The standing-room-only joint was nicknamed “The ’Mint,” short for The Peppermint Lounge. But there’s nothing minty about it. From the stage, comedians speak to a cumulous cloud of blunt smoke hovering over the back of the room while gold fronts glint and interrupting pagers beep digits of customers coveting cocaine. The décor is a cross between abandoned dining hall and the place you’d bet a fake Rolex on a three-legged pit bull to beat up a one-eyed rooster with a shank duct-taped to its foot. Scuffed Timberlands run heel-to-toe, with more gator skins per square foot than any swamp in Florida. But in the place of everglades is the hard-angled architecture and brick-and-mortar buildings of East Orange, New Jersey.
At this point in the evening there isn’t so much a comedy set going on as a sensory assault on the audience; it’s a performance wilding. Onstage, a skinny black man wearing a vest with no shirt underneath asks why women insist that men “take the express train to go downtown on them,” and, once there, the train immediately has to “switch to a local track and make every stop.” But then when it’s the guy’s turn, “she pulls the emergency brake, and the whole subway goes out of order.”
When the crowd responds the room shakes. What sets this performer apart is not the hilarity of his jokes though — you can barely hear them with the Naughty By Nature track thundering through the colossal speakers. What is getting attention are the six strippers he’s brought with him onstage, gyrating, touching, tongue-kissing, and giving everyone close-up tutorials of the places where babies come from. If this were taking place in front of a Lower East Side crowd of New Yorkers, or maybe at some underground absinthe bar in Berlin, such an act might be lauded as performance art. But this is the Def Comedy Jam auditions of 1990.
A hot set on this uncensored show could jumpstart a black stand-up comedian’s career. It was no secret that the show bookers for Leno and Letterman weren’t giving much love to African-American comics back then, as if letting young brothers through the door would be like bringing Bébé’s kids to the Met.
“In Living Color” and Arsenio proved there was an audience for such a brand of comedy, so now there was Def Comedy Jam on HBO, making stars out of folks who at best had a late-night B.E.T. credit while still working a day gig at the D.M.V. It was all or nothing for guys with nothing at all.
The vest-clad comic cracks another one-liner, then points to a stripper who has each butt cheek decorated with a tattoo of a palm tree. She walks to the front of the stage while her cohorts fall back into a pulchritudinous phalanx. The palm tree leaves shake slightly with each step as if being coaxed by a mysterious in-house tropical breeze. Once up front she suddenly produces an orange, plastic lighter — though nowhere on her person is there anything that could be defined as a typical pocket.
She holds it high for all to see.
The crowd grows quiet.
Then, she sets her pubic hair on fire.
It blazes for only about three seconds before she pats it out, but that brief moment garners the loudest, most enthusiastic reaction I have ever witnessed from a crowd. They award her with a mass-jumping, standing ovation, as if everyone is on a giant trampoline.
The comic dramatically drops the mike, and exits the stage with his harem marching behind him in tight formation.
A guy in front of me swathed in head-to-toe Carhartt, his neck wrapped in a gold chain thick enough to tow a small boat with, leans over to a security guard and says, “Damn, WHO gonna follow THAT?!”
The security guard looks at the lineup of acts posted on the wall. He smiles and replies, “Psssssss… They got some white boy,” and then shakes his head.
The guy with the gold chain snorts, “A white boy?! I gotta see this.”
I would like to see such a reaction from the audience as well, but I can’t because I’m making my way through the dense crowd to the stage.
That white boy is me.
To the average person, being a stand-up comedian might seem like an unusual way to make a living. But being a white comedian who, for many years, performed for all-black audiences is a subcategory that most people probably don’t even know exists.
Todd Lynn, a controversial black comic infamous for wielding his opinion like a blunt instrument, once said to me, “You’re like the white dude in that movie ‘8 Mile,’ but with jokes.”
I’d moved from Washington, D.C., to New York City to be a comedian, leaving behind a day job, a night job, and an ex-wife who wanted babies when the only babies I could love were the new bits I wrote on scraps of paper all day.
I’d landed in a Bronx apartment on top of a Jamaican patty shop that doubled as the local weed spot. The owner, Trevor, who looked like the reggae singer Shabba Ranks, frequently sang along to country music he played in the background.
I always gravitated toward characters like him: people who seemed to have one foot in another world.
One of my first comedic impressions was of a guy named Keith, who, in spite of being white, reminded everyone of George Jefferson because of his walk. It was as if he was always scooping an imaginary substance from out in front of himself and putting it behind him. Keith was the janitor at my elementary school back home, and he pronounced his name “Keef.”
He perpetually had a plastic hair pick with a black handle in the shape of a fist jutting out of his back pocket. Keef crooned the Chuck Brown lyrics “I feel like bustin’ loose” to the black female teachers who made up the bulk of the school’s staff.
Every Halloween between third and sixth grade, while other kids were Spiderman, ghosts and pirates, I dressed as Keef, hair pick and all.
The fact that my stand-up act in 1990 was comprised of characters inspired by people like Keef was probably a contributing factor to the difficulty I had breaking into mainstream comedy clubs. That, as well as having no TV credits, no representation, and not knowing one soul who could act as a reference, led to my being able to perform only occasionally at dive bar open mikes for three drunks at four a.m.
On the rare occasions I was able to wangle a club audition through a lottery — after waiting in line for hours — the feedback was blisteringly harsh.
Lucien, at the Comic Strip on the Upper East Side, told me he already had enough “real Spaniards” working at the club, and didn’t “need a white guy who looked like one.”
Louis, the show booker at Catch a Rising Star in Chelsea, looked at me sadly after my audition set there and rasped, “Not really sure what I just saw up there, kid, but it’s not for Catch.”
I had to bribe the doorman, Neal, with a carton of cigarettes and ten bucks like we were in a penitentiary to get on stage at a West Village club called The Boston. Then, he waited until one a.m. to put me on, just as the last two audience members paid their checks. Neal smoked one of the butts I gave him while he watched me by himself.
Compared to Louis from Catch, he was more to the point, though. “That sucked” was the extent of his review.
About six months into my time as a stand-up, wondering if I’d made a huge mistake, I bumped into a comedian friend from my hometown, Tony Woods, who told me about the Uptown Comedy Club in Harlem, run by Momma Brown and her two sons, Kevin and Andre.
“You probably be the only white guy there, though,” he said.
I grew up in the heart of 1970s D.C., a town affectionately known among locals as “Chocolate City.” I was a beige-complexioned, liver-lipped white kid with an ass like a Buick busting out of my thrift shop, high water corduroys. One of my first jokes was about surviving D.C. public schools, “the only school system with White History Month.”
Because of my complexion, people in the neighborhood would say, “He look like he mixed with something.” When I asked my mother what that meant, she just gave me a tan piece of candy and told me I was the “butterscotch,” and that butterscotch “tasted best when mixed with chocolate.”
The following Sunday after chatting with Tony Woods, Butterscotch hopped the A train to Harlem.
At that time, The Uptown was a factory of untapped talent, a semi-circle of bleachers around a pit with a big stage in the middle. It was utilitarian, raw, and always packed.
I showed up Sunday night — “New Jack Night,” where the audience applauded those they liked and booed whomever they didn’t. The venerable Momma Brown, owner, talent scout, treasurer, advisor, and sometime-bouncer, sat behind a podium at the door and collected tickets. After I introduced myself she turned to the host, Uncle Jimmy Mack, and said, “Put him on. I’ll see what he got.”
The rules of this unwritten test were that if I made it through three minutes without getting booed by an audience who loved to boo, I’d pass. When the time came for me to take the stage, Uncle Jimmy Mack looked at me and said, “Just don’t be corny.” At the Uptown, corniness was the real c-word, the kiss of death.
My opening bit about how black people and white people pose for photos differently bombed, and a chorus of “mmmm-mmmmm-mmmms” buzzed around the room like impatient bees.
I thought about going home to my tiny apartment, defeated, leaving a trail of corniness in my wake. Instead, I shifted gears away from what I’d prepared, Rupert Pupkin-like in the mirror throughout the week. I desperately dug deep in the crates and came up with my childhood Keef impression, where I re-enacted some of Keef’s daily lines to a female audience member in his voice.
“Yo boo, can I hollah at you a minute? Don’t be scurred. I’m white but not white-white. I can dance, I can dunk, I don’t call strangers ‘Buddy,’ wear shorts in October, think Elvis is still alive, or have a tiny little ding dong.”
“Keef” killed, and allowed me to ease back into what I had prepared, which ended up getting me laughs — a sound that had eluded me for some time.
When I got off stage, Uncle Jimmy Mack looked me up and down and said, “Ms. Brown says come back next week. You passed.”
I was at the Uptown every weekend after that for the next three years.
It was an amazing time to be in comedy. I was surrounded by talented young comedians who performed only on this circuit, with no two styles alike. There was Freddie Ricks doing his Ghetto Shakespeare bit, The Toothless Lover using the mike stand as a hair-weave detector, Ruperto Van Der Poole’s Dominican Popeye character complete with a corncob pipe, Mike Epps’ old dudes talking smack on the corner, and Faceman’s signature anti-comedy “Tragedy” bits. Tasha Smith talked about beating her white boyfriend like a slave (as he requested); Macio’s whole act was done in a faux Caribbean accent; Capital J demonstrated how Puerto Ricans will breakdance anywhere; and Mike Britt’s song parodies were better than the originals. The list of incredible performers was seemingly endless, but it was all topped off by an up-and-comer named Tracy Morgan.
The Uptown became my boot camp where I beefed up my craft. I learned subtle cultural nuances, too. For example, the casual phrase “you people,” with which comedians commonly addressed audiences in mainstream rooms, took on a whole different meaning at The Uptown.
It was there, months after my initial tryout, in the back of the club over a shared forty-ounce beer, that I got “made” by none other than Uncle Jimmy Mack himself. Like a capo de tutti capi, Jimmy granted stage names for comics like Brooklyn Mike and JP Justice. To be named by him was a badge of honor. If your act sucked, you could just go right on being whatever your parents called you, but if he thought you had the right stuff, then there’d be a malt-liquor christening. He dubbed me “D.C. Benny” because I “was Benny from D.C.” and no one could say my last name right: Wartofsky. Although Jimmy recently passed away — he was with Tracy Morgan when a truck collided with Morgan’s limo, causing a multi-vehicle pileup in 2014 — those of us who got our names from him will forever have that little piece of the Uncle with us.
Besides the Uptown, there were “the spots,” indie rooms in various neighborhoods where a number of comics organized shows each night of the week. Unlike the city’s high-profile, low-pay “showcase clubs,” where a comic might get between $50 and $75 for a sold-out weekend show, the spots offered plentiful stage time, and they paid better.
There was the Sugar Shack in the Bronx on Thursdays, Nell’s Downtown on Sundays, and Indigo Blue in Times Square on Wednesdays. These were the sweet spots in contrast to the so-called “hood rooms”: Sheila’s on Dekalb Avenue in Brooklyn, The Manhattan Proper in Queens, and Nagasaki’s on Long Island. All of those rooms were a gauntlet for comics, each the setting of a more Herculean trial than the last. If a comic did well at one of them, the word got out. They got booked at the next one, and then at the next, and soon they were working New York’s “Chitlin Circuit,” as the black comedy scene was sometimes called by comics and club bookers in the area.
