Narratively

The Underground Inferno that Created a Ghost Town

Fifty years ago, this prosperous Pennsylvania coal town was ripped apart by a devastating subterranean mine fire. Today, the flames still burn in Centralia.

The road is dark, sharp and slippery, winding through naked trees and into the wintry Pennsylvanian mist. Thick layers of clouds are concealing the hills, black rocks and silver birches lingering in the morning’s dim blue haze. The stillness of the early hours hasn’t broken yet. Lonely headlights are striking the highway’s glassy surface when I enter the borough of Centralia.

Rusted street signs are the only hint that a city was ever here. Overgrown curbs run along decaying alleys. Dead shrubs and brown weeds have cracked the blacktop, with snow patches and litter scattered everywhere the eye can see.

Centralia is the ghost of a ghost town.

Almost nothing is left of this former community of 1,400. A few buildings remain, most of them old row houses deprived of their neighbors, needing brick retainers to help them stand up without adjoining structures. The total population here was six people in 2014. Everyone else left after a long-lasting mine fire rendered the place uninhabitable, resulting in a government-mandated evacuation.

I stop the car at the corner of Locust Avenue and South Street, near the Saint Ignatius Cemetery, steps from the landfill where it all started.

I walk to the end of the street in the damp and cold air. An acrid smell drifts with the slight breeze. Sulfurous, it comes from the bowels of the earth – the pungent smell of burning coal. Steam is rising over the bare ground, freezing the grass in thin layers of brittle ice. Smoke wafts are growing between small cracks in the bedrock and I can feel the heat under my feet when I climb up the rubble to get a better view of the place.

Discarded tires and metal parts are mixed with cinder blocks and charred branches, making for an eerie mood in the silent morning. I lift a small rock from the ground and it’s so hot I have to drop it. Heat waves from the fire are clearly noticeable. Vapor seems to stick to everything.

A sign for Savitski Brothers Coal Company in Mt. Carmel, near Centralia.
A sign for Savitski Brothers Coal Company in Mt. Carmel, near Centralia.

I soon head back east to what was once Centralia’s main avenue, taking a look at the house of the town’s last mayor, Carl Womer, who died in May 2014. The house still stands on a recessed side street, but with its deed held by the state since it was taken by eminent domain in 1992, the property is bound to be destroyed in the near future.

I think of the lost history and forgotten memories as I walk by a long-dead tree, a sign reading FIRE nailed to its bark, pointing at nowhere in particular, as if the FIRE had engulfed the whole land and the world along with it, leaving nothing behind but ashes.

Pennsylvania has always been a leading anthracite coal provider, with more than sixty-eight million tons mined in 2013. Despite the growth of natural gas and renewable power, coal has endured, still accounting for thirty-nine percent of national electricity production and representing one of the largest employment sources in Pennsylvania, with 49,100 jobs and more than $700 million netted in tax revenue last year – even while the industry had to comply with ever-stricter regulations promoting clean energy.

Pennsylvania is also the state that is most plagued by mine fires, with at least thirty-eight recorded cases. Whether sparked naturally or human-induced, those blazes are well-known for being virtually impossible to extinguish. Most of the landscapes of the American West are actually the result of large-scale, ancient underground coal fires. Some, like Australia’s Burning Mountain, are thought to have been burning for 6,000 years.

A home on Troutwine Street in Centralia.
A home on Troutwine Street in Centralia.

Coal consumption was already in decline when Centralia’s underground fire started back in 1962. Mining operators were struggling to keep profits up, fearing a looming economic crash and slowly downsizing their labor force. Small towns had been steadily shrinking for quite some time, their residents either moving to bigger cities or finding new jobs in different fields. In spite of this, Centralia was doing relatively well.

Then all hell broke loose.

It’s slightly past eight a.m. when I reach May’s Drive In Restaurant in Ashland, less than two miles south of Centralia. Ed Fuller is a seventy-four-year-old technician recently retired from the mining industry. He is also a former Centralian. He sees me first and waves at me from his table. We shake hands and I’m soon sipping a warm cup of coffee, the waitress scribbling my order on her notepad.

“You should try the French toast,” Fuller suggests.

I follow his advice and we quickly start eating, the windows fogging up as the room fills with regular customers – ladies with walkers, white-haired men in gym slacks, old couples sharing breakfast together.

“Every now and then I see people coming here after they’ve visited the town,” Fuller declares. “Most of them are disappointed. They’re expecting more of it.”

“Ghost towns are popular,” I say.

“I can understand why for some of them. Because you can still see the history. Like abandoned places in the West, with the gold rush and the river dams and whatnot. Those I can understand,” Fuller says. “But Centralia, I don’t. It’s just trees and empty roads.”

Ed Fuller is a man of few words. He gets straight to the point, a habit he acquired during his years in the Army. His stern look and tall build give him the stance of someone who’s lived enough not to care about being judged.

“I was twenty-two when the fire started. I was living with my parents on Park Street. My mother was growing vegetables in the garden — potatoes, cabbage and such.”

“How did everything happen?” I ask.

“You will hear different stories about it. Everyone has his own version. Kids played with fireworks. A truck unloaded live embers. The government secretly did it. But in the end, it probably all came down to one simple thing: The Borough Council didn’t want the town to stink for a Memorial Day ceremony.”

Even though many theories were brought up throughout the years to explain the disaster, the Department of Environmental Protection today officially admits the most likely cause was the willful lighting of the fire by local authorities.

A Plymouth Fury sits in front of an active body repair shop in Centralia.
A Plymouth Fury sits in front of an active body repair shop in Centralia.

“May 1962,” Fuller continues. “The dump had been nasty for a while and needed a good cleaning, so the Council hired firemen to set it on fire. Of course, dump fires were illegal in Pennsylvania and no one would ever agree to having anything to do with it, but it was how it went back then. All was fine until they tried to put the fire out. Nothing was working, even after flushing and dousing the place several times. The reason, you see, is that the dump was sitting on top of an old coal mine, and the fire had somehow spread to it.”

Outside, a fine rain has begun falling from the low rolling clouds. A delivery truck turns the corner and disappears in the fog.

“Nobody acted on it until the year after,” Ed continues. “Firefighters knew they wouldn’t be able to contain the fire so they asked the DMMI [Department of Mines and Mineral Industries] for help. The DMMI designed a trench to block the fire from expanding, but their administration was in bad shape at the time because of the recession and it took them a long time to dig the trench.”

