When treasure hunter Tommy Thompson first found the “Ship of Gold,” a long-sunken steamer loaded with loot worth $50 million, the oceanic engineer was hailed as a “brilliant scientist” who uncovered the greatest lost treasure in American history.
The one-time Ohio resident, however, later became known as a federal fugitive after he went on the lam following a series of legal skirmishes over financial issues related to his 1988 discovery of the S.S. Central America, which sank during a hurricane off the South Carolina coast in 1857. The shipwreck killed 425 people, and the ship’s cargo from the California Gold Rush was lost for more than 130 years.
On Tuesday, Thompson’s own odyssey logged what might be the beginning of a final chapter, two years after he and his girlfriend and assistant, Alison Antekeier, disappeared. The pair was arrested in a hotel in Boca Raton, Florida following a tip from the U.S. Marshals office in Columbus, Ohio.
They appeared in federal court in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Wednesday and Thompson, 62, is scheduled to return Thursday after he reads the criminal complaint against him.
“He must have used every trick in the book to stay missing,” Brian Babtist, a senior inspector with the U.S. Marshals office in Columbus, tells PEOPLE. “It must have taken some bucks. Where did that money come from? That’s expensive to live in a hotel suite in Boca Raton for two years.”
Thompson, a research scientist who helped devise technology for the recovery effort, first captured the public’s attention when he and his crew discovered the long-lost ship and brought up 21 tons of gold bars and coins.
He later sold some of the bounty for about $50 million but quickly became embroiled in lawsuits with investors, insurance companies and crew members over ownership issues and claims that he didn’t pay money he’d promised to people.
“Our clients did work in the ’80s and they remain unpaid,” said Mike Szolosi, a Columbus, Ohio, attorney representing nine of the crew members, who used sonar to help locate the S.S. Central America in deep waters.
His clients are owed about $7 million, which is the actual amount owed plus accrued interest, he said. “This is a relief,” Szolosi told PEOPLE of Thompson’s capture. “We’re hopeful there will be an answer as to where the money is he took.”
Thompson and Antekeier were well-versed in “tradecraft” and had read books on how to elude law enforcement, says Barry Golden, a senior inspector in the U.S. Marshals office in Miami, but didn’t put up a fight when arrested.
“She did make a spontaneous statement. She said, ‘Yeah, I knew he was wanted,’ ” Golden tells PEOPLE.
The pair will be extradited back to Ohio, Babtist says.
“He’s been a smart fugitive, but I’ve met a lot of smart criminals,” he says. “You can only run for so long.”