The Chitlin Circuit had its own rules. Joke-stealing was frowned upon, but “snaps” — insults — and crowd work were public domain to be passed around like a joint until burnt to a roach. Comics were to never step foot onstage in a pair of torn-up shoes; your act could be dirty as a used Pamper, but your appearance had better be clean. If a show’s start time was nine p.m., think ten-thirty or later if there was an after-party, which was sometimes the only event the audience really came for.
It was not unusual for relatively unknown comedians to have huge entourages, with each member having a designated job like “car parker,” “groupie phone-number procurer,” or “Heineken holder.” As for the acts themselves, the “white guy voice” was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, as was the church deacon end-of-every-sentence laugh, “hah.” And on any given show, the stage’s stool was humped so much it needed birth control.
The golden rule, though, was: ALWAYS. GET. YOUR. MONEY. If it was time to get paid and the promoter came over to the performer saying, “We had a situation with the budget,” the comic was being tested like new meat at Rikers Island, and had better be ready to scrap or inevitably be labeled a “punk.”
I ploughed through all of these rooms working my way toward an audition for Def Comedy Jam, the show created by Russell Simmons, who named the program after his Def Jam record label. When I finally did get my shot at The ’Mint — following the stripper who closed with the almost-biblical burning bush — I walked onstage with a fire extinguisher pulled from the wall, blasted the smoky air, went into my act, and got my first-ever standing ovation.
The booker for Def Comedy Jam came up to me afterward and said, “You might be the one. We gotta talk,” and I knew what he meant.
The first white guy on Def Comedy Jam would represent a little piece of history. There was an unspoken no-white-comic policy on the show, believed by many in the industry to be some sort of racial payback for the lack of black faces in mainstream comedy. The taping was coming up and the industry players had eyes and checkbooks ready to cash in on all the fresh young talent.
I campaigned hard to get that spot, maybe too hard, cornering Russell Simmons in the bathroom at Nell’s one night, handing him my business card. Under my name it read: “Finally a cracker with flavor.”
I was getting close. Tracy Morgan, fresh off his own appearance on the show, stopped me to say, “Streets is talkin’ man. D.C. Benny about to do Def Jam.”
About a week before the anticipated taping I got what I thought would be “the call.” But it wasn’t happening. Def Comedy Jam wasn’t going to “dilute the product” with a white performer just yet, someone associated with the show on the other end of the line told me.
I was crushed. I felt like a kid who was left back a grade in school and watched all the other students in his class move on. Comics who saw me at The ’Mint that night came up to me, shaking their heads, saying, “Damn, after that set, I thought you had it locked.”
But I picked myself up and hit the underground scene, getting gigs at alternative rooms: Lower East Side staples like Surf Reality and Collective Unconscious — places where performance art slipped off-Broadway theatre a roofy and got it pregnant with alt comedy. I performed in front of any audience I could. I did comedy in laundromats, on the subway, in pizza joints, even Washington Square Park, where the “house M.C.” William Stevenson schooled me on how to create a crowd of pedestrians from scratch.
Then, one Sunday in the spring of 1996, I got a phone call from another person who was at The ’Mint that infamous night: the booker from NBC’s “Showtime at The Apollo.”
“Could you come down for an alternate spot on tonight’s taping in case a scheduled act doesn’t show?”
I was back on the A train to Harlem.
As it turned out, the crowd that night at the Apollo was in a very bad mood, booing everyone off the stage: singers, dancers, talented children, the show’s producer, and even the usually beloved host, Steve Harvey. While Steve battled the crowd, the producer turned to me backstage at one point and said, “You’re on next. We need five minutes to finish this taping. Do whatever you have to do.”
Harvey went back out and gave a rousing speech about how there were no opportunities for black performers in this business, and asked how black people could treat one another so disrespectfully.
Then he introduced me.
By now this scenario was like déjà vu. I was a boxer who’d been training every waking hour for a title shot and finally got it on a fluke.
The first word out of my mouth after Harvey’s speech was what everyone was thinking: “Surprise!”
It killed and I went on to have a great set.
I closed with my impression of Trevor from the Jamaican patty shop, doing my best Shabba-Ranks-singing-country-music impression, and the whole room shouted, “Whoomp, there it is.”
That Apollo set got me an agent, a manager, a college tour, a Comedy Central campaign, a shot at SNL, and a talent deal with NBC, all of which consequently broke me into the mainstream rooms where I began to work regularly. Finally, all the hard work was starting to pay off.
One of the author’s later sets at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York City.
About five years ago I was sitting in an office at Columbia University with Todd Lynn, my old friend who had once called my life “8 Mile with jokes.” We were on a bill together in the school’s auditorium — Todd had finally begun dipping his toe in the waters of the mainstream comedy circuit. He was pacing the makeshift greenroom, his underarms soaked with sweat, mumbling to himself, “Man this crazy, I can’t do this, this is crazy!” He cracked open the adjacent door and peeked at the audience of older white men assembling in the space, and then resumed his pacing and mumbling. This situation was truly the yin to what had been my yang that night some twenty years prior at The ’Mint.
Todd had called me in a panic a couple of days before the Columbia gig. Somehow, he was booked to perform at a convention of scientists, and since I was one of the few white comedians he hung out with, he asked me if I would open for him. He figured I could be a cultural attaché, a Caucasian buffer.
As he paced, I tried to talk to him.
“What are you so scared of, man?”
“Have you looked in that room, man?!” Todd said. “Everyone looks like Wilford Brimley. They gonna hate me! They gonna give me that condescending smile, but on the inside they thinkin’, Just another n-”
The event’s host knocked on the door.
“We’re about ready to start,” he said.
Todd nodded and the host left to make the opening announcement.
“You’re gonna be fine,” I said. “There is only one thing to remember…”
“Don’t be corny.”
Todd walked onstage when his time came, grabbed the mike, cleared his throat, and said: “Big black dude with tattoos and braids, wearing a hoodie, up here. Two hundred old white dudes in wide-wale corduroys and Crocs, sitting down there. I’m lookin’ at you, and y’all lookin’ at me and we both thinkin’ the exact same question: ‘Is this some kind of experiment?’” The audience exploded in laughter. “I mean, I heard about mad scientists,” he continued, “but whoever put this show together got to be out they motherfuckin’ mind!”
It was one of the last times I saw Todd destroy a crowd before he died of complications from diabetes a couple years later. But I’ll always love that moment. It epitomizes what I think comedy really is: an experiment. It’s a foggy beaker where the unlike matters of a comedian and the audience combine to ponder the question “Who am I?” until the answer finally gets scrawled on the chalkboard: “You are what you laugh at.” And if the guy next to you is laughing, well, then, he is that thing too, which makes him the same as you, whether he’s wearing a wrinkled lab coat or a pair of scuffed Timberlands.
In each episode of Believable, we dive into a personal, eye-opening story where narratives conflict, and different perspectives about the truth collide.
From a near-death experience that shook a family to its core to a shocking and transformative proposition in a therapist’s office, Believable explores the gray area between extraordinary experience and objective truth. These are complex and suspenseful audio stories that expand to say something larger about the role of narrative and identity in our lives. Please have a listen below and, if you like what you hear, subscribe to Believable wherever you get your podcasts.
Episode 1 of Believable, which is now live, is about a woman who bounced around state institutions and foster homes as a child, always wishing for the family she never had. Until one day she finally gets what she asked for — and then some.
In November 2018, a 66-year-old man named Tommy Thompson was wheeled into Judge Laurel Beatty Blunt’s courtroom in Columbus, Ohio, clad in a dark blue suit and looking like he had just served four years in federal prison. Thompson’s hair, once thick black curls, had given way to a bald pate, and with a long white beard and piercing eyes, he looked like a slightly hairier Christopher Lee, the actor who played the wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings.
Throughout the trial, Judge Blunt interrupted Thompson’s testimony to reprimand him for veering wildly off course. Thompson had long insisted that he suffers from neurological problems and chronic fatigue syndrome, which impairs his memory, and that his meandering explanations were a symptom of the distress foisted upon him.
But Judge Blunt, like other officials who’d presided over civil and criminal cases against Thompson, claimed that his malingering was the maneuvering of a hyper-intelligent con man. Indeed, Thompson’s legs were shackled as he sat through his trial. As everyone knew, he’d already fled from authorities once.
Thompson was genuinely sickened and overwhelmed, however, and he found it extremely frustrating that nobody seemed to take his condition seriously. He’d been living a hectic life for almost 30 years, and he tried to make the jury understand the unique stress that had put him in such a weak state. His problems had all begun when he’d discovered one of the largest caches of gold in human history, a lost treasure at the bottom of the sea. In the 30 years since, the weight of the find had upended partnerships, ended his marriage, and set loose the specter of greed. What began as a valiant mission of science turned into something else entirely.
On September 11, 1988, about 7,500 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, a set of glowing orbs moved smoothly through the darkness and illuminated the mysterious world below. That far down there are few currents, the water is close to freezing, and it is almost pitch black. The only light typically comes from the bioluminescent creatures that float by like ghosts, but in this case the lights were from a six-ton, unmanned vessel. The Nemo, looking like an industrial freezer with two robotic arms, made a small adjustment to its thrusters and hovered above the scattered remains of a sunken ship. Video of the wreckage was relayed to a vessel bobbing above, giving the crew — and the world — the first look at a ship whose location had stymied treasure hunters for generations. It was the SS Central America, a massive side-wheel steamship that sank in a hurricane off the coast of South Carolina in 1857.
The find was remarkable for many reasons. The Nemo’s technology, designed and built by a ragtag group of engineers from Ohio, led by Thompson, allowed scientists to explore deeper than anyone had ever gone before. The artifacts eventually recovered from the ship were a window into a bygone era and gave voice to the hundreds of people who were pulled into the abyss.
But the discovery was also a spectacular victory for pocketbooks — the ship was carrying gold when it sank, and lots of it: coins, bars and nuggets of every size surrounded the wreck and covered its decks and rotting masts. And that was only what the crew could see — somewhere in the remains were said to be between 3 and 21 tons of gold, a haul some experts valued at close to half a billion dollars. For Thompson, the Edisonian genius who masterminded the expedition, the discovery was the first salvo of what looked to be a long, impressive career. He became an American hero, a mix of brains and daring in the tradition of the scientist-adventurers of yore. “I can imagine him becoming as well known and famous as Cousteau,” one investor told Gary Kinder, whose 1998 book Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea chronicles the Central America mission.
But Thompson was subjected to a legal hell storm as soon as he set foot on shore. Numerous people and companies were vying for their share of the gold, and the unending litigation was compounded by the lawsuits filed by investors who claimed Thompson had ripped them off. In 2012, long after the litigation had sidetracked his calling, Thompson went underground, allegedly taking with him suitcases full of cash and gold.
It was a strange turn of events that Thompson’s friends and foes alike have tried to figure out: Was he a pirate corrupted by his own discovery, or a hardworking genius exploited by powerful men lusting after his gold?
