Narratively

Hidden History

One Man’s Daring Escape from Mao’s Darkest Prison

In 1958, thousands of Chinese citizens were sent to brutal labor camps where escape was impossible—but that didn't stop one man from trying. Now, his story is finally told.

In 1958, as part of China’s Anti-Rightist Campaign, 550,000 Chinese citizens were convicted of crimes against the state. One of them was Xu Hongci, a medical student arrested for speaking out against the Soviet Union, who was sentenced to a camp called White Grass Ridge. For eight months, Xu worked up to nineteen hours a day on a starvation ration, each day growing closer to death. Finally, he and his young friend Chen Xiangzai attempted the impossible: escape. More than one thousand miles from the nearest land border, in a country as tightly controlled as any prison, it was an impossible journey, and one they had no choice but to make.

Xu, who died in 2008, told his story in an unpublished manuscript that was discovered in 2012 by journalist Erling Hoh. This month, “No Wall Too High” was published in English by Sarah Crichton books. The following is an excerpt.

On December 14, 1958, before dawn, Xiangzai and I packed our knapsacks and dropped them through the small window behind his bunk, then washed ourselves and ate breakfast as usual.

When the team leader blew his whistle for the morning assembly, we exited the barrack first, turned to the rear of it, picked up our knapsacks, and ran as fast as our legs would carry us.

It took us two minutes to reach the farm’s tobacco-curing house. We continued sprinting toward the Ouyang Ford at Sand River. We crossed a bridge and came to a village where bent, famished peasants were queuing up for the day’s work. Keeping our heads down, we walked toward the main road from Hangzhou to Wuhu.

Xu Hongci as a young man. (Photo courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)
Xu Hongci as a young man. (Photo courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)

This was a dangerous move, because we hadn’t gotten far, and it would have been easy for the patrols dispatched by [camp commandant] Mao Kourong to catch us. But they didn’t, perhaps unable to imagine that we would take the easiest, straightest route.

According to our plan, we turned east on the main road and arrived at the county seat of Guangde, twenty miles southeast of the camp, by nightfall. There, we bought some food and rested for a while, before continuing our escape through the night by the light of the moon and stars, heading east over the border into Zhejiang Province.

Walking another twenty miles, we reached the town of Si’an at 5:00 a.m., took a bus to Jiaxing, and then boarded a train to Shanghai, arriving at the North Station in the evening. The escape had given us our strength back, and we felt no fatigue despite not having slept. From a general store on Baoshan Road, I made an operator-assisted telephone call to Mother and asked her to meet us at the North Station. She arrived there with my sister Hongming and took us to the Old Zhengxing restaurant on Zhejiang Middle Road.

“What are your plans?” she asked us.

I told her we had no future in China. Our only hope was to escape abroad. Mother and Hongming were worried. They wanted to tell us to give ourselves up but knew we wouldn’t listen. On the other hand, if they helped us with money and we were captured, we would be severely punished, and they would be implicated. It was already late, and the restaurant was otherwise empty. We had to speak quietly and make our decisions quickly.

“What route will you take?” Mother asked.

“We plan to go to India via Tibet and then make our way to Hong Kong and find Uncle Lu,” I replied.

Mother said it was a long journey, that our chances of success were slim, and hesitated whether or not to help us. Finally, she relented before our entreaties and gave me five hundred yuan, which in those days was a lot of money.

As we parted, she asked to see us one last time the next evening. Having said goodbye, we were suddenly overcome with fatigue. Because we didn’t have any papers, we couldn’t stay in a hostel and had no choice but to return to the train station, where we each found a bench to lie down on.

Before I had fallen asleep, a public security officer walked over and asked to see our documents. Unable to produce any, we were taken to the police office at the train station. There were many other people there, waiting to be questioned. Xiangzai and I were separated, but I could see him. The police had taken our knapsacks from us but not the money, which I had hidden in my pants. As soon as we were interrogated, the game would be over.

The road to Duomei is a stretch of Xu Hongci's final escape route in 1972. (Photo by Erling Hoh)
The road to Duomei is a stretch of Xu Hongci’s final escape route in 1972. (Photo by Erling Hoh)

At this moment, I was filled with a powerful determination and, taking advantage of a short lapse in the attention of the police, stood up and fled the station out to the road, disappearing among the pedestrians. I crossed Sichuan Road and came to the Bund. By this time, it was around midnight, and there were no police in sight. I walked back and forth, feeling bad about leaving Xiangzai behind. There was no way I could return and rescue him.

Suddenly I ran into Xiangzai at the corner of the Bund and Nanjing Road. We hugged each other with joy.

“How did you escape?”

“The police didn’t see you sneak out. I just followed you,” he said.

“But how did you know I was on the Bund?”

“I don’t know. I just had a feeling you would come here.”

It was a miracle, one of the strangest things in my life. The winter night was damp and cold, and we had nowhere to go. All we could do was saunter about on the Bund. In 1958, with Shanghai engulfed in the Great Leap Forward, this famous, elegant boulevard looked like a construction site. In front of the municipal building, there was a row of small blast furnaces, and the sidewalk was cluttered with piles of ore, pig iron, coke, and slag.

Of course, we should have left Shanghai right away. But I was young and ignorant in the ways of the Public Security Bureau and wanted to see Mother one last time.

That morning, I telephoned Father’s cousin Auntie Bai and asked her to go to my house and tell Mother to meet me at 6:00 p.m. at the Grand Theatre. At around 5:30 p.m., as dusk fell, Xiangzai and I sat down in the coffeehouse just west of the cinema and ordered some food. I told Xiangzai to stay put and went alone to meet Mother.

Because it was dark, I couldn’t see that she was shooting warning glances to me and rushed to greet her. A big sturdy man popped out of a corner and grabbed me. Several other men stepped forward. I realized they were plainclothes policemen and that I had walked straight into a trap. I will never forget the torment on Mother’s face. The policemen asked me where Xiangzai was.

“He won’t make it by himself. Return to the camp together!” Mother shouted.

I was about to accuse Mother of betraying us there and then but, tempering myself, realized that the problem probably lay with our arrest the previous evening. Without money, Xiangzai wouldn’t survive. Having decided to return to the camp and plan another escape, I brought the policemen with me to the coffeehouse.

“The game’s over; we have to go back,” I said to Xiangzai.

When he saw Mother surrounded by the plainclothes policemen, his face turned ashen white. The officers wanted to take us away immediately, but I protested, “We are hungry. Let us eat before we go.”

Mother also insisted on eating first, and the policemen relented. I told the waiter to bring another bowl and pair of chopsticks and asked Mother to sit down with us. The policemen sat down at another table, keeping an eye on us. I quickly slipped the five hundred yuan back to Mother.

With her head lowered to the rice bowl, she whispered, “There was a letter from me in your knapsack. The police at the train station knew that you had escaped and returned home. This morning, officers from the Public Security Bureau came to ask for you. In the afternoon, Auntie Bai came over, and they forced her to tell them where you were.”

A crowd had gathered at the entrance to the coffeehouse, and the waiters and guests thronged around our table, staring at us. It was chaotic. A few of the policemen stood up and dispersed the crowd and told us to finish our meal.

While the policemen were busy dealing with the onlookers, Mother gave me a few bills from the money I had returned to her and said in a low voice, “Take this. You’ll need it.”

I took the money and stuck it under the inner sole of my shoe. Xiangzai and I ate until we were stuffed. Mother followed us out of the coffeehouse and watched us as we boarded the police jeep.

“I’ll come and see you soon!” she shouted.

The jeep drove on with screaming sirens and shortly arrived at the infamous Tilanqiao Prison. After being body searched, Xiangzai and I were separated. In my cell, there were some thirty people locked up in a space of 160 square feet, fitted with a flush toilet. The prisoners were of all descriptions, but they were friendly and made space by the wall for me to lie down. We slept lying on our sides, head to foot, packed like sardines, the foul, moldy air reeking of urine and sweat.

We were given two meals a day: a bowl with three liang of rice with a spoonful of vegetables on top. For New Year’s Eve, everybody dreamed of a piece of meat—in vain. Our biggest problem were the fleas that hid in our underwear. The adult bugs were white and fat; the older ones turned black. When you squeezed them between your nails, there was a crisp popping sound as the blood squirted from their engorged bodies. With nothing else to do, we took off our clothes and scoured them for flea eggs, but you could never get rid of them.

Around New Year’s Day 1959, we heard on the radio that Castro had led his guerrilla troops into Havana and that the Cuban Revolution had been won. I was glad, because I had always thought Latin America was the best place for a revolution. “As soon as I get out of China, that’s where I’ll go,” I told myself. Looking back, I realize how unrealistic this idea was and how full of romantic illusions my head was in those days.

On January 6, a policeman arrived from the White Grass Ridge labor camp, shouted my name and Xiangzai’s, and handcuffed us together. The night we arrived back at the camp, we were denounced at a big douzhenghui. The other convicts shouted slogans at us, cursed us with the foulest language, and rained their spittle upon us. All we could do was keep our heads down and endure the humiliation in silence.

The struggle meeting continued for more than two hours. To our surprise, Mao Kourong was gone, replaced by Commandant Song, who gave a speech demanding our confession in return for leniency. Afterward, we were locked up in the storehouse together with two other convicts, Leng Xiaohua and Wu Miaoxin, and guarded by four militiamen from a neighboring village. The men worked in pairs in twelve-hour shifts, each of them armed with a rifle.

Used as a confinement cell for disciplinary punishment, the storehouse was made up of three rooms, with us convicts to the right and the guards in the middle. We slept on beds of hay, which were warm and comfortable, and used a latrine just beside the outer door.

We guessed that Mao Kourong had been blamed for our escape and transferred somewhere else. Commandant Song took a liking to Xiangzai; I had a feeling he would soon be let out of the storehouse. Sure enough, two days later, Xiangzai was sent back to work with our team. My fate was different. Considered the mastermind of our escape, I had to stay in the storehouse and was interrogated by a short, fat, dusky officer from Shandong.

“Tell me about your plans to escape abroad,” he demanded.

When I refused to confess, he told me, “We will have to let you taste the iron fist of the proletariat.”

By now, I was starving and never felt full no matter how much bulk I ate. In the evenings, we sat in the dark, eating from the mountain of raw peanuts in the storehouse. They tasted like raw fish in the beginning, but the more I ate, the better I liked them; however, as a result, all three of us suffered from chronic diarrhea. Night and day, we asked the guards for permission to go to the toilet, pestering them to the limit of their patience.

After two weeks, my case had still not been decided. I reckoned with four possibilities: arrest and a criminal conviction; transfer to another farm; transfer to another squadron; or confinement for three to six months, then further disciplinary action.

At midday on January 27, my cellmate Miaoxin returned from the kitchen and handed me a note from Xiangzai: “You go first. I’ll come after you. Go to my aunt in Hangtou. I’ll meet you there.”

I discussed the matter with Miaoxin. He agreed it would be dangerous to try another escape. If things went wrong, I would be shot dead on the spot. Miaoxin told me to think carefully. I was afraid, but the fear evaporated before the thought of spending the rest of my life in prison.

That night I put everything I needed into my knapsack and went to bed in my clothes, without taking my shoes off. The duty guards were playing chess in the outer room by the light of a kerosene lamp. At around 4:00 a.m., I threw off my blanket, stood up, and asked to go to the toilet. Having received the guard’s permission, I stepped out through the door, pulled down my pants, squatted over the latrine, and released my spluttering diarrhea. One minute later, I hastily cleaned myself, fastened my trousers, and then, under the cover of darkness, leaped down the terrace with long strides and ran toward the main road by the boiler room, darting from the cover of one manure pile to another. Luckily, there was no moon that night. Two minutes later, I was gone without a trace.

I followed the same route as in the previous escape, crossing the Ouyang Ford and continuing south. As the day broke, I walked toward a distant mountain in the southwest. Someone had told me I would find the town of Shijie in that direction, and to prevent the search patrols from intercepting me at Guangde, I decided to make a big detour fifty miles west to the river town of Wuhu and then catch a Yangtze ferry or a train to Shanghai.

I reached Shijie, twelve miles from the camp, at 8:00 a.m. This is a famous place, but at the time it was run-down, a scene of bleak desolation. I walked into a restaurant looking for breakfast. The attendant replied that he had nothing but Shaoxing rice wine and sugar. I was so hungry I could hardly move and asked for four liang of the wine and half a pound of sugar, washing the sugar down with the wine as the attendant looked on in disbelief.

I continued six miles west toward Shizipu, jumped on a bus, and arrived in Wuhu at five in the afternoon. The train to Shanghai had already left, and there were no more departures that day. At the pier, they told me the ferry to Shanghai would arrive at 2:00 a.m. I found a restaurant serving food, ate, and returned to the pier to wait for the ferry.

A map detailing the escapes. (Image courtesy Erling Hoh)
A map detailing the escapes. (Image courtesy Jeffrey Ward)

I was in a fourth-class cabin with eight other people. There was a restaurant at the stern of the ship, which actually served rice and hot dishes. I must have eaten too much and too fast, gulping the food down without even chewing, because when I went to the toilet, I shat undigested, discolored rice. The ferry chugged along the mighty Yangtze toward Shanghai, docking at Pier 16 at about midnight, January 30.

I walked north along the Bund toward my home on Xi’an Road. The iron gate in front of our house had been removed, probably to be melted down in one of the “backyard blast furnaces” for the Great Steel-Making Campaign. I entered the courtyard. The light in Mother’s room was on. I moved close to the window, stood on tiptoe, looked in, and saw Mother knitting in bed, Wang Ou sleeping by her side. I wanted to knock on the window and ask her to let me in. But reason overcame my emotions, and I drew my hand back.

I needed documents. Suddenly I had an idea and headed straight toward the medical college. It took me almost three hours to get there. I snuck in through a hole in the bamboo fence by the soccer field and made my way toward the library. There was an open window, protected by an iron grille. I managed to squeeze myself between the bars and entered the familiar old reading room.

Quickly, I found the desk where the book borrowers’ IDs were kept in a wooden box, put four of the IDs in my pocket, then lept through the open window. Walking north, I passed the party committee office, jumped over the campus wall, and hurried along East Temple Bridge Road.

The first rays of dawn appeared on the horizon. Without stopping, I walked to Beijing West Road and knocked on the door of my uncle Wang Bing’s mistress Xi Junfang. We didn’t know each other very well, but she knew that Uncle Wang thought highly of me. She was surprised to see me and closed the door behind me quickly so that her sister’s family next door wouldn’t hear us talking. I asked her to go see Mother and get the five hundred yuan I’d returned to her; I told Xi Junfang I would come back the next day to pick up the money. Having heard the story of my escape, she said she admired my courage and agreed to help.

After leaving her apartment, I crossed the Huangpu River and boarded a bus to Hangtou Town in Nanhui County, where Xiangzai’s aunt lived. A peasant, about fifty years old, she was cooking when I arrived at her house around noon. I told her I was Xiangzai’s friend and that he had asked me to wait for him there. She examined me, didn’t say anything, and gave me some food. The rice was steaming hot and fragrant, but there were no vegetables or meat.

She continued with her housework in silence. I sat by the table looking out through the door, hoping Xiangzai would arrive soon. I figured that if he didn’t show up by nightfall, he would have either lost faith or been arrested, and I would have to return to Shanghai alone. But at 2:00 p.m., Xiangzai appeared. I jumped to my feet with joy and gave him a big hug. His auntie, however, was very cool, as if she had something on her mind.

“The camp leadership sent search patrols to look for you everywhere, with orders to shoot you on sight,” Xiangzai said. “I escaped the same evening and took the same route as last time.”

February 1 was New Year’s Eve in the Chinese lunar calendar. [Editor’s note: In 1959, Chinese New Year’s Eve actually fell on February 7.] Early that morning, we returned to Shanghai. I asked Xiangzai to wait for me in the People’s Park while I went to Xi Junfang to pick up the money.

“Your mother asked you to meet her at 9:00 tomorrow morning at the secondhand shop on Huaihai Middle Road,” she said, handing me the five hundred yuan.

“It’s too dangerous. Tell her we can’t see each other this time.” 
To make the stolen IDs our own, Xiangzai and I had our pictures taken at a studio and asked to have them ready the next day. In the afternoon, we returned to Hangtou, where we helped Xiangzai’s auntie harvest turnips.

“She knows we have run away and told me we should give ourselves up and return to the camp,” Xiangzai said in a low voice.

“Do you think she’ll report us?”

“No. I’ll just tell her that we’re going back to the camp.”

There was no special food for New Year’s Eve. Xiangzai’s auntie simply asked him to catch a couple of fish in the river, and she prepared them for us. On the morning of February 2, we returned to Shanghai, picked up our photos, found a deserted room in a Western restaurant close to the Bund, and replaced the photos from the stolen IDs with our own.

The hardest part was to copy the seal embossed on the original photo. I showed Xiangzai how to create an embossment by pressing a blunt pencil against the back side of his photo. He was skillful and finished the job in a few minutes. When we had glued our photos to the IDs, you couldn’t tell the difference from the original. We then faded the owners’ names with bleach and replaced them with our new pseudonyms. In one of the student IDs, there was a special student discount travel card for the New Year’s holiday, which we used to buy tickets at half price to Chengdu in Sichuan Province. On February 3, we left Shanghai and set out to seek a new life.

Having learned a lesson from our arrest at the Grand Theatre, I gave Xiangzai half of my money in case we were separated or caught. We helped and trusted each other like brothers and, inspired by the lines of the Hungarian revolutionary poet Sándor Petőfi prepared to risk our lives for freedom:

All other things above


Are liberty and love;


Life I would gladly tender

For love: yet joyfully

Would love itself surrender

For liberty

[My girlfriend] Ximeng had cast me aside. [Xiangzai’s girlfriend] Zhou Xiaoying had left Xiangzai. Now our lives were on the line. Xiangzai probably never forgot the note I had written to him in confinement: “For freedom, we must not let the ‘law’ intimidate us. We must scorn it and be ready to struggle until death. Life is nothing but a brief episode in the endless recycling of matter. WE are eternal!”

We talked a lot on the train, about our families, studies, love, friendship, dreams, setbacks, and uncertain futures. We railed at the darkness of Chinese politics and the people’s ignorance and blindness and felt a great sadness regarding the future of our country. We criticized Mao harshly for his treachery, arrogance, and hypocrisy. Sometimes, when our discussions became particularly loud and heated, we left our seats and continued talking at the end of the wagon.

We arrived in Chengdu on February 5 and checked into the Shandong Hotel. The room was simple and clean. In a hurry to get to Tibet, I went straight to the bus station to make inquiries. There were no direct buses to Lhasa, and the route was divided into several sections, with a total price for the entire fourteen-hundred-mile journey of 110 yuan per person. With only a bit more than 400 yuan between us, we would have to be careful with our money and keep moving in order to minimize the cost of food and lodging.

But our two escapes in two months had taken their toll on Xiangzai, who said he needed a rest. He was like a little brother to me, and to make him feel better, I agreed to take it easy for a few days. We walked the streets of Chengdu, ate at restaurants, and went to several movies.

After three days, I told Xiangzai we had to get going, but he said he wanted to stay put a little bit longer. One week passed, and he still didn’t want to move. Even worse, he kept going to expensive restaurants and seemed determined to spend his last penny. I grew nervous and angry and insisted that we leave right away, unable to see that Xiangzai had somehow lost his will to fight.

