As a child growing up in India, he ran away from home and joined the circus. After a freak aerial accident nearly ended his illustrious thirty-year career, he poured his life savings into one last soul-soaring hurrah.
Story by Naveen P M · Photos by Naveen PM · 4.14.16
On a torrid Sunday afternoon in a suburb of Chennai, India, spectators, mostly families with young children, start to trickle in slowly to catch the first show of the day. While finishing his lunch, K. Chakravarthy, 48, asks one of the boys to start the generator.
Within minutes, the two towering loudspeakers inside the big top come to life with regional music. The boys get ready in their quarters while Chakravarthy and his wife, C. Reena, prep in their spacious tent along with two recent female recruits. (The naming custom of Dravidians from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu is to use the first letter of their father’s name followed by their given name, hence the official monikers of Chakravarthy and Reena.)
Chakravarthy seems calm and composed, as is always the case, but today he’ll have to be on his toes from the get-go. He’ll be filling in for some of his missing crew who are out of town visiting their families. It’s almost show time and the music stops abruptly. From behind the stage Chakravarthy, adorned in a velvety, glittering outfit, announces the opening act – the lasso artist – in a husky, booming ringmaster voice. A minute later, he enters the arena accompanied by a rousing dance number.
“Pasi echchil ella nu paakadhu Thookam manna tharaiya nu paakadhu Kaadal jhadi madham ae paakadhu”
(Thirst doesn’t differentiate between wine or water Sleep doesn’t differentiate between bed or rug Love doesn’t differentiate between caste or creed)
Chakravarthy hails from a village called Pakkampalayam in Tamil Nadu. He lost his mother at a very young age. His father, a skilled laborer, remarried when Chakravarthy was around five or six. Two years later, he and a friend saw their first-ever circus show, Bharat Circus. Little did he know then that those three hours of extravaganza would lay the seed for his long career in this industry.
His older brother soon got married and moved. Around the same time, his father and stepmother welcomed a new child. The arrival of his stepbrother turned his world upside down. Angry at his stepmother and resenting playing second fiddle to her son, he ran away to live with his aunt in the booming city of Bangalore. He was just ten years old and had only five rupees in his pocket, which covered his bus fare.
Upon reaching the city he realized that he didn’t know exactly where his aunt lived. With not a paisa in his pocket, he loitered on the streets for a week before a good samaritan approached him and said, “Hey, who are you? Do you have a job?” He was hired as a busboy in a restaurant and paid thirty rupees (approximately fifty cents) a month. Within nine months, he managed to save about three hundred rupees (roughly five dollars).
When one of his colleagues at the restaurant decided to leave his job in search of greener pastures, he asked Chakravarthy if he’d like to join him. Within hours, both the kids were on a train traveling to Hassan in the state of Karnataka. Once they arrived at their destination, young Chakravarthy’s confidant split. When he realized he’d been robbed, he approached the railway station canteen owner and told him of his predicament. The sympathetic owner gave him a menial job at the canteen.
A month and a half later, a huge and peculiar train chugged to a halt at the station. Chakravarthy was transfixed by what was in front of him: around forty cars filled to the brim with men, women, exotic animals and circus paraphernalia. This scene brought back vivid memories of the circus he had seen in his hometown. As the circus performers were having refreshments at the canteen, he solicited advice from one of them on how he could join. He was told he was too young. But, determined this was the life he wanted, he eventually approached another circus, Geeta Circus, in a nearby town, and they hired him to run errands in the kitchen. Within a year, he started training with the troupe and participating in group acts before progressing onto solo acts.
That was over three decades ago, and from then on, it’s been one hell of a ride with Chakravarthy hopping from one circus to another while rising through the ranks, going from kitchen assistant to now owning his own circus. But the journey was not without a few speed bumps.
In many ways Chakravarthy is the antithesis to the ostentatious showman typically associated with the circus. He is tanned, slightly built, and possesses a weather-beaten face, all byproducts of his thirty-odd years of laborious life under the big top. But cometh the hour, cometh the man. When the show starts, Chakravarthy metamorphoses into the proverbial butterfly and enraptures audiences with his deftness and daredevilry in the ring.
