A Thrilling Tale of Treasure-Seeking Adventure and Theft

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on March 31, 2020 | Last updated on August 10, 2021

Wondering where to get excitement now that you've finished watching Tiger King?The Honorable Judge Robin Rosenbaum, who sits on the 11th Circuit, has heard your pleas for something to take away from the monotony of social distancing.

In a recent decision, Judge Rosenbaum tells a rollicking tale of sunken treasure ships, a stolen gold bar worth more than its weight in gold, and even throws in a reference to The Goonies. Thanks, Judge Rosenbaum.

Batten Down the Hatches

Our tale begins in 1622. A fleet of Spanish vessels left Havana carrying invaluable cargo. That cargo included a gold ingot with the misleadingly pedestrian name of Gold Bar 27. The fleet left in numbers to protect against pirates, but the weather is not so easily deterred. A hurricane struck the fleet shortly after leaving port, and poor Gold Bar 27 was left undisturbed at the bottom of the ocean on the Santa Margarita for hundreds of years.

A Pirate's Life for Me

In 1969, a swashbuckling treasure seeker named Mel Fisher found the Santa Margarita, recovering Gold Bar 27 and other treasure. Judge Rosenbaum noted Mel Fisher recovered over $400 million worth of priceless artifacts in his decades of treasure seeking. Let's pause here and contemplate why we didn't think to do that for a living.

Fisher gave Gold Bar 27 to a museum in Key West, where Judge Rosenbaum said it “lived its best life" as a star attraction in its “lift a gold bar" exhibit. Did I mention I love this decision? I love everything about this.

Giving Jewel Thieves a Bad Name

Every good story needs a foil, so enter Jarred Alexander Goldman and Richard Steven Johnson. These two intrepid thieves lifted the gold bar and absconded with the treasure. While daring, it wasn't exactly Danny Ocean's crew, as museum cameras caught the whole thing on video. The two were later apprehended, but unfortunately not before Goldman cut up the gold bar.

Also, a certain portion of the opinion dealt with a legal issue, which doesn't seem all that important. I'm busy googling how much it would cost for scuba lessons and gear.

Okay, fine. The issue was whether the U.S. district court properly valued the gold bar. If valued at over $550,000, certain sentencing enhancements were applicable. The district court judge found that while the value of the gold, melted, could be around $100,000, its backstory was priceless.

Judge Rosenbaum noted that the district court judge would have kept the same sentence regardless of any perceived error in valuing Gold Bar 27. The 40-month sentence was reasonable, the unanimous panel held.

There was, however, also a question of restitution. The district court valued the bar at $556,000. It is true that for some unique items, "cash value does not sufficiently compensate . . . for actual loss." In such circumstances, "a district court should use replacement value."

Here, however, it was insufficiently clear how the district court reached its valuation. The panel, while agreeing that it was worth more than other gold bars sold at auction, still remanded so the district court could more thoroughly ascertain its value.

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