The waitress fills our cups with fresh coffee. Fuller continues.

“In 1967 the USBM [United States Bureau of Mines] proposed a new trench design that would have worked far better than the first one…It was a good plan,” Ed states, his hands slowly clenching into fists. “It was a good plan.”

“Why didn’t it work?”

“Centralia was a small town. People had already started moving out, jobs were scarce, don’t you know. We were maybe 1,200 living there, almost all of us working in the mining industry. Not especially rich folks. The government had estimated the town’s value at $500,000. The whole town. The shops, the garages, the churches, the schools, all of it. $500,000. I’m not kidding. “The cost of the USBM trenches was $4.5 million. You can guess what happened next.”

E. 2nd and N. Oak Streets in Mt. Carmel, where many residents moved after the fire began.
E. 2nd and N. Oak Streets in Mt. Carmel, where many residents moved after the fire began.

Fuller pauses and looks at me, his eyes piercing mine like he wants to make sure I fully understand the implications of what he’s telling me.

“Do you know how much they ended up spending for the relocation of everyone after the town was evacuated?” he asks with a chuckle. “$42 million.”

We finish our plates, leave money on the table and walk outside. A storm has been forecasted in the afternoon and the air feels like it.

“How was it, living there?” I question.

“Before the fire, it was a quaint place,” Fuller replies, smiling. “Nothing special. Nothing fancy. Lots of Polish immigrants there. My mother herself was a Catholic Polish. There was a farmer’s market she dragged me at every Sunday after the mass at Saint Ignatius Church. I’d help her set the stand and she’d sold produce there. Sometimes I’d go up the hilltop to pick huckleberries with my younger sister…My father was a miner and we didn’t see him much, so families often helped us with our chores. The community was tight-knit. Everyone supported each other.”

Fuller greets a man watching us from his porch, his hands in his pockets and his gray hair flying in the wind.

“The hardest part is having nothing left to help me remember. People, when they get older, they like to reminisce…they go back to where they used to live and all. Me, I don’t have that anymore. There’s nothing left.”

The street dives down the hill, opening on the mountains. I stop a moment to glance around.

“What happened after the USBM decided to let the fire burn?” I ask.

“At this point things were becoming harder to ignore. Residents were having constant headaches and nausea from the fumes and the fire was getting close to their properties. Vegetables were burning in the gardens. Basements were warm enough to stop using heaters.

“Then in 1969 the government decided to build a fly ash barrier to seal the fire. Boreholes were drilled across town to monitor the underground temperatures and CO2 detectors were installed everywhere. That’s when people began moving out.

“In late 1979, ground temperature was measured at over 135 degrees near the mayor’s gas station,” Fuller continues. “It was so hot, steam was coming out, mind you. Obviously the gas was removed straight away from the tanks. The station became useless and got demolished shortly after. This was the first real casualty from the fire, come to think of it.”

Then Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole.

Domboski was a twelve-year-old boy living on Wood Street, not far from the cemetery. As he was running toward a group of officials talking near the closed gas station, the boy’s attention was drawn by a wisp of smoke coming from a small hole at the feet of an ash tree. He got closer to the smoke. And the ground gave way.

Domboksi found himself crawling and pushing and yelling as he fell deeper into the 150-foot hole, clouds of foul-smelling steam spraying from below, the mud collapsing even further under him and the roaring sound of flames rising to his ears.

“The fire had weakened an old mine shaft structure and made the ground collapse where the kid was standing,” says Fuller. “The exhaust fumes and the heat would have killed him if his cousin hadn’t pulled him out.”

The swift reaction of Domboksi’s sixteen-year-old cousin, Eric Wolfgang, who ran to help him out of the hole, and the fortunate presence of tree roots, were the only things that prevented his death. One hundred and thirty-five degrees temperatures were later measured in the sinkhole, with enough CO2 concentration to kill anyone in mere minutes.

“This caught attention from television and newspapers and forced the governor to finally act on it,” says Fuller. “He came with a lousy buyout proposal to relocate the town elsewhere and offered owners as little as $25,000 for their houses. What can you buy for that sum of money? There were protests. We were all pissed because nobody was giving a damn.

“My wife Jodi and I had already purchased our home here in Ashland. You couldn’t have made her stay in Centralia for the world. She hated it. The smell alone made her sick.”

Fuller’s parents, however, were among those who opted to stay in Centralia.

Route 61 running through Ashland, another nearby town that former Centralia residents relocated to. The main streets of Centralia closely resembled these before the fire.
Route 61 running through Ashland, another nearby town that former Centralia residents relocated to. The main streets of Centralia closely resembled these before the fire.

“My wife didn’t understand my parents for staying there,” he says. “She often tried to reason with them to make them leave.

“My father had built this house with his hands, you see. It was something they had worked all their lives for. They were proud of living there in spite of all that happened. They belonged here and they couldn’t afford to move anyway.”

At Ed Fuller’s house in Ashland, I sit at the kitchen table while he pours me a glass of water. Photos of his granddaughters hang on the walls. There is a tangy smell of varnish emanating from the wood paneling of the entrance hall.

“Two solutions were submitted: either excavating the fire for more than $600 million, or evacuating the city at the government’s expense,” Fuller says. “The outcome of the vote was maybe 350 to 200 in favor of the buyout.

“My parents and the folks who stayed after the buyout believed it was all a plot from the state to get the coal for free. They believed the government had started the fire on purpose so they could expropriate everyone in Centralia and access the coal underground.”

Ed Fuller’s not one for conspiracy theories himself. “I just think the government left us to ourselves and did nothing to help. It’s worse than if they had tried to steal the coal from us, after all. It’s just they didn’t care.”

Fuller’s parents stayed until the state used eminent domain laws to take control of most of Centralia in 1992. “They were too old to keep fighting, so they eventually accepted the expropriation,” Ed says. “They got a little money from it and went straight to a nursing home. My father passed at seventy-seven, a month before our house got torn down. It killed him. It really did.

“I’m glad he wasn’t there to see the demolition. I watched the wrecker crush the roof and the walls. It was one of the saddest moments in my life, seeing the place I grew up in getting flattened in a matter of minutes.”