Chakravarthy founded Reena National Circus last August with only Reena, 35, by his side. Previously, they were both star performers at the Global Circus. They had everything going for them. But as fate would have it, both of them were dealt a massive blow in the form of a freak accident during their Aerial Ring Act on November 13, 2013. The couple, balancing on either side of the ring, had just ascended to the top when the rope that held the ring snapped.
Chakravarthy bore the brunt of the twenty-foot drop and spent the next three months in the hospital with a pelvic fracture. Once he was back on his feet after six months, things just weren’t the same. He was delegated to menial jobs and no longer wielded the power and influence he had prior to the accident. Unable to tolerate the second-rate treatment, he quit Global Circus. Devastated but determined to prove a point, he created Reena National Circus using his personal savings and the money he and his wife received as final settlements from the circus owners.
These were trying times for the couple as they started the circus from scratch. They did it all – buying material and sewing the tents, embellishing their outfits, recruiting performers, purchasing garb and accessories for their acts, teaching performers the drills – in a span of three months, while tallying up losses to the tune of 200,000 rupees ($3,000).
Reena and Chakravarthy got hitched in 2012, but they go way back – they were good friends before developing feelings for each other. Chakravarthy’s first marriage was a tumultuous one; he and his first wife have been separated for ten years now, while Reena’s first husband, a trapeze artist, fell to his death some eight years ago.
Reena, who’s of Nepalese origin, was barely five when she compelled her parents to let her join the circus that had come to her town, lured by the prospect of “wearing fancy clothes,” as she says. They acceded to her demands and that was the last she ever saw of them. She can’t remember what her parents look like, their names, or where they live for that matter. She doesn’t know of a life beyond the circus gates. Chakravarthy and Sani, her sixteen-year-old son from her first marriage, are the only family she has now. Sani is a competent performer and part of two ensemble acts in the circus, as an acrobat and a clown.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” is the couple’s mantra.
One of their recent contractors took them for a ride, and a lot of their performers have deserted them since they first started, but despite the struggle they are hopeful of a reversal in their fortunes. “I don’t want to mint millions,” Chakravarthy says. “A modest circus with a disciplined ten-member crew, [one that] acts on par with international standards, and love and appreciation from one and all.” Reena nods in approval.
* * *
Naveen P M is a freelance photojournalist based in Chennai.
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 an avid traveler’s fantasy: an unlimited ticket.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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:
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.”
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 ColumbusDispatch 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 TheColumbus 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.
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.
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.)
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 TheColumbus 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“There are thousands of items,” auctioneer Robert Cassel said in an interview with TheColumbus 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.
“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.”
Winter was on its way in northwestern Syria when Hana Al Saloom awoke around 6 a.m., preparing to make morning tea. There was a chill in the air. Her 5-year-old daughter, Aysha, was asleep near a gas heater, as her brothers and sisters slept in other rooms. Hana’s husband stirred nearby.
Hana blinked. The blast knocked her down. Silence. Then screams. She swiveled on her knees. She looked around. Everything was on fire. It was as if her house had exploded. She didn’t realize it right away, but a missile had blown off the side of the concrete-and-steel home. The impact must have caused the gas heater to blow up too. The flames spread fast.
Hana raced outside with her older children. That’s when she saw her husband carrying Aysha’s listless body. He had reached into the flames to pull her out. His legs and hands were seared. But Aysha was injured the worst. Neighbors rushed to put out the fire on her body — and all around them. By the time they blotted out the flames, Aysha’s flesh had turned a chalky whitish-gray. Her skin was smoldering.
“First, I was screaming,” Hana remembers. “And then I was crying.”
A neighbor rushed Aysha and her dad to a hospital. But since Aysha’s wounds were so severe, she was transferred to another hospital across the border in Turkey.
Hana would not see her daughter again for seven months.