“Honestly, Hongci,” he said, “you know we’ll never make it. The Communist Party is everywhere, and the people are its eyes and ears. There are only three choices left for us: suicide, [escape to far-away] Xinjiang, or surrender.”

“Have we come this far just to kill ourselves?” I said angrily. “Do you think we could find a place to hide in Xinjiang? You know Russian and want to escape to the Soviet Union, but do you know if the Soviets will take you in? And if we give ourselves up, the Public Security Bureau will send us straight back to [the labor camp at] White Grass Ridge. Do you think we can expect leniency from them?”

I was about to say that this escape had been his idea but bit my tongue. In any case, Xiangzai refused to move, and our separation became inevitable. I decided not to waste any more money on food and drink. I had already given him half of the five hundred yuan and didn’t know if the money I had left would be enough to get me to Tibet and India. From now on, I would have to save every last penny.

Each time Xiangzai stumbled into our room in a stupor of gluttony and drunkenness, I would boil inside with fury, but the friendship we had established in these past few months of adversity held me back, and I clung to the hope that he would regain his senses.

After twelve days, Xiangzai was still eating and drinking as if there were no tomorrow. Finally, I made the painful decision to proceed alone. At noon on February 19, when Xiangzai was napping, I left a goodbye note for him on the table and bought a bus ticket to the town of Ya’an in western Sichuan.

The six-hundred-mile journey to the Golden Sand River,* traversing a majestic landscape of soaring peaks and deep valleys, opened a new world for me. Just out of Chengdu, the bus entered the West Sichuan Plains, which resembled the fertile, abundant Jiangnan region back home. After the Qionglai Mountains, the terrain grew steeper. By the time we reached the ancient town of Mingshan, dusk was falling. That fairy-tale scene, with smoke rising wistfully from rows of black brick houses, will always remain with me. Continuing west, we entered a range of colossal mountains, and the bus wound its way along perpendicular cliffs and emerald-green creeks to our destination for the evening: Ya’an, the capital of the Xikang.

Once again, I used my fake ID to get a room at the People’s Hostel. The streets of Ya’an were lined with bustling markets, and the people appeared to be simple and honest. The next day, I boarded a bus to Kangding. Chugging up the dirt road, the bus stopped for a break at the highest vantage point. In the southwest, we could see Mount Gongga, twenty-five thousand feet, awesome in its grandeur. As the bus descended into the Dadu River valley, the river at the valley floor grew from a fluttering silver ribbon to a tempestuous beast.

Standing on the famous Luding Chain Bridge, I thought about the dreams and ideals of the Red Army in the early days of the revolution and the bleak, tyrannical country Mao had created. Having shed its blood to liberate the toiling, oppressed peasants of China, the Communist Party had immediately set about securing its grip on power and depriving its enemies, imaginary or not, of their freedom. Revolutions, it seems, are destined to devour themselves.

After Kangding, we climbed steadily to a vast, windswept high plateau, where the temperature fell far below freezing. Although I was wearing a cat-fur coat, I only had a pair of miserable PLA cloth shoes with no lining, and my feet were numb with cold. I had been told I would develop altitude sickness at thirteen thousand feet, but the Que’er mountain pass was eighteen thousand feet, and I was still feeling okay.

We made it to another plateau and shook our way to Garzê, the capital of the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Region. The town itself was sparsely inhabited, but there were PLA camps everywhere, and the roads were filled with soldiers and army trucks.

I stayed in a hostel close to the bus station. An old man told me about the Tibetan uprising that had broken out recently and said it would be dangerous to proceed to Lhasa. This news both worried and encouraged me, because while the fighting posed a definite risk, the confusion would also provide cover and might improve my chances for a successful escape. Disregarding the old man’s advice, I decided to press forward.

Out of Garzê, the endless, glum high plateau was covered in deep snow, with only a few forsaken yaks huddling about here and there. At noon, the bus arrived in Manigango, where we were stopped by a group of party cadres.

A leader boarded the bus: “Last night, we were attacked by Tibetan bandits, and lost two comrades. We want to transport them to Dege on the roof of the bus. Okay?”

Naturally, we said nothing. The cadres hoisted the two corpses onto the roof and then squeezed themselves in among us. The atmosphere of war grew heavy, and I began to fear that the bus would come under attack.

Dege lay by a creek between two high mountains, with a few scattered houses on their slopes. The population was probably not even a thousand. I stayed at a hostel together with the others. One of the travelers told me the fighting up ahead was fierce and that the roads were blocked. He said the only open approach to Lhasa was from the north and that I would have to go to Dunhuang and enter Tibet through Qinghai Province.

The food was much more expensive than in Chengdu. A bowl of soup with tofu and vegetables cost seven jiao [ten Chinese cents]. I counted the money in my pocket and discovered that I only had a little bit more than one hundred yuan left. If things continued like this, I would soon be stone broke.

As I was deciding what to do, I met some people who had been stranded in Dege for a long time. They were getting ready to walk to Jomda on the other side of the Golden Sand River. I asked if I could join them. Many of them were road workers and knew the area well, and they agreed to help me.

One day, a convoy of trucks loaded with Tibetan POWs drove into town. I went to the Public Security Bureau’s detention center to see what was going on. Disheveled, haggard, and frightened, the POWs were brought down from the trucks and lined up. A policeman counted them. Two corpses were thrown down from a truck. I inspected the two young dead bodies carefully. Filing into their cells, the POWs bowed before them. In low spirits, I returned to the hostel to find out about our departure.

“The soldiers guarding the bridge say there is heavy fighting ahead and that we will be killed if we cross over. They won’t let us do it,” an older man said.

“Tomorrow, a truck carrying charcoal will return to Garzê together with the POW convoy,” a man from the hostel announced. “Anybody who wishes to go with them may do so.”

I had been stuck in Dege for a week and was running out of money. With no hope of making it to Lhasa, I decided to return to Chengdu, take stock of the situation, and make new plans. I took a seat on the charcoal truck, leaving Dege with the POW convoy. The Tibetan fighters were disciplined and seemed to have good relations with their captors. Some of the lamas even offered cigarettes to the guards, who accepted them gladly.

The People’s Liberation Army protected all Han Chinese, even the hoodlums and scoundrels. As long as you were a Han, you were a good person in their eyes, and they never asked you for any documents. I didn’t have to pay for the ride and sat inside the cabin protected from the wind, which was a lot better than what the POWs had to endure.

“These men are all murderers and will be severely punished,” a policeman said. “We are establishing a labor camp in Dawu and will send them to be reformed there.”

We passed through Garzê and returned to Kangding. There, I ran into Pan Changsheng, a student I had befriended on my last visit to the town. He took me to his friend Zhou Tianzhu, who gave me a place to sleep. Changsheng hadn’t been able to find work in Kangding and wanted to return to Chengdu but didn’t have money for the bus ticket. I thought that if I paid for his ticket, perhaps he would let me stay in his house in Chengdu.

At Zhou Tianzhu’s house, I drank Tibetan butter tea for the first time. After boiling pieces of brick tea in water for a long time, he poured the strong reddish-brown infusion into a bamboo churn, added butter and salt, pumped the handle rapidly until the butter had melted and been mixed with the tea, and poured us the milky white drink, which tasted delicious. They also treated me to tsampa, or roasted barley, the Tibetan staple food.

Because I needed to cut my expenses as much as possible, I said I wanted to take some butter and tsampa with me back home to Shanghai. They helped me buy fifteen jin of tsampa and five jin of butter and wrapped them into an oilcloth backpack.

Around March 10, Changsheng and I returned to his house in Chengdu. Changsheng told his parents I was a university student from Shanghai traveling around China and would be staying in their house for a while. I had only sixty yuan left. I considered several options but couldn’t make up my mind and spent my days walking around the city, killing time. Passing the Shandong Hotel, I had to peek through the entrance at the room where Xiangzai and I had stayed, even though I knew he was gone.

The fleas I had caught at the Tilanqiao Prison began breeding like crazy, and I had to clean my underwear in boiling water at Changsheng’s house. Although his family saw there was something amiss, they didn’t report me to the police. I realized I had to get going again and sent a telegram to Xi Junfang, asking her to tell Mother to telegram a hundred yuan to me at Changsheng’s address.

The money arrived the following day. To keep one step ahead of the Public Security Bureau, I bought a bus ticket to Kunming and then took Changsheng for a farewell meal at a Western restaurant in the Guanshengyuan Hotel. I was carrying Father’s pocket atlas of China.

Although small, it was detailed, and during my time at Changsheng’s house I studied it time and again, trying to find a new escape route.

Remembering the verdict I had seen posted in Si’an, Zhejiang Province, sentencing a man to twenty years of hard labor for attempting to escape to Hong Kong across the land border, I knew that route would be dangerous. The population in southern Yunnan Province was dense, and it would be easy to catch me there, too. The only alternative, it seemed, was to cross over the border into Burma from western Yunnan.

The journey from Chengdu to Zhanyi in Yunnan took three days. We spent the first night in Heishitou Township of Guizhou Province. Standing there at dusk, gazing at the distant peaks on the horizon, I was seized by a delusion that beyond these mountains lay a foreign land and that if only I could reach it, I would be free.

In Kunming, I bought a bus ticket to Xiaguan, two days’ journey west along the Burma Road. The lush, mountainous landscape was beautiful, and everything seemed at peace. When we reached Xiaguan, I counted my money and realized that I must have lost some of it along the way. I decided to walk, heading north along the western shore of Erhai Lake, enjoying the scenery. When I got hungry, I ate tsampa and butter, washing it down with spring water from the mountains.

My goal was Gongshan County, in the sparsely populated northwestern corner of Yunnan, where I planned to cross over the border into Burma. But when I reached the village of Shaxi, I was told there was no road leading where I wanted to go and that I would have to return to Xiaguan.

Once I was back there, I headed west. The road climbed sharply. Up ahead, I could see Black Dragon Mountain, its winding ridge covered in snow and ice. In Yangbi County, I walked into the local hostel. The receptionist, who was nursing a baby, put down her child, and as she raised her head, I saw the most beautiful woman I have ever met. I thought of Ximeng and wondered how she was. By now, [her fiancé] Bao Yougen had returned from East Germany. Perhaps they were already married. That night, I lay awake a long time, unable to fall asleep, my mind clouded with bitter memories.

The next day, I came to the famous Yaquan, “Dumb Spring,” which Zhuge Liang had drunk from in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Dying of thirst, I didn’t have time to worry whether the water would make me lose my voice. I was young and strong and could walk forty miles from dawn to dusk. After Yongping, the road descended into the Lancang River valley, where the imposing Gongguo Chain Bridge appeared up ahead. As I passed the sentries, my heart pounded madly from fear that I would be stopped and questioned, but luckily they ignored me.

At Wayao, the road split, with the wider Burma Road continuing in a southwesterly direction and the other, narrower road heading northwest. There were many small blast furnaces around Wayao, and the place was busy. I continued on the narrow road. That night, I found a dry, flat place to lie down, but the shrieks of owls in the forest kept me awake. In the distance, I could hear other mysterious sounds, which unsettled me even more.

At the first glimpse of dawn, I got back on the road. That baffling sound kept growing until it was as loud as thunder. I felt a strange fear but pressed forward. After a sharp turn in the road, I stood before a wide, roaring, mighty, foaming, swirling river: the Nujiang, “Angry River.”

I washed my face in the ice-cold water. The road ran north along the river. After the village of Liuku, I reached a suspension bridge at about 9:00 a.m. It was even larger than the Gongguo Bridge, with sentry guards at both ends. Emboldened by my previous success, I passed them without batting an eye and continued north on the western side of the river.

The landscape grew menacing. The mountains here run in transversal ridges, with perpendicular cliffs thousands of feet high. I took out the atlas and studied it carefully. Gongshan County was 300 miles to the north, and the China-Burma border 125 miles to the west. If I continued north along the Angry River, I would be entering the Himalayas and have to start mountain climbing.

I decided to cross the border at Lushui instead and took a risk by asking some people I met along the road for directions. They told me I had walked too far and would have to head back toward the bridge. There, I found the mountain path leading to Lushui.

After walking uphill for about an hour, I came to a stretch of open land on the side of a mountain. There were some government buildings on the slope above the road. In the distance, I could see a path disappearing into the mountains. I said to myself, “That must be the way to Burma.”

According to Father’s pocket atlas, Lushui lay outside the restricted border zone, and I felt quite safe. Casually, I walked into the county government’s canteen and asked a cook if I could buy a meal. A brisk fellow, he gave me a big bowl of rice and a bowl of soup with salted meat for only two jiao. When I had eaten my fill and was leaving, I passed a wall pasted with verdicts from the local court but, having seen many such notices along the way, ignored them.

Xu Hongci's drawing of the Lushui prison. His original manuscript, which was handwritten, included many drawings. (Image courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)
Xu Hongci’s drawing of the Lushui prison. His original manuscript, which was handwritten, included many drawings. (Image courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)

From the canteen, I walked toward the walled compound on the slope below the road, saw a barbershop, and, stroking my hair and beard, decided to have a haircut. I stepped inside and put down my knapsack. While one of the barbers seated me in his chair, the other one left the shop. Just as we were finishing up, he returned with a group of men, who stood round me and asked to see my documents.

I showed them my fake ID and a forged certificate from my college, stamped with a chop I had carved from a bar of soap, which said that I was in western Yunnan to do epidemiological research. After examining my documents, they told me to come with them.

I was taken to a white two-story building. They asked me to sit down in an office, keeping a close eye on me. There were two cadres among them. The first one was thin and tall, in his twenties, dressed in a blue khaki Mao suit. His insidious smile unsettled me. The other cadre was shorter, about thirty, and dressed in a bleached gray Mao suit. After about half an hour, a leader entered the room.

“This is Secretary Shi of the Lushui County party committee, who has come to speak with you in person,” the shorter cadre introduced him.

Secretary Shi sat down in front of me, looked at my fake ID and forged certificate, and examined me from top to toe with suspicion.

“What is your real reason for coming to Lushui?” he asked.

Xu Hongci and his wife, Oyunbileg, on a return trip to Mongolia. (Photo courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)
Xu Hongci and his wife, Oyunbileg, on a return trip to Mongolia. (Photo courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)

I stuck to my story and requested his assistance in carrying out my scientific research. An old hand, Secretary Shi didn’t believe a word of my pretty lies. He insisted on detaining me in order to make further inquiries and said I would not be released until all matters had been clarified.

I was taken to the county prison. Except for an enamel mug and a steel spoon, all my possessions were confiscated, and I was locked into cell number ten at the northern end of the prison, with another prisoner assigned to guard me temporarily.

Later, I learned that Lushui actually lay inside the restricted border zone. Ever since the British army’s occupation of Pianma in 1900, the de facto border between China and Burma had been the Gaoligong Mountains, parallel to and just west of the Angry River. But because neither the Qing nor the KMT nor the Communist government had recognized this demarcation officially, all Chinese atlases drew the line at the Kachin Hills a hundred miles farther west. Unaware, I had walked into a restricted border town in broad daylight. It was April 10, nine weeks since I’d left Shanghai.

As the old saying goes, “A gambler who has lost his shirt will continue gambling, even if he has to bankrupt his whole family.” Risking my life, I had traversed half of China and made it to the Burmese border, only to be caught on the brink of freedom. How could I give up now? As the turnkey locked my cell, I was already making plans for another escape.

* * *

Excerpted from No Wall Too High: One Man’s Daring Escape From Mao’s Darkest Prison, translated from Chinese and edited by Erling Hoh. Published by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  Copyright © 2008 by Sukh Oyunbileg, Oyunbileg Anjir, Oyunbileg Buyant, Oyunbileg Esenya. Translation and condensation copyright © 2017 by Erling Hoh. Map copyright © 2017 by Jeff rey L. Ward. All rights reserved.

Users are warned that the Work appearing herein is protected under copyright laws and reproduction of the text, in any form for distribution is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the Work via any medium must be secured with the copyright owner.

The Secret Life of a Professional Statue

How staying perfectly still for tips — despite tourists’ bewildering lack of boundaries — taught me to stand my ground in life.

The Secret Life of a Professional Statue

I was standing on an overturned milk crate on Bourbon Street, in face paint and a ball gown. The world was a blur. My body was entirely still — one hand holding out my huge skirt and the other a paper fan, frozen mid-flutter.

A group of frat boys appeared from the milling crowd around me. They wore Mardi Gras striped polo shirts in purple, green and gold, though it was October. Plastic beads winked on their necks, and they all gripped neon novelty drinks known as Hand Grenades. Though they were just fuzzy swatches in my peripheral vision, I could identify the color-by-numbers attire of tourists in New Orleans.

The group remained a blur because, as usual while working, I gazed only at a softened middle distance, not focusing my eyes. One of the dudes approached, so close I could smell his sugary drunk breath. He clapped his hands a few inches from my face. His palms expelled a little gust of air, cool on my grease-painted nose and cheeks.

I didn’t react. I didn’t look at him, or speak.

For several years in my 20s, off and on, I was a professional statue. Statue was both a noun and a verb. I was a statue; statuing was what I did. My job was, basically, not to react. Unless one of the tourists gave me what I wanted — a tip in the plastic lemonade pitcher at my feet — I gave them nothing.

When I wasn’t statuing, I always gave people what they wanted. I made eye contact. I listened patiently. I was free with my thanks and my apologies. I forgave.

In particular I forgave Toby, my boyfriend of several years, whose name I’ve changed here to protect his privacy. I forgave him for not getting a job, for the long nights I spent listening to stories of his childhood pain, for throwing our bedroom lamp across the room in a temper. I used my statuing money to pay our rent, to buy our groceries. When we were too broke to go to the laundromat, I washed our clothes by hand in the bathtub and draped them over our chain-link fence to dry. Forgiving him was a daily act, a constant renewal.

And above all, I smiled, for Toby’s benefit and everyone’s.

Except here, now, on Bourbon Street. It didn’t matter that my legs ached, standing on the milk crate. That my arms ached, frozen mid-gesture with the fan. That my neck ached, under my huge, flowered hat. I statued as often as I could handle, though I also worked construction, at 10 bucks an hour, for an uptown slumlord. On a good statuing day, I made three times that, but I could only work three-hour shifts; physically, it was the harder of the two jobs.

I’d trained myself to smile in childhood after multiple grown-ups, seeing me frowning in thought, asked if something was wrong. Once I’d learned to make my face rest in a vague smile by default, the grown-ups stopped asking.

On Bourbon Street I didn’t smile, or flinch. Even my blinking was rare and deliberate, and the frat boys weren’t having it. They would not, could not, leave me alone. It was as if, by doing nothing, I had challenged them to a fight. My refusal became a battleground.

“Hey, Gorgeous, will you marry me?” tried the one who had clapped in my face a few seconds earlier.

I didn’t answer.

“She must be a lesbian!”

“Is it even a woman? Maybe it’s a man!”

“Is that a mustache? She needs to shave.”

Another one clapped in my face. I kept the fan still, the skirt still. I didn’t answer.

When a new blur approached — deferential, kneeling to drop a dollar in the pitcher at my feet, I focused my eyes and came to life.

It was a woman who’d tipped me. Her husband, with fat white legs and a bucket hat, stood diffidently behind her. I felt my humanness returning, collecting. I blinked and the world sharpened; I reinhabited my blank, white-painted face. I looked her in the eyes, mouthed “Thank you,” fanned myself, and curtsied. When I smiled at her, it felt like I was bestowing a gift.

