A former deep-sea treasure hunter is about to mark his fifth year in prison for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of 500 missing gold coins found in a historic shipwreck. Research scientist Tommy Thompson isn't incarcerated at a a federal prison in Milan, Michigan, for breaking the law. Instead, he's being held in contempt of court for an unusually long stretch—well past the general 18-month internment limit in cases of witnesses refusing to cooperate, the AP reports (an appeals court in 2019 ruled that law didn't apply to him). But nothing is usual about Thompson's case, which dates to his discovery of the SS Central America, known as the Ship of Gold, in 1988. The gold rush-era ship sank in a hurricane off South Carolina in 1857 with thousands of pounds of gold aboard. Thompson's legal troubles stem from the 161 investors who paid Thompson $12.7 million to find the ship, never saw any proceeds, and finally sued.
Despite an investors lawsuit and a federal court order, Thompson still won't cooperate with authorities trying to find those coins. The 68-year-old has said he suffers from a rare form of chronic fatigue syndrome that has created problems with short-term memory "He creates a patent for a submarine, but he can’t remember where he put the loot,” federal Judge Algenon Marbley said during a 2017 hearing. In 2012, Thompson fled to Florida when a different federal judge ordered him to appear in court to disclose the coins' whereabouts. He was tracked down by US Marshals in early 2015. A plea deal required him to answer questions about the whereabouts of the coins but he refused several times. On Dec. 15, 2015, Marbley found Thompson in contempt of court and ordered him to stay in prison—and pay a $1,000 daily fine—until he responds. (When he was arrested, Thompson had $425,000 in cash, 16 photo IDs, and 43 cell phones.)