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Fun on Friday: How Many Years Would You Spend in Prison for Millions in Gold?

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Have you heard about the guy who’s spent five years in federal prison because he won’t give up the location of about 500 gold coins he found in a historic shipwreck?

Yes. Five years.

How many years would you spend in prison for millions in gold?

Tommy Thompson was a diver and treasure hunter. The saga started when he discovered the wreckage of the S.S. Central America back in 1988. The vessel, known as “the ship of gold,” sank in 157 carrying thousands of pounds of gold.

Much of the gold was sold to a marketing group for about $50 million in 2000. But 161 investors who put up nearly $13 million to find the ship never saw a dime. Thompson’s people say he didn’t cheat anybody. They claim all of the money was spent on legal fees and paying off bank loans.

But there is some evidence that might not be altogether true. Thompson went into seclusion paying $3,000 per month in cash to rent a Vero Beach home. He put the utilities in the owner’s name

In 2008, he was busted in Jacksonville. He was carrying nine ID cards, eight of which were fake. According to CBS News, 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. Prosecutors later dropped all the charges, but nobody seems to know why.

When police later searched the Vero Beach house, they found some things that make you go hmmm, including a book titled “How to Live Your Life Invisible,” bank wraps for $10,000, metal pipes that would be perfect for hiding cash underground and 12 active cell phones. They also found a bank statement in the name of Harvey Thompson showing a $1 million balance. Friends say Harvey was Tommy’s nickname in college.

In 2012, the whole gold coin thing caught up with Thompson. A federal judge ordered him to appear in court to disclose the coins’ whereabouts. He was a no-show. US Marshalls finally tracked him down in 2015 and arrested him on failure to appear charges. Thompson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine. But the plea deal required Thompson to answer questions about the missing gold coins, reportedly worth between $2 million and $4 million, and to “assist” interested parties in finding the coins.

This is where things really went sideways.

Thompson refused to divulge the location of 500 coins missing from the wreck. In fact, he claims he doesn’t know. He says he suffers from a rare form of chronic fatigue that affects his short-term memory. The judge didn’t buy it and locked him up for contempt and basically threw away the key.

That was over 1,700 days ago.

The crazy thing is there is usually an 18-month limit on locking somebody up for contempt. But a federal appeals court ruled the limits don’t apply to Thompson because, reasons.

The judge not only locked him up, but he also levied a $1,000-per-day fine. At this point, the fine is in the neighborhood of $1.8 million until he responds.

Back in October, there was another hearing. Thompson appeared via video and insisted again that he doesn’t know where the coins are.

“Mr. Thompson, are you ready to answer the seminal question in this case as to the whereabouts of the gold?” federal  Judge Algenon Marbley asked.

“Your honor, I don’t know if we’ve gone over this road before or not, but I don’t know the whereabouts of the gold,” Thompson responded. “I feel like I don’t have the keys to my freedom.”

On the one hand, it’s kind of hard to feel sorry for the dude. The people he never paid back sure don’t. In a court filing, an attorney for one of the investors wrote, “He would be out of prison by now if he had simply complied with his plea agreement and cooperated in locating missing assets when he was supposed to.”

On the other hand, I kind of feel sorry for the dude. Because I honestly don’t think he knows where the gold is. I mean, would you stay in prison for five years if you knew? I mean, I could see holding out if you thought you were going to get out of jail and then have access to the gold. It might be worth spending a few years in prison for a $4 million payout. But that’s not going to happen. I can’t imagine that he could ever access that gold — or the money — himself.

If he really doesn’t know – he’s in a mel of a hess because I don’t think the judge is going to ever let him go. And if he does know, he probably ought to come clean. Unless of course, he really likes the comforts of prison life.

This whole story just goes to show what people will do to get their hands on some gold.

Fun on Friday is a weekly SchiffGold feature. We dig up some of the off-the-wall and off-beat stories relating to precious metals and share them with you – with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Click here to read other posts in this series.

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About The Author

Michael Maharrey is the managing editor of the SchiffGold blog, and the host of the Friday Gold Wrap Podcast and It's Your Dime interview series.
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