“She moved, she moved!” the woman cried, in frank delight. “She looked at me!”

The frat crew hung back; I could see them without seeing them. Now that I’d been suddenly rendered human, they didn’t know what to make of me. One shuffled nearer, but was recalled by his friends, and they wandered uncertainly away. But later, one of those polo shirts bobbed into my vision again. A quick stoop to the tip jar, the rosy flash of a larger bill. A $5, a $10? I’d find out later; for now, finally, I looked the kid in the eye.

“Uh, thanks, uh, sorry about that,” he said. He was flushed under freckles and looked impossibly young. I gave him a curtsy, and, absolved, he was gone.

I usually dressed for work in the rickety house I shared with Toby and a roommate. Before doing my makeup, I’d shimmy into the blue satin ball gown, borrowed from the friend who’d gotten me into the statuing business to begin with.

After taking an indefinite leave from college, I’d washed up in New Orleans, working one underpaid drag of a job after another. Toby and I lived in a world where everyone patched together crummy little gigs to get by, where the kind of work you did was never the point. The point was everything else. We put on puppet shows at Mardi Gras parades together. We paddled around abandoned Civil War forts in the swamps outside town. We day-drank by the river, ate out of the dumpster, splurged on body-sized slabs of ice from a seafood company and rode them like sleds down the grassy slope of the levee. Only certain musicians among us could earn money by pursuing their art; the rest of us took and left jobs like breathing.

Statuing, though, became more permanent for me than most things because it was my eternal fallback, my safety net — I worked for myself, I worked when I chose, the overhead was low.

Besides the construction job, I’d also tried being a barista at failing coffee shops and a busgirl at hectic restaurants. Meanwhile, I’d watched my friend Libby come home from “work” as a statue — I would have put it in quotes, then, because it seemed so absurd — with a literal bucket of cash. I’d watched her, still in costume, counting tips at her kitchen table: mostly $1 bills, with a healthy smattering of $5s and $10s, sometimes a $20.

How much did you make?” I’d say incredulously. “How long were you out there?” Libby was generous. It wasn’t like she was the only hustler in the French Quarter, where street performance for cash was legal and largely unregulated. That wilderness was open to anyone with the guts to try it. “I’ll even lend you this dress,” she said. “I have like a million. Use my face paint. Go for it.” And so I did.

On any given day, since he was unemployed, Toby might be napping as I put on the blue gown and got ready to go. His mane of strawberry-gold hair, which I loved, splayed on the pillow like a sea creature. While he slept, it was easy to remember why I wanted to take care of him.

I’d ended up in this house, in this relationship, by saying yes. Or at least, by not saying no. It was amazing how I’d fallen into it all simply by responding as I was expected to. As the world wanted me to. Toby asked for my number. If I wanted to get a drink. If he could bike me home. Could come inside. Toby entered my life, and all I had to do was say yes. Toby was depressed. He needed to talk. He needed me to listen. He needed dinner, sex, money, comfort. He needed to move in together. I became the negative space of his asking, and the negative space was always yes.

There’s a photo from this era, of us spooning, lying in the grass on a hot day. Toby is the big spoon, clinging. I, the little spoon, am staring into space with a frown he can’t see, the old frown from my childhood that I only wore if I thought no one was watching.

Dressed in Libby’s gown, I dabbed white foundation makeup on my face with a soft sponge. I didn’t paint the rest of my exposed skin, like the all-gold and all-silver statues who sometimes shared my block; the face paint and costume transformed me enough.

On the white background, I painted red lips, round red cheeks, peacock eye shadow. I caked on glitter salvaged from an abandoned primary school after Hurricane Katrina. I donned my hat, covered in faded fake flowers from the cemetery dumpster. I stuffed my pitcher and “Tips for photos” sign into the milk crate, left Toby sleeping, and walked through our house feeling like a stranger.

And, while statuing, I was a stranger. I was strange even to myself. A new person or a nonperson, either or both.

For a pleaser like me, statuing was a crash course in stubbornness. What sounds like the most passive trade imaginable — becoming an object, a literal living doll, refusing to move or speak — was, in fact, bizarrely, the opposite. It was exhausting, but it strengthened me. I left work aching and charged up. I learned, for the first time in my life, to refuse people. I learned that it felt good. That it got me somewhere.

If you refuse to move, speak or react when spoken to, you’re breaking the rules. It throws people off, sometimes badly. Because I was acting inappropriately — not responding as a person typically would — my audience acted inappropriately in turn.

People inevitably tried to touch me. Then, and only then, I moved without being tipped. I slapped them lightly, on whatever was closest — hand, face — still deadpan, not speaking, not meeting their eyes. A slap for the drunkard trying to stick his finger up my nose. A slap for everyone who moved to kiss me or lift my skirt, which happened almost daily. The one groper I didn’t slap was a woman my age, alone, who slowly and softly pressed her cupped hand first to my left breast, then my right. I was too surprised to move; she left without speaking.

I did not slap people for touching my hands, though sometimes they jumped back of their own accord, shocked to feel my warmth, my aliveness. “I thought she was a mannequin!” they would shout, horrified.

But often the strangeness spurred by my refusal was more innocent, a grab bag of unfiltered human reactions that fascinated me. I felt myself and my audience pulled together into deep space, a lost world where no one knew how to behave anymore.

One night, out of nowhere, a man tried to hand me his baby. (“What are you doing?” snapped his wife, when she noticed.) A Steelers fan, giddy from the bar where he’d just watched his team beat the Saints, asked me to marry him. “I’m rich,” he said. “You come to Pittsburgh, I’ll take care of you.” He gave me a $20 to prove it. A woman questioned me doggedly for 10 minutes, then turned away, sighing, “Poor thing, I think she’s deaf.” A roofer from Mississippi — according to the business card he left — crossed the street to the ATM and came back to drop crisp $20s, one by one, into my pitcher, cursing each time as if he was doing it against his will. I bought a steak that night, paid our rent, and never saw him again.

Years later, I left New Orleans, and left statuing, with relief. I don’t miss the strain — on my mind, on my body. It’s hard to keep still. It’s hard to consistently thwart what is asked of you.

But long before I left statuing, I left Toby.

He was out somewhere as I stood in our room for the last time, perfectly still, staring at the artifacts of our life together: tangled blankets, my clothes in optimistically stacked crates that mimicked a real dresser. His shirts tossed over the single chair, his shoes, his smell. I was the doll in the dollhouse, frozen in my own life. I’d denied myself motion for so long, I’d forgotten its utility.

When I statued, being still was my form of refusal; here, at home, stillness was acquiescence, another yes. I felt a new impulse kicking now. My refusal this time required motion. Stillness was not a way to get what I wanted anymore.

In our bedroom, where I usually did my makeup, I shoved clothes and some books into an old Army surplus backpack. I didn’t take everything I owned, but I took enough. I made some calls and found a couch to sleep on. For a while, as I biked down Columbus Street, the world was a blur. Houses crawled by in soft focus, men and women on their porches murmuring, “Arright, Arright,” the classic New Orleans greeting, as I passed.

“Arright,” I said, by reflex. All right. Am I all right? I am.

I am.

I blinked, slowly and luxuriously. My life as a statue had almost imperceptibly strengthened this muscle in me — the muscle of refusal — and now with every push on the pedals, I felt it, somewhere deep in my gut.

The blurred-out world returned — the weathered houses, asphalt, palm fronds against bright sky. The street sharpened and every detail was clear again, was mine. 

Renegades

The Rapid Rise and Sudden Fall of a Kratom Kingpin

He built at $60,000-a-month business selling opioid alternatives out of his apartment. His clients say he saves lives. The government wants to shut him down.

Eric James had about a day before the dope sickness really kicked in. But he knew the opening bars of the overture well: In a few hours, the muscles in his lower back would start to spasm; his knees would rattle; his nose would run. But worst of all, the fog would set in, clouding his thoughts. He did not want to go through all of that again. So, on a Sunday morning in March 2019, with $150 in his pocket, he climbed into the backseat of a taxi, hoping that a 15-minute ride would bring him to the end of a 15-year habit.

The taxi stopped on a quiet side street in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. James, a 35-year-old freelance graphic designer with warm brown eyes and buzzed hair, sat on a bench outside of a brown brick apartment building, his fingers sweeping across the screen of his phone as he waited. He had taken his last oxycodone at 6 o’clock the night before — about 15 pills, all in one go. The effects had worn off by morning and left him with his daily pre-dose feeling of lethargy and dread. The onset of physical withdrawal was still a few hours away, but he could feel the storm gathering. It would thunder in his brain and strike lightning through his bones, if he didn’t do something about it. (“Eric James” is a pseudonym; he asked not to use his real name for fear of repercussions at work.)

At another building in another neighborhood, the money in his pocket could get him well for a few hours. He could satiate himself with one last handful of the oblong yellow pills known on the street as “bananas.” Yet James hadn’t come for his usual medicine. This time, he was determined to quit opioids; this time James was after a chalky, bitter-tasting powder that would tickle his opioid receptors just enough to keep him from a full-blown withdrawal.

The door to the building swung open, and a man emerged whom James only knew by his thick Brooklyn accent and pseudonym, John Dee. His face seemed to James not 40 years old but 40 years besieged. Dee had spent about a third of his life copping prescription painkillers and heroin at Brooklyn housing projects. A diamond-shaped white patch showed where his curly black hair started to recede, as if death had been coming but beat a quick retreat. Dee’s skin, carved by several sharp wrinkles, seemed tightly stretched over his facial bones. His black, square-framed glasses and furrowed forehead gave him a hawkish look.

Dee’s lips melted into a smile when he saw James, for whom he had prepared a carefully curated withdrawal kit. It came in the form of two sandwich bags full of greenish powder — and a big, warm hug.

Oren Levy found a new identity as John Dee, a sort of shadowy do-gooder who helps opiate addicts kick drugs. He does it by using a largely unregulated plant called kratom, a coffee-relative that can grow up to 100 feet high in the jungles of Indonesia, where much of the kratom sold in the U.S. comes from. Kratom has long been used in Southeast Asia for its pain-killing and mood-boosting properties, but the plant has only become popular in the U.S. over the last decade. Addicts are turning to it as a non-narcotic alternative to classic opiate-replacement drugs like methadone or buprenorphine, in the hopes that it is safer and less addictive. The main alkaloids in kratom reach the mu-opiate receptors, quieting the withdrawal symptoms that make opioids so hard to quit. Chronic pain patients and recreational users also take kratom for the subtle euphoric effects it provides. Users mix kratom with juice, brew a tea, or simply do the “toss and wash” method of choking down a spoonful of the powder and chasing it with a drink.

Between 3 and 5 million people in the U.S. use kratom, according to the American Kratom Association (AKA), an advocacy organization. But Kratom is having something of an identity crisis. Overpriced, low-quality commercial stuff is silently marketed as a legal high in gas stations and smoke shops, where it often sits next to things such as glass pipes and amyl nitrites (poppers). Online vendors like Dee, however, import high-quality kratom straight from Indonesia and sell it at a lower price than store-bought brands.

Kratom is in the crosshairs of regulation and may not be legal for long. Critics who want kratom banned say teenagers can easily get their hands on it. It’s already been banned in six states, the District of Columbia, and a handful of cities and counties. Legislation is under review elsewhere. For now, kratom entrepreneurs like Dee are hustling for a piece of an unregulated industry that, by some estimates, generates over $1 billion a year.

For the last six years, Dee has been running a one-man kratom operation out of his three-room Brooklyn apartment. He has improvised a makeshift packaging center inside, with each room serving a dedicated purpose for his business, Red Devil Kratom.

For Dee’s customers who hope kratom will help wean them off of drugs, the journey to recovery starts in his bedroom, where a printer spits out order forms and packaging labels for parcels that will travel across the city and state. Scales, bags, and various-sized scoops caked with kratom soot sit upon a worktable in the middle of a spare room, where Dee handles packaging. A stack of labels bears the words “Red Devil Kratom,” along with the company mascot: a diaper-clad red baby devil with a coquettish smirk and a trident. Two plastic bins beneath the table contain Dee’s immediate supply. A nearby storage unit houses several hundred pounds more.

Dee organizes his supply by color. Reds provide a body buzz and are typically called “slow” strains for their relaxing effects. Whites are “fast.” Greens are in the middle, offering both euphoria and stimulation.

An earthy smell not unlike green tea escapes when Dee opens the bins and scoops up some powder to weigh on the scale. Dee typically charges $18 for an ounce of kratom and about $25 for his super potent, enhanced blend. He also sells cannabidiol (CBD), an unregulated, nonpsychoactive hemp compound that has been heralded as a cure for everything from epilepsy to overly active pets.

Dee scribbles the name of the strain and customer on each label, adding “You rock!” to each one before readying the bags for shipping, all from his living room.

“I run my company from A to Z; there’s no help,” he says. “Sometimes I’m up till 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Dee came to the kratom industry after years of abusing opiates himself. About 10 years ago, he went cold turkey following what he calls a “spiritual awakening.“

“Something in my head just clicked, and I said, ‘What is this shit?’” Dee says.

At the time, he owned a nightclub where he worked full-time, and drugs and alcohol remained a constant during his early recovery. The party scene wore him down. In 2012, Dee quit the nightclub business to figure out his next career step. He had always wanted to work in the recovery sphere. A friend who directed a rehabilitation center suggested he try recovery coaching. Unlike therapy or counseling, which is clinical in nature, a recovery coach acts more as a motivator, confidant, and role model — helping clients focus on their future, rather than on their past. Dee went to school and became a certified recovery coach in 2013. But like the nightclubs, Dee soon found recovery coaching toxic. The job required him to live among those he coached, with their families, at their homes, and many of his clients still used drugs.

While he was already off of opiates himself, Dee wanted to help others kick the habit, and he pursued a growing interest in alternatives to mainstream treatments for opioid dependence. An internet search led him to a kratom vendor, from whom he bought $80 worth. At first, Dee used the plant for research, offering it to people via his Facebook group “Kratom Free Giveaway” in return for a report on how it affected them.

He received glowing reviews from recovering addicts. It boosted users’ mood and lessened the cravings after the acute withdrawal phase, a time when physical discomfort gives way to depression and longing for drugs. To Dee, the anecdotal evidence made an overwhelming case for kratom’s effectiveness in fighting opiate withdrawal.

The first kratom went quickly, and Dee bought another $80 batch. He gave most of it away again, but this time he sold a little bit to make his money back. He started the “Red Devil Free Giveaway” Facebook group, named after his own first blend of red strains. The name stuck, and he became known as the “Red Devil Kratom guy.”

Dee still juggled several part-time jobs while building his kratom business, working security at big nightclubs and doing recovery coaching. He says he never mixed kratom with his coaching, despite a growing belief in the power of the plant. (Recovery coaches are strictly forbidden from offering their own diagnoses or recommendations, although they can provide feedback and research on different holistic treatments if the clients bring up the idea first.)

Dee began devoting more time to Red Devil Kratom between 2013 and 2014, gradually building up clientele in New York City, and, at a high point, grossing $60,000 in a single month. He boasts of a seemingly endless list of mothers, sons, friends, and relatives — all of whom, he claims, owe their sobriety to him and Red Devil Kratom.

Eric James pocketed $110 of Dee’s kratom. The whole thing felt familiar: getting “the goods” from a stranger in a strange place.

Dee nodded as James told of a 15-year pill addiction, hard drinking, and a growing distance from his boyfriend, who thought that he had kicked the habit. While New York City has not been hit as hard by the opioid epidemic as the rest of the state (and the country), James, a 35-year-old white male, is the likeliest type of person to overdose and die, according to New York’s annual opioid report.

Dee told James to wait for mild withdrawals before taking the first dose. The energizing green strain would put some pep into James’s morning; the red would help him sleep at night. To supplement the kratom, Dee stressed the importance of 12-step programs.

James headed home with several ounces of kratom in his pocket. He couldn’t afford another taxi, so he took the subway. The following morning, he started the regimen, gulping down the kratom with a glass of juice. He drank the concoction a few times a day, per Dee’s recommendation. Symptoms of opiate withdrawal were “virtually nonexistent,” he says, at least in comparison to the past. Just a bit of cold sweats and some gastrointestinal discomfort.

“It blew my mind,” James says. “I thought, this is amazing. How does this happen?”

He still didn’t know a whole lot about why kratom does what it does. But it didn’t really matter. By Thursday, James had shattered his record of pill abstinence. It was the first time he’d been able to string together four opioid-free days in eight years.

Then Friday rolled around.

“Oh God, just being alone at home, my boyfriend was off at work. That’s when I would normally text my drug dealers again,” James says.

James began composing a message to his dealer while looking up Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, his heart hammering in his chest. Somehow, the 12-step meeting won out. James went to his first later that night and found comfort in the support network. Fellow addicts texted and called him to check up on his recovery. James had several numbers to call when cravings struck. Dee, who regularly attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings, was one of them.

Having passed the acute phase of withdrawal, James found that kratom relieved the back pain caused by years of working at a desk. The few negative side effects he experienced included constipation and the occasional bout of the “wobbles,” a common kratom side effect so named for the eye-twitching and dizziness that occurs if too much is taken.

The mood boost and relaxing warmth of kratom tempts James to redose more often than he thinks he should. He knows that kratom can be habit-forming, especially for a former addict, and he doesn’t want to take it forever. James views kratom as a step-down substance: something strong enough to keep cravings in check but not strong enough to provide a true high. But like other opiate-replacement treatments, it’s hard to know when or how to stop.

“Am I really sober?” James has asked himself. “Do I feel sober if I take it?”

Some within the recovery community frown upon kratom, believing that true sobriety requires abstinence from all mind-altering substances. Whether kratom is such a substance is hotly debated. But for people like James, the semantics of that argument and the nuances of the term “sobriety” don’t matter half as much as staying away from opiates. Anything is better than that.

Kratom is a murky business. Because it is relatively new to the American market, there is little scientific information about the effects of long-term kratom use for the treatment of opioid-use disorder. Much of the information online has been produced by those who have skin in the game — vendors, users, pro-kratom groups — or by government organizations and lawmakers that tend to portray kratom as a dangerous drug with potential for abuse.

While kratom remains legal in most of the country, the Food and Drug Administration warns consumers that the plant carries a risk of addiction, and in 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services recommended a ban on the chemicals in kratom, which would make it as illegal as heroin and LSD. Ultimately, the power to make a final decision about the scheduling of drugs lies with the Drug Enforcement Agency, which planned to place a temporary ban on kratom in 2016 but backpedaled after an outcry from kratom supporters.

Within the medical community, there are conflicting views on kratom’s potential for treating opioid abuse. Dr. Joel Nathan, a fellow at the American Society on Addiction Medicine, warns of the addictive potential of kratom, saying that those dependent on opioids “may stay on kratom longer than expected and may increase their intake.” Nathan adds that patients who use the plant for longer than intended would need a detox.

Online forums such as Reddit, whose kratom community includes over 75,000 members, contain a wealth of user reports. Some people claim to have used kratom for years and then stopped without significant withdrawal; others report withdrawal symptoms on par with opioids: sweating, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, depression and intense cravings. The “r/quittingkratom” subreddit, which has more than 9,000 members, features posts about the agonies of kratom addiction. Many users say a lack of information led them to believe that kratom was benign.