“My mother joined him in ’96. They both went through this ordeal to end up dying in a nursing home. It’s so damn cruel.” There is palpable sadness in Ed’s voice. Anger, too. A helpless anger lamenting all that could have been done to save a part of his existence from vanishing.

Sunset at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in Centralia. This is the only remaining church in the town, and it still has a congregation.
Sunset at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in Centralia. This is the only remaining church in the town, and it still has a congregation.

Fuller’s parents were not the last residents of Centralia. A few who still refused to leave, even after the eminent domain action, finally won a lawsuit in 2013, allowing them to stay in their homes now that the fire was no longer considered a threat.

“Centralia would still exist if politicians had handled things right in the beginning,” says Fuller. “The fire would have been contained. Nobody would have had to go. And I would probably still live there.”

On a sunny afternoon, the remains of Centralia look like an ordinary piece of countryside, with streams twisting through hilly woodlands and deer racing from trail to trail. But on a foggy morning like this one, the area becomes much more dramatic, frightening even, a lonely Orthodox church overlooking the valley like a godsend, holding tight before the apocalypse.

Cast in the Appalachian ridges and valleys, roughly in the middle of Pennsylvania and about eighty miles northwest of Philadelphia, the town was originally built on a grid plan, divided from east to west by Locust Avenue and north to south by Center Street. Classic miner’s houses were the most common type of dwellings, townhouses attached to each other, with front porches and pointy roofs.

Many urban legends have been inspired by the town’s story, even if you’d be ill-advised to call it haunted in front of its current residents. Yet, with the 1,500 graves spread among three cemeteries making up the largest part of the local population, Centralia’s withering grounds can certainly feel ghostly. This image wasn’t helped by the popular “Silent Hill” video game series and horror movie, loosely based on the local events and attracting lots of visitors in the past year— to the displeasure of the last six people living there. “If you’re a reporter, please hang up, we don’t do interviews,” a recorded phone message announced until recently when calling Bonnie Hynoski, a fifty-seven-year-old fourth-generation Centralian and the wife of the borough’s current Fire Chief.

The abandoned stretch of Route 61 that used to lead to Centralia is today covered in graffiti, crude inscriptions and explicit drawings. WELCOME TO HELL, one reads at the southern entrance of the blocked-off highway, right in front of a large crack snaking through the asphalt in which it was at times possible to get a glimpse of the devouring red inferno below.

The road was found to be a safety concern in 1982 after it was determined that the fire burned directly under it. The coal pillars supporting its structure were gradually consumed by the heat, making the asphalt buckle and sink. In 1983, temperatures exceeding 850 degrees were measured in the crack that had opened between the traffic lanes and the DOT finally closed the road.

The warnings reminding that the ground is prone to sudden collapse don’t deter bikers and off roaders who come here to practice obstacle crossing or ramp jumping. “I pretend zombies are chasing me,” says Justin, twenty-five, a Geisinger Services clerk who rides his motorcycle in every weekend from Kulpmont.

The 4,000 feet of abandoned highway end on Locust Avenue near where John Coddington’s gas station once stood. A few months before the closing of the station, David Lamb, a motorcycle shop owner living on the same block as Coddington’s, learned his house’s cellar was the entrance of a bootleg mine shaft diving right to the bedrock, allowing toxic fumes to infiltrate everywhere in a 100-yard radius. The fire was moving south. This was the beginning of the end for Centralia.

A windmill farm is visible from the end of South Street in Centralia.
A windmill farm is visible from the end of South Street in Centralia.

I try to locate Lamb’s house but cannot find anything but rumble and weeds, so I decide to walk to the eastern side of Locust Avenue to see the Odd Fellows Cemetery. The grass is browned and the tombs hidden behind untrimmed hedges. I’m alone in the world, keeping company to the dead.

A toy horse is tangled between the branches of a tree. I cannot help shivering as the fog gets thicker in the woods. I stumble on a rusted borehole enclosed in wire netting, emerging straight from the ground, still and dark in the back of the cemetery.

More than 2,000 of those boreholes were drilled across the town to monitor the fire temperatures and let the pressure evacuate from underground tunnels, despite the indication that they could actually supply oxygen to the fire and worsen the air quality. Joan Girolami, an East Park Street resident and mother of two, had one drilled near her swimming pool in 1978. The temperature measured by the Bureau of Mines was 746 degrees. This was three years before the Centralia: HELL ON EARTH bumper stickers were made. Three years before Girolami asked “do we have to have a tragedy […] before we get any help?” during a General Assembly meeting.

I leave the cemetery to see where the tragedy almost did happen on Valentine’s Day, 1981. I look at the snowy ground where Todd Domboksi was almost swallowed. I try not to think too much about the void underneath me.

A few steps north on Park Street used to stand a green bench, set near a former war memorial adjoining Locust Avenue and enclosed by a dry stone wall. The bench, along with several lawns and vacant lots, was maintained by a resident named John Lokitis until 2009, when he received an eviction notice for his 108 West Park Street home. When the town’s ZIP code was revoked in 2002, Lokitis painted it on a bench at the corner of Railroad and Locust: 17927 in white stenciled letters. Lokitis took care of his birthplace. He didn’t want it gone.

Today, forty feet of concrete curb is all that’s left of his house, demolished in 2010. Lokitis has since moved to nearby Milton but still doesn’t understand why he had to leave his home, inherited from his grandfather and completely spared by the fire.

Even though almost nothing remains of Centralia, every street is steeped in history. Here is where the Welsh’s candy store was. Here a beauty shop. Here the Zimbo’s Hotel. This was the Speed Stop, the motorcycle shop owned by David Lamb.

When the fire was confirmed in 1983 to have spread so much that it was impossible to put out, the dead zone, as it was called, was already easily visible from the sky at the southern end of town. The forest here was completely burned out. Bleached white trees were frozen in brown foliage and scorched ground – a black and white trail in the middle of the greenery. The earth had cracked, opening long crevices through the scrubs.

A complete excavation would now cost a staggering $660 million when a similar plan proposed in 1963 would have only been $277,000. Since putting out the fire was out of the question, a government buyout program was presented as the only viable solution for Centralians. The market value of their homes was very low and the $42 million help from the local administration wasn’t enough to pay a fair price for everyone’s relocation. But in the August 8, 1983 referendum, residents voted in favor of a relocation, considered the safest and fastest way to deal with the situation.

