The gold rush-era ship sank in a hurricane off South Carolina in 1857 with thousands of pounds of gold on board, contributing to the economic panic.
Despite an investor lawsuit and a federal court order, Thompson will not yet cooperate with authorities trying to find those coins, according to court records, federal prosecutors and the judge who found Thompson in contempt.
“You create a patent for a submarine, but you can’t remember where you put the loot,” Federal Judge Algenon Marbley said during a 2017 hearing.
Thompson’s legal troubles stem from the 161 investors who paid him US $ 12.7 million (A $ 16.8 million) to find the ship, never saw a profit, and eventually sued.
In 2012, a different federal judge ordered Thompson to appear in court to reveal the whereabouts of the coins.
U.S. Marshals located and arrested him in early 2015.
Thompson pleaded guilty for failure to appear and was sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of $ 250,000 (AU $ 332,000).
That April 2015 plea deal required Thompson to answer questions in closed sessions about the whereabouts of the coins, which the government says are worth between $ 2 million and $ 4 million ($ A2.7 million to $ A5 .3 millions).
Importantly, you must also “help” interested parties to find the coins under that deal.
Thompson refused multiple times, and on December 15, 2015, Judge Marbley found Thompson in contempt of court and ordered him to remain in jail and pay a daily fine of US $ 1,000 (AU $ 1,300) until he responds.
In late October this year, Thompson appeared on video for his last hearing.
“Mr. Thompson, are you ready to answer the fundamental question in this case about the whereabouts of gold?” Judge Marbley said.
“Your Honor, I don’t know if we’ve come this way before or not, but I don’t know the whereabouts of the gold,” Thompson replied.
“I feel like I don’t have the keys to my freedom.”
And with that, Thompson returned to his current situation: Housed in a federal prison in Milan, Michigan, he has now spent more than 1,700 days in jail and owes nearly $ 1.8 million in fines ($ A2.4 million) – and counting.
Thompson’s attorney declined to comment.
Thompson, 68, has said he suffers from a rare form of chronic fatigue syndrome that has created problems with short-term memory.
He previously said, without providing details, that the coins were delivered to a trust in Belize, Central America.
The government maintains that Thompson refuses to cooperate and that there is no connection between his ailment and his ability to explain where the coins are.
A federal law targets people like Thompson, known as “recalcitrant witnesses.”
The law holds that 18 months is generally the jail time limit for contempt of court orders.
But a federal appeals court last year rejected Thompson’s argument that the law applies to him.
Thompson has not simply refused to answer questions, the court ruled.
He also violated the requirement to “assist” the parties by refusing to execute a limited power of attorney to allow that Belizean trust to be examined, as required by his plea agreement.
“The order is not intended to seek information only, it is to seek information for the purpose of recovering these unique assets,” said law professor and legal analyst Andrew Geronimo, director of the First Amendment Clinic at Case Western University.
Earlier this year, Judge Marbley denied Thompson’s request for release over concerns that he is at risk of contracting the coronavirus behind bars.
Judge Marbley said Thompson failed to provide adequate evidence of his level of risk and also noted that he remains a flight risk.
Investors still looking for his money say Thompson has no one but himself to blame for his incarceration.
“He would already be out of prison if he had simply honored his plea agreement and cooperated in locating lost property when he was supposed to,” attorney Steven Tigges said in a court filing in March.