In 2010, two men walked into the Mel Fisher Museum in Key West and stole a nearly 400-year-old gold bar worth more than half a million dollars.
The crime garnered headlines across the country – a tale of modern day piracy on an island long known for skirting the norms.
Now, eight years later, one of those pirates has confessed while his alleged accomplice is scheduled to go on trial this week inside the federal courthouse in Key West.
“Eight years to bring it to justice but the FBI persevered and at the end of the day it’s a great result,” said Key West Police Chief Donnie Lee. “Now all we need is the gold bar back.”
A small portion of the gold bar was recovered, according to court documents. But the fate of the entire bar remains a mystery.
“I still hope it’s sitting on someone desk as a paperweight and we’ll still end up getting that gold bar back but I don’t know – who knows but there is still hope,” said Lee.
Mel Fisher and his treasure hunters discovered the gold bar on the ocean floor in 1980 about 25 miles off of Key West – part of the cargo lost when the Santa Margarita sank in 1622. The ship was part of a fleet of 28 ships that had set sail from Havana on its way to Spain on September 4, 1622. A day later, a hurricane tore through the armada, sinking seven of the ships.
When the remains of the Santa Margarita were discovered, one of the recovered items struck Fisher’s fancy. A gold bar weighing nearly five pounds. Fisher decided to place the gold bar on display, constructing a special case in which visitors could reach in and hold the gold bar in their hand, even lift it up. But the case was designed to prevent anyone from taking it.
Corey Malcom, the Director of Archaeology at the museum, said the display allowed millions of people over the years to touch a piece of history.
“That personal encounter with something that had been on the sea floor for centuries and lost and forgotten and here it was reawakened and telling them by touch this incredibly important past that we have here in this region,” he said. “And it was a powerful experience.”
That is, until August 2010, when two men arrived just before closing time and as one stood lookout, the other used some unknown device to break the case and remove the gold bar.
“When I first got the call that the bar was gone I mean it was like a punch in the gut,” said Malcom. “I think it was for everybody that works here. I mean this was such an integral part of our museum and the experience of our visitors. And of course it’s just that sense of violation of how can they do this. It’s like why? Why!”
The theft sent the town into a tizzy.
“A lot of rumors,” said Key West Mayor Craig Cates. “Was it an inside job? Where did these people come from? They have video of them how come they couldn’t catch them? How could they get out of town? Was it a boat? Private plane? Commercial car?”
The Mayor said folks in town want to know what happened to the gold bar.
“We’re all worried it was melted down and sold just for the value of the gold which I guess is about $75,000,” he said. “But historic value is worth so much more. But who could buy it? Who would want to pay that much for it and know that it was stolen?”
One of the theories, according to the police chief, was that the thieves were international art thieves from Italy. He said the FBI, Interpol and Italian police tracked down two men they suspected – but it turned out not to be them.
Last year, police got a tip which led them to Richard Steven Johnson and Jarred Goldman.
Johnson confessed and pled guilty to federal charges earlier this year. He is scheduled to testify against Goldman, who goes on trial at the federal courthouse this week.
Everyone in town is hoping the trial will reveal what happened to the gold bar.
“It’s personal,” said Chief Lee. “It’s personal for people at the museum, it’s personal for all the people at Mel Fishers, the treasure hunters and divers who risk their lives going down there to do this work. I think it’s personal for everyone. And we want that gold bar back. That’s our gold bar and we want it back.”
“Our greatest fantasy here is that that gold bar comes back and we can put it back on display,” said Malcom, although he quickly added: “I don’t know if we’ll have it in the touch case again.”