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New fight emerges in treasure hunter dispute

By Amanda Lee Myers
Associated Press
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/17/19/28/9aVIT.Em.138.jpeg|237
    Bruce Smith - AP
    The Odyssey Explorer was docked in North Charleston before it left in April 2014 on an expedition to recover the remaining gold from the wreck of the S.S. Central America off the South Carolina coast.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/17/19/28/rEHry.Em.138.jpeg|211
    Uncredited - AP
    Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. has recovered gold bars from the wreck of the S.S. Central America off the South Carolina coast. Odyssey announced on May 5 that the bars are among nearly 1,000 ounces of gold that has been initially recovered from the wreck of the ship that sank during a hurricane in 1857. An earlier expedition a quarter-century ago recovered gold bars and coins worth about $50 million at that time.

CINCINNATI The Ohio company owned by a fugitive treasure hunter is fighting to gain control over recently recovered gold from a ship that sank off the South Carolina coast in 1857 in one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history, arguing that the Florida company now salvaging the sunken treasure from the shipwreck is trespassing.

In documents filed in federal court on Thursday, Columbus-America Discovery Group argues that it has the exclusive rights to the sunken S.S. Central America and asks a judge to grant them custody of any recently recovered gold.

The company is owned by Tommy Thompson, the Ohio shipwreck enthusiast who led the 1987 expedition that found the Central America and recovered gold that later sold for $50 million to $60 million. He was later sued by investors who paid $12.7 million to fund the expedition but never saw any returns.

Thompson has been a wanted fugitive since August 2012, after he failed to show up for a key court hearing.

Last month and with the approval of an Ohio judge, deep-sea divers with Tampa, Fla.-based Odyssey Marine Exploration returned to the shipwreck and began recovering gold under a contract with the court-appointed receiver over Thompson’s former company, Recovery Limited Partnership.

Columbus-America and its current president, Milt Butterworth, are now fighting to gain control over any recently recovered gold, stop the ongoing expedition and conduct any future trips to recover the gold.

The company claims it did the bulk of the work in 1987 to recover gold on the initial expedition and was granted a permanent injunction in 1989 enjoining anyone else from recovering gold from the Central America.

James Chapman, the attorney who represents Recovery Limited Partnership, argued in a Wednesday court filing that the company – not Columbus-America Discovery Group – footed the entire $30.4 million it took to recover the gold over a four-year period, that Columbus-America was formed solely to act as RLP’s agent, and that the permanent injunction clearly was awarded for the benefit of the investors of the initial expedition, who own RLP.

Chapman described Columbus-America as an “insolvent company wholly owned and controlled by a criminal fugitive.”

“Completion of the salvage of the Central America after so many years is accompanied by the obligation to do so in a transparent fashion and with the public interest in mind,” Chapman wrote, arguing that the current expedition fulfills that goal.

Mike Lorz, a spokesman for Columbus-America, said the company is solvent and argued that it is better suited for the recovery effort He said the last he spoke with Thompson was three years ago and that the company is now acting independently of him.

Late last week, federal Judge Rebecca Beach Smith declined to rule which company has the rights to the sunken ship but did find that Odyssey Marine “is qualified to perform the ongoing salvage operation,” ordering that it can continue doing so.

It’s unclear when she’ll issue a ruling about who has rights to the sunken treasure.

The S.S. Central America was in operation for four years during the California gold rush before it sank after sailing into a hurricane in September 1857 in one of the worst maritime disasters in American history; 425 people were killed and thousands of pounds of gold sank with it to the bottom of the ocean.

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