Months later, Thompson was staying under an assumed name at a hotel in Boca Raton, Florida, trying to keep his faculties in check. He was unkempt, unwell and barely left his hotel room, as he had been on the run from federal authorities for the past two and a half years. His journey had taken him from Columbus boardrooms to the depths of the sea to a Hoarders-esque mansion, and would culminate with a police raid that eventually led to Judge Blunt’s courtroom.
From the witness stand in Columbus, Thompson disclosed startling information in a story already laden with tragedy and fortunes lost — and shed light on the mystery of millions in still-missing gold.
The pressure 8,000 feet below the sea is 250 times greater than on the surface, and Tommy Thompson was squeezed by something even more intense for the better part of 30 years.
Thompson, born in 1952, was a whiz kid who’d been tinkering and engineering from the earliest years of his life. He grew up in Defiance, Ohio, a small city in the northwestern corner of the state. He was always drawn to the water, and he enjoyed challenging friends to breath-holding contests.
“I was on swimming teams, and people could always beat me on the surface, but I got so I could hold my breath so long that nobody could beat me underwater. I loved seeing and doing things underwater,” he told a reporter for Columbus Monthly not long after the mission launched. When he was a teenager, he bought and fixed up an amphibious car, and he loved pranking his friends by driving unsuspecting passengers into a lake.
Gary Kinder’s book details Thompson’s early interest in the underwater realm, which extended to sunken ships when he spent a summer after high school working with a group of career treasure hunters in Florida. Rife with lore, the hunters spoke of ships sunken somewhere out in the ocean with more gold than could ever be spent. However, nobody knew quite where to start looking, nor could they afford the technology necessary to undertake the search. Finding one of these wrecks posed a challenge that spanned many disciplines, which, to a mind like Thompson’s, made for a compelling quest.
Following his graduation from The Ohio State University with a degree in ocean engineering, Thompson went to work for the Battelle Memorial Institute, a prominent research lab in Columbus that has developed everything from kitchen appliances to nuclear weapons. There, he was able to work on deep-sea engineering projects, at one point developing technology that allowed the U.S. government to extract information from a sunken Soviet nuclear sub, all while disguising the operation as the routine work of an oil rig. “He was like a rock star,” said Thompson’s longtime friend and current defense attorney Keith Golden.
Thompson wanted to work exclusively in deep water but was routinely warned that such jobs were hard to come by. So he began looking for other ways to pursue this heady scientific passion. Recalling the treasure hunters he’d spent time with in Florida, Thompson began formulating a plan for his own mission out to sea.
“He wanted to develop technology for underwater deep research, and the only way to do that is either you work for the government or you look for treasure,” Golden said. “That’s what brought him into the treasure business. Not, ‘oh I want to go get gold’ or anything like that. It was actually the means to an end.”
One of the first orders of business was to find the perfect wreck to hunt. Thompson worked with Bob Evans, an equivalently intelligent polymath and professional geologist, to winnow down the list of candidate ships. Evans would become the mission’s chief scientist, and the two settled on the SS Central America. The so-called “Ship of Gold” was one of the legendary wrecks that beckoned Thompson’s treasure-hunting comrades — it was renowned for the enormity of its loss and infamous for its opulent cargo.
The Central America ferried passengers to and from California at the height of the Gold Rush in the mid 19th century. The ship, called “one of the best and staunchest ships afloat” by a passenger who had traveled on the vessel numerous times, made regular journeys from New York to Panama and back, where prospectors would catch another ship on to California. Six hundred people, and up to 21 tons of gold coming from California, were aboard the Central America when it disembarked to New York from a stopover in Cuba on September 3, 1857.
Five days later, the ship found herself floundering in the middle of a terrifying hurricane. Passengers attempted a 30-hour nonstop bucket brigade to keep the ship afloat, but the engines flooded and the storm ripped apart masts and sails. The ship was doomed. The vessel let out a final tortured groan as it sank on the evening of September 12, sucking 425 souls down in a horrifying vortex. The catastrophe was the era’s Titanic, a horrific event that captivated people around the world. The loss in gold was so profound that it was one of the factors precipitating the Great Panic financial crisis of 1857.
Finding the Central America would be no easy matter — proportionally it would be like finding a single grain of sand in the floor plan of a four-bedroom house. The key, Thompson knew, was to undertake a logical and hyper-organized search.
Bob Evans used every known detail about the fateful voyage, including passenger and crew accounts of the weather as the ship sank, and worked with a search theory expert to determine that the wreck was likely somewhere in a 1,400-square-mile grid 160 miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina, in part of the ocean that was nearly a mile and a half deep. Each square on the grid was assigned a number based on the likelihood that the ship had ended up there, and the idea was to trawl a sonar apparatus up and down the grid and take in-depth readings of the most promising results.
“Rather than take a treasure-hunting approach, he took a scientific approach,” said Columbus attorney Rick Robol, who once represented Thompson’s companies.
Thompson approached many of Columbus’s financial heavy hitters to drum up funding, and his exhaustively scientific method was key to selling others on the mission. Obsessed with his work, Thompson was said to be indifferent to food and sleep, dressed in a thrift store suit and hair afrizz. As a result, the high-powered investors waiting in their upper-floor offices and elegant conference rooms were often skeptical of his bewildering presence. But time after time, Thompson would speak to them reasonably, thoroughly and intelligently. He was realistic about the low probability of success, outlined various contingencies, and emphasized that the mission offered the chance for the investors to participate in a journey of good old American discovery. Investors soon found themselves chuckling in delight at the audacious fun of the project and the inspiring confidence they felt in Thompson.
“The concept seemed pretty far out [but] I was certain of his credibility,” investor D. Wayne Ashby told the Columbus Dispatch in 1989.
Of course, the primary draw was the potential for enormous returns: Based on the estimated amount of gold, calculations showed that first-tier investors would be able to turn $200,000 into $10 million if the mission was a success; even a $5,000 investment stood to transform into a remarkable sum. One investor pledged support, then another, and then a whole network of powerful Columbusites, including the owner of The ColumbusDispatch and a developer whose 10,000-square-foot luxury tree house would later be featured on HGTV’s Most Extreme Homes.
After two years of pitching, 161 investors pooled the $12.7 million necessary to pay for the recovery mission. (Further rounds of investment upped the number of investors to around 300 and the total contributions to around $22 million.) On top of the investors’ money, Thompson would borrow tens of millions more as the project wore on. The Recovery Limited Partnership was formed to oversee the operation, with the Columbus-America Discovery Group acting as its agent. Thompson was the head of both.
Under the aegis of these companies, Thompson outfitted a search vessel, put together a crew, and developed a seven-ton remotely operated vehicle capable of withstanding deep-ocean conditions. The vessel’s arms and cameras would give scientists the ability to explore the wreck. (They also conducted various other experiments useful to the recovery, such as purposely giving Evans the bends.) As Gary Kinder writes in Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, the deepest an unmanned submersible had gone previous to this was 6,600 feet. That vehicle had been difficult to control, with only one arm that could perform rudimentary functions. The technology Thompson and his crew developed in secret streamlined and refined the submersible so that it was much easier to control and could perform the delicate tasks needed for the recovery of the ship. It was one of their secret weapons, and the mission to find the Central America was officially launched in June 1986.
The mission was subject to numerous difficulties: seasickness, short tempers, errant weather, malfunctioning equipment, little sleep, and a stretch of time when the only food served was fried chicken. The excursion didn’t turn up anything that first summer, and far too much time was spent the following summer exploring what proved to be the wrong ship. Investors groused about the delays, but Thompson always managed to assuage their fears. “We have to be extremely careful not to destroy any artifacts,” he told TheColumbus Dispatch in 1987, before reminding everyone there could be as many as 300,000 individual pieces of gold, keeping optimism afloat.
In late summer 1988, the crew sent the submersible robot down to check out an overlooked blip on the search grid. The ship’s enormous trademark side wheel immediately came into view, and despite an inch-thick layer of “biological ooze” covering everything, it was clear what was strewn all over the football field–sized wreckage site: gold, gold, and more gold, literally tons of it undisturbed for well over a century. The control room aboard the ship, with its walls of monitors and technology that made it look like an alien craft from an old movie, exploded with profoundly human joy.
“We’ve found it. Gold, lots of it,” Thompson said in a missive to shore. “We have hit the mother lode. It’s unquestionably the greatest American treasure ever found.”
Gold and artifacts were brought to the surface starting in fall 1989, the beginnings of a haul that would grow to include 532 gold ingots, 7,500 gold coins, and, at 80 pounds, one of the largest single pieces of gold ever discovered and at the time the most valuable piece of currency in the world. “It gives you a very warm feeling,” investor D. Wayne Ashby told the Dispatch when the discovery was announced.
The expedition’s contract gave Thompson around 17 percent of the proceeds from future sales, but everyone involved in the project expected to become preposterously rich. When asked by a reporter to estimate the value of the haul, Thompson demurred. “I get nervous about these estimates, because we don’t want to disappoint any of our backers,” he said. Nevertheless, Thompson cautiously estimated the find could be worth close to $400 million.
The first haul of gold was taken from the ship straight into armored cars by guards carrying machine guns amidst cheering investors, well wishers, and descendants of the survivors of the Central America wreck. But as it would turn out, that brief glimpse was the closest any investor would ever get to the treasure found at the bottom of the sea.
In 1988, the Columbus-America Discovery Group had secured its right in admiralty court to excavate the Central America site and retain possession of whatever they discovered beneath the sea. But this ruling was challenged almost as soon as Thompson set foot back on the shore.
Thompson and his companies were sued by no less than 114 separate entities, including 39 insurance companies that had insured the cargo on the original Central America voyage. Lawyers for the insurance firms — “pirates with briefcases,” as one newspaper called them — argued that since the firms had paid claims in 1857, they were entitled to the treasure now that it was recovered. Things got even more complex when an order of Capuchin monks sued Thompson, alleging he had copped the intel given to them by a professor from Columbia University whom they had commissioned to do a sonar search of the same area.
Recovery operations were suspended in 1991 because of the lawsuits, leaving the fate of the gold brought to the surface in legal limbo — and tons of gold still on the wreck at the bottom of the sea. A judge eventually dismissed the monks’ case, but the dispute with the insurance companies continued.
Lawyers for the insurance companies contended that the firms would have already gotten the gold if they’d been able to. “There is absolutely no evidence of abandonment,” said attorney Marilyn Little in a 1991 interview. “The technology to locate and recover the wreck did not exist until the past few years.”
Attorney Rick Robol argued that the Central America was found in a part of the ocean checked with nuclear dumps, which made it legally a no-man’s land. More importantly, he said, documents attesting to the insurance companies’ claims had long since disappeared. “We had to rely on contemporary witnesses,” Robol said. “We couldn’t call anybody from the 19th century.”
