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Fugitive treasure hunter was strategic about vanishing for 2 1/2 years

In this November 1989 file photo, Tommy Thompson holds a $50 pioneer gold piece retrieved earlier in 1989 from the wreck of the gold ship Central America. According to the US Marshals Service, Thompson, a fugitive treasure hunter wanted for more than 2 years was arrested in Florida. (AP Photo/The Columbus Dispatch, Lon Horwedel)

In the West Boca, Fla. hotel room where famed treasure hunter and fugitive Thomas Thompson holed up for more than two years, federal investigators found clues of a secret life.

Two suitcases stuffed with $420,000 in $100 bills. Paperwork on asylum in other countries. Rental contracts for storage units, signed with fake names.

Experts say Thompson’s run was an impressive one: Unplugging from society and disappearing long-term without leaving the country is extremely complicated, if not impossible — especially for a fugitive hunted by authorities.

“There’s always a trace,” said Frank M. Ahearn, an author who has written books on the topic of disappearing. “No matter what you do, there’s always going to be a trace.”

The feds aren’t saying what trace finally led them to Thompson and his girlfriend, Alison Antekeier, at the West Boca Hilton on Jan. 27. He had been on the run for 2 1/2 years.

Thompson came to fame in 1988 when his company, Columbus Explorations, found the wreck of the SS Central America. The sidewheel steamer sank in a hurricane off the coast of North Carolina in 1857 while carrying $400 million in gold from the California Gold Rush.

Investors from Columbus, Ohio, had given Thompson $16.4 million to find the so-called “Ship of Gold” and bring its bounty ashore. He found the ship but, some investors said, kept the bounty for himself. Two of the venture’s 161 investors accused him of not handing over their proper share, a longstanding battle that culminated in a lawsuit.

In August 2012, Thompson didn’t show up in court to face the allegations. About that time, he told his family he was going on an extended vacation. And then he vanished.

“He wanted to disappear,” said Thompson’s cousin, Ted Thomas. “He is a secretive person. He always wanted to hold his cards close to his chest.”

Federal marshals went on the hunt for Thompson, wanted on criminal contempt charges. In October 2012, they said they found evidence Thompson and his girlfriend had been living in a decrepit Vero Beach mansion. Inside the home, investigators found large sums of cash taped to water pipes, 12 cellphones, microcassettes of recorded voice mails that were meticulously organized into plastic bags, fake IDs and a book by J.J. Luna titled, “How to Be Invisible: A guide for those looking to get off the grid.”

During the following years on the run, it appears Thompson followed the principles in the book outlined by Luna, a self-described “privacy consultant.”

Most people who desire to disappear are not fugitives, according to Luna and other privacy experts.

They’re generally people experiencing violence, such as battered women looking to get away from an abusive relationship, people who have come into some money, or those who are wary of constant government scrutiny.

But the principles are the same: Those who want to be invisible sever ties with their former lives, keep nothing registered in their names, stop using computers and cellphones, and pay for everything in cash.

“Ninety-nine percent [of people who go invisible] are law-abiding,” Luna wrote in an email to the Sun Sentinel. He said he was upset to hear a fugitive may have used his book to evade law enforcement, and does not condone it. “The majority [of people are] fed up with Big Brother. That includes your humble servant.”

Deputy U.S. Marshal Chris Crotty said Antekeier, 45, used four fake identities and Thompson, 62, used three while staying at the West Boca hotel. They frequented the hotel bar, but went out in disguises, used taxis and public transportation, and paid everything in cash — including at least $200 a night for the hotel room. When they had to provide names to register for things like their hotel room, Crotty said, they would use fake ones.

The couple also rented four storage units — two in Boca Raton, one in Wellington and one in Pompano Beach, Crotty said. It’s unclear what, if anything, authorities found inside them.

Keeping large sums of cash on hand and having an exit strategy is a pivotal part of staying off the grid, Ahearn said.

“You need to know how to get out of your city quickly, and you need a mail drop — a place with cash in it you can grab quickly,” he said.

U.S. Marshals have not divulged how they were able to catch Antekeier and Thompson, but Ahearn suspects it was because one of them made a phone call or contacted someone from their past.

Antekeier has family in the Columbus area, as does Thompson. Records show Thompson has several children and had been living in Florida since 2006.

U.S. Marshals knew the two were trying to stay under the radar. In an August 2014 interview with TV news station WCMH-Ch. 4 in Columbus, Deputy U.S. Marshal Brad Flemming said Thompson was a smart man and would be hard to find.

“He is calculated, doesn’t do anything on a whim, pretty confident,” he told the station. “He knows exactly what he is doing, exactly who is looking for him, and likely is watching this interview. I’d like to think we don’t need him to make a mistake for us to catch him, but it would sure help.”

What makes disappearing so hard is it can mean never speaking to relatives again, or leaving behind a partner.

“Reaching out [to family] is a noose,” said Ahearn, whose book titled “How to Disappear” was written with Eileen C. Horan. “Disappearing is no different than relocating. The only difference is that you don’t want people to know where you disappeared to.”

Fugitives have it even harder to stay invisible. A “regular” person who goes off the grid could make 50 mistakes and never be found, Ahearn said. When a criminal has someone like a U.S. Marshal tailing them, all it takes is one blunder.

“Marshals are great hunters,” Ahearn said. “They just chip away at the stone. If you create a connection, you will be caught. That’s the bottom line.”

It’s easier for the government to find people now because of how much people utilize computers or technology — knowingly or not, said Aton Edwards, executive director of the International Preparedness Network, an organization that educates and trains people to be survivalists.

“Everything you do, there’s a way for it to be metered by computers,” Edwards said.

Both Ahearn and Edwards agree Thompson’s run was remarkable, considering he had U.S. Marshals on his tail. And they agree that because either Thompson or his girlfriend slipped up, the U.S. Marshals were able to swoop in.

“There’s a certain amount of fatigue that sets in,” Edwards said. “The system knows that, and the system won’t get tired. The system is constantly replenishing itself. It will have good days and bad days, but it won’t quit.”

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