WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A deep-sea treasure hunter who vanished during a court fight over his $50 million haul of gold bars and coins eluded capture by hiding in a two-room hotel suite under a fake name, paying for everything in cash and keeping a low-profile, authorities said Thursday.
When Tommy Thompson and his longtime companion did leave the hotel room, usually alone and her more than him, they would use a combination of buses, taxis and walking around to shake anyone who might be tailing them.
“That’s all part of the whole tradecraft — trying to fly under the radar of law enforcement,” said Barry Golden of the U.S. Marshals Service in Miami.
Thompson, 62, was wanted after he failed to appear in an Ohio courtroom in 2012 in a lawsuit about the gold he brought up in 1988 from a 19th century shipwreck. Two investors who had funded Thompson’s dream to find the shipwreck sued, as did some of his crew members, who said they also had been cheated out of their share.
For more than two years, U.S. marshals in Ohio and Florida worked to track down Thompson. They did meticulous research, splashed his face on electronic billboards and ran down hundreds of tips from the public. They believed Thompson was highly intelligent and had been planning to disappear for some time.
On Sept. 12, 2008, he was arrested at a Jacksonville, Florida, gas station, carrying nine identification cards — eight of which police said were fake, according to an incident report. He was charged with possession of drugs without a prescription with the intent to sell, holding a fake ID, false personation and resisting an officer without violence. Court records show prosecutors later dropped all the counts, but it’s not immediately clear why.
After his disappearance four years later, authorities found more evidence at a Vero Beach mansion he rented between 2006 and 2012, paying the monthly $3,000 rent with cash and putting the utilities in the landlord’s name.
Among the clues: A book called “How to Live Your Life Invisible” describing how to get by on a cash-only basis; bank wraps for $10,000; metal pipes that authorities believed were used to store money underground; and 12 active cellphones, each used for specific attorneys or family members.
“Thompson was smart — perhaps one of the smartest fugitives ever sought by the U.S. Marshals, along with almost limitless resources and approximately a 10-year head start,” U.S. Marshal Michael Tobin said in a statement.
But there was a trail.
Based on an unspecified lead developed by Ohio agents in December, Florida authorities started focusing on Thompson’s companion and longtime assistant, Alison Anteiker.
On Tuesday, agents spotted Anteiker after fanning out over an area of Palm Beach County, Golden said. They tailed her for the next seven hours, watching her use buses and taxis to get to various destinations, an obvious attempt to lose anyone, Golden said.
Eventually, Anteiker unknowingly led agents to a Hilton Hotel in suburban Boca Raton area surrounded by golf courses, country clubs and gated communities.
Authorities believe Thompson and Anteiker were living there for up to two years. The room was under one of three fake names being used by Anteiker.
Based on statements from hotel staff, they believe Anteiker left the hotel room much more often than Thompson.
Thompson and Anteiker were held without bond in Florida — she on a civil contempt charge, he on a criminal contempt charge. He hasn’t been charged with a crime over his handling of proceeds from the gold.
Much of it was sold to a gold marketing group in 2000 for about $50 million. The 161 investors who paid Thompson $12.7 million to find the ship said they never saw returns from the sale.
During a brief federal court hearing Thursday, a shackled and bearded Thompson suggested a willingness to fight extradition to Ohio, where he grew up and was based before he moved to Florida in the mid-2000s.
Thompson told U.S. Magistrate Dave Lee Brannon he has “been very ill for a number of years” with a type of encephalitis, an overactive immune system and allergies that would be exacerbated if he is taken north.
His friends have previously told The Associated Press that he contracted some type of autoimmune disease from a mosquito in South America and that warm, humid climates help his condition.
Thompson said he had not yet hired an attorney. He was ordered back into custody, and another hearing was set for Wednesday.
In 1988, Thompson made history when he found the S.S. Central America, known as the Ship of Gold, which sank in a hurricane about 200 miles off the South Carolina coast in September 1857. Four hundred and twenty-five people drowned and thousands of pounds of California gold were lost, contributing to an economic panic.
Ted Thomas, a cousin who attended the court hearing, said Thompson was driven to the treasure hunt by his love of science and technology and unattainable feats, but that it ultimately ruined his life.
“If he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t do it,” Thomas said. “You don’t throw away your life for something that’s yellow and weighs a lot.”