* * *
Three years later, sitting next to Aysha’s bedside at Shriners for Children Medical Center in Pasadena, California, Hana pulls out her phone and scrolls to a photo of her daughter before the bombing, a smooth-skinned girl with pink lips and reddish-blonde eyebrows. Her wavy hair dances around her bright eyes. There she is in a white blouse. There she is in a purple plaid dress. There she is with pigtails, sitting on a swing, wearing a white, blue and red polka-dotted tutu.
Hana shows a photo taken on the day of the bombing, moments after Aysha’s father pulled her from the flames. Her mouth hung open, her eyes slightly cracked, her neck as reddish-pink as a bloody raw steak. Her face looked as if someone had slathered it with a mud mask. Pasty in some places, blackened in others. But her skin, Hana says, was still there, even if it had turned a different shade. Badly hurt and on the brink of death, that is how Hana remembered her daughter on the day she was burned.
After Aysha was whisked away to Turkey for medical care on the day of the accident, an uncle who accompanied her sent a photo of her face wrapped in white bandages. But not many more photos arrived in Hana’s phone over the next few months. Instead, the uncle would call regularly with updates from Turkey. Aysha’s burns would heal, he told Hana. She was going to be OK. Doctors focused on her lungs especially, which were damaged from the smoke.
Hana prayed and cried, waiting for Aysha to be well enough to come home. Finally, that day came. Hana waited, and when she saw the car coming down the road, she ran out of her house in time to see her little girl step out.
She remembers that Aysha wore jeans and a red and white striped dress. Her hair had been shaved off. But it was her face that shocked Hana the most. She did not know that the burned layer of skin had fallen away in sheaths, and that the new skin that replaced it was a combination of grafts, recent growth and irregular-shaped scars. Aysha’s lips had been whittled away too. It looked as if someone else’s flesh had been stretched too thin across her facial bones.
Aysha did not look like the little girl her mother remembered, but Hana had no doubt she was her daughter. She grabbed Aysha and carried her inside of the house. She sat down, weeping. “I would not let anybody touch her, or talk to her,” Hana remembers. “I just took her to the room, and we continued hugging each other, hugging for hours.”
Hana recalls how Aysha was welcomed back to parts of the community, but the children who used to play with her refused. “In Syria, all the kids, when they saw her, they were scared of her,” Hana says. “People who used to know her, who she used to play with, nobody came close to her.”
When Hana heard from a doctor in Syria that there was a program in America with premier doctors treating Syrian children with burns, she put Aysha’s name on the list. In May 2018, they boarded a plane and arrived in California.
For the last 10 months, Aysha has lived in Southern California, traveling with a chaperone several days a week — an hour each way from an apartment in Irvine — to the hospital in Pasadena for checkups and surgeries, all to treat the burns and scars that run across her arms, chest, neck and face. She is one of six Syrian children who have come to the U.S. with the help of the Burnt Children Relief Foundation, which launched in 2014. Given the immigration hurdles and expenses for travel, living and medical care, it would be almost impossible for most Syrian families to travel to the U.S. and access these world-class surgeons without the help of this rare kind of program.
“These kids don’t have passports or IDs,” says Susan Baaj, chairwoman of the Burnt Children Relief Foundation, which works on their behalf to obtain these documents. Baaj, a Syrian-American who lives in Orange County, is a founding member of the Syrian American Council, Los Angeles chapter. She has been active in humanitarian projects since the war in Syria began. “It’s very challenging to get them through all these borders to come to the United States.” Yet in the wake of travel bans and curbs on refugees, the U.S. State Department has remained supportive of temporary visas to bring burned Syrian children and their families to the U.S. for treatment through the foundation, requiring that they return promptly to their home country after the surgeries are complete.
“If you can bring your child to the hospital, we will treat you,” says William Norbury, a surgeon specializing in plastic and reconstructive surgery at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Galveston, Texas, which has treated four of the Syrian burn victims. “If you do have insurance, we will try and claim on your insurance,” but if not, he adds, “we offer the same treatment.”
Twenty-five more burned Syrian children are currently on waiting lists to come to the U.S. for medical care at Shriners with the help of the Burnt Children Relief Foundation, which relies on donations to secure funding to pay for travel, housing and living expenses. Currently they do not have enough funding to bring all of the children who need help.
