Folio — From the April 2016 issue

Emerald Sea

The making and unmaking of a half-billion-dollar treasure hunt

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i. key west

U.S. Route 1, the nation’s longest north-south highway, casts out of Fort Kent, Maine, and spools down the eastern seaboard, threading Boston, New York, and Fort Lauderdale until it drifts across Manatee Creek near Homestead and bobs south into the Florida Keys, which carry it so far west that it snags on a longitude line shared with Cleveland. The 2,369-mile route ends on Whitehead Street in Key West. Here, a six-hour water-ski from Havana, a sign announces that you have reached the end of the rainbow and end of the route. The slogan sums up pretty fairly the two reasons people have been drawn to Key West over the decades. Either they came looking for gold — literally, in some cases, thanks to the shipwrecks produced by the local reefs — or they came for the freedom of ghostlier demarcations, the sort you find in a place where people stop running only because they’ve run out of road.

When Jay Miscovich came to Key West in 2009, he had treasure in mind. Miscovich was a fifty-year-old, 300-pound real-estate investor from Pennsylvania who had recently lost everything in the financial crash and was relying on his mother’s Social Security check to get by. He did not find gold, but as he would explain to a federal judge at a bench trial in December 2012, a couple of blocks from the terminus australis of U.S. 1, he soon came into possession of more than a hundred pounds of rough Colombian emeralds. He’d discovered them, he testified, while scuba diving in international waters forty miles north of the island.

Illustrations by Roderick Mills.

Illustrations by Roderick Mills.

The discovery seemed at first to be unambiguously good news, and yet less than a year after Miscovich’s testimony, police would find him dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound. “I’ve loved many beautiful women, built my business and found an awesome treasure,” he said in a note he left for his friends and family. “So don’t mourn my death, celebrate my life!”

Miscovich’s appearance at the bench trial was neither his first nor his last attempt to establish his claim to the emeralds, but it did represent his fullest public account of their discovery. To hear him tell it, the story started as every treasure hunt should: in a bar, with a beer, over a map and a piece of coral-encrusted clay. In January 2010, Miscovich said, a handyman who had done work for him in Pennsylvania, a guy named Mike Cunningham, had arranged a meeting at the Bull & Whistle, a tourist bar in Key West. Cunningham bought his old boss a beer, produced from his pocket a triangle of broken pottery, and explained that he’d found the potsherd while scuba diving. He showed Miscovich a photocopy of a nautical chart. An x marked the location of the find.

At the time of the meeting, Miscovich had recently devoted himself full-time to what some people in the business, straining the bounds of professional modesty, call marine salvage. Right away, he recognized a distinctive finish on Cunningham’s artifact. “I knew from the pinkish glaze that it was definitely Spanish colonial-era pottery,” he testified later. “King Philip had a patent on it. He shipped it all over the world.” Colonial-era pottery, of course, was carried on colonial-era ships, and there wasn’t a treasure salvor in Florida, professional or otherwise, who could hear the phrase “colonial-era ship” without thinking immediately of the flota de Tierra Firme, a fleet of armed galleons that set out every year or so to carry the riches of the New World back to Spain.

Miscovich said that this was the break he’d been hoping for. The son of an elementary-school teacher and a steel-mill worker, he grew up collecting rare coins and baseball cards in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the small town near Pittsburgh made famous by Rolling Rock beer. Though he held an M.D. from a Caribbean medical school, he’d made a life for himself as a serial entrepreneur. He had owned a trio of nursing homes and later spent the go-go years of the millennial housing boom flipping properties in and around Latrobe. But by 2009 he was more than half a million dollars in debt, so broke that he was forced to sell his dishwasher, stove, and refrigerator to pay the bills.

Miscovich had been fascinated by treasure hunting since the 1980s, when he heard stories about diving expeditions from a woman in his local scuba club. In the decade before the mortgage crisis wiped him out, he invested in half a dozen treasure outfits, including one of several companies founded by Mel Fisher, who discovered the Tierra Firme fleet’s most lucrative wreck, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. According to Miscovich, however, none of his investments had paid off in anything more than trinkets. “I started realizing that [for] most of these treasure-hunting companies, the real treasure was making money by taking it from their investors,” he told the court. “I decided to do it on my own, and decided I could do it better.”

In 2009, Miscovich borrowed money from friends and family for his new venture. He formed a partnership with Stephen Elchlepp, a professional diver who’d been running the Key West office of one of the treasure companies in which Miscovich had invested, a private firm that was about to merge with a small publicly traded company called Oceanic Research and Recovery (ORRV). Whereas Miscovich was a diabetic who slept with a CPAP machine, and was so overweight that he had to tape up his eyelids to keep the skin from drooping, Elchlepp was built like a bullet, and trained like one too. A former Navy weapons technician who had served on an aircraft carrier, he’d learned to scuba dive when he was six years old. The two men hit it off right away.

“We talked about how neat it would be to be involved in a company that would be established and looked up to,” Elchlepp told the New Times Broward–Palm Beach in 2013. He and Miscovich, he said, “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.” The men collected a drawer’s worth of leads and promising GPS coordinates, and they spent the fall of 2009 hunting for sunken treasure. “We dove on dozens and dozens of wrecks,” Miscovich told the court in 2012. “Whenever the weather was permitting, we were out.”

The glazed pottery that Cunningham showed Miscovich at the Bull & Whistle set his heart racing. “Usually, when you get leads to possible wreck locations, you don’t get anything with them, just locations,” Miscovich testified. “Because of the fact that we actually had a solid artifact in our hand I was more excited than usual.” Despite his financial straits, he immediately bought the map and the sherd for $500.

The next day, Miscovich said, the partners set out in Elchlepp’s twenty-five-foot Grady-White and followed the chart into international waters. When they approached the spot marked by the x, they lowered a magnetometer into their wake and towed a strict pattern, a practice known as mowing the lawn. Whenever the magnetometer spiked, the men dropped a homemade buoy — a spray-painted water bottle — as a marker. After a handful of buoys were in the water, Elchlepp went down to investigate, while Miscovich, whose obesity and asthma made rapid descents difficult, manned the boat.

On their first two days out, the partners found little but pipes and scrap metal. On the third day, while exploring an area about a mile and a half from the x on Cunningham’s map, they dropped three buoys in close proximity. Miscovich decided to dive. He put on his scuba gear and followed Elchlepp down sixty-five feet to the ocean floor. The visibility underwater was limited, but when Miscovich reached the area under the third buoy, he saw a clutch of empty Budweiser cans — the cause, he suspected, of the magnetometer’s spike. Fifteen feet away, he saw something else. “I thought it was broken glass,” he testified. “It was kind of glistening on the bottom. Colors are somewhat hard to detect at distances. When I got closer to it, within a few feet, I could definitely discern a lot of green all over the bottom.”

HA042__03H90-3A proud son of Latrobe could be forgiven for having green bottles on the brain, but after Miscovich picked up a handful of the scattered pieces he realized that he wasn’t holding glass. “I was rolling it around in my hands, and I’m looking and looking at it and examining it, and I’m thinking, No, it couldn’t be.” Miscovich signaled to Elchlepp that he wanted to ascend. Back on the boat, he dropped the green pieces on the lid of a white plastic cooler. “I just kind of threw them and said, ‘Look at this. I think these are emeralds.’ ”

Ecstatic, Miscovich and Elchlepp grabbed some ziplock bags and headed back underwater. “We went straight over to where all the emeralds were on the bottom, and we immediately started picking them up,” Miscovich told the court. “There was so many of them it was like picking cherries on a cherry tree.”

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