By Bruce Frankel
June 15, 1998 12:00 PM

Mel Fisher looks like the king of all he surveys as he presides over his Key West store with its sparkling emeralds and ancient gold coins. He displays the loot as glittering testament to his unparalleled prowess as a treasure hunter. It was Fisher, after all, who harvested an estimated $400 million in precious artifacts 13 years ago from a sunken Spanish galleon—one of the great salvage finds of all time. Now coin experts say that Fisher may have been peddling counterfeit coins. But he is unfazed. “I hunt for treasures,” says Fisher, 75. “I don’t make them.”

State investigators on April 22 raided his shop and confiscated 25 allegedly fake coins from Fisher, who is battling bladder cancer and, in the twilight of a ballyhooed career, boasting that he has found the lost city of Atlantis (“I’m not at liberty to talk about it”). The fraud probe of Fisher may finally determine if the swaggering treasure hunter is a surpassing underwater sleuth or a swindler.

“I wouldn’t have anything to do with anything like this,” says Fisher, who blames the probe on a conspiracy of environmental groups (angry that he has despoiled the ocean floor) and overzealous prosecutors.

The investigation began last January after Jay Haines, 35, a Panama City, Fla., businessman, paid $6,342 for a gold coin. “I thought, ‘Who better to buy a treasure coin from than Mel Fisher?’ ” Haines recalls. “His shop would be the least likely place to buy a counterfeit coin.”

But when Haines returned home, coin dealers told him that the four-escudo gold coin was bogus. He was doubly dismayed, he says, because Fisher himself had persuaded him to buy the item when he hesitated because of its exceptionally good condition. (Fisher denies ever meeting him.) Haines contacted Fisher’s office, which agreed to refund his money without asking him to return the coin. He grew suspicious and sent it to the prosecutor’s office in Key West. “He’d been getting away with something that I’ve heard [from dealers] has been going on for a long, long time,” Haines explains.

Rumors about Fisher have circulated since the Indiana-born, onetime California poultry farmer arrived in Florida in the 1960s to hunt for treasure. Says Deo, 62, his second wife, to whom he has been married for 45 years: “It’s been like this since we started.”

Fisher stirred resentment when he began finding treasures that had eluded other salvors for years. In 1971, after turning up just two lead musket balls and trinkets, he proclaimed, “This is it, the Big A.” He had long boasted that he would find the legendary Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish transport that sank in 1622 carrying 47 tons of gold, silver and emeralds. He was on the right track, but he would search another 10 years—and lose one of his five children, 22-year-old son Dirk, to a boat capsizing—before his son Kane, now 39, could shout, “Put away the charts!” Fisher’s divers had found a 60-foot reef of silver bars in the very waters where Dirk had died.

Fisher became a celebrity overnight, inspiring four books, a documentary and a TV movie with Cliff Robertson starring as Fisher. He told Deo to start learning to spend. “Just when I was getting the hang of it,” he laments, “he had most of it spent [on new salvage equipment].” Of the 130,000 coins his company claimed to have found, all but 5,000 have been sold.

As Fisher’s treasure chest drained, the lawsuits against him multiplied, including one in which investors alleged that he siphoned millions in cash and artifacts (he settled out of court). In another a minister claimed that he had overstated the value of a gold bar and an emerald she won in a treasure hunt (settled for silver coins worth several thousand dollars). But, in all, he has lost only one suit outright (fined $500,000 for destroying seagrass), and he is appealing it.

The new investigation could be his greatest challenge yet. “We know we have bad coins being sold,” says Kirk Zuelch, the state attorney in Key West. The question now, he adds, is “who’s responsible.” Fisher has been “in some tough messes,” says Pat Clyne, vice president of Fisher’s Treasure Salvors, which employs 200 people in salvage operations, a museum and a retail shop. “People have accused him of ridiculous things—like counterfeiting coins. We’re talking about Mel Fisher.” And that name is as good as the gold that he sells.

Bruce Frankel

Tim Roche in Key West