The back-and-forth continued until 1998 (and in the process established case law in admiralty court) when Thompson and his companies were finally awarded 92.5 percent of the treasure. But the legal avalanche, compounded by Thompson’s protracted divorce and the death of his father, put the future of the companies in jeopardy. Trial testimony showed that Columbus-America had spent more than $30 million on salvaging, running the business, and legal fees by 1992 alone. Coupled with a significant devaluing of the rare coin market, a few investors wondered about the future of their investment. The pressure mounted as Thompson attempted to balance his obligations to his crew, his companies, and his investors while being a dad to his three kids.
“Tommy was in agony,” one investor told Columbus Monthly in 1999. “He hated the legal crap, but he didn’t trust the lawyers enough to stay away from it. He was right there, every time there was a hearing. He read every page of every brief, and a lot of times he was helping with the writing, too.”
A financial windfall seemed possible in 1995 when the expedition’s science director announced that in addition to the gold that had already been brought up, plus the treasure the scientists had seen and left on the ship, there was probably even more gold hidden in the wreckage than previously believed. He said government documents he’d uncovered suggested that there was a secret, 10-ton shipment intended for the U.S. Army, but this later proved to be a myth.
As the years went by, a few investors began to feel that Thompson wasn’t being forthright in his predictions about their financial future. While numbers like $400 million were thrown around at first, the value of the haul was later brought down to around $100 million. Meetings with investors became less frequent, they said, as did updates and newsletters. Once lauded for his openness, Thompson appeared to go into a shell.
The Columbus-America Discovery Group was “playing their cards pretty close to the vest. And it ain’t my vest,” one disgruntled investor groused to Columbus Monthly in 1997.
Thompson said that his silence was necessary to protect trade secrets. “You’ve got to understand, we’re a company that’s been in this business for over 20 years,” Thompson said in a deposition in 2008. “[We’re] trying to create an industry and open the deep ocean frontier, and do those things where there isn’t a known business.”
By 1998, some of the investors were fed up with the way Recovery Limited Partnership was being run and made moves to establish another company, this time with the investors in charge. But many of the partners were confident in Thompson’s leadership, and they elected to keep him at the helm by a margin of more than 9 to 1. The companies were restructured, with the reworked Columbus Exploration as a partner company to Recovery Limited Partnership. Thompson was again the head of both entities, though it was stipulated that he would draw a salary only from the former and not the latter.
In 2000, after a deal to sell the gold through Christie’s auction house collapsed, Thompson negotiated the sale of the gold through the California Gold Marketing Group on behalf of Recovery Limited. Much of it was sold to gold and coin dealers, and some of the treasure was displayed in a lavish traveling exhibit across the country, with Thompson sometimes making an appearance alongside his discovery. (Christie’s also sued Thompson for backing out of their deal, but the case was sealed and the outcome remains unknown.)
The sale netted the company around $50 million and reportedly came as a complete surprise to investors, as Thompson had not informed anyone he was going to do this until after the sale was complete. Thompson then allegedly told investors that they would not be seeing any of the proceeds, as all the money went to pay off the loans and legal fees that had accrued since the mission began.
In 2001, the agreement between Recovery Limited and Columbus Exploration was amended (allegedly in secret) to give Thompson a $2.1 million payout and a cache of gold coins in lieu of a profit from the sale of the gold. The coins were 500 “restrikes” minted from gold recovered from the Central America. They were valued at approximately $2.5 million and were originally intended to compensate investors. Thompson took the coins without approval from the board, though his attorney Keith Golden maintains there was nothing clandestine about it. “[Thompson] was so honest he put them on his tax returns,” he said.
Nonetheless, in 2005, two former investors filed lawsuits against Thompson for breach of contract and fiduciary duty: Donald Fanta, president of an investment firm, the Fanta Group, and the Dispatch Printing Company, owned by the family that ran TheColumbus Dispatch.
Dispatch scion John W. Wolfe was a genial coin collector who had contributed $1 million to the recovery mission and reportedly got along very well with Thompson. However, he died and his cousin John F. Wolfe was put in charge, and the cousin was less confident in Thompson’s direction than his relative. Convinced that Thompson was ripping him off, the cousin pushed the lawsuit ahead. Fanta and Dispatch Printing alleged a breach of contract and requested financial accounting of Thompson’s companies.
There were “eight years of obstructive conduct where they couldn’t get the most basic reports of what happened to the money and what happened to the treasure,” said Quintin Lindsmith, an attorney representing the Dispatch Printing Company. “The investors saw nothing, the investors received nothing, no financial reports were sent to investors.”
Thompson was next sued by a group of nine sonar techs from the original mission who claimed they had been duped out of 2 percent of the profits from the gold, plus interest.
The two cases were combined with a third into a mega-lawsuit in federal court, creating a labyrinthine legal situation with a rotating cast of attorneys and thousands of motions and maneuvers that bewildered even seasoned courtroom players. Missions to the Central America were once again put on hold as Thompson put his mind to work filing legal briefs and appeals.
Thompson is “not a treasure hunter, he’s a scientist,” Golden said. “That’s when things started going south.”
Once having bragged of being the subject of more than 3,000 articles, Thompson had long since stopped talking to the press, and now spent half the year living in a Florida mansion rented under another name. At one point, Thompson attributed his situation to the “plague of the gold,” a cruel turn of fortune that legend has it often accompanies the unearthing of buried treasure. Thompson began to show symptoms of the gilded affliction. In 2008 he was arrested in Jacksonville after a sheriff observed him hiding something under the seat following a routine traffic stop. It turned out he was hiding fake IDs, four cell phones, and $6,500 in cash, a collection of items that hinted at what was to come.
In July 2012, U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus ordered Thompson to produce the restrike coins or swear under oath that he didn’t know where they were. After a few frustrating exchanges, Thompson stopped coming to court and wrote to the judge that he’d never personally had them, and that they were likely in a trust he didn’t have access to. The judge said his answers fell “woefully short of compliance,” and on August 6, Thompson was ordered one final time to give up the coins or be sent to jail for contempt.
On August 13, the day Thompson was supposed to reappear in court, he simply didn’t show up. Thompson’s longtime secretary and reputed on-again, off-again love interest Alison Antekeier hired Shawn J. Organ, Thompson’s latest attorney, the day before he was due in court. Organ had never actually met Thompson and claimed that he was out to sea. But Judge Sargus shook his head and declared bullshit.
“He hired lawyers to move to continue today’s hearing. Yet he has another lawyer take the position that he didn’t know about this hearing …. Today is the day of reckoning for him,” the judge said in court.
A warrant was issued for Thompson’s arrest, but it soon became apparent that nobody knew where he was. Organ asked Robol to reach out to Thompson on his behalf, but Robol said that his phone calls had been unsuccessful and he didn’t have any other way to get in touch with him. Although it was known Thompson had a house in Florida, Robol said he didn’t actually know where it was. Thompson’s ex-wife Collette Davidson said that the family would sometimes make sympathetic jokes about Thompson running away due to the stress, but neither she nor their children were able to say where he went.
Then, in early November, Antekeier disappeared as well, skipping out on her own court appearance in which she was supposed to testify about Thompson’s whereabouts. The two were presumed to be together and, some of the investors speculated, in possession of millions of dollars in cash and the 500 gold coins. The litigious investors were irate, and Thompson’s flight seemed to confirm that he had ripped them off. On top of the civil suits against him, Thompson was charged with criminal contempt of court, and U.S. Marshals were tasked with tracking down him down.
“I think he had calculated it, whatever you want to call it, an escape plan, a contingency plan to be gone,” U.S. Marshal Brad Fleming told the Associated Press in the midst of the pursuit. “I think he’s had that for a long time.”
Once the most successful treasure hunter in the world, Tommy Thompson was now the one being hunted.
In late summer 2012, a handyman named James Kennedy walked up to the porch of Gracewood, a large home in Vero Beach, Florida. Kennedy was trying to get in touch with the mansion’s mysterious tenants, but they always seemed to flit back into the shadows like cats. Kennedy took out his cell phone and pretended to call the landlord.
“I kind of tried to do the intimidation thing. I picked up my cell phone and I said it real loud. I was, like, ‘Well, Vance, I don’t think they’re going to give you anything,’” he recalled in his deposition. “‘You probably ought to call the police.’”
But the ruse didn’t work, and when October rolled around, Kennedy finally let himself in. He had been a handyman for decades, but even he was taken aback by what he found inside.
The windows were sealed off with plastic, cabinets had fallen down, “there was stuff growing out of the sink,” and mold in abundance. There were hundreds of phone batteries in Ziploc bags, maps affixed to the wall, and a large plastic tub filled with so many pills that the house smelled “like a pharmacy.” The garage was filled with bags of trash, while food waste and organic items were simply thrown into a pile in the backyard. The mess was Antekeier’s and Thompson’s, and far from the Bonnie and Clyde romance one might have expected, the situation suggested deep distress.
“It look[ed] like that show on television, Hoarders … I opened up one cabinet door that was still hanging in the kitchen and there was a stack of paper plates there and there were three rats on top of that,” Kennedy said.
Thompson had been renting Gracewood since 2006, a home away from the hassles in Columbus, and the mansion had become their home base when they fled Ohio two months earlier. Authorities hadn’t traced them to the house because Thompson kept the utilities in the landlord’s name, arguing successfully with the utility company that other celebrities were afforded the same measure of privacy. Gracewood’s landlord was a man with a sunny disposition named Vance Brinkerhoff, who had known Thompson in college and sympathized with the difficulties that came with being a man in the spotlight.
As renters, Thompson and Antekeier had always been friendly but maintained their distance, Brinkerhoff said. By October 2012, however, Brinkerhoff realized that he hadn’t seen the pair in months. He wasn’t aware of the latest developments in Thompson’s legal situation, but he also realized that his tenants hadn’t paid the $3,000 rent in a few months either, so he sent Kennedy over to see what was going on.
Among the mess, Kennedy found a copy of Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder. A light bulb went off when he realized that the main character and the mansion’s secretive occupant were one and the same. He searched for Thompson on the internet and learned that the tenants were wanted by U.S. Marshalls.
Kennedy was somewhat torn about what to do, as he could sympathize with Thompson’s situation. Kennedy himself had once found a mammoth bone and was similarly besieged with people trying to take advantage of his find.
“It seems, like, every single time anybody finds anything that’s worth five cents, there’s 500 worms that come out of the woodwork to steal it from you …. [H]e went out and busted his ass, found something like he was supposed to, did his job, and then before he had a chance to do anything had 100 nut lawyers knocking on his door saying ‘we’re taking it away from you’ and then he’s stuck with not enough money to pay for everybody else that he had work for him,” Kennedy said in his deposition.
But Kennedy also sympathized with people who were victims of theft — it was possible Thompson “totally screwed everybody over” like the newspapers were saying. So he called the Marshals. But by that point, Thompson and Antekeier had long since fled Gracewood, and law enforcement was once again unable to determine where they went.
“He is calculated, doesn’t do anything on a whim, pretty confident. He knows exactly what he is doing, exactly who is looking for him, and likely is watching this interview,” U.S. Marshal Brad Fleming said in an interview. “I’d like to think we don’t need him to make a mistake for us to catch him, but it would sure help.”
And a mistake is exactly what happened.
