Longform

Treasure Hunters Battle Over a Trove of Emeralds

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As Miscovich would tell the court, tell 60 Minutes, and maintains to this day — he never claimed to know where the emeralds came from. He only found them.

"None of us were there when the find occurred except Jay and Steve," Scott says. "They were put on the rack, for weeks and weeks, and challenged on different points: how, when, where. That's all we had to rely on. And they were very consistent."

In August 2012, Marcial was allowed to examine the rocks in a Key West law office. At the end of the appraisal, Marcial announced the stones were not from the Atocha.

"I was shocked," Miscovich recalls. "I was absolutely sure they were going to say they were from the Atocha after everything we had been through."

Marcial valued the entire lot at less than $50,000. He suggested the stones couldn't have been underwater for more than a few months.

"In all my 56 years in the emerald business, I have not seen emeralds of such poor quality as the rough alluvial emerald beryl material present," the jeweler wrote in his official appraisal. "These largest groupings of rough would be more appropriately described by the Colombian term 'barro' which roughly translates as 'not worth sweeping off the floor.'"


The Fishers let go of their admiralty claim on the stones — but filed a motion for sanctions against Miscovich and Elchlepp. They accused the men of planting discount-bin rocks on the bottom of the ocean so they could con money from investors. This summer, both sides will be back in Judge Lawrence King's court for a sanctions hearing. If Motivation Inc. can prove Miscovich committed fraud, he could have to pay the company's legal fees.

Miscovich's lawyers shot back. Motivation was the fraud, they said, luring investors to the Atocha with the promise of missing emeralds — when in fact, emeralds were never listed on the ship's manifest. An expert questioned whether 70 pounds of emeralds could even have come from the Spanish emerald mines in the New World in 1622.

By then, however, the treasure-hunting community had sided with its first family. Online, users of treasure messageboards relentlessly taunted the landlocked Miscovich, saying he must have bought a bag of rocks from the Tucson gem show and dumped them overboard or teasing him that other boats were out at his unprotected site, scooping the last green rocks out of the sand.

The judge's ruling on the admiralty claim came on January 25, a Friday afternoon. Because there was no shipwreck on the emerald site, "There is just as much support for the theory that Jay and Steve planted the stones as there is for the assertion that they found them," King's judgment stated. "The Court cannot simply accept the un-contradicted testimony of Jay and Steve that they followed a treasure map to the site, dove the floor, and found the emeralds."

Miscovich could go home with his emeralds but without the title that would award him the rights to any treasure found at the site. Without it, investors are unlikely to fund any salvage ventures.

"He basically said in his ruling that this was a scam," Kim Fisher told the Key West Citizen after the ruling, perhaps reading too much into the decision. "We've spent a lot of time and money on this case in an effort to protect the integrity of the legitimate treasure-hunting industry."

In February, the Fishers declared they had found Mike Cunningham. A follow-up in the Citizen spread the news, implying that Miscovich's fraud would soon be exposed.

The news didn't faze Miscovich. It was a different Mike Cunningham, he explained; there were two men with the same name in Latrobe. Sure enough, at a deposition in Pennsylvania, the woman who notarized the $50,000 agreement between Miscovich and Cunningham would testify that the individual located by Motivation's attorneys was not the man she'd met.

"The site is still unprotected," Miscovich says, "and I know there's still a fortune of emeralds out there. What if someone else goes out there and files a claim on the site?"

Today, Miscovich theorizes that the emeralds could have come from a wrecked World War II transport ship known to be lying in the area. Or drug runners or smugglers transporting the stones across the Gulf of Mexico may have dropped the load after spotting the Coast Guard.

Though the Fishers posed like heroes defending the treasure industry, Miscovich notes that by crucifying him, they torpedoed a competitor. Had Miscovich been granted title, investors who still dump money into the Atocha might have invested with Miscovich's company instead.

So if he knows the secret location that still harbors thousands of emeralds, why isn't he out there right now, scooping up what's left?

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Kyle Swenson