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Fugitive Shipwreck Hunter Captured After 2 Years on the Lam

gold bars from SS Central America
These gold bars were recovered in April 2014 during Odyssey Marine Exploration's first reconnaissance dive to the SS Central America shipwreck. Odyssey was given permission to salvage the wreck after Tommy Thompson's disappearance. (Image credit: Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc.)

Tommy Thompson — a famous shipwreck hunter who located a Gold Rush-era wreck, and then became embroiled in a long legal drama over the spoils — has been captured in Florida after more than two years in hiding.

The U.S. Marshals Service announced on Wednesday (Jan. 28) that Thompson and Alison Antekeier, thought to be his girlfriend and assistant, were arrested without incident at the Hilton hotel in Boca Raton, Florida, where they had been living for more than a year using fake identities and paying in cash. 

"Thompson was smart — perhaps one of the smartest fugitives ever sought by the U.S. Marshals," Marshal Peter Tobin said in a statement. [Gold Rush Shipwreck: Photos of a Real-Life Underwater Treasure Hunt]

In the late 1980s, Thompson pulled off an astonishing feat: He located wreck of the SS Central America at a depth of 7,200 feet (2,200 meters) off the coast of the Carolinas. The elusive vessel had long captured the imagination of shipwreck hunters. It sank during a fierce hurricane in 1857 on its way from Panama to New York, killing more than 400 passengers and bringing 21 tons of gold to the bottom of the sea.

Thompson and his crew had pored over hundreds of historical accounts to try to pinpoint the most likely resting place for the shipwreck. In September 1988, Thompson and his crew became the first people in 130 years to lay eyes on the SS Central America through cameras attached to their underwater robot called Nemo. Thompson and his team recovered gold coins and bars reportedly worth more than $50 million. In 1992, LIFE magazine hailed it "greatest treasure ever found."

Tommy Thompson, who disappeared in 2012, was captured in Boca Raton, Florida. (Image credit: U.S. Marshals Service)

But a long legal fight started in 2005, when Thompson was sued by some of his investors who charged that they didn't receive the profits they that were promised when they backed the expensive project. By August 2012, an arrest warrant had been issued after Thompson failed to show up for a series of court dates, and to explain what happened to the gold. A similar arrest warrant was issued for Antekeier a few months later.

In a deposition filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, U.S. Marshal Mark Stroh described Thompson's disappearance — and it's the stuff of movie plots.

Thompson and Antekeier had been living in relative seclusion in a rented mansion named Gracewood in Vero Beach, Florida. A handyman named James Kennedy entered the home after Thompson's arrest warrant was issued to confront the couple about unpaid rent. But Thompson and Antekeier had vanished, and their home was in a dire state. There was mold growing throughout the house and items strewn about the rooms, including a book called "How to Be Invisible," currency straps designed to hold $10,000, 12 active cell phones and pipes used to bury money underground, which explained why the pair always paid their rent in "sweaty" stacks of cash, according to the deposition.

The Marshals Service looked for the pair for more than two years.

Thompson and Antekeier will eventually have to face the original charges in Ohio, where Thompson's company, Columbus-America Discovery Group, and many of his investors were based. Thompson appeared in federal court in West Palm Beach, Florida, this week and reportedly told a judge that he has medical conditions, such as encephalitis, an overactive immune system and allergies, which could worsen if he is sent back to Ohio.

"I haven't been out of Florida since 2005 because I'm sensitive to materials that are north," Thompson said, according to The Columbus Dispatch. "I just want you to know, it could be very fatal for me to go up there."

Thompson and Antekeier are due in court in Florida for another hearing on Wednesday (Feb. 4), when a judge will determine the next steps for their case.

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Megan Gannon
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.