By Earl Rinehart
A judge is done listening to Tommy Thompson's excuse that an illness prevents him from remembering where he put treasure from a sunken ship.
With lawyers for investors waiting for their cut of the SS Central America gold standing nearby, Thompson's attorney argued in federal court in Columbus on Friday that Thompson's systemic exertion intolerance disease — chronic fatigue syndrome — inhibits his memory.
The lawyer, Todd A. Long, had asked U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley to close Friday's hearing to the public because there would be medical testimony, but the judge refused because of "the public's interest."
"There's no evidence his inability, unwillingness or refusal to comply is the result of some mental defect," Marbley said of Thompson. He said that neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist whom the defense hired has said Thompson definitively has the condition or that it impairs his memory.
"We know that Mr. Thompson has a flair for deception," Marbley said.
The 63-year-old treasure hunter said nothing during the hearing. Thompson's once-dark hair and beard are now long and all white. He sat in a wheelchair wearing an orange Delaware County jail uniform, with shackles on his wrists and ankles.
The Central America sank in a hurricane off South Carolina in 1857. It was discovered in 1988 and Thompson's crew salvaged gold, silver and artifacts that he sold in 2000 for an estimated $40 million to $52 million.
Investors who put up $12.7 million for the salvage venture have yet to see any return. Their attorneys said there is no money left from that find after it was distributed to attorneys, accountants, crews, directors and, some said, luxuries for Thompson.
Now the investors are going after 500 coins minted from bars of recovered gold that Thompson is believed to have secreted in a trust account for his children. The coins have an estimated value of $2.5 million.
Marbley said it's odd that Thompson can remember "intimate details" about many things, except when it comes to the most important discovery of his life.
The judge asked Long whether Thompson is finally prepared to reveal the answers. The attorney said he isn't.
Marbley then ordered Thompson back to jail to continue serving his sentence for civil contempt for refusing to reveal the gold's location. He ordered him to return Nov. 9 when he'll ask the same question.
If Thompson again refuses, or can't recall, Marbley could send him back to jail, then bring him back in another 60 days.
Generally, a civil contempt sentence maxes out at 18 months in federal court. After that, the judge could impose a two-year criminal-contempt sentence for Thompson missing a court hearing in 2012. He was arrested in Florida in January 2015.
Thompson, in the 10th month of his civil contempt charge, is under a $1,000-a-day penalty until he answers the investors' questions. As of Friday, he had amassed a $300,000 fine, Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Squires said.
"By the time he remembers where the coins are, the fine may cover the cost of the coins," Marbley said.
Long had asked Marbley for permission to have more medical tests conducted on Thompson during the next 60 days.
Marbey refused, saying, "Are we going to continue to drag this out until we find some doctor who agrees with him?"
In 2014, another marine expedition brought up more treasure and artifacts from the SS Central America. A "very preliminary estimate" put the value at $48 million, court-appointed receiver Ira Kane has said.
Kane said much needs to be done before a definite value can be placed on the 2014 find.
He advised investors "not to count your chickens before they're hatched."
The investors include The Dispatch Printing Company, former owner of The Columbus Dispatch.
A federal court judge in Virginia last month gave control of the Odyssey find to Columbus-based Recovery Limited Partnership, as she had with the first find.
Related Read; Judge appoints receiver in gold-ship lawsuit
Courtesy; The Columbus Dispatch
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