A judge in Ohio has approved a deal to allow Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration to recover the remaining gold from a ship that sank off the Carolina coast in 1857 and had been embroiled in legal fights involving a fugitive treasure hunter.
Under the deal, approved by Judge Patrick Sheeran of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas in Columbus on Wednesday, Odyssey Marine can begin working to recover gold bars and coins from the S.S. Central America next month.
It’s unclear how much gold is still in the Central America, also known as the Ship of Gold.
In 1998, shipwreck enthusiast and Ohio native Tommy Thompson led an expedition that found the vessel and recovered gold that later sold for $50 million to $60 million.
The treasure then became the subject of lawsuits. The litigation involved a group of Ohio investors who paid $12.7 million to fund Thompson’s expedition but said they never saw any returns, and workers who said they weren’t properly paid for signing confidentiality agreements to keep the ship’s location and other information secret.
Thompson has been described as a secretive Howard Hughes-like figure by an attorney on one of the cases. He has been a wanted fugitive since August 2012 after he failed to show up for a key court hearing and was last seen at a mansion he was renting in Vero Beach.
Court records show that Odyssey Marine will advance the cost for the recovery. If the company fails to recover the treasure, it will absorb all the costs.
Financial terms of the agreement were not made public, although court records say that Ira Kane, who was appointed receiver over Thompson’s companies after he fled, will get more than 50 percent of the recovered treasure, to be disbursed in part to the investors who financed the 1988 recovery.
Kane nor Odyssey Marine Exploration immediately returned requests for comment Thursday.
The S.S. Central America was in operation for four years during the California gold rush before it sank after sailing directly into a hurricane in September 1857 in one of the worst maritime disasters in American history; 425 people were killed and thousands of pounds of gold sank with it to the bottom of the ocean.