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By Adam Lindhardt - Keys News
Who is the real Mike Cunningham ?
That's the question at the heart of a bitter multimillion-dollar legal fight that has pitted an amateur treasure salvor against Key West's most famous treasure family.
Cunningham is a high school dropout cum South Florida laborer and diver who purportedly sold Jay Miscovich a treasure map for $500 four years ago at the Bull Whistle Bar, 224 Duval St., according to Miscovich.
That map would lead Miscovich -- a former Pennsylvania real estate investor, volunteer firefighter, and Mel Fisher investor -- to a 154-pound cache of green emeralds in January 2010 scattered across the Gulf of Mexico seafloor in international waters some 40 miles off Key West, he said.
Miscovich testified that after the emerald discovery, he bought Cunningham off for $50,000 on April 20, 2010, at the Eagle's Club bar in Latrobe, Pa., and that Cunningham had since vanished.
But Kim Fisher -- son of storied Key West salvor Mel Fisher -- and his lawyer say they found Cunningham, and that he says he's never been in Key West nor sold a treasure map.
Fisher had earlier claimed the gems were worthless and that Miscovich made up the Cunningham story to sell junk emeralds as "treasure" at an inflated price. Fisher called Miscovich a fraud and took him to court.
"The basis of our claim is that these emeralds were planted," said Fisher's lawyer, Hugh Morgan.
In January this year, U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King ruled that Miscovich and his company, JTR Enterprises -- as well as his business partner, Steve Elchlepp -- failed to prove that they found the gemstones on the seafloor.
Although JTR can keep the gemstones, King's ruling means neither Miscovich nor Elchlepp can legally claim the gemstones are "court-validated" sunken treasure, and that hurts their value.
Miscovich has appealed King's ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, Ga.
Nonetheless, Fisher's lawyers now want Miscovich to pay their legal fees, called sanctions in legal parlance. They're using the fraud allegation via the Cunningham treasure map story in that effort.
"Since the trial, (the Mel Fisher company) found the Mike Cunningham that worked as Miscovich's handyman in Latrobe, Pa., that perfectly fits Miscovich's description," Morgan wrote in a recent court filing.
"In direct contradiction to Miscovich's sworn testimony at trial, Mike testified that he did not sell the treasure map to Miscovich, that he has never been a treasure diver, that he has never even been to Key West and furthermore, that he could not have signed the agreement on April 20, 2010 for the reason that he was in jail on April 20, 2010."