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By Simon Gonzalez Tommy Thompson holds a rare $50 pioneer octagonal gold piece retrieved in 1989 from the SS Central America shipwreck. The ship, seen in an 1857 illustration by J. Childs, sank in a hurricane off the Carolina coast with up to 21 tons of gold, including this 40-ounce assayers ingot. It began as a quixotic search for a lost ship and lost gold, a treasure hunt combining history, discovery, adventure and science. It featured a genuine American hero named Tommy Thompson, a man hailed as a visionary who overcame the odds to accomplish the impossible — finding a shipwreck that had been lost for more than 130 years and recovering tons of treasure from the depths of the ocean floor. It is a tale that, in the early, heady days of discovery and recovery, heavily involved Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington. It is a tale that took a tragic plot twist, degenerating from a remarkable and romantic story of scientists breaking barriers and treasure hunters recovering lost gold into one of legal battles, greed, fugitives and prison. The hero now sits in jail, accused of defrauding his investors. The man once described as “one of the greatest adventurers since the Wright broth-ers” was dubbed “a master of misdirection and deceit” by the judge who put him away. 55 PHOTO OF TOMMY THOMPSON COURTESY OF THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH www.wrightsvillebeachmagazine.com WBM


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