Appraisers roamed the streets with notepads, knocking on doors and meeting with the owners, writing notes about the locations, in or out of the 300-degree zone, east or west, near or far from other amenities. Widespread demolitions started. Houses were boarded up and codes were painted on each one of them. Bulldozers came and wrecked everything as fire hoses poured water over the dust. The fog and the smokes were still there.

The Odd Fellows Cemetery in Centralia. The landfill that was ignited is located directly behind the cemetery – ground zero for the fire.
The Odd Fellows Cemetery in Centralia. The landfill that was ignited is located directly behind the cemetery – ground zero for the fire.

In 1986, only fifty households were remaining, all belonging to people who refused to let their homes be sold for a pittance.

When Governor Bob Casey invoked eminent domain in 1992, he made sure the legal system would leave the eviction order active, even after the land takeover dispute was brought to the Supreme Court.

The remaining Centralians were now essentially squatters in their own homes, their titles transferred to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Authorities didn’t bother enforcing the evictions though. “That would [have been] very bad publicity,” explained eighty-nine-year-old Mayor Lamar Mervine in 2005 to the Smithsonian Magazine, adding that no one would have risked another Waco-like siege.

By this time, the only indication of the fire burning underneath was a light sulfurous odor from time to time when the wind blew right. The only indication that a thriving town had been there were the twenty or so houses standing in a desolate field made of yellowed grass, torn down sheds, dead trees and anthracite rocks.

All were lost in the mist.

Teens are slowly gathering in Mount Carmel’s Vine Street Sandwich Shop, talking of school and social network apps as I finish my cheesesteak. Mark Sawicki is waiting for me outside, finishing a phone call with his brother. Sawicki is fifty-seven. He used to work as a coal picker in the nearby Harmony Mine. until a few years ago when health issues prevented him from going underground anymore.

“I can’t say I was sad,” he says with a smile, opening the door to his townhouse down the street. “It was probably the best thing that happened to me back then.”

“My family left Centralia back in ’72,” Sawicki declares. “We were living on Center Street. I don’t remember much of it, to be fair. Just the basketball field.”

“Why did you leave so early on?” I ask.

“My dad was a miner. It runs in the family, as you can see. He knew about mine fires. He knew something was up from the moment we learned the DMMI had trouble with the trenches.”

“Had he experienced an underground fire before?”

“You could say that. He started bootlegging coal in the 1930s. He was there when the Bast Colliery exploded a mile or so from Centralia in 1932. The word was someone had pitched a lit butt into a tunnel and the whole drift had caught on fire. The mine was flooded and blasted shut, but my dad often told us he could still see glowing embers burning at night in the 1960s, thirty years later.”

“Was this fire related to the one in Centralia?”

“It could have been. The Bast fire could have moved under Centralia with the time. I believe so. The coal seams are all linked under there,” says Mark, kicking the floor with his foot. “It’s possible that the fire went from vein to vein until it reached Centralia. It’s too late to tell anyway. It would make sense, though.”

The Bast Colliery theory has been discarded several times during ecological assessments of the situation and is today mostly considered a local legend. However, many are the miners who still believe the legend has some truth in it, even if none of them can really prove it.

Snow is beginning to fall outside, quickly piling up against walls and hedges. Sawicki coughs a lot. I can hear him wheeze as he offers me a cup of coffee.

“Was it hard for your family to leave?” I ask.

“You know, people come and go in places like this one. It’s all about the mines. Every city around here works the same. If the mines do well, people stay. If the mines don’t do well, people leave.”

Sawicki’s rasping voice is echoing in the house, the surrounding silence only broken by the refrigerator’s compressor starting and stopping in the kitchen.

“Would you have wished to stay?” I inquire.

“Not really. It’s where I lived for a part of my life, but that’s all,” Mark replies, but then adds: “I guess that without Centralia I probably wouldn’t have worked in the mines. I found [the fire] fascinating, you know. The idea of a fire burning right under a city, right under my street. Everyone compared it to hell and I was very intrigued by this…I wanted to know more about that. I wanted to see it… to understand it.”

“So the fire made you follow your father’s steps?”

“In a way. I never wanted to be a coal picker. I was just curious. My dad got me hired, I passed my miner certificate and there I went…It paid well but if you ask me, the money isn’t worth the risks you take down there.”

“Were you ever injured?”

Sawicki laughs and coughs again.

“Sure I was,” he says. “Broke my leg when a rock fell on me. Got smashed by a chariot. I couldn’t even count the minor injuries. In ’94 one of the guys I was working with died. The roof collapsed on him and he was trapped under a boulder with no oxygen. Accidents are part of the deal. That’s why the money’s good.

“I see young folks like you trying themselves at it almost every week. They never last. They put a little money aside and get the hell out of there as soon as they can. They’re the smart ones. The ones who keep at it are those who don’t really have a choice. Until they’re fired because there ain’t no work anymore, that is.”

Mark Sawicki himself was laid off from the mines twice.

“The first time was in the early eighties. The boss just gave me a pink slip on his way to his locker like it was nothing. The second time the poor guy was half my age and I had to show him how to do it. Both times were for economic reasons. The company didn’t really have a choice. They eventually hired me back.”

We watch a neighbor brushing snow off his car. We chuckle when a draft blasts the snow right back where it was. The rest of the town is at a standstill.

“Traditional mining is dead,” Sawicki says as he turns to his side and clears his throat. “My dad picked for maybe forty years. Back when he started, coal was the main source of energy in America…They were providing electricity for the whole goddamn country. It was all thanks to them. The radios, the TVs, the lights of course, the heating, everything. It was them. Guys like my dad, they worked like crazies and risked their lives every single day for everyone else to get those things…And yet as soon as those guys weren’t needed anymore, they just got tossed away like nobodies.”

Sawicki finishes his coffee and grins.

“You would think that when your town catches on fire someone would help you. Especially if you’re one of the people who helped build this country. Right? Well, it turns out you’d be wrong! You’re a coal picker, what do you think? You’re not important. Your house ain’t important. Your life ain’t important. You just get to work and die like a rat.”

Cough, again. Cough and ache as he goes to the bathroom, with the snow still falling and the wind still howling outside.

