Treasure Hunters Battle Over a Trove of Emeralds

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He earned a bachelor of science degree from St. Vincent College, then went to medical school at the American University of the Caribbean in St. Maarten, graduating in 1984. But Miscovich never practiced medicine. More money was waiting in real estate.

"From the time I was in my early 20s to 2009, I was a millionaire on paper," he says now, estimating that he did about 400 deals around the Latrobe area.

Still a bachelor in the late '90s, Misco­vich hung around VFW lodges and became a volunteer firefighter. Another social outlet was a local scuba club. He joined but didn't find much of interest on the bottom of local lakes. Scuba friends told him about diving shipwrecks. The idea of undiscovered historical finds littering the ocean floor was enough to hook his imagination.

Soon, he decided to put money into treasure salvage. For his first investment, he was sweet-talked into fronting $25,000 for a dive outfit in West Palm Beach, only to find out the divers never even took the boat out. Instead of abandoning the pursuit, he decided to invest with other, reputable outfits, including Mel Fisher's Motivation Inc.

Sometimes his investments paid off in real treasure. Folks in Latrobe went wide-eyed when Miscovich brought out Spanish coins or jade fish carvings from his desk drawer.

"I always thought Jay was sort of in a parallel universe," says Dave Sarnovsky, a friend and business partner. "Most people don't have thousand-year-old treasure in their house. I was afraid to touch it."

His family was less dazzled.

"He was making all his money in real estate, and he was putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into [treasure hunting] every year," says Miscovich's brother Scott, a successful pediatrician in Hawaii. "I thought it was foolish."

Miscovich didn't save much. Because most of his money was tied up in property, his wealth roller-coastered with the whims of the market. Over the years, he got sued over deals gone bad. The 2009 downturn finished him off completely.

Then 49, Miscovich had seven houses waiting for buyers when lending flatlined. He couldn't cover what he already owed. The debt stacked up. Banks started stuffing his mailbox with foreclosure slips. Eventually he'd owe more than $600,000.

"It became obvious afterwards that he was taking from Peter to pay Paul. I was the Peter in this case," says Dwayne Ross, a Latrobe attorney who flipped a number of houses with Miscovich in the late 2000s before a final deal went sour. "I have a $19,000 judgment against him that still hasn't been satisfied."

Suddenly Miscovich, the longtime "millionaire," was crashing at a friend's house, hawking his own refrigerator to cover bills, and accepting handouts from family. He couldn't go into medicine — renewing his license now would take too much time and money. Even Home Depot shot down his job application. "It was the lowest moment of my life," Miscovich says today.

Down so far, any shot out looked good. His head started percolating with the idea of going all in on treasure hunting. Even if he didn't find a life-changing shipwreck, he could live off simple salvage work.

By December 2009, he packed up for Key West. Right away, he teamed up with Steve Elchlepp, an acquaintance from a previous dive investment. The two clicked. The younger man in his 30s — a quiet Navy vet with a life-sized G.I. Joe build — had crammed his shaved head with the technical aspects of diving. He too had dabbled in treasure hunting, but so far, his ventures had turned into headaches.

"When I first met [Miscovich], we talked about how neat it would be to be involved in a company that would be established and looked up to," Elchlepp recalls. "We were so tired of hearing the professional communities bashing treasure hunters because they're known as smash-and-grab guys. We wanted to change that."

Technically, Miscovich was the boss, Elchlepp his project manager, but complete trust united the pair. When the Pennsylvania native, just one month after moving to Florida, walked into the shambling one-story dive house they shared waving a treasure map and a story about a drifter in a bar, Elchlepp had no reason not to believe him.

Thrill turned into concern as Miscovich and Elchlepp motored back to Key West on the day of the find. It was surreal — scary even. With the winning lotto ticket in their pocket, who could they trust?

They swapped oaths of silence. Over the next four weeks, anyone watching would have seen the men buzzing out at dawn in Elchlepp's 25-foot Grady White, fishing poles clanking in the cabin. After daylight had leaked from the sky, they'd be back in Key West, fishless.

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Kyle Swenson