There have been half a million deaths and at least two million injuries since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, and the young Syrian patients who show up at Shriners come with gnarled hands, missing eyes and knotty scars, as well as obstructed breathing, hearing and vision. Some can barely swallow. Their injuries are the direct result of air strikes and, in some cases, chemical weapons attacks.
“The intensity of the burns inflicted on these kids are beyond belief,” says Saed Moujtahed, founder of the Burnt Children Relief Foundation and president of the Syrian Institute for Progress, which focuses on supporting Syrian refugees. A longtime Syrian-American activist within the Arab-American community, Moujtahed worked on developing the partnership with Shriners as well as getting support from politicians. “Many victims die. Those who survive their burns have a really tough, heavy pain, not only from their burns, but also psychologically.”
Norbury recalls the injuries of one Syrian boy he treated recently. “He couldn’t see with his right eye. His nostrils were almost completely destructed,” Norbury says. “His hands had some of the worst scarring I’ve ever seen. It looked like he was balancing a baseball on the back of his hand.” When Norbury removed the scars, the entire mass was four centimeters thick — from the outside to the deepest part of the scar.
So far, doctors have taken skin from Aysha’s legs and grafted it onto her arms, and from her stomach to her cheeks. They’ve smoothed the surface of her skin with lasers. But she still has more surgeries to go.
When Aysha is not in the hospital, she plays alone, or studies with a 17-year-old Syrian girl, Hamama, who is also receiving treatment at Shriners and lives with Aysha and her mom in the Irvine apartment. Hamama lost her parents, along with key parts of her memory, when her village was attacked. She cannot recall her past, the accident, or even her family members who died. Sometimes Aysha and her mother wonder if Hamama’s memory loss is a blessing.
They occasionally go to the shopping mall, or out to eat. Aysha collects dolls, watches Disney cartoons, and loves Skittles. But mostly she longs to attend school in a building outside with other children, even if they stare or laugh at her. “Can I go to school only for one day, one day?” she begs. It is too risky. Doctors have prohibited her from attending school outside because they worry the sun and environment could harm her already fragile skin and nervous system.
Hana homeschools Aysha, who tries to stay in good spirits, even though she wishes she had other kids her age to play with. Sometimes she tells her mom, “I’m so bored, I don’t want to live.”
When she does go outside for brief periods, she worries about what people think of her. Once, Aysha spotted a woman pushing a stroller. She noticed a toy fall from the stroller to the ground. Aysha thought of picking up the toy to give to the baby. Then she hesitated and told her mom, “Go pick up the toy and give it to that child.” Her mom asked why couldn’t she pick it up herself. Aysha answered, “The baby will be scared of me.” Every night, the magnitude of all that has happened in the last two years sets in, as Aysha cries herself to sleep in her mother’s arms.
At Shriners, Hana helps Aysha change into a tiger-printed hospital gown, and rubs the patchy scars on her daughter’s legs, areas where doctors have removed swaths of flesh for skin grafts to treat the burned and disfigured spots on her face. Hana tucks the a blanket around Aysha’s thin body, and brushes her clove-colored hair out of her eyes, kissing her marbled, ruddy forehead.
A nurse in a blue cap and gown takes Aysha’s blood pressure. On the television, a shark tries to catch a dolphin. “Baby shark do-do-do-do-do-do,” Aysha sings, clapping her hands together like jaws. “Daddy shark do-do-do-do-do.”
Hana wears a gray head scarf and a red trench coat, which she has buttoned. She gives Aysha rosewater. She is often so focused on her daughter, she forgets about herself. Hana left five other children behind in Syria. Though Hana and Aysha video chat with their family members back in Turkey and Syria regularly, they know that they will likely not see them again for at least another two years. That is how long the doctors expect it to take to complete the needed surgeries. Hana’s eyes well with tears when she mentions she has not yet met her grandchild, born since they came to the U.S.