Addiction specialist Dr. Mohamed Elsamra, who runs a medical detox in Westport, Connecticut, says that he has seen a slight increase in the number of patients using the plant over the last few years. Although he notes the similarities between opiate and kratom withdrawals, he says that few people have come to him to detox from kratom. Ultimately, Elsamra is open to the idea of it as an opioid replacement.

“The thought of replacing one with another is very good … if it works,” Elsamra says. “I use all medications available (except methadone) to help to fight this, so I am open to the idea [of replacing] opioids with a nonregulated plant.”

Kratom’s lack of regulation worries Dr. Erik Fisher, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University. He makes an analogy to CBD, referencing a 2017 report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which reported on labeling inaccuracies in products containing CBD, suggesting that the same could happen to kratom.

“I’m not aware of similar studies on products labeled as kratom but can only assume that there’s a lot of variability in what is in the product,” Fisher says. “I think it is better to know that you’re getting what’s advertised.”

Perhaps most alarming, in April 2018 the FDA ordered a mandatory recall of at least 26 different kratom-containing goods from Las Vegas–based company Triangle Pharmanaturals, after salmonella was found in some of its products. Around the same time, the FDA also confirmed salmonella contamination in kratom products distributed by several other companies across the country. It is difficult to know to what extent such a contamination affected kratom sold by small online vendors; Fisher doesn’t think that this alone warrants a ban.

“Narrowly, one could take that as an argument to avoid kratom, but big picture, one could take that as an argument for better oversight and testing, especially given that people are going to use it anyway.”

Even without a ban, kratom’s legal limbo has created trouble for vendors like Dee. More than once, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has seized Dee’s shipments under the pretense that they contain “research chemicals,” unscheduled chemical variations of illegal drugs. Credit and debit card payments present problems because domestic banks don’t allow customers to use their cards to purchase kratom (vendors often open offshore accounts to process card transactions, or misrepresent their products to skirt credit card regulations). Dee claims that a Google algorithm change bumped his website down 800 places in the search results. As a result, his online business has slumped, and he laments that he now barely makes enough to sustain the operation.

“They play games and fuck me over,” Dee says. “I would’ve been a millionaire.”

In April, Dee and other kratom vendors felt renewed pressure when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an ominous report about kratom. Titled, “Notes from the Field: Unintentional Drug Overdose Deaths with Kratom Detected,” the CDC presented data from approximately 27,000 overdose deaths collected from across the country between July 2016 and December 2017. The CDC analyzed the number of deaths in which kratom was detected in postmortem toxicology testing or determined, by a medical professional, to be a cause of death. Of those who died and were kratom-positive, multiple substances were present in almost all cases. Fentanyl and fentanyl analogs were listed as a cause of death in more than half of the cases; . after fentanyl, heroin was the most commonly found substance. Then benzodiazepines, prescription opioids, and cocaine. Kratom was found to be the sole cause of death in just seven cases, although the CDC stated that other substances “cannot be ruled out.” In total, kratom-positive deaths accounted for roughly half of 1 percent of the overdose deaths; yet the report caused a tidal wave of media coverage about kratom overdose deaths being on the rise.

Kratom users took to platforms like Reddit to fume about the report and its coverage. Dee agrees with many others in the pro-kratom community that the media serves as an echo chamber for government-produced misinformation. He believes it is all part of a conspiracy, orchestrated by the pharmaceutical industry, to keep people like James on long-term opioid maintenance drugs such as buprenorphine or methadone, a drug nicknamed “liquid handcuffs.”

People don’t go to kratom to get high,” he says, “they go to get off of something.”

While taking Dee’s kratom and attending AA meetings, James gained a newfound optimism about surmounting his 15-year addiction. But a month into recovery, he faced one of the most difficult tests of his sobriety: His parents were coming for a visit.

“I haven’t done a lot of things sober,” James says, “and one of them is being around family.”

The relationship was fraught. He was closest to his mother, but that wasn’t saying much. His father had worked in a factory in Michigan for 35 years and only spoke to James about mountain biking and other athletic hobbies.

“He doesn’t try or can’t relate to me,” James says. “He’s kinda selfish.”

James hadn’t spoken to either of his parents in 14 months, right up until the day they arrived in New York from Michigan. A text message suggesting where to meet for dinner was the first he’d sent to his mom in over a year. The urge to use again began creeping into his mind.

“I had it set in my head — it seemed like fact,” James says. “I figured it would be easier to deal with them under the influence.” He could get high one last time, he told himself. In a way, he thought he deserved it.

The night before his parents arrived, James told his boyfriend that he was going to a cafe to catch up on some reading. He had arranged to meet his old dealer, who lived six blocks away in a family neighborhood with brownstone buildings and a police station at the end of the street. James’s hands trembled as the dealer handed him 30 yellow 10-milligram pills. His tolerance demanded 15 at a time to get high.

The pills lasted just one night; James had taken all 30 by the time his parents arrived the next day. He didn’t tell his boyfriend, who had shared his excitement in counting sober days. He has never told his parents about his opiate addiction. The relapse remained his secret. Even though acceptance of past misdeeds is integral to recovery programs, there was still something too embarrassing about the ease with which all of the self-improvement could be undone.

James did open up to his parents about attending AA. Over dinner the night after his relapse, he exaggerated his alcohol problem, telling his mom that he wanted to try something new to cut down on his drinking. There was this unregulated plant that helped curb cravings, he told her. It was legal and didn’t get you high, but it killed the desire to drink. It also helped soothe the back pain that had long bothered him. His mom asked whether the plant was safe. James assured her that it was.

“That was an interesting conversation,” he says.

His mom gave him money for the kratom. After dinner, mom, dad, boyfriend, and James piled into a car and drove to Dee’s place. On the way, James chatted, mostly to his mom, about the AA program, how he’d made new friends and was hopeful for the future. His dad sat silently.

The car pulled up to the familiar brown brick apartment building in Brooklyn. James hopped out and jogged over to Dee, who was standing about 20 feet away. Smiling, Dee waved to James’s family, who remained in the minivan. When James came over, Dee gave him the usual stuff: bags of kratom and a hug.  Since then, James has managed not to relapse. But a round of crippling blows befell Dee’s business about a month later, in early June. Google struck down Red Devil Kratom’s business listing, which had amassed several thousand five-star reviews since the company began over six years ago. The reason, Dee was told, was that Red Devil Kratom was a “poor-quality shop.”

Instagram then shuttered the Red Devil Kratom page, which had over 5,000 followers; Facebook followed suit. Both were flagged for selling illicit items. Twitter suspended Red Devil Kratom’s account. Then came Dee’s PayPal, Venmo, Cash App, and personal Facebook page. He says that even his account on Tinder was canceled because it was linked to a blacklisted credit card.

To supplement the dwindling kratom business, Dee has been focused lately on promoting CBD, a substance that is not without its own regulatory challenges. He hopes that the business will take off now that it’s entered the mainstream. Dee’s CBD social media accounts remain active, even though, in theory, there is little legal distinction between the cannabis derivative and kratom.

For now, Dee and his Red Devil Kratom remain at the mercy of the regulatory agencies and tech giants. With the ever-evolving legal complications of kratom, Dee has no idea whether he will be in business next year.

“I’m lucky if I make any money now. My company has gone to shit,” he says. “I’ve been feeling kind of down about it. I question, ‘Do I really want to do this? Is it really worth all these problems?’”

Dee still believes it is. Kratom has given substance to his life, which was once fueled only by the pursuit of chemical bliss. The plant allows him to both serve and be needed.

“My mailman’s on kratom; my super’s on kratom,” he says. “Twenty years ago, no one asked me for anything.”

The Man with the Golden Airline Ticket

My dad was one of the only people with a good-for-life, go-anywhere American Airlines pass. Then they took it away. This is the true story of having—and losing—a superpower.

On March 10, 2009, a case was filed in the U.S. Circuit Court for the Northern District of Illinois, where I grew up. Rothstein v. American Airlines, Inc. starred my father, Plaintiff Steven Rothstein, and the Defendant, then the world’s third-largest airline. With $23 billion in annual revenue, American Airlines had nothing to lose. For my father, it was a last-ditch effort to save his life.

Here’s how it all took off. In the early 1980s, American rolled out AAirpass, a prepaid membership program that let very frequent flyers purchase discounted tickets by locking in a certain number of annual miles they presumed they might fly in advance. My 30-something-year-old father, having been a frequent flyer for his entire life, purchased one. Then, a few years later, American introduced something straight out of an avid traveler’s fantasy: an unlimited ticket.

One of the many designs that American used for AAirpass. These cards were coveted more than gold. (All photos courtesy the author)

In 1987, amidst a lucrative year as a Bear Stearns stockbroker, my father became one of only a few dozen people on earth to purchase an unlimited, lifetime AAirpass. A quarter of a million dollars gave him access to fly first class anywhere in the world on American for the rest of his life. He flew so much it paid for itself. Often he’d leave in the morning for a business trip, fly back, and I hadn’t even known he’d left. Other times, I remember calling his office to find out what country he was in. He (and our whole family) was featured on NBC’s Today Show in 2003, and then on MSNBC in 2006. For 20 years, he was one of American’s top fliers, accumulating more than 30 million miles, which he acquired every time he flew, even with the AAirpass.

Then, on December 13, 2008, American took the AAirpass away.

For several years, the revenues department at American had been monitoring my father and other AAirpass holders to see how much their golden tickets were costing the airline in lost revenue. After 20 years it seems, they’d decided the pass wasn’t such a good idea. My father was one of several lifetime, unlimited AAirpass holders American claimed had breached their contracts.

A few months later, my father sued American for breaking their deal, and more importantly, taking away something integral to who he was. They fought out of court for years. The story became front-page news. The LA Times. The New York Post. Fox News. A slew of online outlets. It’s even a perennially popular conversation topic on Reddit.

The obvious story is that my father was a decadent jet-setter who either screwed or got screwed by American; depends on your take. In the coverage, whether he’s mentioned by name or in off-handed attributions to ostentatious wealth, it’s always this: sensational. And I think — as does my whole family, including my dad — that at the very least, it doesn’t quite land.Part 1. Prepare for Takeoff

Legend goes, upon bringing me to O’Hare Airport as a baby, my father said, “This is daddy’s playground.”

Dad has loved to travel for his entire life. His father, Josh, was a navigator in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and ran a company that manufactured paper and artificial flowers, traveling worldwide and telling stories about the places he went.

“When I was 9,” Dad tells me, “we went to Denver. When he left in the morning to go on his business appointments, he said to me: Stay at the pool, charge your lunch to the room, and I’ll see you at dinnertime. Make sure you have your tie on.”

At 16, while his younger brothers were at sleepaway camp in Maine, Dad’s parents took him on a three-and-a-half-week trip: New York–San Francisco–Honolulu–Kamuela–Tokyo–Nagoya–Osaka–Okinawa–Taipei–Hong Kong–Calcutta–Karachi–Tehran–Rome–Florence–Nice–London–New York.

Left: Dad with his mom in Hawaii on his first around the world trip. He was 16, circa 1967. Right: Dad, on the phone, and his colleague at the company’s booth at a wallets and clothing trade show in Los Angeles, circa 1973.

“I began to taste, directly, the fervor of foreign travel,” he tells me. “I felt as at home in Copenhagen or Paris as I did in New York. … I was a child of the world.”

He wrote his college application on a typewriter at a hotel beach in Hawaii and mailed it from a post office in Osaka, Japan. In college he worked for a travel agency helping students book standby flights at low fares ($6 on American from JFK to Providence), which he utilized himself. “I was on my own and could go anywhere at a moment’s notice,” he reminisces. He flew to Europe several times a year and went to live there after graduating in 1972.

That December, he joined the wallet business — a company my grandfather had purchased — doing sales. He had an apartment in Manhattan on East 89th Street, but mostly, he was at the wallet factory in Oklahoma, or traveling, both for work and play. On the weekends, he’d rush to Houston, Dallas, Wichita Falls, Mexico City or Acapulco, then back to work on Monday.

“Steven got on a plane like most people get on a bus,” says my mom, Nancy Rothstein, who was married to my father for 36 years. “The thought of him going to L.A. from Chicago for the day, or Tokyo from Chicago overnight, or London overnight, for one night … was not unheard of.”

Transitioning to finance, Dad moved to Chicago in 1976 for a stint at Smith Barney, and according to him, became the second highest-grossing stockbroker at Bear Stearns in 1979, where he worked for a decade. Later, he focused on investment banking, and also became the largest shareholder of the financial corporation Olympic Cascade, the holding company of a brokerage firm, National Securities. Through it all, he continued flying. Everywhere. Airports and airplanes — they were who Dad was.

When American started the AAdvantage program, Dad and Uncle Shelly (Mom’s uncle and one of Dad’s best friends and business associates) began flying even more than they already did. Then, having the cash after a good year at Bear, the investment in an unlimited pass made sense.

Dad speaking at an event, organized by American Airlines’ public relations team, where he was asked to donate miles for kids with cancer, circa 2000.

In September 1987, five months after my brother, Josh, was born, and three months after we moved from downtown Chicago into the north suburbs, Dad bought his unlimited lifetime AAirpass. The cost was $250,000, which the agreement stated was based on his age. My father was 37 years and four days old when he dated the check.

Two years later, which was one year before my younger sister, Natalie, was born, he added a companion feature to his AAirpass, allowing him to bring another person along on any flight. The cost was $150,000, based on his being 39 years old. This changed the game, not only for him, but our entire family.

Ernie Thurmond, a former American employee who handled Dad’s AAirpass contracts, helped with adding some special stipulations. My parents decided early on to take separate planes so that in the unlikely event of a crash, at least one of them would be alive for their three children. So the agreement amendment stated, “If spouse is the companion, the spouse will be allowed to travel separately from Holder, provided that the spouse travels on the flight immediately prior to or just after the flight taken by Holder.” My parents wouldn’t fly together on the same plane for at least a decade after that.

Officially a customer for life, major U.S. and global hubs became Dad’s office; American became his home. He knew every employee on his journey — from the curb, through security, to the gate, and onto the plane.

In the early 1990s, Dad found his go-to agent at the American Airlines Platinum desk: Lorraine Cross from Raleigh, North Carolina. None of us has ever met her in person. But Lorraine was family. Her Southern lilt, a speakerphone staple at the dinner table. While my father befriended dozens and dozens of American employees throughout his tenure as one of their top fliers, and while we knew plenty by name, and vice versa — from skycaps to Admirals Club employees to people who worked at the ticket counter — no one played a role quite like Lorraine.

Lorraine and Dad became fast pals. Over the next decade-plus, he’d send Lorraine — and others at Platinum — postcards from Maine when he took us to sleepaway camp, menus from restaurants around the world (which I watched him take and put in a monogrammed L.L.Bean tote bag more times than I can count), and magazines from foreign airport lounges. Lorraine loved receiving these; she’s even kept the postcards after all these years.

She says they shared inside jokes — a lot. “Every time I talked to your father, as we would close the conversation — I’m Southern — I would always say, ‘Bye now.’ … That was my closing. He would say, ‘Pay later.’ Caroline, we used to laugh all the time.”

Lorraine and the other Platinum desk employees he spoke with over the phone weren’t his only pals. Recently, Dad described himself as being “like an adopted child.” American — and its employees — were his parents. He knew — by name and phone number — the skycaps at O’Hare, LaGuardia, JFK, Heathrow, LAX; the people at the front desk at the Admirals Club predeparture lounges; flight attendants on hauls he frequently flew (I once got on a flight with him and the flight attendant recognized him from mere days prior); the gate attendants; and the folks who drove the carts from security to the gate, like Aamil.

Aamil — whose name I’ve changed because we are no longer in touch with him and I want to respect his privacy — was a refugee who fled the Bosnian genocide with his family. Dad met Aamil when he was in high school, driving a cart at O’Hare, and took him under his wing — errands and various paid-for-hire tasks. Ultimately, Aamil started coming over for dinner; picked us up at school; became Josh’s “big brother” ears for his dating rendezvous as he entered high school; and was both an employee and a dear, dear friend.

“He was gracious and kind in a way you don’t see in a lot of people,” Lorraine says, recollecting the time Dad helped fly some priests to Italy to see the Vatican, or when Mom called her from the local Gap to use miles to help a sales clerk visit her mother out of state, which she couldn’t otherwise afford.

Dad gifted the miles and upgrades he accumulated throughout his life — both before and during his AAirpass tenure — to dozens and dozens of people over the years. Once he upgraded my cantor and his wife to first class from Amsterdam. He regularly let relatives and people in crisis come along in his extra seat. There was the time he took my brother’s best friend on his first airplane ever to see a football game; the American Airlines employee he saw in India, crying because she might lose her job if she didn’t make it to Toronto; his brother and sister-in-law for their honeymoon; a guy from college and his wife who really wanted to go to Australia; a man in the back office at National Securities, who wanted to visit his dying father (he got there just in time). He helped get other people where they needed to go.

“Your family’s heart is as big as the state of Texas,” Lorraine says. “It’s incredible how many lives they touched and how many lives touched them because they’re very sensitive and attuned to what goes on in the world.”

I’m not saying Dad was a saint. Just that his AAirpass was about more than solipsistic travel. It allowed him to build relationships. Make connections. Form meaningful bonds. And it allowed other people to access the world like he did. That’s what Dad’s AAirpass and ultra-elite flying status yielded for him: lifelong bonds.

On January 13, 1998, American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall wrote my father a letter after they’d seen each other on the Concorde (a transatlantic supersonic aircraft, which traveled twice the speed of sound, and operated from 1976 to 2003; I flew it once).

At the end, Crandall (whom I met as a kid on an inaugural flight) wrote: I am delighted that you’ve enjoyed your AAirpass investment — you can count on us to keep the Company solid, and to honor the deal, far into the future.Part 2. Fasten Your Seatbelts

My friend Phil likes to say my father ran his life like a corporation and raised me in it. His underwear was pressed. UPS and FedEx came nightly to our driveway to drop things off, pick things up. He had packing down to a science — sets of clothes folded and fitted into plastic cases, cosmetics ready to go. We had a whole suitcase closet in the basement, and at some point, he turned the downstairs guest room into a staging area for packing, his clothing and cosmetic sets stacked in laundry baskets.

“They sort of broke the mold when they made him,” says Mom, who — after an earlier career also in finance — is now a sleep expert and sleep consultant.

He stored everything he collected while traveling in the basement — hotel soaps, shampoos, conditioners; his thickened old passports; towels; shirts; hairdryers and combs from around the world — in what we called his “Secret Room,” which had a lock, the key hidden in his office desk. A fun party trick was bringing people inside — his business associates, my siblings and my friends. Sometimes we used the items ourselves. Often, we gave things away. After Hurricane Katrina, Dad and I flew down to New Orleans with boxes of clothes and toiletries. When he went to India (twice as a family, several times he alone for work), he brought things along. Like travel, for Dad, the Secret Room was an extension of souvenir collecting as a kid.

Dad eating on an international flight, circa 1996.

As a kid myself, I often complained about Dad’s excessive traveling. I used words like “abandonment” and “neglect.” In retrospect, that was wildly dramatic. But it’s how I felt.

