It’s the biggest lost treasure ever discovered, and the people who brought up gold from wreckage a mile deep in the middle of the ocean are all from Columbus.
But the riches from that discovery — 25 years ago — never made it back to Columbus.
Now, a new hunt for the riches of the California gold rush is underway.
Nearly one week ago, the Odyssey Explorer left a port near Charleston, S.C., for what could be a six-month trip to end a mystery that began in 1857.
The Odyssey will travel 160 miles into the Atlantic Ocean to try to recover one of the largest gold hauls in history.
The SS Central America was called the Ship of Gold, and transported 21 tons of gold from the California gold rush to the east coast.
On Sept. 9, 1857, the ship encountered a hurricane, and most of the 550 passengers and 30,000 pounds of gold was swallowed by the ocean.
TIMELINE: SS Central America & Tommy Thompson
The loss was so great that it caused the first global economic panic.
Fast forward 130 years and a group of Columbus investors called the Columbus-America Discovery Group paid to send a salvage ship to it. The wreckage was found in 1988.
Some of the gold was collected, and disappeared along with the original treasure hunter Tommy Thompson, and nearly 30 years of court battles tied it up.
The court battles ended in March, and now it is time to reap.
“We actually expect that we’ll be able to accomplish this mission in about five to six months, and I think that the economic return could come to the original investors perhaps within a year,” said Mark Gordon, president of Odyssey.
It’s a story that has gone on for decades, and many of the original investors have died, their children have died, and in some cases, a third generation is waiting for the payout.
How much gold is still sunken?
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“It is worth, well, millions of dollars is easy. What the top end is, I have no idea,” said Bob Evans, a scientist and historian.
Some believe the recovery could be as much as $150 million worth of gold and treasure. The investors will receive 55 percent, and the Odyssey will get 45 percent.
That’s where the ship and a yellow submarine, The Zeus, come in.
When The Zues is lowered into the ocean, there are cameras to find the wreckage, robots to move it, and small but powerful vacuums.
“It’s got a little suction cup here. Basically, it’s connected to a sump pump, and whenever we want to pick something up, we just hover over it, and it will just suck it up. It’s pretty small but actually quite strong,” said Tom Money, the pilot of The Zeus.
The spoils, loot, and booty are then brought to a room for cleaning, inventory and storage until the ship is docked.
“One of the really important driving forces for us at Odyssey is restoring hope to the Columbus community that originally invested in this project. We wouldn’t be here with this opportunity if it were not for the investors who backed Tommy Thompson, and the Columbus-America Discovery Group. Unfortunately, they never got their payday,” Gordon said.
“When you think about it, it was over 160 years ago when this ship sank, and how much has transpired since then, and the articles that we’ll bring back are time capsules which will tell the story of that era,” he said.
The Odyssey stays out to sea for about a month before returning to shore to get supplies, but it will be a quick turnaround.
But the search for the shipwreck is only half of the equation.
Thompson remains a fugitive, and it’s a case that has had the interest of the U.S. marshals Service for two years.
A warrant to bring the now 61-year-old Thompson back to Ohio to answer civil charges was issued in August 2012.
“It was a long process. When we first went in on this, we didn’t even know what boat we were going after. It was like, Tommy said, ‘I’m working at Battelle, and I have this technology,'” said Brad Kastan, an investor.
No one can find Thompson, but the U.S. marshals are eager to do it.
“The fact that we are conducting this interview, 20 some years later after the initial find of the vessel speaks for itself. It’s a huge case,” said U.S. marshals Deputy Brad Fleming.
The moment Thompson skipped out on court proceedings, investors were interested in finding him.
The U.S. marshals Service found a home thought to belong to Thompson in Florida, but said they think his ties run much closer to home.
“We have indications that he has been here in the last few years, but no indication he is residing here, hiding out here,” Fleming said.
There are still tips, and the marshals said the case is not exactly cold, but that it’s not red hot either.
Fleming said Thompson and his associate Alison Antekeier, who is thought to be by his side, are good.
“He is calculated, doesn’t do anything on a whim, pretty confident. He knows exactly what he is doing, exactly who is looking for him, and likely watching this interview,” Fleming said. “I’d like to think we don’t need him to make a mistake for us to catch him, but it sure would help.”
The marshals are confident that he is still in the country, but there is something that they can’t shake.
“One of the things that concerns us the most in this case is his experience as a sailor, vast experience,” Fleming said.
There are still plenty of people who want a piece of Thompson, or who would likely settle for the pieces of gold he may still have with him. But the marshals are in the search for justice.
“I don’t care who it is, as long as the case comes to its logical conclusion, getting Mr. Thompson in front of a judge in Columbus,” Fleming said.
“Everybody wanted a happy ending here. What he accomplished was amazing,” Kastan said.
Officials have put up billboards with photos of Thompson, hoping to bring in leads. The billboards have, but nothing direct enough yet to make marked progress.
Anyone with information is asked to call 614-469-5540.