* * *
When Aysha was a baby, her family resided in the close-knit village of Heesh, where she and her husband lived off the land, raising animals and growing their own food. They made cheese and traded it for other products. Their agrarian life was peaceful, Hana says, until the military came in 2012 and ordered everyone in the village to leave. Heesh would become a bloody battleground as opposition fighters and Assad-regime forces clashed — artillery, rockets and mortars dropping over the hamlet, driving out residents and killing those left behind.
Hana remembers gripping Aysha in her arms, carrying a bag of just a few clothing items, and making the two-week trek from Heesh to the border of Turkey on foot, with her husband and six kids. Aysha would sleep against her mother’s chest even as bombs fell around them. Each time, they would duck for cover as Hana told her older kids, “Do not get up. If we make it out alive, we are alive. If we don’t make it, God will have mercy on our souls.”
They spent four years in the camps. Aysha learned to crawl, and walk, between the tents. Since their entire village and extended family members had relocated there too, Aysha knew many people. She would spend her days going from canopy to canopy, hiding and hunting for food. The neighbors would bring Aysha back to her mom and say, “Here, take your daughter!” To which Hana would reply jokingly: “Why are you giving her back? You keep her!”
The family eventually learned that the fighting had subsided and they could return to Heesh, but when they made the long journey back to the village, they found a heap of rubble, broken glass, burned toys, cracked concrete, dust, dirt and crumbled storefronts. The ceiling had collapsed. The living room was a hill of rocks. Like the rest of the village, they rebuilt their home, one concrete slab after another. Less than a year later, it was not fully intact, but they had repaired it enough to live within its walls again.
Then, the missile hit.
* * *
“How are we doing here?” the Shriners doctor asks, pushing back a curtain as he enters the hospital room. “Is she sleeping?”
Aysha’s eyes are slightly open, but she is snoring. Her nostrils are narrow pricks that don’t take in enough air. She has no eyelashes, no eyebrows, and her lids don’t fully close when she sleeps.
The doctor begins to make marks on her ears with a marker. “What we want to do is, maybe improve the nostrils a little bit for her, so she can open it up,” he says. “Then the ribs, we’re going to go down here. There’s going to be a little incision like that on the ribs. We’re going to take a little piece of that rib out, and then we’re going to shape it into this part of the ear.”
“We know you’re going to do your best,” a translator for Hana says, looking at Aysha curled up with a stuffed animal. “She’s calm as an angel.”
After today’s surgery, Aysha’s head, arm, stomach and nose will be wrapped in bandages for weeks. Once she’s healed enough, she will have another surgery.
Doctors know the patients may never look the same as before, but they hope to help them live a more normal life by improving their burn injuries and deformities step by step, until they look and feel closer to the kids they are inside. The ones who skip down halls, sing YouTube songs, and grab for toys like other kids their age — without fear of frightening others.
At 10 a.m., the doctors prepare to operate. Hama tells Aysha to open her mouth. It’s time to take her anesthesia. The syringe is filled to the tip with the bright pink liquid. “Cherry taste,” a nurse says. Aysha breathes deeply, gathering the courage to drink it down. Hama squeezes the medicine into Aysha’s mouth. She drinks it down with a grimace and wipes her lips.
Minutes later, Aysha is groggy. She can’t lift her arm on her own. Her mom leans in close. “What does my love want?” Hana says. Aysha says nothing, her eyes droop. “What does my love want?” Hana strokes her hair.
A few minutes later, the nurses wheel Aysha out of the room, down the hall, as Hana watches from behind. “My baby.” Suddenly, the nurses stop midway between the automatic doors. Aysha is trying to call out. Her voice is so faint. Mama! Hana hears her. Mama! Hana rushes to her side once more.
Tourists are a most common sight at the abbey of Mont Sainte-Odile in the summer. So, when a somewhat hefty, tall man walked down the marble stairs leading to the first floor of the guesthouse, hardly anyone noticed. His backpack contained a Bible, which is normal in a place where people come for religious pilgrimages, but this Bible was more than 500 years old. Along with it, the man carried a 15th-century incunabulum, works by Cicero and the eighth-century theologian Alcuin, and three more dusty, priceless books.