“No matter where Steven went, there wasn’t a day we didn’t talk,” Mom says. “Some men are home every night at 5:30 from the office, but they’re not really there. Steven Rothstein was there.” She emphasizes there with a deep, grinding grunt. “Whether he was in the house or out of the house, he was very involved. He was very much there. And always in touch. I mean, he used a phone … he was one of the first people with a cell phone.”

She’s right. Most of my life, I focused on how Dad was always on a plane. When I think about it now, when he was home, he was there: sitting with me on my bedroom floor, or at the dinner table, or coming in to kiss me goodnight. He has a presence. Not only a loud voice, but also a boom of self. He arrives. He is both taking off and landing at once.

“He never missed an opportunity to come home to the family,” Lorraine says. “I don’t care where he was going. I don’t care what he was doing. If there was a chance he could come home and stay with his family overnight, he preferred that to any hotel in the world.

“I really valued and appreciated that from him,” she says. “His family meant the most. I would say, ‘That’s a long way to go, are you gonna overnight and come back the next day?’ He’d go, ‘No, I wanna sleep in my own bed. I wanna go home. I wanna be with my family.’”

I laugh, tears in my eyes. I didn’t know this.

“That was crucial to him, to be with his family,” Lorraine says. “He did some crazy stuff to make that happen over the years.”

Dad was an airport celebrity, and when we traveled together, it embarrassed the shit out of me. Like riding a cart from security to the gate (because as a family, we ran late — Dad has a knack for rushed arrivals). I would bow my head so I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone we passed. Or walking into the Admirals Club locations and having the folks at the front desk know us by name, which was really kind, but also like … I was a kid.

Or when in second grade, he took me to Japan for the weekend because he wanted me to experience an inaugural flight (San Jose to Tokyo). We were in the bulkhead, the first row of any flight cabin. As we landed, there were reporters flooding the jet bridge to photograph the first person off the flight. Technically, based on his seat, that was Dad. But as he figured out what was happening, he insisted I go first so I could be the star. I stood there with my 7-year-old smile, bright-colored headband, and long V-neck Limited Too sweater hanging down to my thighs.

I was mortified. But Dad wanted us to experience absolutely everything there was in life.

He wanted to take me to all 50 states by the time I was 11. We put a big U.S. map on the wall behind his home office desk. After each trip, I’d add a pin to the visited state; another for the places I wanted to go. When we’d gone to 30-something states, I asked to stop; I wanted to be able to have new adventures as an adult.

You grew up with a different lens than most people you knew,” Mom says. “I’m not saying … that other people didn’t travel all over the world. But I sort of doubt, for the most part, they had the kind of wanderlust and open-mindedness and fascination that your father had with the world, and still does for that matter.

“I think it’s a beautiful thing,” she says. “I remember saying, at some times … to Steven … are we taking away [their] future experiences by showing you so much so young? But looking back, if it were [me], I’d much rather have had this global exposure as a child than waiting until I was an adult. Wouldn’t you say it framed you?”

“Yes,” I answer.

“Not only framed you,” she adds, “but it helped with your, your tapestry. It was woven into your tapestry. Into the fabric of who you are, and how you look at other people and the world.”

I understood the weight and privilege as a kid. I understood — we all did — that the AAirpass meant my father could travel and do business in unprecedented ways, and it allowed our entire family to travel in ways few people on earth could. We got the privileges, all of them, all of us.

I ask my sister, Natalie, a psychotherapist living in Chicago, her earliest memories of traveling on an airplane: landing in Australia at age 3, walking down the aisle as the plane was still moving, and someone grabbing her to keep her safe. “I think I remember that because it was really dramatic,” she says. “I have a lot of vivid memories from that trip, actually.”

“Were you aware that we were in first class?” I ask.

“I didn’t sit out of first class until I was 12 years old,” she says. “I don’t know if I was aware when I was 3 years old. But I was aware very early.”

Left: Me, Natalie, and Josh with Misty, a teacher from our elementary school, who came with us on the family trip to Australia over winter break, December 1993. Right: Part of a collage made by Mom with a photo of the five of us: Mom, Dad, Josh, Natalie and me in Sydney, Australia, December 1993.

Wont to interrogate privilege — race, class and otherwise — I pry. Did she really get that first class was different than the rest of the plane?

“For a long time, I really wanted to sit in coach,” she says, “because I felt uncomfortable being a kid in first class when it was clearly where all fancy adults were sitting. It was clear I was surrounded by mostly people who had a lot of money, and I was always one of the only kids in first class, and that felt weird and I always wanted to be with other kids in coach.”

“Did you ever talk about it with Josh?” I ask.

“Mm-hmm,” she says. “We wanted to sit in coach together because we felt like we had to be quieter and better behaved in first class and like we weren’t allowed to joke around as much, and also for him, he hated that first class had peanuts. At that point, airlines didn’t serve peanuts in coach the way they sometimes do now.”

That trip to Australia (I was in fifth grade) was our first big international family vacation. The following year, Dad, on a whim, said to Mom — let’s go to Tokyo.

“Japan!” she said. “Over Christmas? Are you kidding?”

But we went.

Mom can still perfectly picture us all at dusk in Tokyo: “Dad has on his camel coat. You and Josh are in all the black-and-white-check stuff. We’re walking through an aisle of stalls … going to yet another monastery or shrine and the flavors that we felt and saw and tasted … it was probably one of the best Christmas vacations we’d ever had because we were the only people in the hotel.” She starts chuckling. “And it was so much fun. It was so unusual to be Americans at Christmas in Tokyo.” This was 1995, and Japan wasn’t the popular tourist destination that it is today.

“It wasn’t like we were jet-setters,” Mom clarifies. “Not that we didn’t go to a top restaurant here and there, but that wasn’t what it was about. It was about seeing the world …. We wanted to connect to the people.” As she recounts these stories, her tone is somewhere between euphoric and frenzied. She punctuates each story with an “oh my God” and transitions immediately into the next.

“When we were in India … we got so friendly with our cab driver that we brought him for dinner to the hotel …. For a while we were in touch …. We would send him pictures and things. That was the kind of richness that this AAirpass, this sense of a family traveling anywhere we wanted to go in the world that American could take us — that’s what we did. People enriched us. Hopefully we enriched others.”

She starts laughing as she recalls a time we visited the Holy Sepulchre in Israel and Dad got in trouble for laying down with his yoga strap, trying to stretch his back in front of the church. “I mean, there was so much color in what we did and where we went and how we did it. The travel was first class, the hotels were first class, but the experiences were very real and authentic.” And then without skipping a beat, she goes up an octave with, “Oh my God … so Josh was dead when we first went to India, right?”

“Josh was dead both times we went to India,” I say.

“Yeah,” she says. “But he was very much with us, I’m sure.”Part 3. Turbulence

On October 6, 2002, Josh — 15 and a half — was hit by a car while walking down the sidewalk. A car had pulled an illegal U-turn. To avoid a collision, another driver accidentally accelerated, swerved up onto the sidewalk and flung Josh into the side of a building. His head hit the building. He was knocked unconscious. My uncle Jeffrey called me from Scarsdale and told me to get on a plane. It was my first month of college; I rushed to the Philadelphia Airport and bought a ticket home. I landed at O’Hare, descended to baggage claim, into more uncles’ arms. Their faces distraught: It doesn’t look good. It would be at least another 15 years before I could descend the American Airlines baggage claim escalator without going into a trauma shock.

Josh died the next morning — our rabbi and the hospital chaplain reciting the end of life Hebrew blessings and prayers; Dad, Natalie, our maternal grandmother, and me standing around the bed; Mom’s own body draped alongside her dying son; Natalie’s hand on his heart for his last beat.

Josh on Dad’s shoulders in Ogunquit, Maine, early 1990s.

Over a thousand people attended his funeral. Lorraine helped get people on flights. I remember a family friend walking through the front door of our home after a flight from Australia, as if she’d taken a bus.

To say Josh’s death broke Dad would be an understatement. Ernie from American says it was sad to watch Dad when they occasionally saw each other over the years. “He’s not the same person anymore that he was before,” Ernie says.

Josh was Dad’s little buddy. His only son. He’d already lost his father in 1989, and he would soon lose the companionship of Uncle Shelly, when Shelly had a stroke.

“People react to tragedy in different ways,” Lorraine says. “He let Josh’s death take the best of him away …. Outwardly, his strength was renowned. But I knew how much it impacted him … I know his children meant more to him than any business deal, than any situation in life that could come up.”

Right after Josh died, Dad leaned on people like Lorraine, and other agents and employees, which I hadn’t known until writing this piece. I had asked Dad what the media tends to overlook when they cover this story.

“When everyone was asleep in the house,” he tells me, “and I had nobody to talk to, and I was lonely about Josh’s death, I would telephone American Airlines reservations and speak to the agents about who knows what for an hour and then at the end, they’d ask me, oh what reservation was I calling about to make, and I would say, ‘Oh yeah I need to go to San Francisco next week.’ I really didn’t need to go to San Francisco. I was just very confused and very lonely and I was calling American Airlines because they were logical people for me to speak to. They knew me. I knew them. I knew their names. I knew their lives.

“I knew which reservation agent’s husband ran a restaurant, and which reservation agent’s wife did this or that. I knew that a husband and wife both worked at the Raleigh-Durham reservations office of American. So by calling the 800 number, I was able to talk to somebody in my loneliness.”

I tell Dad this makes sense, to lean on the community you know in a time of need.

Mom, Dad, Natalie and me after Josh’s death at the Taj Mahal, Agra, India, 2005.

“I traveled all over the world,” he says. “Going from the front of American Airlines to the gate, I might see a dozen people, each of whom would say hello to me, and I would say hello to all of them.” Dad says that about 10 American Airlines employees came to Josh’s funeral. “That’s an extremely unusual relationship for a passenger to have with the airlines.”

I talk to Natalie, who was still at home with a front row seat to his grief while I was away at college. She tells me about the shame Dad felt when people in our community often pitied him after Josh died — and still do to this day — as if he were a broken man. But the airport and American were where he was still treated like a full, whole man.

“His community at American treated him like a normal human, and walking through the airport, they didn’t treat him like he was broken, the way a lot of his other worlds did,” she says. “It was the only sense of normalcy that he still had.”

Six years and two months later, Dad arrived at O’Hare with Aamil, who needed to go to Sarajevo but didn’t have the cash, so Dad offered to fly him to London on his AAirpass and then pay for his London hotel and airfare from there to Sarajevo.

“We went to the airport. I went into the ticket counter. I checked in my luggage for London. I walked to the gate — after going through security — and just as I was walking on the plane, they handed me a letter terminating the AAirpass,” Dad recounts. “Why did they let me go to the gate? Why didn’t they tell me upfront, which would have been the nice thing to do.”

Turns out a letter had been drafted to notify Dad that they were concerned with his behavior and use of the pass. But they decided not to send it. They didn’t want the bad press — what it might mean to terminate a lifetime AAirpass from a frequent flyer. So they terminated it without warning, at the airport — a gut-punch, right into Dad’s proverbial heart.

Dad opening his tote bag next to a London taxi, late 1990s.

Even Lorraine hadn’t been notified. “I walked in one day from work,” she said in a deposition, “and received notification that the AAirpass had been terminated. I was probably more shocked than anyone else.” No warning. No input asked, even though she had been regularly managing his and other top fliers’ bookings.

Dad’s luggage went to London. They wouldn’t help him get it back. He called someone in the baggage department at Heathrow, who assisted. Aamil never made it to Sarajevo. In fact, that was one of the last times they ever spoke. Ultimately, Aamil disappeared from our lives.

Dad doesn’t think Aamil understood the “shock and horror” of what had happened. Dad went home. Told Mom. Got in bed. And slept for the rest of the weekend, and arguably — at least figuratively — for a really long time after that. “I was in disbelief,” he recalls. “I was in shock. And I had no idea how I was going to live my life the way I lived it.”

The AAirpass was Dad’s lifeline. His blood. Mom described his relationship with it as “sacrosanct.” There was a contract. Rules. It was his superpower. He didn’t ever want to do anything wrong.

But American claimed he did.

Dad was one of a few lifetime, unlimited AAirpass holders that American had been monitoring and claimed had breached their contracts. They claimed Dad made “speculative bookings” and a host of other things that they interpreted as objectionable based on a clause in the contract about “fraudulent usage.”

“When I bought the AAirpass, in no uncertain terms, they told me that there was only one rule: I couldn’t give anybody the AAirpass,” Dad says. “And those were the days before they took identification from passengers.” A former colleague had once offered him five grand a week to use the AAirpass. Dad told the guy he was “crazy.”

But now, after years of quiet and secret investigation, apparently Dad and others were costing American too much money. Even though Dad had dealt with the reservations agents on an almost daily basis, it was the revenues department that got involved, interjected, and launched an investigation that brought the whole house down.

On March 10, 2009, Dad sued American for breaking their deal, claiming $7 million in damages. The dollar amount was based on the value of the lifetime unlimited AAirpass the last time it was sold for public consumption — though American had stopped selling them in 1994, a 2004 Neiman Marcus catalogue offered them for 3 million bucks. So it was the Neiman’s figure plus estimated costs for first-class travel for the rest of his life.

A primary issue in the case was whether American properly terminated his AAirpass Agreement based on Section 12, which read:

  1. FRAUDULENT USAGE. If American determines that an AAirpass has been fraudulently used, American reserves the right to revoke the AAirpass and all privileges associated with it. Holder will thereupon forfeit all rights to the AAirpass, without refund, and will return the AAirpass card and this Agreement shall terminate.

They claimed that his fraudulent usage included booking empty seats for his companion feature under “Bag Rothstein” or “Steven Rothstein, Jr.” (which they had for years condoned, and Mom says was not Dad’s idea), as well as “booking speculative reservations” — i.e., flight reservations he was allegedly never planning to actually take.

“I personally don’t think he materially violated any of the use of the AAirpass as it [was written],” says Ernie. “But he used it a lot of times not as they intended for it to work. I think that’s where they got pissed off, not to mention the fact that they had this liability sitting out on the books with all of these unlimited lifetime cardholders. … My guess, and I have no idea whatsoever about this [is] that they just wanted to get rid of it … even if they had to be mean.”

Dad believes there was someone at American who decided, “Oh, if these guys didn’t have these goddamn AAirpasses, it would be great.”

According to Lorraine and the legal documents, a longtime American employee launched the investigation, looking into several other AAirpass holders, including Dad and Jacques Vroom, another lifetime unlimited customer, whose AAirpass termination also resulted in a lawsuit.

(I reached out to American Airlines for comment on this article. Their media relations representative said, “We are pleased to continue to provide AirPass benefits to eligible cardholders when enjoyed in conjunction with the appropriate program conditions.” They said they did not have anything to add beyond what’s already in the court documents.)

Truth is, AAirpass was — even in its earliest, earliest days — a failed program. It didn’t yield the revenue they’d hoped. In 2017, one writer listed the lifetime unlimited AAirpass as number one on the “7 Worst Marketing Disasters in human history.” In fact, when AAirpass started, according to Ernie, American thought they’d make “hundreds of millions of dollars” selling them, but they did not. “It became painful,” Ernie says. He says he tried several times to get them to shut it down; they didn’t want to admit defeat.

As for the case, American anticipated a resolution without a trial; Dad anticipated a trial by jury. Instead, everything happened in legal offices, calls, motions and documents, judges’ chambers and depositions. They spent the summer of 2009 debating — back and forth — over the fraud clause, and whether it was ambiguous or clear.

Then, American counterclaimed, saying Dad broke the contract by improperly using the companion feature. In early 2010, they claimed, “Rothstein had a history of making speculative, fictitious, impossible and/or illogical reservations on behalf of companions.” They claimed these “companions” were people with whom he “had no intention of traveling.”

The senior analyst who launched the investigation reviewed and analyzed Dad’s flight records, and claimed “that between December 2003 and April 2004, Steven Rothstein made companion reservations using ‘Steven Rothstein, Jr.’ using for his AAirpass companion feature for at least 41 flight segments.” But again, they had condoned his booking companion seats under fictitious names for years. In April 2004, an American employee had approached Dad and asked him to stop, as security measures around flying had clearly started to shift after September 11. So he stopped.

But they continued investigating him, looking for a way to push him out.

Another document shows that American contends that 14 incidents from August 2006 to November 2008 were considered “fraudulent” under their alleged terms — but Dad was never notified that they were considered fraudulent at the time they were made.

In her deposition, Lorraine said she hadn’t received any written directions from American Airlines regarding what was and was not “acceptable practice for making reservations for the Executive Platinum customers.”

Lorraine said, both in her deposition and our interview, that she didn’t suspect misuse of his AAirpass; they were the ones handling all of his bookings. Yet, they — Lorraine, and anyone else in reservations — weren’t contacted at all once revenues began the investigations.

Mom chuckles when she recalls sitting in the federal judge’s chambers with the attorneys in 2010 as American noted his making “fraudulent reservations.”

“Steven never made a single reservation on his own on a computer,” she says. “Every single reservation he ever made was made with an American Airlines paid employee.” Dad didn’t use a computer. He was the first person I knew to have a cell phone, and then the first person I knew to get a BlackBerry (and remains one of the last to have one). To write letters, he’d use an electric typewriter or audio-record memos on his Dictaphone and mail mini cassette tapes to his secretary to type and then fax or mail accordingly. But a computer — never. Still doesn’t.

“As anybody can see in the documentation — with the letter from [American Airlines CEO] Crandell, or anything else — he didn’t do anything alone,” Mom says. “They all condoned it.”

Ernie says Dad found creative ways to use his AAirpass, even though Ernie knows of other cardholders who absolutely violated the terms of use — letting others use it, getting paid. “He would be at the airport waiting to board an airplane by himself,” Ernie says, “and he would meet somebody at like the Admirals Club and get into a conversation with them and they’re on the same flight he is and he said, ‘Well, why don’t we continue this conversation on the airplane? Let me go check and see if they’ve got any open seats in first class,’ and he would invite that person to join him.”

“It was not prohibited by the language of the contract,” Ernie says. “But it was not intended to be used like that. … I don’t think Steve did anything that was directly or intentionally trying to do something that was … against the rules. Certainly it took some interpretation on American’s part to go after him.”

Seven third-party witnesses connected to Dad — family members, friends and business associates — were interviewed during discovery. They were questioned by American around the “speculative bookings” that were deemed retroactively fraudulent.

Sometimes Dad would spontaneously book a flight for him and a companion — say, taking my aunt to visit my cousin in Denver — planning to twist his loved one’s arm to travel at the drop of a hat. But that’s the challenge. Rarely could anyone else do that, even if they gave their word. Only Dad knew how to drop everything and fly. That was his superpower. He had wings. The family member, or colleague, or friend he hoped to take along couldn’t always go.

Dad’s lawyer asked one of my uncles: “Do you have any reason to believe that Steven Rothstein made reservations in your name without actually intending to bring you along as his companion?”

“Never,” he said.

Maybe it seems normal to me because that’s how I was socialized, in the vortex realm world of a father who treated an airplane like a bus. As a journalist, now, I can read the court documents and understand where — from American’s standpoint — this behavior was kind of absurd. Yet American Airlines agents condoned it for decades. And understanding that the legal terms of the contract and agreement stipulated that fraud meant giving someone else your pass to use, Dad’s quirky and hectic and allegedly “speculative” behavior seems reasonable within how he worked.

There was discovery and depositions throughout 2010; there were seemingly endless motions and American kept extending discovery; then a summary judgment in American’s favor on June 30, 2011. They had won.

