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Historic local mansion ‘stars’ in documentary

STORY BY PIETER VANBENNEKOM (Week of August 10, 2023)

The Gracewood Mansion, a historic six-bedroom estate located on 5 acres of land off Route 60 just west of the Twin Pairs, will put Vero Beach on the world map once more in a major documentary about millions of dollars in missing gold shot by the National Geographic in cooperation with the BBC.

The documentary, which is scheduled to be aired on the National Geographic cable channel as well as on the BBC in about a year, focuses mainly on Gracewood’s most infamous recent resident, treasure hunter Tommy Thompson, who managed to hide out in plain sight in Vero Beach for almost a decade in a case still shrouded in mystery and intrigue.

Thompson left Vero Beach hurriedly in 2012 after a federal bench warrant was issued for him in connection with numerous civil suits, and he was arrested about a year later, along with his companion, Alison Antekeier, at a Boca Raton hotel where he had holed up.

Thompson has now been held at federal penitentiaries in the Midwest for 10 years on contempt-of-court charges as he refuses to divulge the location of millions of dollars’ worth of gold he recovered in 1988 from a shipwreck. He has been ordered held until he agrees to talk, which he has refused to do.

While he lived with Antekeier in Vero Beach at the Gracewood Mansion, Thompson kept his name off all real estate documents and utility services contracts, instead paying a local real estate agent, Vance Brinkerhoff of Coldwell Banker Paradise, in cash to provide those services for him.

Brinkerhoff recalls that Thompson paid his monthly $3,000 rent in smelly, musty $100 bills. Otherwise, Thompson moved about Vero Beach openly, always paying cash for whatever he bought – he loved shopping at Walmart.

In a great technological achievement, in 1988 Thompson led an expedition that recovered millions of dollars’ worth of gold bullion from the wreck of the SS Central America at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the Carolinas.

The Central America went down in a hurricane in 1857 with thousands of tons of gold from the ‘49er gold rush in California, killing hundreds of people aboard. The gold had been portaged through the isthmus of Panama since it was more than 50 years before the Panama Canal had been completed.

The loss of the gold bullion headed for New York banks almost caused an economic crisis at the time, and as soon as Thompson came ashore with the gold, insurance companies who had covered the loss more than 150 years ago sued him to get their money back. Thompson also allegedly stiffed the investors who had financed his expedition and failed to pay many members of his crew, triggering a myriad of civil suits.

The National Geographic documentary focuses on the gold that was aboard the sunken ship, Thompson’s incredible find and recovery, and the complicated aftermath that prominently featured the Vero Beach mansion at 1965 28th Ave.

The mansion, which at one point had the largest private swimming pool in Vero Beach, has largely been restored to its former glory after Thompson left it in a mess in his hurried escape in 2012.

The property is now owned by Brinkerhoff; he bought it four years ago from the previous owner, who lost interest in it after his wife was killed here by a drunk driver. Over the years, several famous people owned the mansion and it had a storied history even before it became the residence of the reclusive gold hunter.

Brinkerhoff at present rents the mansion out occasionally through various channels including Airbnb, but he does not have it listed for sale.

“I don’t know yet what I’ll do with it,” Brinkerhoff said. “For now, I’m holding on to it. We’ll see where it goes.”

Brinkerhoff has no idea where Thompson – who sold off some gold from the wreck in 2000 for $50 million in cash – may have hidden some of the remaining gold from the Central America shipwreck, if any.  But he said he’s fairly sure it’s not hidden anywhere in or around the Gracewood Mansion.