- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A deep-sea treasure hunter who spent years as a fugitive after refusing to testify about gold he discovered in a historic shipwreck pleaded guilty Wednesday to contempt of court.

Tommy Thompson, 62, pleaded guilty to the criminal contempt charge in federal court wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and handcuffs.

Thompson went missing three years ago amid demands he appear in court. He and his longtime female companion, Alison Antekeier, were apprehended in January at a hotel where he was living near Boca Raton, Florida.

Thompson has faced accusations of cheating investors since he discovered the S.S. America, known as the Ship of Gold, in 1988. The gold-rush era ship sank in a hurricane off South Carolina in 1857 with thousands of pounds of gold aboard, contributing to an economic panic.

Thompson, then an oceanic engineer at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, and his crew brought up thousands of gold bars and coins. He would later describe the treasure as “otherworldly in its splendor,” but much of it was later sold to a gold marketing group in 2000 for about $50 million.

The 161 investors who paid Thompson $12.7 million to find the ship never saw the proceeds. Two sued - a now-deceased investment firm president and the company that publishes The Columbus Dispatch newspaper.

The plea agreement calls for Thompson to forfeit the $425,380 seized when he and Antekeier were arrested in Florida, assist in the 2012 civil case relating to the treasure by helping to identify and recover lost assets, and identify others who may have helped him while he was on the run.

The government agreed not to charge Thompson with any other offenses arising from the case if he complies with the plea agreement.

The deal also establishes a maximum prison sentence of two years and a maximum fine of $250,000. Typically, the maximum sentence for criminal contempt is life in prison.

Thompson’s attorney Ben Dusing said in a statement he hopes the plea agreement is a first step toward ending a decade of lawsuits.

“What happened, happened,” Dusing said after the hearing. “But we should be mindful of the fact that the guy did something that should be recognized as historic.”

The agreement also asks that the court give special emphasis to Thompson’s rare medical condition when sentencing him. Dusing said Thompson suffers from a serious immune system condition requiring specialized treatment.

Thompson will remain in custody in Delaware County jail until his sentencing, which hasn’t been set yet.

Antekeier was also charged with criminal contempt last week. She pleaded guilty alongside Thompson Wednesday to that count and agreed to forfeit the cash seized when arrested and assist in the pending civil case. Her plea agreement includes a maximum prison sentence of one year. Judge Algenon Marbley approved her release from jail pending sentencing.

Thompson had been in custody in Ohio for several weeks following his extradition from Florida. U.S. marshals in Ohio and Florida worked for more than two years to track down Thompson before his arrest, and said he had been planning to disappear for some time.

Police say he had eight fake identification cards during a 2008 arrest at a Florida gas station. After his disappearance four years later, authorities found evidence at the Vero Beach mansion he rented between 2006 and 2012, where he paid rent in cash and put the utilities in the landlord’s name.

Inside the mansion were pre-paid disposable cellphones and bank wraps for $10,000, along with a book called “How to Live Your Life Invisible.”

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