American dismissed “with prejudice” their remaining counterclaims; then the case went into a holding pattern after American’s parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy that fall; a joint stipulation of dismissal was filed on September 21, 2012, the day before Dad turned 62.

But that wasn’t the end end. As mentioned, the judge issued a summary judgment. Then, the Court of Appeals affirmed. Dad had lost. The appeal stayed until American exited bankruptcy in December 2013. And the final chunks of paperwork were filed in early 2014. But it never really quieted.

Timeline. (Infographic by Yunuen Bonaparte)

Part 4. Grounded, For Life

I didn’t know the full details of the trial until writing this piece. That my mother, two uncles and an aunt all went in for depositions, or that hundreds of legal hours and thousands of dollars and documents unfolded. I didn’t quite get the magnitude until taking off my daughter hat and trading it in for my journalistic reporter lens.

This spring, after gaining access to the court documents, and reading over 80 documents in full, I call Dad as I leave my writing space at 11:30 p.m. and walk to the subway station at Union Square in Manhattan. I say this is clear: What American did to interpret fraud was out of line. But I say, “Dad, some of the bookings they cited for what they called speculative as evidence in the case were … well … shady.”

I had read in the court documents that, according to the senior analyst at American Airlines who investigated Dad and other AAirpass holders, of the 3,009 flight segments Dad booked for himself from May 2005 to December 2008, he either canceled or was considered a “no-show” for 84 percent of those reservations. During the same time period, he booked 2,648 flight segments for travel companions, and 2,269 were either canceled or a no-show.

I tell him I need to maintain my journalistic balance and integrity. I ask him point blank: “What’s the deal?”

As I get on the subway, he writes me an email detailing how when he purchased the companion feature “it was 100 percent contemplated that [he] would buy a seat for nobody to keep it empty.” They gave him examples of empty seats for legal documents, an extra carry-on, or even musical instruments.

“The example given to me was that Yo-Yo Ma, with whom I flew more than twice and whom I met in several hotel lobbies, flew with his [cello] in the next seat. Under those terms I bought the extra seat.” He thought it would be Mom, my siblings, me, Uncle Shelly, a business associate, or someone he “met at the airport. Anyone I wanted. Anyone. Documents.”

He goes on, “After they told me not to buy an empty seat they knew that I was in a huge depression in the actual MEDICAL SENSE. IT WAS A SERIOUS DEPRESSION. I was incoherent, crying several times daily, drinking liquor which I never did before and if I got in a seat I didn’t want to explain why I was crying to anyone.” So he wanted it empty. He wanted to be alone, just as had always been his booking practice on many airlines, even well before the AAirpass days. He liked his space. He liked access to bringing extra carry-on bags. He liked some privacy. The airplane was his home. It’s where he lived. It’s where he got to do work, or catch up on sleep, or regenerate. Then, once Josh died, it’s where he grieved. He was at home.

People buy extra and empty seats all the time. Technically, that’s what he’d done with the companion feature. A permanent extra seat for life — whether another human was in it or not.

“So in my incoherent state,” he writes, “I would book a seat for Dan or Laurie just imagining that they might come. I was making reservations and didn’t know whether I was even going. Here is why. I was up and [alone] in my home office and bored. So I would call the 800 number for the AAirpass desk and talk to the agent about the news or the weather or about Paris or little London. Then, after an hour of nothing they had to hang up. So I would make a reservation and ask them to fax it to me. Then the next day I would take the fax and cancel the reservation. I needed someone to talk to at midnight. The 800 number was open.”

In one sense, I understand how these could be interpreted as “speculative bookings.” Dad does admit he booked seats he wasn’t sure that he, or his companions, would ultimately use. But that’s not an uncommon practice, and he never understood it to be against the rules. His understanding was that fraudulent behavior was limited to giving the AAirpass to someone else — which he never did.

“I never booked my own reservation on a computer,” he reminds me. “I never knew how to do this. So every single one of the reservations they didn’t like was booked and or changed by an American employee. Again. I didn’t know how to use a computer. I still have never ever ever booked any reservation online. I always use the phone. So their own agents never stopped me from anything. And I didn’t understand what American was asking me to do or not to do because my mind was torn apart from depression. Real depression.”

The April 7, 2018, article in The Hustle by Zachary Crockett quoted my father saying, “I wish I’d never bought the thing.”

Earlier this year, I speak to Dad, 10 and a half hours ahead in India, where he’s traveling for work. On his iPad, he FaceTimes me from his hotel room. (The iPad is a new installment in his life; he still isn’t computer savvy, and he still calls agents for his travel reservations.) He sits on a couch, a desk and bright lights trailing in the background, a shining lamp to his right, my screen’s left.

Dad asleep in seat 1A, the left hand front seat, early 2000s.

I ask if he’s accepted the loss — the AAirpass.

“Probably, yeah,” he says. “Enough’s enough. I can’t worry about it all day long.”

Twenty-six minutes and thirty seconds later, after he’s relived December 13, 2008, so I could recount it above, something shifts.

“Why did they have to be mean?” he says. And later, he interrupts himself mid-story, “What American did was nasty.”

It’s like there isn’t space for anything else in his mouth or head.

“It took away my mobility. It took away my hobby. I thought that I could go to Sweden for the weekend in July and pick up flowers when I was 70.”

“And now?” I ask.

“I can’t do that, can I?”

“But how do you feel about it all now?”

“I’m angry,” he says. “Still. I’m less angry. But I’m still angry.”

“They stole my personality,” he continues. “They stole my love. They stole the very thing that caused me to give them a half a million dollars in the first place. And a half a million dollars is probably like 5 million dollars today. And they did it maliciously. If there had been a problem, the proper thing to do would have been to telephone me and tell me they’d like me to change the way I used the AAirpass.”

I remind him that when we started talking, now 59 minutes ago, he said he’s accepted it all.

“I guess as I think about,” he says, “I’m angry. So maybe someplace in between. Or maybe my mind goes back and forth.”

Grief and death don’t discriminate. Loss — human life, financial wealth, material goods — doesn’t discriminate either. It’s gut-wrenching no matter what. Of course, racial and class privilege, body ability, access to health care and support, and other privileges obviously play a massive role. But the inside spectacle of pain is traumatic across the board.

“Your dad was so depressed as it was,” Mom says. “He was totally unglued after Josh died, and then he loses the one thing that gives him some freedom to run away from his grief.”

The AAirpass “also wasn’t just a loss for him,” I say to Mom. “It was a loss for our family because it gave us access to experiences that were part of who we had become as a unit, and we’d already lost Josh, and so to have lost the AAirpass meant we could no longer travel.”

“… like we did,” she adds. “Because economically after Josh died, it was also a problem. Dad wasn’t able to work at the same pace, speed and everything else that he had. So it was a huge loss, and it was shitty timing because it gave our family an opportunity to still travel, to find the joy in travel. … It took away a big part of our lives, and we already had a big part of our lives taken away. … So, it was a family trauma.”

Me, left, and Natalie on an international flight in First Class, late 1990s.

We’ve done a remarkable job — at least in my opinion — of finding some way back to being a family unit after Josh died and my parents got divorced (which, having separated in the years after Josh died — was formalized in 2014), and Natalie and I have built an unbreakable bond to manage the vacancy lingering between our age gap.

I ask Natalie if she has any resentment or anger about the AAirpass.

“At first … I did have resentment toward the airline,” she says. “It was a time of a lot of loss in my life that my dad was having a hard time [with] and he wasn’t as available to me as a father, so flying was like one of the only things that were normal in our life anymore, and so when that was taken away, it was a really big loss for me and it was painful. I’d say it took me a few years to get used to that change.”

Dad still hasn’t gotten used to it. The AAirpass was, “His pass to freedom,” Mom says. “The trauma of taking that away, it grounded him, literally.”

“He seems to be, I don’t know, is he running from things?” Ernie adds. “I didn’t think of him as a settled person.” Ernie notes the places my dad has lived — or tried to live — since my parents sold the house and got divorced. Berlin. Hong Kong. India. New York. Chicago. Australia. France.

“It’s like if he stops moving,” Ernie says, “then he’s not him anymore.”

We inherit things from our kin. As much as I salivate over locking myself in a silent cave to write, I feel a wildly profound sense of purpose when I’m traveling. As an internationally touring poet, performer and educator, when I am on tour, I am alive. I know how to operate an airport or bus terminal or Amtrak station or a rental car. Natalie does too. People have come to me about their hatred or fear of flying. It’s like a spa, I tell them. A certain amount of time in the sky that belongs only to you. Regardless of your seat.

Of course, I recognize that because I was socialized to fly in first class, my feelings about travel are biased. Even though I fly economy now, even though my eyes can tell the difference, somehow my body does not. I am in the air. I am free above the world. I don’t need fancy seats or legroom. I’m just grateful to get a break from earth.

My best friend, Chloe, recently asked me what my favorite airline is, given all the travel I do. I said, even though they so deeply impacted my family’s life: American. I feel nostalgia. Loyalty. It’s like having a crush on that kid who chases you around the playground, or never letting go of your first true love.

Mom still has skycaps’ numbers in her phone. She, Natalie and I all still fly American, even though it hurts (and I have exactly 384,475 American miles at the time of publishing this piece, so if that dwindles unexpectedly, we’ll all know why).

When I talked to Lorraine, she told me she wanted to go to Fargo, North Dakota.

Left: Dad with the Bellman at the Mauna Kea Hotel on the Big Island in Hawaii. Right: Dad in Hong Kong where he shopped before a business meeting and was running late, early 1990s.

I scream: “Lorraine! I’ve never been to North Dakota! Fargo is on my bucket list!” I’ve made it to 47 states by now; Oregon and Alaska are still on the list, as well.

“Oh my god, Caroline, I’ve got a feeling we may end up going to Fargo, North Dakota,” she says, “laughing our butts off and having a ball.”

I am yelping at this point. Literally hitting my leg and chair audibly. Suddenly, I feel like Dad must have felt talking to her — laughing, joking, dreaming up trips. Some people inherit money. Or trauma. A host of other things. I’ve inherited plenty, but perhaps — more than anything — it’s the wanderlust and desire to meet people and go places around the world.

After we continue scheming about Fargo, she sends her love to my mother and sister, and says she’d love Dad’s number; she’d love to catch up. I thank her and wish her a beautiful day.

“You as well, Caroline,” she says. “I still love ya, so you take care, sweetheart.”

“Love you as well,” I say. “And what was it that you would say to my dad?”

“Bye now.”

“And then ‘pay back’?”

“He would say, ‘Pay later.’”

I ask if we can try again.

“Caroline, bye now.”

“Pay later, Lorraine.”

Introducing Believable, Narratively’s Debut Podcast

From a near-death experience that shook a family to its core to a shocking proposition in a therapist's office, Believable explores how our stories define who we are.

In each episode of Believable, we dive into a personal, eye-opening story where narratives conflict, and different perspectives about the truth collide.

From a near-death experience that shook a family to its core to a shocking and transformative proposition in a therapist’s office, Believable explores the gray area between extraordinary experience and objective truth. These are complex and suspenseful audio stories that expand to say something larger about the role of narrative and identity in our lives. Please have a listen below and, if you like what you hear, subscribe to Believable wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode 1 of Believable, which is now live, is about a woman who bounced around state institutions and foster homes as a child, always wishing for the family she never had. Until one day she finally gets what she asked for — and then some.

 


SUBSCRIBE


CREDITS
Lead Producer & Sound Designer: Ryan Sweikert
Host & Executive Producer, Narratively Podcasts: Noah Rosenberg
Production Assistant: Emily Rostek
Story Consultant: Brendan Spiegel
Fact-Checking: Rob Williams
Art Direction: Vinnie Neuberg
Episode Art: Zoe Van Dijk
Additional Support: Ula Kulpa, Rachel Ishikawa, Jeremy Dalmas and Leesa Charlotte
Special Thanks: The NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and the Made in New York Media Center.

The Curse of the Ship of Gold

How a brilliant scientist went from discovering a mother lode of treasure at the bottom of the sea to fleeing from authorities with suitcases full of cash.

Part 1 The Scientist and The Ship
In November 2018, a 66-year-old man named Tommy Thompson was wheeled into Judge Laurel Beatty Blunt’s courtroom in Columbus, Ohio, clad in a dark blue suit and looking like he had just served four years in federal prison. Thompson’s hair, once thick black curls, had given way to a bald pate, and with a long white beard and piercing eyes, he looked like a slightly hairier Christopher Lee, the actor who played the wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings.

Throughout the trial, Judge Blunt interrupted Thompson’s testimony to reprimand him for veering wildly off course. Thompson had long insisted that he suffers from neurological problems and chronic fatigue syndrome, which impairs his memory, and that his meandering explanations were a symptom of the distress foisted upon him.

But Judge Blunt, like other officials who’d presided over civil and criminal cases against Thompson, claimed that his malingering was the maneuvering of a hyper-intelligent con man. Indeed, Thompson’s legs were shackled as he sat through his trial. As everyone knew, he’d already fled from authorities once.

Thompson was genuinely sickened and overwhelmed, however, and he found it extremely frustrating that nobody seemed to take his condition seriously. He’d been living a hectic life for almost 30 years, and he tried to make the jury understand the unique stress that had put him in such a weak state. His problems had all begun when he’d discovered one of the largest caches of gold in human history, a lost treasure at the bottom of the sea. In the 30 years since, the weight of the find had upended partnerships, ended his marriage, and set loose the specter of greed. What began as a valiant mission of science turned into something else entirely.

On September 11, 1988, about 7,500 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, a set of glowing orbs moved smoothly through the darkness and illuminated the mysterious world below. That far down there are few currents, the water is close to freezing, and it is almost pitch black. The only light typically comes from the bioluminescent creatures that float by like ghosts, but in this case the lights were from a six-ton, unmanned vessel. The Nemo, looking like an industrial freezer with two robotic arms, made a small adjustment to its thrusters and hovered above the scattered remains of a sunken ship. Video of the wreckage was relayed to a vessel bobbing above, giving the crew — and the world — the first look at a ship whose location had stymied treasure hunters for generations. It was the SS Central America, a massive side-wheel steamship that sank in a hurricane off the coast of South Carolina in 1857.

Illustration of the S.S. Central America before its sinking. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

The find was remarkable for many reasons. The Nemo’s technology, designed and built by a ragtag group of engineers from Ohio, led by Thompson, allowed scientists to explore deeper than anyone had ever gone before. The artifacts eventually recovered from the ship were a window into a bygone era and gave voice to the hundreds of people who were pulled into the abyss.

But the discovery was also a spectacular victory for pocketbooks — the ship was carrying gold when it sank, and lots of it: coins, bars and nuggets of every size surrounded the wreck and covered its decks and rotting masts. And that was only what the crew could see — somewhere in the remains were said to be between 3 and 21 tons of gold, a haul some experts valued at close to half a billion dollars. For Thompson, the Edisonian genius who masterminded the expedition, the discovery was the first salvo of what looked to be a long, impressive career. He became an American hero, a mix of brains and daring in the tradition of the scientist-adventurers of yore. “I can imagine him becoming as well known and famous as Cousteau,” one investor told Gary Kinder, whose 1998 book Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea chronicles the Central America mission.

But Thompson was subjected to a legal hell storm as soon as he set foot on shore. Numerous people and companies were vying for their share of the gold, and the unending litigation was compounded by the lawsuits filed by investors who claimed Thompson had ripped them off. In 2012, long after the litigation had sidetracked his calling, Thompson went underground, allegedly taking with him suitcases full of cash and gold.

It was a strange turn of events that Thompson’s friends and foes alike have tried to figure out: Was he a pirate corrupted by his own discovery, or a hardworking genius exploited by powerful men lusting after his gold?

Months later, Thompson was staying under an assumed name at a hotel in Boca Raton, Florida, trying to keep his faculties in check. He was unkempt, unwell and barely left his hotel room, as he had been on the run from federal authorities for the past two and a half years. His journey had taken him from Columbus boardrooms to the depths of the sea to a Hoarders-esque mansion, and would culminate with a police raid that eventually led to Judge Blunt’s courtroom.

From the witness stand in Columbus, Thompson disclosed startling information in a story already laden with tragedy and fortunes lost — and shed light on the mystery of millions in still-missing gold.

The pressure 8,000 feet below the sea is 250 times greater than on the surface, and Tommy Thompson was squeezed by something even more intense for the better part of 30 years.

Part 2 Long Journey To The Bottom

Thompson, born in 1952, was a whiz kid who’d been tinkering and engineering from the earliest years of his life. He grew up in Defiance, Ohio, a small city in the northwestern corner of the state. He was always drawn to the water, and he enjoyed challenging friends to breath-holding contests.

“I was on swimming teams, and people could always beat me on the surface, but I got so I could hold my breath so long that nobody could beat me underwater. I loved seeing and doing things underwater,” he told a reporter for Columbus Monthly not long after the mission launched. When he was a teenager, he bought and fixed up an amphibious car, and he loved pranking his friends by driving unsuspecting passengers into a lake.

Gary Kinder’s book details Thompson’s early interest in the underwater realm, which extended to sunken ships when he spent a summer after high school working with a group of career treasure hunters in Florida. Rife with lore, the hunters spoke of ships sunken somewhere out in the ocean with more gold than could ever be spent. However, nobody knew quite where to start looking, nor could they afford the technology necessary to undertake the search. Finding one of these wrecks posed a challenge that spanned many disciplines, which, to a mind like Thompson’s, made for a compelling quest.

Following his graduation from The Ohio State University with a degree in ocean engineering, Thompson went to work for the Battelle Memorial Institute, a prominent research lab in Columbus that has developed everything from kitchen appliances to nuclear weapons. There, he was able to work on deep-sea engineering projects, at one point developing technology that allowed the U.S. government to extract information from a sunken Soviet nuclear sub, all while disguising the operation as the routine work of an oil rig. “He was like a rock star,” said Thompson’s longtime friend and current defense attorney Keith Golden.

Thompson wanted to work exclusively in deep water but was routinely warned that such jobs were hard to come by. So he began looking for other ways to pursue this heady scientific passion. Recalling the treasure hunters he’d spent time with in Florida, Thompson began formulating a plan for his own mission out to sea.

Tommy Thompson stands at the helm of the Arctic Explorer as Bob Evans, center, and Barry Schatz look on in 1991. (AP Photo/Columbus Dispatch, Doral Chenoweth III)

“He wanted to develop technology for underwater deep research, and the only way to do that is either you work for the government or you look for treasure,” Golden said. “That’s what brought him into the treasure business. Not, ‘oh I want to go get gold’ or anything like that. It was actually the means to an end.”

One of the first orders of business was to find the perfect wreck to hunt. Thompson worked with Bob Evans, an equivalently intelligent polymath and professional geologist, to winnow down the list of candidate ships. Evans would become the mission’s chief scientist, and the two settled on the SS Central America. The so-called “Ship of Gold” was one of the legendary wrecks that beckoned Thompson’s treasure-hunting comrades — it was renowned for the enormity of its loss and infamous for its opulent cargo.

The Central America ferried passengers to and from California at the height of the Gold Rush in the mid 19th century. The ship, called “one of the best and staunchest ships afloat” by a passenger who had traveled on the vessel numerous times, made regular journeys from New York to Panama and back, where prospectors would catch another ship on to California. Six hundred people, and up to 21 tons of gold coming from California, were aboard the Central America when it disembarked to New York from a stopover in Cuba on September 3, 1857.