In June 2014, a repeat of the Gracewood situation happened a mere eight miles away, at the Pennwood Motor Lodge in Sebastian, Florida. The occupants of a private cabin in the woods hadn’t been seen in a while, a handyman checked out the property and called police after finding car registration paperwork belonging to Antekeier. Based on material found in the Pennwood cabin, the Marshals were alerted to the Hilton Boca Raton Suites, a banal upscale setting where the pair of fugitives had remained hidden since May 30, 2013. U.S. Marshals prepared to descend on the hotel.
To a man of science like Bob Evans, it was inconceivable that his friend Tommy Thompson had ended up on the FBI’s Most Wanted list alongside the Boston Marathon bombers. Thompson was a brilliant mind and incredible strategist, but he was not suited for life on the run. One of the last times anyone had seen him, it was a worrisome sight: Thompson was in the backyard of a house he was renting, yelling into his phone in his underwear.
“My old friend, boss and colleague was simply not that colorful or swashbuckling,” Evans wrote in a reflection on the saga for Coin Books, an online numismatic publication. “He was hardly Jack Sparrow or Blackbeard. Think more along the lines of Dilbert in charge of the operation.”
But what had to be one of the most intense disappointments in the saga, for Thompson, was the fact that the excavation of the Central America would carry on without him.
In 2013, with Thompson apparently MIA, a judge determined that Thompson’s businesses were in a state of “great disarray and insolvency.” The court appointed a Columbus lawyer named Ira Kane as receiver of the recovery mission, and in this capacity he was authorized to put straight its business affairs. Kane in turn contracted a company called Odyssey Marine Exploration to finish the recovery of the Central America. The goal was to bring the rest of the gold to the surface and ensure that the investors got paid.
“If Mr. Thompson has significant holdings in the U.S. and otherwise that belong to the receivership, I will go for it,” Kane told the Columbus Dispatch. “If he has gold sitting in a vault, and going after it outweighs the cost, I will. If there are dollars that he is hiding, I want every penny of it.”
The renewed excavation launched in April 2014, with U.S. Marshals putting a wanted poster of Thompson aboard the ship in case he attempted to rejoin the mission. The operation was quite successful, bringing up more than 45 gold bars, 15,500 coins, and hundreds of artifacts over the course of numerous dives, including a pair of glasses, a pistol, and a safe filled with packages. The sale of the gold was once again undertaken by the California Gold Marketing Group. All Thompson could do was watch these developments from afar, a fugitive from his own life’s work.
On January 27, 2015, Thompson, then 62, was pale and sickly as he sat in his room in the Hilton Suites in Boca Raton, his body racked with the paranoid tics of a man on the run. Surrounding him was detritus befitting a fugitive — fake IDs, burner phones, voice-changing equipment, and information about which countries don’t have extradition treaties with the U.S. In the closet was almost $430,000 in cash, stacks of $100 bills stored in lashed-together suitcases.
With his scientist’s wild hair, Thompson was the more recognizable of the two, so Antekeier was tasked with running errands and paying the bills. She took almost comically cinematic precautions when appearing in public, wearing big floppy hats and taking a succession of buses and taxis to lose anyone who might be on her tail. Just as she always did, when she arrived back at the hotel that January afternoon, she looked around furtively to make sure she wasn’t being followed.
As it turned out, this time she was.
The hunt was led by an intimidating and extremely direct U.S. Marshal named Mike Stroh. He had been involved in manhunts all over the country, but the mission to find Thompson had special resonance with him as a professional person-finder. Thompson was “one of the smartest fugitives ever,” who found a ship in the middle of the sea “like he was trying to find a set of car keys he misplaced in his house, but his house is hundreds of miles of ocean,” Stroh told the Associated Press.
Stroh had been after the couple since they’d absquatulated from Ohio well over two years earlier, and if he had a tail it would have been twitching like a cat’s when he spotted Antekeier. After seven hours of following her, Marshals crashed their way into the hotel and surprised the two, screaming at them not to move.
The Marshals would ultimately cart away 75 boxes of evidence from the room, but they came up empty-handed in one aspect of their quest. Investigators found boxes in the Gracewood mansion that looked a lot like those that had held the restrike coins, but the gold itself was nowhere to be found.
Not long after, the pair appeared before a judge in Florida who decided they should be shipped back up north to face the music they’d been putting off for years.
Thompson tried to fight the extradition. He claimed he was allergic to the weather up north, and the climate would exacerbate his many ailments, one of which was a tropical illness he said he’d contracted when he was bitten by a mosquito in South America.
The judge was not buying it.
“Your health condition is in no way relevant to the issue of whether you are the individual wanted up in Ohio or not,” Judge David Lee Brannon said, and Thompson was shipped back. U.S. Marshal Brad Fleming said Thompson was chatty as they made the journey back, perhaps relieved that he no longer had to hide.
Thompson and Antekeier appeared in Judge Algenon Marbley’s courtroom in Columbus on April 8, 2015, clad in prison jumpsuits and chains. Both pleaded guilty to criminal contempt.
Antekeier’s attorney, Dennis McNamara, asked for a light sentence, arguing that concerns about Thompson’s health and legal problems had clouded her judgment. “Mr. Thompson was so sick at the time, I really felt there was no other option,” Antekeier later explained. “I wanted to save his life.”
Once again, there was little sympathy from the bench.
“Fidelity is meant for the Marines, not for people engaged in criminal activity,” Judge Marbley said.
Antekeier was ultimately given a $5,000 fine and two months’ probation after serving a month in jail. Thompson was given a two-year sentence for the contempt charge and a $250,000 fine. They agreed to turn over the $425,380 in cash seized from the Florida properties as part of their plea deal and to divulge the whereabouts of the 500 gold coins.
The capture of Tommy Thompson made for a fairly pedestrian end to a story that had captivated Columbus for years. The city had rooted for the hometown hero’s success and celebrated the Midwestern ingenuity that put Columbus on the map.
Even after he’d fled, many couldn’t help but be almost charmed by his flight. Michelle Sullivan, a Columbus journalist who’s written extensively about the case, imagined Thompson was on a remote island somewhere, engineering in paradise like Gilligan. Other associates were wistful about the turn of events. “It’s almost like he’s a memory,” Bob Evans said.
But the notion that not even a brilliant mind could resist running off with gold was too salacious not to report, and the allegations of thievery became the dominant narrative. Thompson’s reputation as a scientist-hero was overshadowed by the notion that he went rogue and bungled a crime. It was an unfortunate bookend to the legacy of someone who had long maintained that the historical and scientific aspects of the recovery were the most important point of the mission.
Indeed, the non-gold accomplishments of the Central America mission are impressive and resounding. Michael Vecchione, a zoologist with the Smithsonian who briefly worked with the expedition, said the jerry-rigged technology of the Nemo is now standard practice for deep-ocean explorations. The mission took thousands of hours of video, giving scientists an unprecedented look at deep-sea life and revealing new species and their evolutionary adaptations, he said. Deep-sea sponges were retrieved and studied for their antitumor properties. And the way in which they physically nabbed the gold was incredible in its own right: The robotic arms of the submersible gingerly placed a frame around a pile of coins and injected it with silicone, which, when solidified, made for a block full of gold that could be stored until it was ready to be brought to the surface. Controlling all of this were systems less powerful than those contained in the average smart phone, Bob Evans said.
The coins and other gold items recovered from the Odyssey Marine–led excavation debuted in a public exhibit in Los Angeles in February 2018 to record-setting attendance, and they were next seen in May 2018 at an NRA convention in Dallas. Coin collectors jumped at the chance to own a piece of such historic treasure, and all of the collectible gold coins have since been sold, bringing in around $30 million for the receivership, or a net profit of $15 million after paying for the costs of their recovery.
After administrative costs, court costs and creditor claims, there would theoretically be a distribution to the investors in Recovery Limited Partnership — the first time they would ever see a dime, 33 years after the initial investment for some.
“It will not be 100 cents on the dollar of what they invested, but it will be a material distribution, the final amount of which has not been determined. But they will get some of their money back,” Quintin Lindsmith, an attorney for the Dispatch Printing Company said during the November 2018 trial.
But the 500 restrike coins were still MIA, and Thompson wasn’t speaking, so the lawsuits ground on. Thompson’s staunch recalcitrance toward giving up the fight has mystified observers of the case, and nobody knows what to make of his evident willingness to endure privations even harsher than those from his days on the run.
Collette Davidson, Thompson’s ex-wife, sat in a lush garden among busy insects on a sweltering Ohio summer day in June 2018. The idyllic surroundings of Davidson’s yard are the opposite of the Federal Correctional Institution in Milan, Michigan. The prison, an imposing but generic detention facility surrounded by razor wire, is about three hours from Columbus, and it is the place Thompson has called home for more than four years. It appears to be his home for the foreseeable future, as Thompson is serving an indefinite sentence in federal prison for civil contempt for refusing to divulge the whereabouts of the coins.
Davidson said she is baffled by how things have played out since Thompson’s arrest.
In the years that he’s been incarcerated, Thompson has appeared by videoconference before Judge Marbley every other month and asked if he’ll reveal the location of the coins. At one point, Thompson told the court he never had the coins, but then said he’d already spent the proceeds from selling them on legal funds. Then he claimed the coins were held in a trust in a bank in Belize, but that nobody can access the trust without a power of attorney signed by Thompson, which he says he can’t sign.
Judge Marbley has long said that the keys to Thompson’s freedom are in his own hands. “As long as you are content to be a master of misdirection and deceit to the court, I am content to let you sit,” he said.
“I said what I know about [the coins],” Thompson said. “There can’t be an epiphany.”
Thompson is also being fined $1,000 for every day he refuses to speak, meaning his fines are now likely approaching $2 million.
The bleak impasse has led many to wonder why he won’t just reveal the location of the coins. It has been hard to deduce his motivations, even for those who know him well. Some say he’s taking a fall to ensure the financial security of his children, while some say he’s sticking it to the Man.
Davidson suggests Thompson’s predicament might be the result of a singular mind that explores a problem so deeply that more problems develop in the periphery as a result. His intense concentration and extreme focus found the Central America, and the same focus applied to trying to find an answer to his current predicament is taken as unwillingness to play ball.
“They think he’s lying, but it’s just his personality,” she said. “We don’t leave any room in this world for unusual people.”
But it’s also hard for Davidson to understand why her ex-husband is being hounded so severely, as the cost of maintaining lawsuits for 15 years surely has to outweigh the initial investment. Only two of the hundreds of investors in the mission have sued Thompson because they knew it was a gamble to begin with, she said. In fact, one investor had famously even written “Bye Bye” on the memo line of the check he gave to Thompson, fully appreciating the venture’s quixotic nature.
Moreover, as Bob Evans explained, the actual value of the gold was highly speculative in the first place.
The “accusations about missing millions is founded on optimistic projections from press releases and statements made shortly after we found ‘the treasure.’ When these statements were made we did not know what we might find ultimately, or what it would bring in the market … ” Evans wrote in Coin Books. “The point here is that treasure is not missing. The inventory has been published. There is no other gold that has been recovered. Perhaps the math is not simple, but it is not beyond the talents of the most elementary minds, or at least the reasonably educated.”