“What did you do after you were laid off?” I ask when he comes back.

“I was drinking pretty heavily back then. Almost cost me a divorce.” Now eleven years sober, Sawicki goes to AA meetings every other Saturday.

“After so many years in the mines, you come to miss it,” he says. “There’s a real brotherhood. You practically live together. When you lose that you kind of lose everything. From the ten or eleven people I knew that got axed back then, three of them were dead in a year. One crashed his car in a tree after drinking a bottle of vodka. Another one went into a coma and never recovered. Another one got into a fight and was beaten to death.”

“Working in a mine is a one-way business,” he continues.” You go down there and you never really go out. Even in your free time you’re there underground with your face all black and limestone in your lungs. Drugs and alcohol make you skip that.”

I think of the burned cans and broken bottles piling up near the Odd Fellows cemetery, of the empty cellophane balls and the old campfire traces.

“Centralia hasn’t helped the world to see coal mining as a good thing,” Mark Sawicki declares. “Explosions and mine fires are pretty common, but this was a real ecological disaster… It showed that coal picking was an ugly business and that everyone was only concerned about profit. The people, the land, who cares?”

He pauses and pulls a gray oxygen bottle from behind his armchair, apologizing as he puts a mask on his face and takes long, deep breathes of air from it.

“Myself, I thought of moving away from here. Countless times,” Sawicki adds. “Florida, maybe. Never had the heart to do it, though. Everyone I know lives here. I was born in Columbia County. It’s my home. I know it doesn’t mean much, but it means something to me.”

“It’s too late for me anyways,” he continues. “Working in the mines takes a toll sooner or later. You know you’ll die young the moment you start on the job. When my doctor told me I had the black lung, I wasn’t even surprised. Sometimes I feel good and then I start coughing and it doesn’t stop until I’m in the ER.”

We finish the pot of coffee and comment on a recent Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game to lighten the mood. I listen to Mark recount the story of how he met his wife. There is so much pride in his eyes when he points out his youngest grandson has said his first word.

The valley is cold and cast in white when I leave Mount Carmel.

A couple is walking in front of Centralia’s Municipal Building, a brown-tiled warehouse still used to store a thirty-year-old fire truck and an ambulance in case an emergency occurs in nearby Aristes. “It’s so sad,” the man, a German tourist named Rudi, says. “It’s like the city never existed.” We take pictures of the garage doors and talk about what it must be to live here today before parting ways.

One of the original vents installed in the area surrounding Odd Fellows Cemetery. These vents were installed in hopes that dangerous gases would be released here, and not into the homes of nearby residents.
One of the original vents installed in the area surrounding Odd Fellows Cemetery. These vents were installed in hopes that dangerous gases would be released here, and not into the homes of nearby residents.

I climb the Paxton Street steep slope at the town’s northernmost point. Life seems to come back here, maybe because of the soothing presence of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Church. Weekly services are still held there under the church’s blue and golden roof. Flowers blossom in spring. People gather and walk up the steep stairs to listen to the local minister’s lectures.

Something moves between the trees and a deer shows his head, careful and alert, steadily watching me as I crouch to the ground. No sound around but the wind.

The deer crosses the road and disappears into the woods.

I think of persistence and stubbornness. The years it took before the remaining residents ended up having the last word when they won their lawsuit in 2013, receiving a cash payout of $349,500 and the permission to stay in their homes for as long as they lived.

I walk down empty Locust Avenue, as cars dash by with their fog lights and their wipers on. Everything has been removed and erased.

Not even the time capsule buried in 1966 for the centennial of the town and opened last year by a group of former Centralians subsisted. The items inside the vault were almost all ruined by water that had leaked into it. One of the only things that survived water damage was a miner’s helmet and lamp signed by the men living there at the time — a cruel reminder of the town’s origins and demise.

Centralia was bound to die like it was born.

While Pennsylvania recently unlocked $1.4 million to put out another mine fire threatening Pittsburgh’s main gas pipeline and airport operations, budgets have been completely cut in Centralia. A few volunteers will help clean the borough from trash on May 16th, 2015, led by the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation. Windmills spinning on the horizon line, white and graceful, are a vivid sign that the region has moved on. Down below, the fire still burns.

I get back to my car and start the engine, warming my cold hands against the heat vents. A thin layer of ice is shining on the weeds, the ground sparkling like glitter.

This was a place where people lived.

This was a place people loved, loved so much that some would stay there in spite of the hell that burned below the earth and menaced to spill all over them.

This was a place people had to surrender.

The road is dark and sharp and slippery, streaming by the young twilight as music fills my ears in the coziness of the car. The mist fades away and with it the Borough of Centralia, the fires and the hills and the smokes and the doomed memories.

Introducing Believable, Narratively’s Debut Podcast

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

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

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

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

 


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

The Curse of the Ship of Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2 Long Journey To The Bottom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 3 A Legal Hell Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He is calculated, doesn’t do anything on a whim, pretty confident. He knows exactly what he is doing, exactly who is looking for him, and likely is watching this interview,” U.S. Marshal Brad Fleming said in an interview. “I’d like to think we don’t need him to make a mistake for us to catch him, but it would sure help.”

And a mistake is exactly what happened.

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

Part 5 The Manhunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As it turned out, this time she was.

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

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

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

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

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

The judge was not buying it.

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

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

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

Once again, there was little sympathy from the bench.

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

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

Part 6 A Complex Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 7 End of a Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Doctors Are Reconstructing the Youngest Faces of a Brutal War

These Syrian children survived attacks that left them burned beyond belief. One program thousands of miles from home is offering them life-changing treatment.

A photo of a young girl with brown hair whose face has been disfigured in a chemical attack sits on a bed and looks at the photographer. She wears a blue knit jacket, blue knit skirt, and a white dress shirt. The walls in the room are white, the blankets and sheets on the bed are white, and there is a red Teddy bear on the bed.A photo of a young girl with brown hair whose face has been disfigured in a chemical attack sits on a bed and looks at the photographer. She wears a blue knit jacket, blue knit skirt, and a white dress shirt. The walls in the room are white, the blankets and sheets on the bed are white, and there is a red Teddy bear on the bed.

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.