Five days later, the ship found herself floundering in the middle of a terrifying hurricane. Passengers attempted a 30-hour nonstop bucket brigade to keep the ship afloat, but the engines flooded and the storm ripped apart masts and sails. The ship was doomed. The vessel let out a final tortured groan as it sank on the evening of September 12, sucking 425 souls down in a horrifying vortex. The catastrophe was the era’s Titanic, a horrific event that captivated people around the world. The loss in gold was so profound that it was one of the factors precipitating the Great Panic financial crisis of 1857.

Finding the Central America would be no easy matter — proportionally it would be like finding a single grain of sand in the floor plan of a four-bedroom house. The key, Thompson knew, was to undertake a logical and hyper-organized search.

Bob Evans used every known detail about the fateful voyage, including passenger and crew accounts of the weather as the ship sank, and worked with a search theory expert to determine that the wreck was likely somewhere in a 1,400-square-mile grid 160 miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina, in part of the ocean that was nearly a mile and a half deep. Each square on the grid was assigned a number based on the likelihood that the ship had ended up there, and the idea was to trawl a sonar apparatus up and down the grid and take in-depth readings of the most promising results.

“Rather than take a treasure-hunting approach, he took a scientific approach,” said Columbus attorney Rick Robol, who once represented Thompson’s companies.

Thompson approached many of Columbus’s financial heavy hitters to drum up funding, and his exhaustively scientific method was key to selling others on the mission. Obsessed with his work, Thompson was said to be indifferent to food and sleep, dressed in a thrift store suit and hair afrizz. As a result, the high-powered investors waiting in their upper-floor offices and elegant conference rooms were often skeptical of his bewildering presence. But time after time, Thompson would speak to them reasonably, thoroughly and intelligently. He was realistic about the low probability of success, outlined various contingencies, and emphasized that the mission offered the chance for the investors to participate in a journey of good old American discovery. Investors soon found themselves chuckling in delight at the audacious fun of the project and the inspiring confidence they felt in Thompson.

“The concept seemed pretty far out [but] I was certain of his credibility,” investor D. Wayne Ashby told the Columbus Dispatch in 1989.

Of course, the primary draw was the potential for enormous returns: Based on the estimated amount of gold, calculations showed that first-tier investors would be able to turn $200,000 into $10 million if the mission was a success; even a $5,000 investment stood to transform into a remarkable sum. One investor pledged support, then another, and then a whole network of powerful Columbusites, including the owner of The Columbus Dispatch and a developer whose 10,000-square-foot luxury tree house would later be featured on HGTV’s Most Extreme Homes.

After two years of pitching, 161 investors pooled the $12.7 million necessary to pay for the recovery mission. (Further rounds of investment upped the number of investors to around 300 and the total contributions to around $22 million.) On top of the investors’ money, Thompson would borrow tens of millions more as the project wore on. The Recovery Limited Partnership was formed to oversee the operation, with the Columbus-America Discovery Group acting as its agent. Thompson was the head of both.

Under the aegis of these companies, Thompson outfitted a search vessel, put together a crew, and developed a seven-ton remotely operated vehicle capable of withstanding deep-ocean conditions. The vessel’s arms and cameras would give scientists the ability to explore the wreck. (They also conducted various other experiments useful to the recovery, such as purposely giving Evans the bends.) As Gary Kinder writes in Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, the deepest an unmanned submersible had gone previous to this was 6,600 feet. That vehicle had been difficult to control, with only one arm that could perform rudimentary functions. The technology Thompson and his crew developed in secret streamlined and refined the submersible so that it was much easier to control and could perform the delicate tasks needed for the recovery of the ship. It was one of their secret weapons, and the mission to find the Central America was officially launched in June 1986.

The mission was subject to numerous difficulties: seasickness, short tempers, errant weather, malfunctioning equipment, little sleep, and a stretch of time when the only food served was fried chicken. The excursion didn’t turn up anything that first summer, and far too much time was spent the following summer exploring what proved to be the wrong ship. Investors groused about the delays, but Thompson always managed to assuage their fears. “We have to be extremely careful not to destroy any artifacts,” he told The Columbus Dispatch in 1987, before reminding everyone there could be as many as 300,000 individual pieces of gold, keeping optimism afloat.

In late summer 1988, the crew sent the submersible robot down to check out an overlooked blip on the search grid. The ship’s enormous trademark side wheel immediately came into view, and despite an inch-thick layer of “biological ooze” covering everything, it was clear what was strewn all over the football field–sized wreckage site: gold, gold, and more gold, literally tons of it undisturbed for well over a century. The control room aboard the ship, with its walls of monitors and technology that made it look like an alien craft from an old movie, exploded with profoundly human joy.

“We’ve found it. Gold, lots of it,” Thompson said in a missive to shore. “We have hit the mother lode. It’s unquestionably the greatest American treasure ever found.”

Gold and artifacts were brought to the surface starting in fall 1989, the beginnings of a haul that would grow to include 532 gold ingots, 7,500 gold coins, and, at 80 pounds, one of the largest single pieces of gold ever discovered and at the time the most valuable piece of currency in the world. “It gives you a very warm feeling,” investor D. Wayne Ashby told the Dispatch when the discovery was announced.

The expedition’s contract gave Thompson around 17 percent of the proceeds from future sales, but everyone involved in the project expected to become preposterously rich. When asked by a reporter to estimate the value of the haul, Thompson demurred. “I get nervous about these estimates, because we don’t want to disappoint any of our backers,” he said. Nevertheless, Thompson cautiously estimated the find could be worth close to $400 million.

The first haul of gold was taken from the ship straight into armored cars by guards carrying machine guns amidst cheering investors, well wishers, and descendants of the survivors of the Central America wreck. But as it would turn out, that brief glimpse was the closest any investor would ever get to the treasure found at the bottom of the sea.

Part 3 A Legal Hell Storm

In 1988, the Columbus-America Discovery Group had secured its right in admiralty court to excavate the Central America site and retain possession of whatever they discovered beneath the sea. But this ruling was challenged almost as soon as Thompson set foot back on the shore.

Thompson and his companies were sued by no less than 114 separate entities, including 39 insurance companies that had insured the cargo on the original Central America voyage. Lawyers for the insurance firms — “pirates with briefcases,” as one newspaper called them — argued that since the firms had paid claims in 1857, they were entitled to the treasure now that it was recovered. Things got even more complex when an order of Capuchin monks sued Thompson, alleging he had copped the intel given to them by a professor from Columbia University whom they had commissioned to do a sonar search of the same area.

The estimated location of the S.S. Central America. (Illustration by Yunuen Bonaparte)

Recovery operations were suspended in 1991 because of the lawsuits, leaving the fate of the gold brought to the surface in legal limbo — and tons of gold still on the wreck at the bottom of the sea. A judge eventually dismissed the monks’ case, but the dispute with the insurance companies continued.

Lawyers for the insurance companies contended that the firms would have already gotten the gold if they’d been able to. “There is absolutely no evidence of abandonment,” said attorney Marilyn Little in a 1991 interview. “The technology to locate and recover the wreck did not exist until the past few years.”

Attorney Rick Robol argued that the Central America was found in a part of the ocean checked with nuclear dumps, which made it legally a no-man’s land. More importantly, he said, documents attesting to the insurance companies’ claims had long since disappeared. “We had to rely on contemporary witnesses,” Robol said. “We couldn’t call anybody from the 19th century.”

The back-and-forth continued until 1998 (and in the process established case law in admiralty court) when Thompson and his companies were finally awarded 92.5 percent of the treasure. But the legal avalanche, compounded by Thompson’s protracted divorce and the death of his father, put the future of the companies in jeopardy. Trial testimony showed that Columbus-America had spent more than $30 million on salvaging, running the business, and legal fees by 1992 alone. Coupled with a significant devaluing of the rare coin market, a few investors wondered about the future of their investment. The pressure mounted as Thompson attempted to balance his obligations to his crew, his companies, and his investors while being a dad to his three kids.

“Tommy was in agony,” one investor told Columbus Monthly in 1999. “He hated the legal crap, but he didn’t trust the lawyers enough to stay away from it. He was right there, every time there was a hearing. He read every page of every brief, and a lot of times he was helping with the writing, too.”

A financial windfall seemed possible in 1995 when the expedition’s science director announced that in addition to the gold that had already been brought up, plus the treasure the scientists had seen and left on the ship, there was probably even more gold hidden in the wreckage than previously believed. He said government documents he’d uncovered suggested that there was a secret, 10-ton shipment intended for the U.S. Army, but this later proved to be a myth.

As the years went by, a few investors began to feel that Thompson wasn’t being forthright in his predictions about their financial future. While numbers like $400 million were thrown around at first, the value of the haul was later brought down to around $100 million. Meetings with investors became less frequent, they said, as did updates and newsletters. Once lauded for his openness, Thompson appeared to go into a shell.

The Columbus-America Discovery Group was “playing their cards pretty close to the vest. And it ain’t my vest,” one disgruntled investor groused to Columbus Monthly in 1997.

Thompson said that his silence was necessary to protect trade secrets. “You’ve got to understand, we’re a company that’s been in this business for over 20 years,” Thompson said in a deposition in 2008. “[We’re] trying to create an industry and open the deep ocean frontier, and do those things where there isn’t a known business.”

By 1998, some of the investors were fed up with the way Recovery Limited Partnership was being run and made moves to establish another company, this time with the investors in charge. But many of the partners were confident in Thompson’s leadership, and they elected to keep him at the helm by a margin of more than 9 to 1. The companies were restructured, with the reworked Columbus Exploration as a partner company to Recovery Limited Partnership. Thompson was again the head of both entities, though it was stipulated that he would draw a salary only from the former and not the latter.

In 2000, after a deal to sell the gold through Christie’s auction house collapsed, Thompson negotiated the sale of the gold through the California Gold Marketing Group on behalf of Recovery Limited. Much of it was sold to gold and coin dealers, and some of the treasure was displayed in a lavish traveling exhibit across the country, with Thompson sometimes making an appearance alongside his discovery. (Christie’s also sued Thompson for backing out of their deal, but the case was sealed and the outcome remains unknown.)

Gold coins and bars, part of California Gold Marketing Group’s traveling exhibit of gold from the S.S. Central America. (Photos courtesy Donn Pearlman)

The sale netted the company around $50 million and reportedly came as a complete surprise to investors, as Thompson had not informed anyone he was going to do this until after the sale was complete. Thompson then allegedly told investors that they would not be seeing any of the proceeds, as all the money went to pay off the loans and legal fees that had accrued since the mission began.

In 2001, the agreement between Recovery Limited and Columbus Exploration was amended (allegedly in secret) to give Thompson a $2.1 million payout and a cache of gold coins in lieu of a profit from the sale of the gold. The coins were 500 “restrikes” minted from gold recovered from the Central America. They were valued at approximately $2.5 million and were originally intended to compensate investors. Thompson took the coins without approval from the board, though his attorney Keith Golden maintains there was nothing clandestine about it. “[Thompson] was so honest he put them on his tax returns,” he said.

Nonetheless, in 2005, two former investors filed lawsuits against Thompson for breach of contract and fiduciary duty: Donald Fanta, president of an investment firm, the Fanta Group, and the Dispatch Printing Company, owned by the family that ran The Columbus Dispatch.

Dispatch scion John W. Wolfe was a genial coin collector who had contributed $1 million to the recovery mission and reportedly got along very well with Thompson. However, he died and his cousin John F. Wolfe was put in charge, and the cousin was less confident in Thompson’s direction than his relative. Convinced that Thompson was ripping him off, the cousin pushed the lawsuit ahead. Fanta and Dispatch Printing alleged a breach of contract and requested financial accounting of Thompson’s companies.

There were “eight years of obstructive conduct where they couldn’t get the most basic reports of what happened to the money and what happened to the treasure,” said Quintin Lindsmith, an attorney representing the Dispatch Printing Company. “The investors saw nothing, the investors received nothing, no financial reports were sent to investors.”

Thompson was next sued by a group of nine sonar techs from the original mission who claimed they had been duped out of 2 percent of the profits from the gold, plus interest.

The two cases were combined with a third into a mega-lawsuit in federal court, creating a labyrinthine legal situation with a rotating cast of attorneys and thousands of motions and maneuvers that bewildered even seasoned courtroom players. Missions to the Central America were once again put on hold as Thompson put his mind to work filing legal briefs and appeals.

Thompson is “not a treasure hunter, he’s a scientist,” Golden said. “That’s when things started going south.”

Once having bragged of being the subject of more than 3,000 articles, Thompson had long since stopped talking to the press, and now spent half the year living in a Florida mansion rented under another name. At one point, Thompson attributed his situation to the “plague of the gold,” a cruel turn of fortune that legend has it often accompanies the unearthing of buried treasure. Thompson began to show symptoms of the gilded affliction. In 2008 he was arrested in Jacksonville after a sheriff observed him hiding something under the seat following a routine traffic stop. It turned out he was hiding fake IDs, four cell phones, and $6,500 in cash, a collection of items that hinted at what was to come.

In July 2012, U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus ordered Thompson to produce the restrike coins or swear under oath that he didn’t know where they were. After a few frustrating exchanges, Thompson stopped coming to court and wrote to the judge that he’d never personally had them, and that they were likely in a trust he didn’t have access to. The judge said his answers fell “woefully short of compliance,” and on August 6, Thompson was ordered one final time to give up the coins or be sent to jail for contempt.

On August 13, the day Thompson was supposed to reappear in court, he simply didn’t show up. Thompson’s longtime secretary and reputed on-again, off-again love interest Alison Antekeier hired Shawn J. Organ, Thompson’s latest attorney, the day before he was due in court. Organ had never actually met Thompson and claimed that he was out to sea. But Judge Sargus shook his head and declared bullshit.

“He hired lawyers to move to continue today’s hearing. Yet he has another lawyer take the position that he didn’t know about this hearing …. Today is the day of reckoning for him,” the judge said in court.

A warrant was issued for Thompson’s arrest, but it soon became apparent that nobody knew where he was. Organ asked Robol to reach out to Thompson on his behalf, but Robol said that his phone calls had been unsuccessful and he didn’t have any other way to get in touch with him. Although it was known Thompson had a house in Florida, Robol said he didn’t actually know where it was. Thompson’s ex-wife Collette Davidson said that the family would sometimes make sympathetic jokes about Thompson running away due to the stress, but neither she nor their children were able to say where he went.

Then, in early November, Antekeier disappeared as well, skipping out on her own court appearance in which she was supposed to testify about Thompson’s whereabouts. The two were presumed to be together and, some of the investors speculated, in possession of millions of dollars in cash and the 500 gold coins. The litigious investors were irate, and Thompson’s flight seemed to confirm that he had ripped them off. On top of the civil suits against him, Thompson was charged with criminal contempt of court, and U.S. Marshals were tasked with tracking down him down.

“I think he had calculated it, whatever you want to call it, an escape plan, a contingency plan to be gone,” U.S. Marshal Brad Fleming told the Associated Press in the midst of the pursuit. “I think he’s had that for a long time.”

Once the most successful treasure hunter in the world, Tommy Thompson was now the one being hunted.Part 4 The Mysterious Mansion

In late summer 2012, a handyman named James Kennedy walked up to the porch of Gracewood, a large home in Vero Beach, Florida. Kennedy was trying to get in touch with the mansion’s mysterious tenants, but they always seemed to flit back into the shadows like cats. Kennedy took out his cell phone and pretended to call the landlord.

“I kind of tried to do the intimidation thing. I picked up my cell phone and I said it real loud. I was, like, ‘Well, Vance, I don’t think they’re going to give you anything,’” he recalled in his deposition. “‘You probably ought to call the police.’”

But the ruse didn’t work, and when October rolled around, Kennedy finally let himself in. He had been a handyman for decades, but even he was taken aback by what he found inside.

The windows were sealed off with plastic, cabinets had fallen down, “there was stuff growing out of the sink,” and mold in abundance. There were hundreds of phone batteries in Ziploc bags, maps affixed to the wall, and a large plastic tub filled with so many pills that the house smelled “like a pharmacy.” The garage was filled with bags of trash, while food waste and organic items were simply thrown into a pile in the backyard. The mess was Antekeier’s and Thompson’s, and far from the Bonnie and Clyde romance one might have expected, the situation suggested deep distress.

“It look[ed] like that show on television, Hoarders … I opened up one cabinet door that was still hanging in the kitchen and there was a stack of paper plates there and there were three rats on top of that,” Kennedy said.

Thompson had been renting Gracewood since 2006, a home away from the hassles in Columbus, and the mansion had become their home base when they fled Ohio two months earlier. Authorities hadn’t traced them to the house because Thompson kept the utilities in the landlord’s name, arguing successfully with the utility company that other celebrities were afforded the same measure of privacy. Gracewood’s landlord was a man with a sunny disposition named Vance Brinkerhoff, who had known Thompson in college and sympathized with the difficulties that came with being a man in the spotlight.

As renters, Thompson and Antekeier had always been friendly but maintained their distance, Brinkerhoff said. By October 2012, however, Brinkerhoff realized that he hadn’t seen the pair in months. He wasn’t aware of the latest developments in Thompson’s legal situation, but he also realized that his tenants hadn’t paid the $3,000 rent in a few months either, so he sent Kennedy over to see what was going on.

Among the mess, Kennedy found a copy of Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder. A light bulb went off when he realized that the main character and the mansion’s secretive occupant were one and the same. He searched for Thompson on the internet and learned that the tenants were wanted by U.S. Marshalls.

Kennedy was somewhat torn about what to do, as he could sympathize with Thompson’s situation. Kennedy himself had once found a mammoth bone and was similarly besieged with people trying to take advantage of his find.

“It seems, like, every single time anybody finds anything that’s worth five cents, there’s 500 worms that come out of the woodwork to steal it from you …. [H]e went out and busted his ass, found something like he was supposed to, did his job, and then before he had a chance to do anything had 100 nut lawyers knocking on his door saying ‘we’re taking it away from you’ and then he’s stuck with not enough money to pay for everybody else that he had work for him,” Kennedy said in his deposition.

The U.S. Marshals erected a wanted billboard as they worked to track down Tommy Thompson and Alison Antekeier. (Photo courtesy U.S. Marshals Service)

But Kennedy also sympathized with people who were victims of theft — it was possible Thompson “totally screwed everybody over” like the newspapers were saying. So he called the Marshals. But by that point, Thompson and Antekeier had long since fled Gracewood, and law enforcement was once again unable to determine where they went.

“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 is watching this interview,” U.S. Marshal Brad Fleming said in an interview. “I’d like to think we don’t need him to make a mistake for us to catch him, but it would sure help.”

And a mistake is exactly what happened.

In June 2014, a repeat of the Gracewood situation happened a mere eight miles away, at the Pennwood Motor Lodge in Sebastian, Florida. The occupants of a private cabin in the woods hadn’t been seen in a while, a handyman checked out the property and called police after finding car registration paperwork belonging to Antekeier. Based on material found in the Pennwood cabin, the Marshals were alerted to the Hilton Boca Raton Suites, a banal upscale setting where the pair of fugitives had remained hidden since May 30, 2013. U.S. Marshals prepared to descend on the hotel.