But according to Quintin Lindsmith, attorney for the Dispatch Printing Company, recouping the supposedly missing returns is not the point. His clients are well aware that they’ve spent more than $3 million trying to recoup a $1 million investment, he said, but they believe Thompson stole from them and lied about it, making it a matter of principle.
Whether Thompson had taken gold he shouldn’t have, or whether certain investors were being particularly vindictive, was up to the jury to decide. Thirty years and two months after the treasure was found, Thompson was driven the long three hours from Milan, Michigan, to Columbus, Ohio, to stand trial and answer questions many people had been waiting a long time to ask.
Everyone at the November pretrial hearing was on edge when Thompson hadn’t yet arrived as scheduled for his first day in court. The missing defendant suggested a repeat of previous events. Had he somehow fled? But it turned out Thompson wasn’t on time because there was a delay in leaving the prison.
In their opening arguments, the lawyers for the plaintiffs laid out the details of Thompson’s flight and the particulars of the various recovery contracts. They strategically rattled the defense by announcing right away that they would be able to prove that there was gold people didn’t know about and that Thompson had deliberately hidden it from investors. Thompson, in a navy sport coat and light-colored plaid shirt, was momentarily nonplussed, and his eyes, behind his black, thick-framed glasses, registered a small amount of surprise.
The trial got underway, and evidence showed that he had a bank account in the Cook Islands with more than $4 million in it. Most damning, however, was alleged evidence that he had stashed gold at the bottom of the sea, presumably to be retrieved later on: When the receivership went back down to the Central America in 2014, they found coins and gold bars that had been neatly laid out on trays.
“And by trays, I mean trays you buy from Target, not trays from 1857,” Lindsmith said.
In responding to the proof of the coins on trays, Thompson publicly admitted, for the first time, that there was in fact gold he hadn’t told anyone about. According to his testimony, he’d left the coins in the trays as bait, so that if the company returned to the site and found that they were missing, they would know somebody had been to the wreck site without their authorization.
“The problem is, that bait had a value of around $5 million,” Lindsmith said. “And when pressed on that point, he admitted that if he’d brought it up in 1991, it could’ve been sold and the cash proceeds could’ve been distributed to the investors.”
Thompson also admitted that he had made off with the 500 gold coins as a form of remuneration he felt he was due. Thompson testified that he’d arranged to transfer the coins around the country with an unknown party over the phone. In her testimony, Alison Antekeier said that between 2006 and 2010 she moved them from California to a safe-deposit box in in Jacksonville, and then to a storage facility in Fort Lauderdale, where she gave them, in a handful of suitcases, to a man who was supposed to transfer them to an irrevocable trust in Belize.
This was the point Thompson was trying to make all along. He wasn’t being difficult when he said he couldn’t access the coins; he legitimately couldn’t. As his attorney Keith Golden explained, an irrevocable trust means that once the trust is set up, the person who opened it cannot access it without the permission of the named beneficiaries. The manager of the trust, in this case the bank in Belize, is under no obligation to provide him access, and for that reason, Thompson claims he genuinely doesn’t know where the coins ultimately ended up. (Who was supposedly named as beneficiaries on the trust is unclear.) Golden also disputed the notion that the coins were placed on trays for Thompson’s secret benefit. He didn’t bring the gold up because at the time, during the dispute with the insurance companies, a judge had ruled that Thompson was only entitled to 10 percent of the profits. “Why would he want to bring the gold up then?” Golden asked. (The ruling was later overturned on appeal.) “They made it sound like he’s going to go out in a rowboat in the middle of the night and retrieve the treasure from 7,500 feet below the surface,” Golden said, “but all of Thompson’s dealings have always been aboveboard.”
“In the trial, in four and a half weeks, guess how many investors came in to complain other than the Dispatch — nobody,” Golden continued. “If you have a campaign for years and years and say, ‘Tommy Thompson’s this’ or ‘Tommy Thompson’s that,’ eventually people are going to believe it. And guess what — if you control the media and the newspaper, you’ve got the open channel to do that.”
Finally, after weeks of testimony, the attorneys made their closing arguments and the jury reached its verdict.
Thompson sat in his wheelchair, legs shackled, as the official paperwork was handed from the foreman to the bailiff to the judge. Time felt like glue and the courtroom’s ambient noises seemed distorted, heavy, and low. After the decades of science, discovery, stress and flight, it all came down to this.
In the matter of the civil case against, it was determined that defendant Thomas G. Thompson owed the receivership $16.2 million dollars and the Dispatch Printing Company $3.2 million, for a combined total of $19.4 million. Thompson sat expressionless while everyone else gasped.
“The truth is, it is actually larger than I expected,” Lindsmith said, “but the decision was quite appropriate.” The determination reflected the amount of profit from the 2014 sale of gold retrieved by the receivership, which Lindsmith said should have have gone to the investors in 1991.
However, the jury declined to award any punitive damages or court fees, indicating that there was no evidence that Thompson acted with malice. Either way, Lindsmith said the victory is once again about the principle. Like the cost of the litigation itself, the financial cost is immaterial to the larger point. “Whether we’re capable of collecting [the judgment] is a separate question,” he admitted.
“There are thousands of items,” auctioneer Robert Cassel said in an interview with TheColumbus Dispatch. “There’s still cigars rolled that you could smoke. There’s jewelry that people wore that’s part of the recovery. There’s clothing. There’s shaving gear. They have tickets from the passengers.”
Golden scoffed at the award and the plans for the auction, saying it was nothing compared to what they could have received if they hadn’t been so fixated on punishing Thompson. The receivership would have been much better off, he said, if they had put the lawsuit to the side and utilized Thompson’s intelligence and expertise to their advantage by finishing the recovery of the Central America and then moving on to the many, many other ships that sank with gold.
“You’ve heard the saying, ‘You cut off your nose to spite your face’? That’s exactly what the Dispatch [Printing Company] did. They sat back and instead of kicking this guy’s legs out from underneath him, if they had been more productive then and not done what they did, we’d all be sitting on a fortune right now,” he said. “What they did just killed an opportunity, ruined it.”
Golden adds that the relentless litigation torpedoed an opportunity that would have made the Central America recovery look like chump change. Thompson was working with the Colombian government in the mid-1990s to recover an old galleon whose estimated value is legitimately a few billion dollars. The deal fell apart on account of Thompson’s legal situation, Golden said, but if the investors would have supported this mission, the rewards would have been far more lucrative than a paper judgment. Indeed, the discovery of this ship — the Holy Grail of sunken Spanish galleons — was announced to the world in May 2018 and is said to be carrying up to $17 billion worth of gold.
In better news for Thompson, the lawsuit brought by the sonar techs was dismissed with prejudice in August 2018, meaning that they can’t attempt to sue him again later on. The next steps for Thompson in the case brought by Dispatch Printing include an appeal of the judgment, with the hopes that the award will be diminished or overturned.
Separately, Thompson has filed an appeal in federal court to be let out of prison. Ordinarily, federal “recalcitrance statutes” limit imprisonment for uncooperative witnesses to 18 months. Thompson is currently awaiting the ruling of a three-judge panel about whether or not his is valid.
“I think it’s just another bump in the road. It’s more of the same for him. I would say he’s a bit numb at this point,” Golden said. “But he’s making plans to move forward with his life. This isn’t the end of his life by any means.”
Thompson hasn’t spoken with the press in decades, and unfortunately that prohibition was not broken for this article. What little time he has to use the phone is spent speaking with lawyers, business partners, and his family; ditto for the days he can have visitors. And after decades of developing new technology, going after hidden gold, and having to fight in court, Thompson is used to secrecy and has no reason to talk about the case to anyone.
Alison Antekeier still lives in Columbus, keeps a low profile, and is still reportedly very sympathetic to Thompson. Numerous attempts to contact her went unanswered.
In Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, Gary Kinder includes chilling survivor accounts of the Central America disaster, including men and women screaming maniacally as they dumped out purses and emptied hidden pockets of gold as the ship sank. The vacated wealth was something they otherwise would have killed to protect. It was mania wrought by the plague of gold, a crippling infirmity that afflicts humans alone.
“People, modern and historical, are all flawed,” mission scientist Bob Evans said. “The one true superlative is the treasure.”
Winter was on its way in northwestern Syria when Hana Al Saloom awoke around 6 a.m., preparing to make morning tea. There was a chill in the air. Her 5-year-old daughter, Aysha, was asleep near a gas heater, as her brothers and sisters slept in other rooms. Hana’s husband stirred nearby.
Hana blinked. The blast knocked her down. Silence. Then screams. She swiveled on her knees. She looked around. Everything was on fire. It was as if her house had exploded. She didn’t realize it right away, but a missile had blown off the side of the concrete-and-steel home. The impact must have caused the gas heater to blow up too. The flames spread fast.
Hana raced outside with her older children. That’s when she saw her husband carrying Aysha’s listless body. He had reached into the flames to pull her out. His legs and hands were seared. But Aysha was injured the worst. Neighbors rushed to put out the fire on her body — and all around them. By the time they blotted out the flames, Aysha’s flesh had turned a chalky whitish-gray. Her skin was smoldering.
“First, I was screaming,” Hana remembers. “And then I was crying.”
A neighbor rushed Aysha and her dad to a hospital. But since Aysha’s wounds were so severe, she was transferred to another hospital across the border in Turkey.
Hana would not see her daughter again for seven months.
* * *
Three years later, sitting next to Aysha’s bedside at Shriners for Children Medical Center in Pasadena, California, Hana pulls out her phone and scrolls to a photo of her daughter before the bombing, a smooth-skinned girl with pink lips and reddish-blonde eyebrows. Her wavy hair dances around her bright eyes. There she is in a white blouse. There she is in a purple plaid dress. There she is with pigtails, sitting on a swing, wearing a white, blue and red polka-dotted tutu.
Hana shows a photo taken on the day of the bombing, moments after Aysha’s father pulled her from the flames. Her mouth hung open, her eyes slightly cracked, her neck as reddish-pink as a bloody raw steak. Her face looked as if someone had slathered it with a mud mask. Pasty in some places, blackened in others. But her skin, Hana says, was still there, even if it had turned a different shade. Badly hurt and on the brink of death, that is how Hana remembered her daughter on the day she was burned.
After Aysha was whisked away to Turkey for medical care on the day of the accident, an uncle who accompanied her sent a photo of her face wrapped in white bandages. But not many more photos arrived in Hana’s phone over the next few months. Instead, the uncle would call regularly with updates from Turkey. Aysha’s burns would heal, he told Hana. She was going to be OK. Doctors focused on her lungs especially, which were damaged from the smoke.
Hana prayed and cried, waiting for Aysha to be well enough to come home. Finally, that day came. Hana waited, and when she saw the car coming down the road, she ran out of her house in time to see her little girl step out.
She remembers that Aysha wore jeans and a red and white striped dress. Her hair had been shaved off. But it was her face that shocked Hana the most. She did not know that the burned layer of skin had fallen away in sheaths, and that the new skin that replaced it was a combination of grafts, recent growth and irregular-shaped scars. Aysha’s lips had been whittled away too. It looked as if someone else’s flesh had been stretched too thin across her facial bones.
