasure hunter has been in jail for almost six years after refusing to reveal the location of 500 missing coins made from gold discovered in a sunken ship.

Tommy Thompson was held in contempt of court on December 15, 2015, for not disclosing the whereabouts of the coins, and has been behind bars ever since.

The research scientist has been wracking up $1,000 fines for every day he has been imprisoned. Six years of those fines would put his current total around $2.1 million.

Thompson discovered the historic shipwreck of the S.S. Central America, also known as the Ship of Gold, in 1988. The ship from the gold-rush era was carrying thousands of pounds of gold when it sank off the coast of South Carolina in 1857 during a hurricane.

Thompson, 69, still refuses to cooperate with authorities attempting to locate the coins despite an investors lawsuit and a federal court order, according to court records, prosecutors and the judge who held him in contempt.

"He creates a patent for a submarine, but he can't remember where he put the loot," federal Judge Algenon Marbley said during a hearing in 2017.

But Thompson claims that he has already revealed all that he knows about the missing coins.

"Your honor, I don't know if we've gone over this road before or not, but I don't know the whereabouts of the gold," Thompson said during an October 2020 hearing when asked about the location of the coins. "I feel like I don't have the keys to my freedom."

Marbley denied a request from Thompson in 2020 that he be released over concerns of contracting COVID-19 behind bars. The judge said that he was a flight risk and didn't provide proper evidence to demonstrate his risk level from the virus.

"He would be out of prison by now if he had simply complied with his plea agreement and cooperated in locating missing assets when he was supposed to," attorney Steven Tigges said in a March 2020 court filing.

S.S. Central America Gold
Treasure hunter Tommy Thompson discovered the historic shipwreck of the S.S. Central America, also known as the Ship of Gold, in 1988. Above, California Gold Marketing Group's Dwight Manley examines a gold coin, recovered from the S.S. Central America, in a laboratory on January 23, 2018, in Santa Ana, California. Jae C. Hong/AP Photo
Tommy Thompson Still Behind Bars
Tommy Thompson, a former treasure hunter, has been in jail for almost six years after refusing to reveal the location of 500 missing coins made from gold discovered in a sunken ship. This undated photo provided by the Delaware County Sheriff's Office in Delaware, Ohio, shows Thompson. Delaware County Sheriff's Office via AP

Thompson pleaded guilty in April of 2015 for his failure to appear for a 2012 hearing and was sentenced to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine. But Thompson's criminal sentence has been delayed until the issue of the gold coins is resolved.

Federal law generally limits jail time for contempt of court to 18 months. But a federal appeals court in 2019 rejected Thompson's argument that that law applies to him, saying his refusal violates conditions of a plea agreement.

After technology problems canceled Thompson's latest virtual hearing last week, Marbley scheduled a new hearing for January 7.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.