Part 5 The Manhunt

To a man of science like Bob Evans, it was inconceivable that his friend Tommy Thompson had ended up on the FBI’s Most Wanted list alongside the Boston Marathon bombers. Thompson was a brilliant mind and incredible strategist, but he was not suited for life on the run. One of the last times anyone had seen him, it was a worrisome sight: Thompson was in the backyard of a house he was renting, yelling into his phone in his underwear.

“My old friend, boss and colleague was simply not that colorful or swashbuckling,” Evans wrote in a reflection on the saga for Coin Books, an online numismatic publication. “He was hardly Jack Sparrow or Blackbeard. Think more along the lines of Dilbert in charge of the operation.”

But what had to be one of the most intense disappointments in the saga, for Thompson, was the fact that the excavation of the Central America would carry on without him.

In 2013, with Thompson apparently MIA, a judge determined that Thompson’s businesses were in a state of “great disarray and insolvency.” The court appointed a Columbus lawyer named Ira Kane as receiver of the recovery mission, and in this capacity he was authorized to put straight its business affairs. Kane in turn contracted a company called Odyssey Marine Exploration to finish the recovery of the Central America. The goal was to bring the rest of the gold to the surface and ensure that the investors got paid.

“If Mr. Thompson has significant holdings in the U.S. and otherwise that belong to the receivership, I will go for it,” Kane told the Columbus Dispatch. “If he has gold sitting in a vault, and going after it outweighs the cost, I will. If there are dollars that he is hiding, I want every penny of it.”

The renewed excavation launched in April 2014, with U.S. Marshals putting a wanted poster of Thompson aboard the ship in case he attempted to rejoin the mission. The operation was quite successful, bringing up more than 45 gold bars, 15,500 coins, and hundreds of artifacts over the course of numerous dives, including a pair of glasses, a pistol, and a safe filled with packages. The sale of the gold was once again undertaken by the California Gold Marketing Group. All Thompson could do was watch these developments from afar, a fugitive from his own life’s work.

On January 27, 2015, Thompson, then 62, was pale and sickly as he sat in his room in the Hilton Suites in Boca Raton, his body racked with the paranoid tics of a man on the run. Surrounding him was detritus befitting a fugitive — fake IDs, burner phones, voice-changing equipment, and information about which countries don’t have extradition treaties with the U.S. In the closet was almost $430,000 in cash, stacks of $100 bills stored in lashed-together suitcases.

With his scientist’s wild hair, Thompson was the more recognizable of the two, so Antekeier was tasked with running errands and paying the bills. She took almost comically cinematic precautions when appearing in public, wearing big floppy hats and taking a succession of buses and taxis to lose anyone who might be on her tail. Just as she always did, when she arrived back at the hotel that January afternoon, she looked around furtively to make sure she wasn’t being followed.

As it turned out, this time she was.

The hunt was led by an intimidating and extremely direct U.S. Marshal named Mike Stroh. He had been involved in manhunts all over the country, but the mission to find Thompson had special resonance with him as a professional person-finder. Thompson was “one of the smartest fugitives ever,” who found a ship in the middle of the sea “like he was trying to find a set of car keys he misplaced in his house, but his house is hundreds of miles of ocean,” Stroh told the Associated Press.

Stroh had been after the couple since they’d absquatulated from Ohio well over two years earlier, and if he had a tail it would have been twitching like a cat’s when he spotted Antekeier. After seven hours of following her, Marshals crashed their way into the hotel and surprised the two, screaming at them not to move.

The Marshals would ultimately cart away 75 boxes of evidence from the room, but they came up empty-handed in one aspect of their quest. Investigators found boxes in the Gracewood mansion that looked a lot like those that had held the restrike coins, but the gold itself was nowhere to be found.

Not long after, the pair appeared before a judge in Florida who decided they should be shipped back up north to face the music they’d been putting off for years.

Thompson tried to fight the extradition. He claimed he was allergic to the weather up north, and the climate would exacerbate his many ailments, one of which was a tropical illness he said he’d contracted when he was bitten by a mosquito in South America.

The judge was not buying it.

“Your health condition is in no way relevant to the issue of whether you are the individual wanted up in Ohio or not,” Judge David Lee Brannon said, and Thompson was shipped back. U.S. Marshal Brad Fleming said Thompson was chatty as they made the journey back, perhaps relieved that he no longer had to hide.

Thompson and Antekeier appeared in Judge Algenon Marbley’s courtroom in Columbus on April 8, 2015, clad in prison jumpsuits and chains. Both pleaded guilty to criminal contempt.

Antekeier’s attorney, Dennis McNamara, asked for a light sentence, arguing that concerns about Thompson’s health and legal problems had clouded her judgment. “Mr. Thompson was so sick at the time, I really felt there was no other option,” Antekeier later explained. “I wanted to save his life.”

Once again, there was little sympathy from the bench.

“Fidelity is meant for the Marines, not for people engaged in criminal activity,” Judge Marbley said.

Antekeier was ultimately given a $5,000 fine and two months’ probation after serving a month in jail. Thompson was given a two-year sentence for the contempt charge and a $250,000 fine. They agreed to turn over the $425,380 in cash seized from the Florida properties as part of their plea deal and to divulge the whereabouts of the 500 gold coins.

Part 6 A Complex Man

The capture of Tommy Thompson made for a fairly pedestrian end to a story that had captivated Columbus for years. The city had rooted for the hometown hero’s success and celebrated the Midwestern ingenuity that put Columbus on the map.

Even after he’d fled, many couldn’t help but be almost charmed by his flight. Michelle Sullivan, a Columbus journalist who’s written extensively about the case, imagined Thompson was on a remote island somewhere, engineering in paradise like Gilligan. Other associates were wistful about the turn of events. “It’s almost like he’s a memory,” Bob Evans said.

But the notion that not even a brilliant mind could resist running off with gold was too salacious not to report, and the allegations of thievery became the dominant narrative. Thompson’s reputation as a scientist-hero was overshadowed by the notion that he went rogue and bungled a crime. It was an unfortunate bookend to the legacy of someone who had long maintained that the historical and scientific aspects of the recovery were the most important point of the mission.

Gold ingots, pokes, dust and nuggets, all part of the exhibition showing the recovered treasure from the S.S. Central America (Photos courtesy Donn Pearlman)

Indeed, the non-gold accomplishments of the Central America mission are impressive and resounding. Michael Vecchione, a zoologist with the Smithsonian who briefly worked with the expedition, said the jerry-rigged technology of the Nemo is now standard practice for deep-ocean explorations. The mission took thousands of hours of video, giving scientists an unprecedented look at deep-sea life and revealing new species and their evolutionary adaptations, he said. Deep-sea sponges were retrieved and studied for their antitumor properties. And the way in which they physically nabbed the gold was incredible in its own right: The robotic arms of the submersible gingerly placed a frame around a pile of coins and injected it with silicone, which, when solidified, made for a block full of gold that could be stored until it was ready to be brought to the surface. Controlling all of this were systems less powerful than those contained in the average smart phone, Bob Evans said.

The coins and other gold items recovered from the Odyssey Marine–led excavation debuted in a public exhibit in Los Angeles in February 2018 to record-setting attendance, and they were next seen in May 2018 at an NRA convention in Dallas. Coin collectors jumped at the chance to own a piece of such historic treasure, and all of the collectible gold coins have since been sold, bringing in around $30 million for the receivership, or a net profit of $15 million after paying for the costs of their recovery.

After administrative costs, court costs and creditor claims, there would theoretically be a distribution to the investors in Recovery Limited Partnership — the first time they would ever see a dime, 33 years after the initial investment for some.

“It will not be 100 cents on the dollar of what they invested, but it will be a material distribution, the final amount of which has not been determined. But they will get some of their money back,” Quintin Lindsmith, an attorney for the Dispatch Printing Company said during the November 2018 trial.

But the 500 restrike coins were still MIA, and Thompson wasn’t speaking, so the lawsuits ground on. Thompson’s staunch recalcitrance toward giving up the fight has mystified observers of the case, and nobody knows what to make of his evident willingness to endure privations even harsher than those from his days on the run.

Collette Davidson, Thompson’s ex-wife, sat in a lush garden among busy insects on a sweltering Ohio summer day in June 2018. The idyllic surroundings of Davidson’s yard are the opposite of the Federal Correctional Institution in Milan, Michigan. The prison, an imposing but generic detention facility surrounded by razor wire, is about three hours from Columbus, and it is the place Thompson has called home for more than four years. It appears to be his home for the foreseeable future, as Thompson is serving an indefinite sentence in federal prison for civil contempt for refusing to divulge the whereabouts of the coins.

Davidson said she is baffled by how things have played out since Thompson’s arrest.

In the years that he’s been incarcerated, Thompson has appeared by videoconference before Judge Marbley every other month and asked if he’ll reveal the location of the coins. At one point, Thompson told the court he never had the coins, but then said he’d already spent the proceeds from selling them on legal funds. Then he claimed the coins were held in a trust in a bank in Belize, but that nobody can access the trust without a power of attorney signed by Thompson, which he says he can’t sign.

Judge Marbley has long said that the keys to Thompson’s freedom are in his own hands. “As long as you are content to be a master of misdirection and deceit to the court, I am content to let you sit,” he said.

“I said what I know about [the coins],” Thompson said. “There can’t be an epiphany.”

Thompson is also being fined $1,000 for every day he refuses to speak, meaning his fines are now likely approaching $2 million.

The bleak impasse has led many to wonder why he won’t just reveal the location of the coins. It has been hard to deduce his motivations, even for those who know him well. Some say he’s taking a fall to ensure the financial security of his children, while some say he’s sticking it to the Man.

Tommy Thompson’s mugshot. (Photo courtesy Delaware County Sheriff’s Office)

Davidson suggests Thompson’s predicament might be the result of a singular mind that explores a problem so deeply that more problems develop in the periphery as a result. His intense concentration and extreme focus found the Central America, and the same focus applied to trying to find an answer to his current predicament is taken as unwillingness to play ball.

“They think he’s lying, but it’s just his personality,” she said. “We don’t leave any room in this world for unusual people.”

But it’s also hard for Davidson to understand why her ex-husband is being hounded so severely, as the cost of maintaining lawsuits for 15 years surely has to outweigh the initial investment. Only two of the hundreds of investors in the mission have sued Thompson because they knew it was a gamble to begin with, she said. In fact, one investor had famously even written “Bye Bye” on the memo line of the check he gave to Thompson, fully appreciating the venture’s quixotic nature.

Moreover, as Bob Evans explained, the actual value of the gold was highly speculative in the first place.

The “accusations about missing millions is founded on optimistic projections from press releases and statements made shortly after we found ‘the treasure.’ When these statements were made we did not know what we might find ultimately, or what it would bring in the market … ” Evans wrote in Coin Books. “The point here is that treasure is not missing. The inventory has been published. There is no other gold that has been recovered. Perhaps the math is not simple, but it is not beyond the talents of the most elementary minds, or at least the reasonably educated.”

But according to Quintin Lindsmith, attorney for the Dispatch Printing Company, recouping the supposedly missing returns is not the point. His clients are well aware that they’ve spent more than $3 million trying to recoup a $1 million investment, he said, but they believe Thompson stole from them and lied about it, making it a matter of principle.

Whether Thompson had taken gold he shouldn’t have, or whether certain investors were being particularly vindictive, was up to the jury to decide. Thirty years and two months after the treasure was found, Thompson was driven the long three hours from Milan, Michigan, to Columbus, Ohio, to stand trial and answer questions many people had been waiting a long time to ask.

Part 7 End of a Mission

Everyone at the November pretrial hearing was on edge when Thompson hadn’t yet arrived as scheduled for his first day in court. The missing defendant suggested a repeat of previous events. Had he somehow fled? But it turned out Thompson wasn’t on time because there was a delay in leaving the prison.

In their opening arguments, the lawyers for the plaintiffs laid out the details of Thompson’s flight and the particulars of the various recovery contracts. They strategically rattled the defense by announcing right away that they would be able to prove that there was gold people didn’t know about and that Thompson had deliberately hidden it from investors. Thompson, in a navy sport coat and light-colored plaid shirt, was momentarily nonplussed, and his eyes, behind his black, thick-framed glasses, registered a small amount of surprise.

The trial got underway, and evidence showed that he had a bank account in the Cook Islands with more than $4 million in it. Most damning, however, was alleged evidence that he had stashed gold at the bottom of the sea, presumably to be retrieved later on: When the receivership went back down to the Central America in 2014, they found coins and gold bars that had been neatly laid out on trays.

“And by trays, I mean trays you buy from Target, not trays from 1857,” Lindsmith said.

In responding to the proof of the coins on trays, Thompson publicly admitted, for the first time, that there was in fact gold he hadn’t told anyone about. According to his testimony, he’d left the coins in the trays as bait, so that if the company returned to the site and found that they were missing, they would know somebody had been to the wreck site without their authorization.

“The problem is, that bait had a value of around $5 million,” Lindsmith said. “And when pressed on that point, he admitted that if he’d brought it up in 1991, it could’ve been sold and the cash proceeds could’ve been distributed to the investors.”

Thompson also admitted that he had made off with the 500 gold coins as a form of remuneration he felt he was due. Thompson testified that he’d arranged to transfer the coins around the country with an unknown party over the phone. In her testimony, Alison Antekeier said that between 2006 and 2010 she moved them from California to a safe-deposit box in in Jacksonville, and then to a storage facility in Fort Lauderdale, where she gave them, in a handful of suitcases, to a man who was supposed to transfer them to an irrevocable trust in Belize.

This was the point Thompson was trying to make all along. He wasn’t being difficult when he said he couldn’t access the coins; he legitimately couldn’t. As his attorney Keith Golden explained, an irrevocable trust means that once the trust is set up, the person who opened it cannot access it without the permission of the named beneficiaries. The manager of the trust, in this case the bank in Belize, is under no obligation to provide him access, and for that reason, Thompson claims he genuinely doesn’t know where the coins ultimately ended up. (Who was supposedly named as beneficiaries on the trust is unclear.) Golden also disputed the notion that the coins were placed on trays for Thompson’s secret benefit. He didn’t bring the gold up because at the time, during the dispute with the insurance companies, a judge had ruled that Thompson was only entitled to 10 percent of the profits. “Why would he want to bring the gold up then?” Golden asked. (The ruling was later overturned on appeal.) “They made it sound like he’s going to go out in a rowboat in the middle of the night and retrieve the treasure from 7,500 feet below the surface,” Golden said, “but all of Thompson’s dealings have always been aboveboard.”

“In the trial, in four and a half weeks, guess how many investors came in to complain other than the Dispatch — nobody,” Golden continued. “If you have a campaign for years and years and say, ‘Tommy Thompson’s this’ or ‘Tommy Thompson’s that,’ eventually people are going to believe it. And guess what — if you control the media and the newspaper, you’ve got the open channel to do that.”

Finally, after weeks of testimony, the attorneys made their closing arguments and the jury reached its verdict.

Thompson sat in his wheelchair, legs shackled, as the official paperwork was handed from the foreman to the bailiff to the judge. Time felt like glue and the courtroom’s ambient noises seemed distorted, heavy, and low. After the decades of science, discovery, stress and flight, it all came down to this.

In the matter of the civil case against, it was determined that defendant Thomas G. Thompson owed the receivership $16.2 million dollars and the Dispatch Printing Company $3.2 million, for a combined total of $19.4 million. Thompson sat expressionless while everyone else gasped.

“The truth is, it is actually larger than I expected,” Lindsmith said, “but the decision was quite appropriate.” The determination reflected the amount of profit from the 2014 sale of gold retrieved by the receivership, which Lindsmith said should have have gone to the investors in 1991.

However, the jury declined to award any punitive damages or court fees, indicating that there was no evidence that Thompson acted with malice. Either way, Lindsmith said the victory is once again about the principle. Like the cost of the litigation itself, the financial cost is immaterial to the larger point. “Whether we’re capable of collecting [the judgment] is a separate question,” he admitted.

This isn’t to say that the receivership or the investors aren’t interested in making money. The receivership is fielding offers for a multitude of items from the Central America and the recovery missions. Available for sale are bits and pieces of scientific and historical ephemera, including silicone molds with gold coin impressions, and even the Nemo, the remote underwater vehicle that was the first human contact with the Central America since 1857.

“There are thousands of items,” auctioneer Robert Cassel said in an interview with The Columbus Dispatch. “There’s still cigars rolled that you could smoke. There’s jewelry that people wore that’s part of the recovery. There’s clothing. There’s shaving gear. They have tickets from the passengers.”

Golden scoffed at the award and the plans for the auction, saying it was nothing compared to what they could have received if they hadn’t been so fixated on punishing Thompson. The receivership would have been much better off, he said, if they had put the lawsuit to the side and utilized Thompson’s intelligence and expertise to their advantage by finishing the recovery of the Central America and then moving on to the many, many other ships that sank with gold.

Gold bars and coins at the shipwreck site in 1989. (AP Photo/File)

“You’ve heard the saying, ‘You cut off your nose to spite your face’? That’s exactly what the Dispatch [Printing Company] did. They sat back and instead of kicking this guy’s legs out from underneath him, if they had been more productive then and not done what they did, we’d all be sitting on a fortune right now,” he said. “What they did just killed an opportunity, ruined it.”

Golden adds that the relentless litigation torpedoed an opportunity that would have made the Central America recovery look like chump change. Thompson was working with the Colombian government in the mid-1990s to recover an old galleon whose estimated value is legitimately a few billion dollars. The deal fell apart on account of Thompson’s legal situation, Golden said, but if the investors would have supported this mission, the rewards would have been far more lucrative than a paper judgment. Indeed, the discovery of this ship — the Holy Grail of sunken Spanish galleons — was announced to the world in May 2018 and is said to be carrying up to $17 billion worth of gold.

In better news for Thompson, the lawsuit brought by the sonar techs was dismissed with prejudice in August 2018, meaning that they can’t attempt to sue him again later on. The next steps for Thompson in the case brought by Dispatch Printing include an appeal of the judgment, with the hopes that the award will be diminished or overturned.

Separately, Thompson has filed an appeal in federal court to be let out of prison. Ordinarily, federal “recalcitrance statutes” limit imprisonment for uncooperative witnesses to 18 months. Thompson is currently awaiting the ruling of a three-judge panel about whether or not his is valid.

“I think it’s just another bump in the road. It’s more of the same for him. I would say he’s a bit numb at this point,” Golden said. “But he’s making plans to move forward with his life. This isn’t the end of his life by any means.”

Thompson hasn’t spoken with the press in decades, and unfortunately that prohibition was not broken for this article. What little time he has to use the phone is spent speaking with lawyers, business partners, and his family; ditto for the days he can have visitors. And after decades of developing new technology, going after hidden gold, and having to fight in court, Thompson is used to secrecy and has no reason to talk about the case to anyone.

Alison Antekeier still lives in Columbus, keeps a low profile, and is still reportedly very sympathetic to Thompson. Numerous attempts to contact her went unanswered.

In Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, Gary Kinder includes chilling survivor accounts of the Central America disaster, including men and women screaming maniacally as they dumped out purses and emptied hidden pockets of gold as the ship sank. The vacated wealth was something they otherwise would have killed to protect. It was mania wrought by the plague of gold, a crippling infirmity that afflicts humans alone.

“People, modern and historical, are all flawed,” mission scientist Bob Evans said. “The one true superlative is the treasure.”