Aysha did not look like the little girl her mother remembered, but Hana had no doubt she was her daughter. She grabbed Aysha and carried her inside of the house. She sat down, weeping. “I would not let anybody touch her, or talk to her,” Hana remembers. “I just took her to the room, and we continued hugging each other, hugging for hours.”
Hana recalls how Aysha was welcomed back to parts of the community, but the children who used to play with her refused. “In Syria, all the kids, when they saw her, they were scared of her,” Hana says. “People who used to know her, who she used to play with, nobody came close to her.”
When Hana heard from a doctor in Syria that there was a program in America with premier doctors treating Syrian children with burns, she put Aysha’s name on the list. In May 2018, they boarded a plane and arrived in California.
For the last 10 months, Aysha has lived in Southern California, traveling with a chaperone several days a week — an hour each way from an apartment in Irvine — to the hospital in Pasadena for checkups and surgeries, all to treat the burns and scars that run across her arms, chest, neck and face. She is one of six Syrian children who have come to the U.S. with the help of the Burnt Children Relief Foundation, which launched in 2014. Given the immigration hurdles and expenses for travel, living and medical care, it would be almost impossible for most Syrian families to travel to the U.S. and access these world-class surgeons without the help of this rare kind of program.
“These kids don’t have passports or IDs,” says Susan Baaj, chairwoman of the Burnt Children Relief Foundation, which works on their behalf to obtain these documents. Baaj, a Syrian-American who lives in Orange County, is a founding member of the Syrian American Council, Los Angeles chapter. She has been active in humanitarian projects since the war in Syria began. “It’s very challenging to get them through all these borders to come to the United States.” Yet in the wake of travel bans and curbs on refugees, the U.S. State Department has remained supportive of temporary visas to bring burned Syrian children and their families to the U.S. for treatment through the foundation, requiring that they return promptly to their home country after the surgeries are complete.
“If you can bring your child to the hospital, we will treat you,” says William Norbury, a surgeon specializing in plastic and reconstructive surgery at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Galveston, Texas, which has treated four of the Syrian burn victims. “If you do have insurance, we will try and claim on your insurance,” but if not, he adds, “we offer the same treatment.”
Twenty-five more burned Syrian children are currently on waiting lists to come to the U.S. for medical care at Shriners with the help of the Burnt Children Relief Foundation, which relies on donations to secure funding to pay for travel, housing and living expenses. Currently they do not have enough funding to bring all of the children who need help.
There have been half a million deaths and at least two million injuries since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, and the young Syrian patients who show up at Shriners come with gnarled hands, missing eyes and knotty scars, as well as obstructed breathing, hearing and vision. Some can barely swallow. Their injuries are the direct result of air strikes and, in some cases, chemical weapons attacks.
“The intensity of the burns inflicted on these kids are beyond belief,” says Saed Moujtahed, founder of the Burnt Children Relief Foundation and president of the Syrian Institute for Progress, which focuses on supporting Syrian refugees. A longtime Syrian-American activist within the Arab-American community, Moujtahed worked on developing the partnership with Shriners as well as getting support from politicians. “Many victims die. Those who survive their burns have a really tough, heavy pain, not only from their burns, but also psychologically.”
Norbury recalls the injuries of one Syrian boy he treated recently. “He couldn’t see with his right eye. His nostrils were almost completely destructed,” Norbury says. “His hands had some of the worst scarring I’ve ever seen. It looked like he was balancing a baseball on the back of his hand.” When Norbury removed the scars, the entire mass was four centimeters thick — from the outside to the deepest part of the scar.
So far, doctors have taken skin from Aysha’s legs and grafted it onto her arms, and from her stomach to her cheeks. They’ve smoothed the surface of her skin with lasers. But she still has more surgeries to go.
When Aysha is not in the hospital, she plays alone, or studies with a 17-year-old Syrian girl, Hamama, who is also receiving treatment at Shriners and lives with Aysha and her mom in the Irvine apartment. Hamama lost her parents, along with key parts of her memory, when her village was attacked. She cannot recall her past, the accident, or even her family members who died. Sometimes Aysha and her mother wonder if Hamama’s memory loss is a blessing.
They occasionally go to the shopping mall, or out to eat. Aysha collects dolls, watches Disney cartoons, and loves Skittles. But mostly she longs to attend school in a building outside with other children, even if they stare or laugh at her. “Can I go to school only for one day, one day?” she begs. It is too risky. Doctors have prohibited her from attending school outside because they worry the sun and environment could harm her already fragile skin and nervous system.
Hana homeschools Aysha, who tries to stay in good spirits, even though she wishes she had other kids her age to play with. Sometimes she tells her mom, “I’m so bored, I don’t want to live.”
When she does go outside for brief periods, she worries about what people think of her. Once, Aysha spotted a woman pushing a stroller. She noticed a toy fall from the stroller to the ground. Aysha thought of picking up the toy to give to the baby. Then she hesitated and told her mom, “Go pick up the toy and give it to that child.” Her mom asked why couldn’t she pick it up herself. Aysha answered, “The baby will be scared of me.” Every night, the magnitude of all that has happened in the last two years sets in, as Aysha cries herself to sleep in her mother’s arms.
At Shriners, Hana helps Aysha change into a tiger-printed hospital gown, and rubs the patchy scars on her daughter’s legs, areas where doctors have removed swaths of flesh for skin grafts to treat the burned and disfigured spots on her face. Hana tucks the a blanket around Aysha’s thin body, and brushes her clove-colored hair out of her eyes, kissing her marbled, ruddy forehead.
A nurse in a blue cap and gown takes Aysha’s blood pressure. On the television, a shark tries to catch a dolphin. “Baby shark do-do-do-do-do-do,” Aysha sings, clapping her hands together like jaws. “Daddy shark do-do-do-do-do.”
Hana wears a gray head scarf and a red trench coat, which she has buttoned. She gives Aysha rosewater. She is often so focused on her daughter, she forgets about herself. Hana left five other children behind in Syria. Though Hana and Aysha video chat with their family members back in Turkey and Syria regularly, they know that they will likely not see them again for at least another two years. That is how long the doctors expect it to take to complete the needed surgeries. Hana’s eyes well with tears when she mentions she has not yet met her grandchild, born since they came to the U.S.
* * *
When Aysha was a baby, her family resided in the close-knit village of Heesh, where she and her husband lived off the land, raising animals and growing their own food. They made cheese and traded it for other products. Their agrarian life was peaceful, Hana says, until the military came in 2012 and ordered everyone in the village to leave. Heesh would become a bloody battleground as opposition fighters and Assad-regime forces clashed — artillery, rockets and mortars dropping over the hamlet, driving out residents and killing those left behind.
Hana remembers gripping Aysha in her arms, carrying a bag of just a few clothing items, and making the two-week trek from Heesh to the border of Turkey on foot, with her husband and six kids. Aysha would sleep against her mother’s chest even as bombs fell around them. Each time, they would duck for cover as Hana told her older kids, “Do not get up. If we make it out alive, we are alive. If we don’t make it, God will have mercy on our souls.”
They spent four years in the camps. Aysha learned to crawl, and walk, between the tents. Since their entire village and extended family members had relocated there too, Aysha knew many people. She would spend her days going from canopy to canopy, hiding and hunting for food. The neighbors would bring Aysha back to her mom and say, “Here, take your daughter!” To which Hana would reply jokingly: “Why are you giving her back? You keep her!”
The family eventually learned that the fighting had subsided and they could return to Heesh, but when they made the long journey back to the village, they found a heap of rubble, broken glass, burned toys, cracked concrete, dust, dirt and crumbled storefronts. The ceiling had collapsed. The living room was a hill of rocks. Like the rest of the village, they rebuilt their home, one concrete slab after another. Less than a year later, it was not fully intact, but they had repaired it enough to live within its walls again.
Then, the missile hit.
* * *
“How are we doing here?” the Shriners doctor asks, pushing back a curtain as he enters the hospital room. “Is she sleeping?”
Aysha’s eyes are slightly open, but she is snoring. Her nostrils are narrow pricks that don’t take in enough air. She has no eyelashes, no eyebrows, and her lids don’t fully close when she sleeps.
The doctor begins to make marks on her ears with a marker. “What we want to do is, maybe improve the nostrils a little bit for her, so she can open it up,” he says. “Then the ribs, we’re going to go down here. There’s going to be a little incision like that on the ribs. We’re going to take a little piece of that rib out, and then we’re going to shape it into this part of the ear.”
“We know you’re going to do your best,” a translator for Hana says, looking at Aysha curled up with a stuffed animal. “She’s calm as an angel.”
After today’s surgery, Aysha’s head, arm, stomach and nose will be wrapped in bandages for weeks. Once she’s healed enough, she will have another surgery.
Doctors know the patients may never look the same as before, but they hope to help them live a more normal life by improving their burn injuries and deformities step by step, until they look and feel closer to the kids they are inside. The ones who skip down halls, sing YouTube songs, and grab for toys like other kids their age — without fear of frightening others.
At 10 a.m., the doctors prepare to operate. Hama tells Aysha to open her mouth. It’s time to take her anesthesia. The syringe is filled to the tip with the bright pink liquid. “Cherry taste,” a nurse says. Aysha breathes deeply, gathering the courage to drink it down. Hama squeezes the medicine into Aysha’s mouth. She drinks it down with a grimace and wipes her lips.
Minutes later, Aysha is groggy. She can’t lift her arm on her own. Her mom leans in close. “What does my love want?” Hana says. Aysha says nothing, her eyes droop. “What does my love want?” Hana strokes her hair.
A few minutes later, the nurses wheel Aysha out of the room, down the hall, as Hana watches from behind. “My baby.” Suddenly, the nurses stop midway between the automatic doors. Aysha is trying to call out. Her voice is so faint. Mama! Hana hears her. Mama! Hana rushes to her side once more.
Tourists are a most common sight at the abbey of Mont Sainte-Odile in the summer. So, when a somewhat hefty, tall man walked down the marble stairs leading to the first floor of the guesthouse, hardly anyone noticed. His backpack contained a Bible, which is normal in a place where people come for religious pilgrimages, but this Bible was more than 500 years old. Along with it, the man carried a 15th-century incunabulum, works by Cicero and the eighth-century theologian Alcuin, and three more dusty, priceless books.
He’d gotten them from the abbey library. The door had been open, and he’d slipped right in. He picked six books from one of the oak bookcases standing against the walls, and walked right out through the Saint-Pierre chapel, briefly glancing at the marble tomb of Saint Odile — the revered saint who founded this mountaintop abbey in the seventh century — on his way out.
Now, the square-jawed, long-legged man sauntered through a swarm of tourists near the parapet enclosing the religious site. It was a warm, sunny day in August 2000, and he had just stolen from one of the holiest sites in Alsace, a historical region in northeastern France. On countless occasions, he had soaked up the views of the hillsides, blanketed with pines, and the sprawling Rhine Valley. He made himself a promise not to steal from the library anymore, he would later tell police investigators. Then he strolled by the church Notre-Dame de l’Assomption and, walking under the entrance porch, left the site.