He’d gotten them from the abbey library. The door had been open, and he’d slipped right in. He picked six books from one of the oak bookcases standing against the walls, and walked right out through the Saint-Pierre chapel, briefly glancing at the marble tomb of Saint Odile — the revered saint who founded this mountaintop abbey in the seventh century — on his way out.
Now, the square-jawed, long-legged man sauntered through a swarm of tourists near the parapet enclosing the religious site. It was a warm, sunny day in August 2000, and he had just stolen from one of the holiest sites in Alsace, a historical region in northeastern France. On countless occasions, he had soaked up the views of the hillsides, blanketed with pines, and the sprawling Rhine Valley. He made himself a promise not to steal from the library anymore, he would later tell police investigators. Then he strolled by the church Notre-Dame de l’Assomption and, walking under the entrance porch, left the site.
When Véronique Buntz, a housekeeper, entered the library a few days later and set about dusting the bookcases, as she had every Friday since her first day at Mont Sainte-Odile, over a decade earlier, she knew something was amiss.
Of the site’s myriad rooms, the library was the one where Buntz, 33, a blue-eyed woman with natural gray hair, felt most at peace. A small, vaulted room, it had once been known as Calvary, a place where canons and nuns meditated on the Passion of Christ. In the mid-19th century, a canon had turned it into a library, amassing more than 3,000 books donated by seminaries and monasteries from the region.
In the 1990s, an amateur historian started drawing an inventory and had found ancient editions of works by Aristotle, Homer, and the Roman playwright Terence. Especially valuable were 10 incunabula — rare books printed before 1501, during the earliest years of the printing press. Sermons by Augustine, bound in sow skin, from 1489. Three Latin Bibles, printed in Basel and Strasbourg. Works by the Roman poet Virgil, printed in 1492 in Nuremberg. A Bible commentary by Peter Lombard, a 12th-century Italian scholar.
Now one was missing. On the lower shelf where they were supposed to line up, there was an empty space.
Buntz scurried out of the room. She bumped into Charles Diss, 61, the director of Mont Sainte-Odile, a short man with an affable face and protruding ears. “I think books in the library are missing,” she whispered, as if uttering blasphemy. Diss was rattled. The library was accessible to some of the 60 employees, as well as to groups of 30 worshippers taking turns in adoration of the Eucharist, a tradition going back to the years following World War I.
Buntz and Diss drove the weaving road downhill to file a complaint with the local police station. For a moment, they thought that things would be left at that. The door was often left unlocked, after all. It appeared that only one book had been stolen, or simply borrowed by a fervent but dreamy pilgrim, and not returned. No additional security measures were taken.
But when Buntz entered the library one day in November, just a few months later, the remaining incunabula were gone. The empty shelf stared grimly at her like an open wound. The gendarmes began an investigation and soon roamed the area. License plate numbers were noted; tourists spending a night in one of the guesthouse’s 110 rooms, scrutinized; personnel, screened. “It was like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says Jean-Pierre Schackis, the main investigator on the case, 51 at the time. More than one million people visit Mont Sainte-Odile every year, and the surveillance cameras at the site entrance didn’t even work properly.
A few days prior, the cameras had stared blankly at a white Citroën parking late in the evening, and at the 6-foot-2-inch-tall man who had come out of it. He had walked back to the car two hours later, carrying two bags full of nine heavy incunabula, according to previously undisclosed police records.
The lock on the library door was replaced with a sturdier one, and access to the room restricted. For months, there was no further pilfering. It was a relief. The thief hadn’t been caught, but at least the books would stay where they belonged. Life continued. In the fall of 2001, Diss, the head of the site for 23 years, was succeeded by Alain Donius, a bespectacled, disheveled priest of 51. No one told him about the thefts. The matter was considered closed.