Aysha Al Saloom, 8, at the apartment in Irvine, California, where she lives with her mother. Aysha will spend several years here while she undergoes surgeries for her burn wounds.
Aysha Al Saloom, 8, at the apartment in Irvine, California, where she lives with her mother. Aysha will spend several years here while she undergoes surgeries for her burn wounds.

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.”

Three Syrian boys—Anwar Almaddad, 7, Yazen Al Khalid, 8, and Abdullah Al Ahmad, 9—play on their tablets and phones at their apartment in Galveston, Texas. The boys are all being treated for their burns at the nearby Shriners Hospitals for Children.
Three Syrian boys—Anwar Almaddad, 7, Yazen Al Khalid, 8, and Abdullah Al Ahmad, 9—play on their tablets and phones at their apartment in Galveston, Texas. The boys are all being treated for their burns at the nearby Shriners Hospitals for Children.

(L-R) Yazen, Anwar, Abdullah, and Manal Al Hindawi, 13. All four children and their families live together in one apartment in Galveston.
(L-R) Yazen, Anwar, Abdullah, and Manal Al Hindawi, 13. All four children and their families live together in one apartment in Galveston.

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.

Hamama Almansoor, 17, in the Irvine, California, apartment where she lives while being treated at Shriners Hospital for Children.
Hamama Almansoor, 17, in the Irvine, California, apartment where she lives while being treated at Shriners Hospital for Children.

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.

Aysha shows a photo of herself from before she was injured in a missile attack.
Aysha shows a photo of herself from before she was injured in a missile attack.

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.

Abdullah and Anwar on the merry-go-round at the local theme park in Galveston.
Abdullah and Anwar on the merry-go-round at the local theme park in Galveston.

A doctor examines Abdullah, while his mother looks on, at the Shriners Hospitals for Children.
A doctor examines Abdullah, while his mother looks on, at the Shriners Hospitals for Children.

* * *

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.

Manal’s mother (center) fixes her wig, with a little help from Yazen's mom.
Manal’s mother (center) fixes her wig, with a little help from Yazen’s mom.

Abdullah’s mother holds his hand as he is wheeled into the operating room for a follow-up procedure.
Abdullah’s mother holds his hand as he is wheeled into the operating room for a follow-up procedure.

* * *

“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.

Anwar plays, with the help of Abdullah's mom, Kawthar, at a local park in Galveston.
Anwar plays, with the help of Abdullah’s mom, Kawthar, at a local park in Galveston.

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.

(L-R) Hamama, Hana, and Aysha in Irvine, California.
(L-R) Hamama, Hana, and Aysha in Irvine, California.

The Book Thief of Monastery Mountain

When priceless texts began disappearing from a seventh-century hilltop abbey, the police were mystified. They were even more befuddled when they finally caught the culprit.

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.

The Notre-Dame de l’Assomption church next to the hotel at Mont Sainte-Odile. (All photos by the author.)

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.

Inside the library at the monastery.

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.

Library rack with books locked away at the monastery.

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.

View from Mont Sainte-Odile down to the Rhine plain.

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.

Hidden History

Year of the Mad Bomber

Fifty years ago, a left-wing radical planted bombs across New York, launching a desperate manhunt—and an explosive new strain of political extremism.

Throughout much of 1968, Sam Melville, an unemployed 34-year-old with an estranged wife and 5-year-old son, frequently sat at his desk in a squalid apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, contemplating how he could destroy America.

Smoking a pipe, the towering man with long, stringy black hair thinning at the top and two different-colored eyes — one blue, one green — reflected on that turbulent year’s assassinations, the escalating war in Vietnam, and the constant battles between police and protestors. Two years earlier, Melville had left behind a well-paying job as a draftsman, a spacious apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and his family. His father, a former member of the Communist Labor Party, whom Melville once greatly admired, had recently given up the socialist cause, remarried, and opened a hamburger stand in an upscale section of Long Island. Fearing that he might follow his father on a similar path led Melville down an existential rabbit hole. In and around his neighborhood that year, he took part in marches and sit-ins, but by 1969, as his anger toward the government grew, he secretly set off a series of bombs across Manhattan. To many in the counterculture underground, he was their equivalent of a masked avenger. To the local media, he was known as “the Mad Bomber.”

Melville set off bombs in the offices of General Motors, Standard Oil and Chase Bank. He also hit the warehouse of United Fruit, a company that was exploiting its Cuban workers and had even assisted in the Bay of Pigs invasion; the banking institution Marine Midland; the Federal Office Building at Foley Square; an Army induction center on Whitehall Street; and the Manhattan Criminal Court Building. A communiqué delivered to the press stated that the bombings were a protest against “The giant corporations of America [that] have now spread themselves all over the world, forcing entire foreign economies into total dependence on American money and goods.” Members of New York City’s bomb squad were flummoxed by the sophistication of these electrically charged contraptions, which often brimmed over with 20 or more sticks of high-grade dynamite. There was no way some doped-up college kid was making them. When asked by the New York Post who the Mad Bomber could be, according to a book about Melville by Leslie James Pickering, one team member replied, “It looks like the job of a demolition expert.”

For Melville’s son, Josh, who remembers his father best as a loving, folk-singing vegetarian, the sudden burst of violence still baffles him. “I understand my father’s stated reasons, but I guess I am of the belief that the stated reasons are just the brochure,” he says while relaxing at a cigar bar in Manhattan’s Financial District. “I understand he was against imperialism and was a Marxist, but so what? You can be all those things and still not want to blow up buildings.”

The aftermath of the Weather Underground bomb factory explosion in the basement of the West Village townhouse, March 6, 1970. Three people died in the blast. (Photo courtesy New York City Department Of Records And Information Services)

Yet in the flashpoint of just four months, Sam Melville and a small group of followers took the American radical left on a hard turn into armed struggle. In his book Days of Rage, about terrorism in America in the ’60s and ’70s, Bryan Burrough called Melville and his corps “the essential blueprint for almost every radical organization” in the 1970s. Melville was one of the first to turn to this kind of violence, but the country would soon witness the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army, the bombings of the Pentagon and NYPD headquarters by the Weather Underground, and more.

