Even recovered, ship's gold remains mystery

By Kathy Lynn Gray - Dispatch

The proposal seemed preposterous: Tommy Thompson, an engineer and shipwreck-enthusiast, said he could find a steamer that had sunk in 1857 off the Carolina coast with 21 tons of gold in its hold.

Wealthy central Ohio men and women listened, and one by one anteed up money so Thompson's expedition could move forward. The chance that Thompson would find the ship was one in a million, they knew.

On the other hand, he was so confident, so persuasive, so sure he could find it.

Still, perhaps no one was more surprised than those 161 investors when Thompson actually found the SS Central America in 1988 - 8,000 feet down - and eventually brought up a treasure-trove of gold coins and bars worth up to $400 million.

But as difficult as the search-and-recovery expedition was, unraveling who is entitled to the riches has been even more difficult.

Twenty-three years later, investors have not seen a cent of profit, and crew members who claim they are owed part of the proceeds haven't received that, either.

A trial is scheduled in federal court late next month that could untangle some of the secrecy that has always surrounded the "gold ship."

Nine people hired by Thompson to help find the wreck say that, under their contract, they're entitled to about 2 percent of the sale proceeds of the treasure because they helped to pinpoint the wreck with sonar and other devices.

Thompson argues in court documents that they have been paid what they're due - a fee for their work. He says their work did not pinpoint the wreck site, so they're not entitled to the additional amount, estimated at $2million to $5million.

That's just one of a flurry of lawsuits that have been filed over the years since the gold's discovery. Another was filed by The Dispatch Printing Company and Donald C. Fanta in 2005 in Franklin County Common Pleas Court. Fanta is a former president of The Ohio Company, an investment firm that was bought by Fifth-Third Bancorp in 1998. Dispatch Printing owns The Columbus Dispatch.

Dispatch Printing and Fanta invested a total of $1.5million in the treasure hunt and have sued four directors of Thompson's company - Columbus Exploration Limited Partnership - to obtain an accounting of the expedition's profits.

That lawsuit argues that investors have not received any "meaningful information" about the companies' finances or what happened to the investors' money since 2000.

Carolina coast SS Central America Tommy Thompson The Ohio Company Columbus Exploration Limited Partnership