While the monks breathed easy, the thief enjoyed his new books. At night, in his tiny flat in Illkirch-Graffenstaden, in the suburbs of Strasbourg, 32-year-old bachelor Stanislas Gosse tapped into his knowledge of Latin to read the stolen texts. There were sermons by Bernard of Clairvaux, the “honey-tongued” 12th-century Cistercian reformer. There was a 19th-century volume reproducing plates from the Hortus Deliciarum, a 12th-century encyclopedia that had been lost in a fire. Flipping through the pages, one saw the seeds of Christianity sprout and unfold. Miniatures showed Jonah crawling out of the jaws of the monster, a giant fish with its head a glowing red. The Three Kings followed the Star of Bethlehem, and a bearded King David sat on his throne musing, a harp tucked between his hands. Did reading these books produce the same joy Gosse felt playing the organ at church?
He had found them covered with dust and bird droppings. “I know it can seem selfish, but I was under the impression that those books had been abandoned,” Gosse said at his trial, according to news outlets covering it at the time. He had found himself a mission. He would save the texts from decay and oblivion. “I wanted to have my own personal library,” the teacher later told the police. He stressed that he hadn’t stolen the books out of greed: He earned about 20,000 francs a month, or 4,000 euros today, and he spent little other than his monthly rent of 6,000, or €1,200.
Gosse had a “devouring passion” for ancient books, he told investigators. In ninth grade, his Latin teacher, a bibliophile, had taken his class to the library of the Grand Seminary of Strasbourg, where the spines of 5,000 ancient books glowed under the artificial light in countless shades of dull yellow, pearl-gray and purplish red. Equally bewitching was Mont Sainte-Odile. Gosse was 3 years old when he had first laid eyes on the secluded mount and scampered around the Pagan Wall enclosing it, a 10-kilometer long wall made of large stones covered with moss. His father, a military officer, took him there often, and as an adult Gosse visited the site every year. He was raised Catholic, and Alain Donius, the priest who became the head of Sainte-Odile in 2001, had taught him catechism as a boy. When Gosse first peered inside the library in 1997, he was enchanted. He would come back.
In August 2000, he walked up the stairs to the library and found the door open. He came back a few days later, riding his bicycle in the summer heat. He made his way to the library. “I found myself alone,” Gosse recounted to investigators. His hand felt for a latch through the loose chicken wire covering the bookcase doors. He picked six books, including a 15th-century Bible, and one incunabulum. “He stole in no logical order,” recalls investigator Schackis. Later, Gosse went to the national library in Strasbourg to read about what he had appropriated. After that, “I was tempted to steal incunabula,” he told the police.
He didn’t go back until November 2000, this time driving his car. He found the library door open. One golden plate affixed to a lower bookcase simply read: “Incunabula.” He had already stolen one during his previous theft, and now the remaining nine ended up in the two bags he’d brought with him. Gosse, who declined to be interviewed for this story, described the thefts to the investigators with a wealth of details, but the interrogation records fail to mention how he felt perpetrating them. By his own account, he left around midnight, driving away in the cold night.
For several months, it seems, Gosse was content with the books he had collected. In the summer of 2001, however, he went back again. This time, he found the door closed and locked. Would it stop him? He returned the next day with a hand drill. How thick was the door, he wondered, and could he pick the lock? After drilling a 3-millimeter hole, he gave up. He was no professional thief, after all. He had to find another way in.
On a Friday in April 2002, Véronique Buntz entered the library to find the massive bookcases standing solemnly, bathed in shafts of light streaming through the windows. This time, it hit her like a blow. Hundreds of books were missing.
The door and the windows showed no signs of forced entry. Some mysterious force had found a way into the very heart of the holy site. Unless it was an inside job. One of the two priests, perhaps? One of the 10 nuns? One of the employees? Could it possibly have been the work of Donius, the new director? After all, not everyone had welcomed him with open arms. Everyone was a suspect.
“It was particularly disturbing,” says Donius.
“The atmosphere was tense,” recalls Gabriel Dietrich, a janitor, now retired, 52 at the time.
“It was surreal,” remembers Buntz. “One thinks: It’s impossible! How can books disappear when the windows aren’t broken, when there’s no sign of break-in?”