“Between ’68 and ’69, there was this crescendo of an apocalyptic feeling and the circumstances made us crazy,” says Jonathan Lerner, a co-founder of the Weather Underground, the militant offshoot of the socialist group Students for a Democratic Society. “You’re out there marching peacefully to stop the war and the war is getting worse and you’re marching for civil rights and it didn’t stop police harassment of black people or the assassination of Martin Luther King. You begin to think people don’t care, and it makes you feel all that’s left to do are these provocative, attention-grabbing things.”

But the fresh-out-of-college kids of the Weather Underground didn’t have the type of domestic baggage Sam Melville had. Josh Melville recalls something one of his father’s accomplices once told him: “I think your father felt he had to be self-destructive after he left you and your mother. What else would make a person act that way other than knowing they damaged their family?”

“THIS RELEASE IS FOR THE UNDERGROUND MEDIA ONLY. THERE WILL BE NO COMMUNICATION WITH THE PIG MEDIA.” Those words were emblazoned across the top of the communiqué that followed the bombing of the Marine Midland Bank Building on August 20, 1969. Composed by his then girlfriend, Jane Alpert, and others who would later be christened by the FBI as “the Melville Collective,” the statement was sent around to local underground weeklies, including the one where Alpert held a staff writer position, Rat Subterranean News. The communiqué explained that the reason behind the massive explosion was the banking institution’s links to the oppression of sugarcane field workers in Latin America. But in Alpert’s 1981 autobiography, Growing Up Underground, in which she chronicles her transformation from Swarthmore honor student to radical fugitive, Alpert claims the action was bereft of any political thought on Melville’s part. The communiqué had to be cooked up afterward to cover up the real excuse for the bombing: his anger over Alpert seeing other men.

When I bring this up to Josh Melville, who’s working on a book of his own about his father, his disdain for how Sam is portrayed in Alpert’s text is clearly visible. “Jane likes to connect my father’s rogue bombings to their spats as a couple, but the more you learn about him, the more you know that’s fucking ridiculous,” Josh says. “This man wouldn’t destroy a building just because the girl he was living with — who he wasn’t even faithful to — slept around. It was the ’60s, and everyone slept with each other. Her story doesn’t add up.” (Alpert’s book is seen by some as an important statement on the sexism in the radical left at the time; Josh Melville who operates SamMelville.org, disputes much of what has been written about his father, by Alpert, Pickering, and others.)

The one thing nobody can debate is the haphazard manner in which Sam Melville went about bombing Marine Midland. Though his intention was to destroy property and not people, he did not take into account the presence of an evening staff in the building when he set the device for a 10 p.m. detonation. When more than a dozen employees were taken to the hospital — all with minor injuries — it forced him to rethink his future plans of attack. To assure nothing like this would happen again, Melville culled a crew of seven, including Alpert and Robin Palmer, a member of the Downtown Manhattan anarchist group “the Crazies,” to help him scope out potential new targets, craft communiqués, and plant the bombs.

After weeks of meticulous planning, Alpert kicked off the group’s revamped campaign by planting a bomb in the Federal Office Building on Friday, September 19, 1969, targeting offices of the U.S. Army and Selective Services inside. The device went off at 2 a.m., destroying files, damaging the building’s electricity infrastructure, and causing flooding. There were no injuries.

Melville and his cell soon learned that damaging federal property could elicit a furious response. The next day, the FBI went to an apartment Melville had moved out of months earlier, and later they tracked him down at the apartment on East 4th Street where he and Alpert were living. He told them his name was David McCurdy — the pseudonym he had used to rent a nearby apartment where he had set up an explosives workshop — and denied knowing who Sam Melville was.

Unfazed by this close call, the collective went to work plotting their most ambitious statement on American tyranny yet: a trio of simultaneous bomb blasts across the city on Veterans Day. Meanwhile, Melville opted for his version of laying low: skipping town and going on a bombing spree of U.S. Army facilities across the Midwest. According to a book by Christopher Hewitt, Political Violence and Terrorism in Modern America, the explosions in Chicago; Madison, Wisconsin; and Milwaukee caused a total of $125,000 in damages — with Melville’s goal of zero injuries. Melville also participated in a guerilla warfare workshop in North Dakota, hosted by the black nationalist H. Rap Brown.

Soon after Melville’s return to New York on the afternoon of November 10, Jane Alpert and two other members of the Melville Collective, Patricia Swinton and John David Hughey III, left their bomb-making factory on East 2nd Street in intervals to disperse one bomb apiece in the offices of Standard Oil, Chase Bank and General Motors. At 1 o’clock the next morning, the concurrent string of explosions did their expected damage to both the offices and the nerves of the already taut city, with the events receiving national news coverage and a new communiqué. Penned by Alpert again, the message ended with the declaration: “The empire is breaking down as people all over the world are rising up to challenge its power. From the inside, black people have been fighting a revolution for years. And finally, white Americans too are striking blows for liberation.”

At Melville’s urging, Robin Palmer was sent to plant a device the very next day at the Criminal Court Building on Centre Street, in response to the trial taking place there of a group of Black Panthers charged with attempts to bomb police stations. Another blast was planned to follow at the Lexington Armory on 26th Street, with Melville delivering the bomb himself with help from George Demmerle, a newer member Melville had befriended on the Lower East Side. Demmerle, an overly rambunctious radical who not only was a member of the Crazies but also held rank as the only Caucasian member of the Black Panthers, greatly impressed Melville.

The only thing stopping Melville from meeting up with Demmerle to execute the bombing, according to Alpert’s book, was the white sedan parked out front of his and Alpert’s apartment — the same one he’d seen there earlier in the week. Could his clumsy blurt of the name David McCurdy to the FBI agents have tipped them off? Had they found his bomb factory? He couldn’t sit and ponder what the answer might be. He had to mobilize. The revolution was in full swing.

Not long after the explosive on Centre Street, Demmerle and Melville made their way uptown, to 26th Street. The plan was to chuck the timed bombs onto the large Army trucks parked in front of the 69th Regiment Armory, knowing they would later be brought inside the building. But as Melville approached, he noticed something different than the numerous times they had cased the building. The trucks were now parked on the opposite side of the street, near people’s homes. His son, Josh, believes he didn’t want to risk hurting any more innocent people. Figuring the action would have to wait for another day, Melville was just about to turn away when he was bombarded from all angles by FBI agents pointing pistols and ordering him to freeze.