When Véronique Buntz, a housekeeper, entered the library a few days later and set about dusting the bookcases, as she had every Friday since her first day at Mont Sainte-Odile, over a decade earlier, she knew something was amiss.
Of the site’s myriad rooms, the library was the one where Buntz, 33, a blue-eyed woman with natural gray hair, felt most at peace. A small, vaulted room, it had once been known as Calvary, a place where canons and nuns meditated on the Passion of Christ. In the mid-19th century, a canon had turned it into a library, amassing more than 3,000 books donated by seminaries and monasteries from the region.
In the 1990s, an amateur historian started drawing an inventory and had found ancient editions of works by Aristotle, Homer, and the Roman playwright Terence. Especially valuable were 10 incunabula — rare books printed before 1501, during the earliest years of the printing press. Sermons by Augustine, bound in sow skin, from 1489. Three Latin Bibles, printed in Basel and Strasbourg. Works by the Roman poet Virgil, printed in 1492 in Nuremberg. A Bible commentary by Peter Lombard, a 12th-century Italian scholar.
Now one was missing. On the lower shelf where they were supposed to line up, there was an empty space.
Buntz scurried out of the room. She bumped into Charles Diss, 61, the director of Mont Sainte-Odile, a short man with an affable face and protruding ears. “I think books in the library are missing,” she whispered, as if uttering blasphemy. Diss was rattled. The library was accessible to some of the 60 employees, as well as to groups of 30 worshippers taking turns in adoration of the Eucharist, a tradition going back to the years following World War I.
Buntz and Diss drove the weaving road downhill to file a complaint with the local police station. For a moment, they thought that things would be left at that. The door was often left unlocked, after all. It appeared that only one book had been stolen, or simply borrowed by a fervent but dreamy pilgrim, and not returned. No additional security measures were taken.
But when Buntz entered the library one day in November, just a few months later, the remaining incunabula were gone. The empty shelf stared grimly at her like an open wound. The gendarmes began an investigation and soon roamed the area. License plate numbers were noted; tourists spending a night in one of the guesthouse’s 110 rooms, scrutinized; personnel, screened. “It was like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says Jean-Pierre Schackis, the main investigator on the case, 51 at the time. More than one million people visit Mont Sainte-Odile every year, and the surveillance cameras at the site entrance didn’t even work properly.
A few days prior, the cameras had stared blankly at a white Citroën parking late in the evening, and at the 6-foot-2-inch-tall man who had come out of it. He had walked back to the car two hours later, carrying two bags full of nine heavy incunabula, according to previously undisclosed police records.
The lock on the library door was replaced with a sturdier one, and access to the room restricted. For months, there was no further pilfering. It was a relief. The thief hadn’t been caught, but at least the books would stay where they belonged. Life continued. In the fall of 2001, Diss, the head of the site for 23 years, was succeeded by Alain Donius, a bespectacled, disheveled priest of 51. No one told him about the thefts. The matter was considered closed.
While the monks breathed easy, the thief enjoyed his new books. At night, in his tiny flat in Illkirch-Graffenstaden, in the suburbs of Strasbourg, 32-year-old bachelor Stanislas Gosse tapped into his knowledge of Latin to read the stolen texts. There were sermons by Bernard of Clairvaux, the “honey-tongued” 12th-century Cistercian reformer. There was a 19th-century volume reproducing plates from the Hortus Deliciarum, a 12th-century encyclopedia that had been lost in a fire. Flipping through the pages, one saw the seeds of Christianity sprout and unfold. Miniatures showed Jonah crawling out of the jaws of the monster, a giant fish with its head a glowing red. The Three Kings followed the Star of Bethlehem, and a bearded King David sat on his throne musing, a harp tucked between his hands. Did reading these books produce the same joy Gosse felt playing the organ at church?
He had found them covered with dust and bird droppings. “I know it can seem selfish, but I was under the impression that those books had been abandoned,” Gosse said at his trial, according to news outlets covering it at the time. He had found himself a mission. He would save the texts from decay and oblivion. “I wanted to have my own personal library,” the teacher later told the police. He stressed that he hadn’t stolen the books out of greed: He earned about 20,000 francs a month, or 4,000 euros today, and he spent little other than his monthly rent of 6,000, or €1,200.
Gosse had a “devouring passion” for ancient books, he told investigators. In ninth grade, his Latin teacher, a bibliophile, had taken his class to the library of the Grand Seminary of Strasbourg, where the spines of 5,000 ancient books glowed under the artificial light in countless shades of dull yellow, pearl-gray and purplish red. Equally bewitching was Mont Sainte-Odile. Gosse was 3 years old when he had first laid eyes on the secluded mount and scampered around the Pagan Wall enclosing it, a 10-kilometer long wall made of large stones covered with moss. His father, a military officer, took him there often, and as an adult Gosse visited the site every year. He was raised Catholic, and Alain Donius, the priest who became the head of Sainte-Odile in 2001, had taught him catechism as a boy. When Gosse first peered inside the library in 1997, he was enchanted. He would come back.
In August 2000, he walked up the stairs to the library and found the door open. He came back a few days later, riding his bicycle in the summer heat. He made his way to the library. “I found myself alone,” Gosse recounted to investigators. His hand felt for a latch through the loose chicken wire covering the bookcase doors. He picked six books, including a 15th-century Bible, and one incunabulum. “He stole in no logical order,” recalls investigator Schackis. Later, Gosse went to the national library in Strasbourg to read about what he had appropriated. After that, “I was tempted to steal incunabula,” he told the police.
He didn’t go back until November 2000, this time driving his car. He found the library door open. One golden plate affixed to a lower bookcase simply read: “Incunabula.” He had already stolen one during his previous theft, and now the remaining nine ended up in the two bags he’d brought with him. Gosse, who declined to be interviewed for this story, described the thefts to the investigators with a wealth of details, but the interrogation records fail to mention how he felt perpetrating them. By his own account, he left around midnight, driving away in the cold night.
For several months, it seems, Gosse was content with the books he had collected. In the summer of 2001, however, he went back again. This time, he found the door closed and locked. Would it stop him? He returned the next day with a hand drill. How thick was the door, he wondered, and could he pick the lock? After drilling a 3-millimeter hole, he gave up. He was no professional thief, after all. He had to find another way in.
On a Friday in April 2002, Véronique Buntz entered the library to find the massive bookcases standing solemnly, bathed in shafts of light streaming through the windows. This time, it hit her like a blow. Hundreds of books were missing.
The door and the windows showed no signs of forced entry. Some mysterious force had found a way into the very heart of the holy site. Unless it was an inside job. One of the two priests, perhaps? One of the 10 nuns? One of the employees? Could it possibly have been the work of Donius, the new director? After all, not everyone had welcomed him with open arms. Everyone was a suspect.
“It was particularly disturbing,” says Donius.
“The atmosphere was tense,” recalls Gabriel Dietrich, a janitor, now retired, 52 at the time.
“It was surreal,” remembers Buntz. “One thinks: It’s impossible! How can books disappear when the windows aren’t broken, when there’s no sign of break-in?”
There wasn’t much more the police could do to prevent additional books from vanishing into thin air. Access to the library had already been restricted to a handful of people. Dietrich had changed the lock for a stronger one. Buntz had even relinquished her key, to prove her good faith. More than her probity being questioned, however, it was the books’ fate that kept her awake at night. Would they ever be found? Had they already been thrown into the Rhine, or sold to art smugglers in the Netherlands or Belgium? This was the lead pursued by the investigators, and art dealers across Europe had been asked to keep an eye out for specific books. They could only hope for a miracle.
On May 19, near 7 p.m., Stanislas Gosse drove his Citroën to Mont Sainte-Odile. He brought ropes, three suitcases, gray plastic bags and a flashlight. Once inside the main courtyard, he headed straight to the second floor of the Sainte-Odile aisle of the guesthouse. He walked down a corridor, opened a door using a key pinched during a previous trip, and found himself in the church’s bell tower.
He tied the ropes to a wooden beam above a trapdoor in the floor and climbed down into a dark, windowless room of about 10 feet by 10 feet with a short 7-foot ceiling. Through an opening in the wall, he slipped into a second, narrow room. A dim light filtered through cracks in the lower part of a wall. The thief gently slid two wooden panels open, revealing rows of neatly lined up books on two shelves inside a cupboard. He took the books off, then one shelf, before sneaking inside the library. At the library in Strasbourg, he had found what he had been looking for in an article from a local history journal that mentioned a secret passage, unknown to anyone currently working at the abbey, except Dietrich, the janitor. It had probably once been used as a hiding place for the monks or as an ossuary — a place to store bones.
Gosse selected a few books, wrapped them in plastic bags, then crawled back inside the cupboard. In the second room, he flipped a wooden crate, climbed on it and hauled the bags through the hatch onto the attic. He climbed up the rope, moved the books to a nearby table to clear the hatch, and climbed back down. He repeated the operation eight times throughout the evening. By the time he was done, more than a hundred books were stacked up in the attic. Around 2 a.m., he stuffed the suitcases with books and left them behind, planning to pick them up later.
He came back the following evening. For all his savvy as a thief, he didn’t spot the hidden surveillance camera in the attic, placed there by the gendarmes. They had poked around the library for hours, eventually chancing upon the secret passage. They saw the suitcases Gosse had left and were waiting for him to come back. Around 9 p.m. he emerged from the bell tower. The gendarmes wrestled him to the floor. He barely said a word.
At his apartment, they found about 1,400 books wrapped in plastic bags. There was no official estimation of the total value of the loot, but each incunabula was estimated to be worth around €2,000. On most of the books, Gosse had glued a custom ex libris bookplate stamp bearing his name in Gothic letters, as well as a drawing of a heart. He confessed to the thefts. “I have a consuming passion for ancient books,” he told the investigators. He had gone as far as recreating entire tomes he couldn’t find at Mont Sainte-Odile, photocopying archives from the Strasbourg library. He offered to donate them to the library he had so heartily pillaged.
He apologized to the director, who gave him absolution. At his trial a year later, he was given an 18-month suspended prison sentence and a €6,000 fine. He had to pay €10,000 to Mont Saint-Odile, and €1,000 to the archbishopric of Strasbourg. A slap on the wrist, his lawyer says. He was even able to keep teaching.
Close to 20 years after the thefts, the investigators still speak about Gosse with awe. He was no ordinary thief, after all. He stole out of passion, and the books were safely returned to the library in 22 boxes (it took two volunteers six months to sort them out).
“He was our Arsène Lupin,” says Shackis, referring to a fictional thief of the early 1900s who terrorized well-heeled Parisians in popular short stories and novels of the day.
Former colleagues at the engineering school where Gosse still teaches are more guarded. What kind of example had he set for the students? They described an aloof, reclusive man with no appetite for social activities whatsoever. He is now 48, single, and lives with his mother. Sometimes, Donius, who has since left Mont Sainte-Odile, bumps into Gosse on the streets of Illkirch. They exchange a quick salute and walk on.
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.”
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, Demmerlewas 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.
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.
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.
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.”