There wasn’t much more the police could do to prevent additional books from vanishing into thin air. Access to the library had already been restricted to a handful of people. Dietrich had changed the lock for a stronger one. Buntz had even relinquished her key, to prove her good faith. More than her probity being questioned, however, it was the books’ fate that kept her awake at night. Would they ever be found? Had they already been thrown into the Rhine, or sold to art smugglers in the Netherlands or Belgium? This was the lead pursued by the investigators, and art dealers across Europe had been asked to keep an eye out for specific books. They could only hope for a miracle.
On May 19, near 7 p.m., Stanislas Gosse drove his Citroën to Mont Sainte-Odile. He brought ropes, three suitcases, gray plastic bags and a flashlight. Once inside the main courtyard, he headed straight to the second floor of the Sainte-Odile aisle of the guesthouse. He walked down a corridor, opened a door using a key pinched during a previous trip, and found himself in the church’s bell tower.
He tied the ropes to a wooden beam above a trapdoor in the floor and climbed down into a dark, windowless room of about 10 feet by 10 feet with a short 7-foot ceiling. Through an opening in the wall, he slipped into a second, narrow room. A dim light filtered through cracks in the lower part of a wall. The thief gently slid two wooden panels open, revealing rows of neatly lined up books on two shelves inside a cupboard. He took the books off, then one shelf, before sneaking inside the library. At the library in Strasbourg, he had found what he had been looking for in an article from a local history journal that mentioned a secret passage, unknown to anyone currently working at the abbey, except Dietrich, the janitor. It had probably once been used as a hiding place for the monks or as an ossuary — a place to store bones.
Gosse selected a few books, wrapped them in plastic bags, then crawled back inside the cupboard. In the second room, he flipped a wooden crate, climbed on it and hauled the bags through the hatch onto the attic. He climbed up the rope, moved the books to a nearby table to clear the hatch, and climbed back down. He repeated the operation eight times throughout the evening. By the time he was done, more than a hundred books were stacked up in the attic. Around 2 a.m., he stuffed the suitcases with books and left them behind, planning to pick them up later.
He came back the following evening. For all his savvy as a thief, he didn’t spot the hidden surveillance camera in the attic, placed there by the gendarmes. They had poked around the library for hours, eventually chancing upon the secret passage. They saw the suitcases Gosse had left and were waiting for him to come back. Around 9 p.m. he emerged from the bell tower. The gendarmes wrestled him to the floor. He barely said a word.
At his apartment, they found about 1,400 books wrapped in plastic bags. There was no official estimation of the total value of the loot, but each incunabula was estimated to be worth around €2,000. On most of the books, Gosse had glued a custom ex libris bookplate stamp bearing his name in Gothic letters, as well as a drawing of a heart. He confessed to the thefts. “I have a consuming passion for ancient books,” he told the investigators. He had gone as far as recreating entire tomes he couldn’t find at Mont Sainte-Odile, photocopying archives from the Strasbourg library. He offered to donate them to the library he had so heartily pillaged.
He apologized to the director, who gave him absolution. At his trial a year later, he was given an 18-month suspended prison sentence and a €6,000 fine. He had to pay €10,000 to Mont Saint-Odile, and €1,000 to the archbishopric of Strasbourg. A slap on the wrist, his lawyer says. He was even able to keep teaching.
Close to 20 years after the thefts, the investigators still speak about Gosse with awe. He was no ordinary thief, after all. He stole out of passion, and the books were safely returned to the library in 22 boxes (it took two volunteers six months to sort them out).
“He was our Arsène Lupin,” says Shackis, referring to a fictional thief of the early 1900s who terrorized well-heeled Parisians in popular short stories and novels of the day.
Former colleagues at the engineering school where Gosse still teaches are more guarded. What kind of example had he set for the students? They described an aloof, reclusive man with no appetite for social activities whatsoever. He is now 48, single, and lives with his mother. Sometimes, Donius, who has since left Mont Sainte-Odile, bumps into Gosse on the streets of Illkirch. They exchange a quick salute and walk on.