Concurrently, Jane Alpert and John David Hughey III were rounded up at the already staked-out apartment on East 4th Street. The feds’ biggest tipoff came from the person assisting Melville with the botched Armory bombing itself: George Demmerle.

Just like Melville, Demmerle was a man who had left his wife and child looking for purpose in life, but instead of becoming a self-appointed revolutionary, he found it as a low-level mole for the government, beginning in 1966. To many on the scene, Demmerle’s attempts to nudge members of the counterculture into outrageous acts like blowing up the Brooklyn Bridge seemed suspicious. But to Melville, Demmerle was just another comrade in the struggle.

Jane Alpert exiting the courthouse with John D. Hughey III, another member of the Weather Underground Collective, after pleading guilty to a conspiracy to bomb federal buildings along with Samuel Melville, January 15, 1970. (Photo by Louis Liotta/New York Post via Getty Images)

Two months into the new decade, Sam Melville stood broken in the Federal Courthouse on Pearl Street. While Alpert and, later, Hughey walked on a $20,000 bond, Melville watched his bail climb higher and higher, and when Judge Milton Pollack raised it to $500,000, an anxious Melville rose to his feet and, according to The New York Times, bellowed, “I don’t have half a million dollars! How the hell am I going to get out of jail, jackass?” Although his remark did not amuse Judge Pollack, it garnered a chuckle from the radicals looking on.

A month after his outburst in court, Melville pulled another act of desperation. He attempted an escape by restraining a marshal in the courthouse with the marshal’s own belt and making a run for it. After racing down two flights of stairs, he was apprehended.

On May 8, 1970, Melville pled guilty to three charges: conspiring to and destroying federal property, and assaulting the marshal. He was sentenced to a consecutive run of 31 years. Hughey ended up serving two years, while Alpert absconded. While harbored by members of the Weather Underground, she circulated the feminist manifesto Mother Right to much praise and criticism from the radical left, before surrendering in 1974.

Mugshots of the Weather Underground members Samuel Melville, George Demmerle, Jane Alpert, and John Hughey circulated by newspapers after being released on bail. (Photo courtesy Joshua Melville)

Melville ended up at the Attica Correctional Facility, in Western New York, in late 1970. There, abusive guards were the norm, as were ludicrously sparse rations such as a single bar of soap every other month and one roll of toilet paper given out only once a month. The lone bright spot for Melville was finding prisoners to connect with from the Black Panthers and a likeminded Puerto Rican civil rights group called the Young Lords. Over the course of the next year, Melville sent out a storm of letters decrying the conditions at Attica to lawyers, outside supporters and the New York Commissioner of Corrections, Russell Oswald, while also publishing a handmade newsletter distributed to prisoners on the sly called The Iced Pig.

For many both inside and outside of prison walls, this new awareness of incarceration conditions came from George Jackson, the San Quentin inmate who authored the best-selling book Soledad Brother. Jackson’s lyrical, vengeful writing style resonated with fellow prisoners, while enticing the romantic radicals of the New Left. When word got out that Jackson had been shot dead during a bungled uprising on August 21, 1971, it set off a brooding fury in Attica. In an act of solidarity, Melville led a multiracial phalanx of prisoners wearing black armbands into the mess hall for a very solemn hunger strike. For months after Melville’s arrival to Attica, an obvious resentment had smoldered between inmates and guards, but the death of George Jackson ignited the spark.

The prisoners’ overtaking of Attica, orchestrated by Herbert X. Blyden, Elliott “L.D.” Barkley and Melville, began two weeks after Jackson’s death, on the morning of September 9, when several portions of the prison were set ablaze. One guard was singled out for a beating so bad he died a few days later. The prisoners drew up a 15-point list of “practical proposals,” including freedom of religion, a healthier diet, improved medical treatment, and educating the correctional officers about the needs of inmates — and asking for “understanding rather than punishment.”

Over the next four days, negotiations were volleyed in and out of the prison walls by journalists, senators and the well-known civil rights lawyer William Kunstler. He came out of the prison saying it resembled a “sloppy boy scout camp,” due to the makeshift tents in the yard and trenches Melville and other inmates had dug for protection. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller refused to buckle to the inmates’ demands, and on September 13 he sent armed state police in to take back control of the prison by any means necessary. At the end of the sudden and bloody debacle, nine guards and 29 inmates were dead, with Melville reportedly being one of the first to get picked off. Legend says Melville was in mid-throw of a Molotov cocktail when he was gunned down. As much as that would make for a great dramatic ending to this made-for-TV story, evidence brought up in a civil suit during the 1990s revealed this to be a mistruth, as no such item was found near his body.

Coverage of the Attica Prison riot by the Albany Times Union, September 14, 1971. (Photo courtesy New York State Library)

At Melville’s funeral, William Kunstler delivered a riveting eulogy, while various Black Panthers icily stood guard around Melville’s casket. A few days later, the Weather Underground bombed the offices of the Commissioner of Corrections to protest Melville’s slaying.

For an almost 10-year stretch starting in 1975, a group that initially called themselves the Sam Melville Unit carried out a series of bank robberies and bombings across the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest.

Last year, former New York City Police commissioner Bernard Kerik summoned the name of the Melville-inspired group when arguing that the left-wing protest group Antifa should be considered a domestic terrorist group. “Back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, we had to deal with the Weather Underground, the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army, the Sam Melville–Jonathan Jackson Unit,” Kerik recalled. “There were a number of these anti-American leftist communist socialist groups … doing exactly what Antifa is doing today, and those groups were doing more, which is what I’m afraid of.”

While Josh Melville may have some differences with the former police commissioner, he doesn’t disagree with this parallel. “The present political climate we are in today is virtually identical to what we were experiencing in the late 1960s, and the amount of millennials percentage-wise in the U.S. population is bigger,” declares Josh Melville. “My father’s story is extremely significant today, and if I did my job correctly with my book, people will say, ‘Holy shit, this is all going to happen again!’”

Arching back in his chair to lend further significance to his statement, he puffs on his cigar and continues. “We have a populist conservative president who is infuriating the left similar to the way Nixon did. … When he won that second term in ’72, it was a symbol to the left that all hope was gone.”

After dispensing of a copious amount of ash, Josh Melville straightens his brow and sternly says, “If Trump wins another term — which I think there’s a strong likelihood he will — who knows how this is going to escalate.”