By Doug Fraser
GORHAM, MAINE — Twenty-seven months after federal agents, with guns drawn, executed a search warrant at his home and removed computers, memory storage devices and other materials, treasure hunter Greg Brooks, 66, has yet to be indicted for any crime.
He said he is living off his Social Security payments in a rented home, with no access to his salvage vessel or to the SS Port Nicholson, a British freighter sunk in 1942 in 641 feet of water about 50 miles off Provincetown. Brooks claims the ship contains a bounty of platinum, gold and perhaps diamonds that is worth billions.
"I think I'm one of the most honest treasure hunters out there and I still intend to pay people their money back," Brooks said, sitting at the kitchen table of his Gorham, Maine, home with two crew members. He said he raised a total of $8 million from investors, and all of it is gone.
Brooks said he wants to tell his side of the story, something he claimed his lawyers prevented him from doing while he was involved in court battles over control of the wreck. He said he is not the criminal people think he is, and the more than two years without an indictment proves that.
"Don't you think that If I'm the biggest crook they say I am that they would have already done something?" he asked.
"Pathological liar would be more like it on the truthful scale," said Tim Shusta, a Miami-based attorney who represented the British government in opposing Brooks' claim to the Port Nicholson, a 481-foot-long refrigerated cargo vessel. There is a five-year statute of limitations on federal fraud cases and time for prosecution may be running out for incidents from 2012. A second investigation from the Maine Office of Securities is still ongoing, according to investors.
Shusta and Paul Lawton, a maritime historian and attorney who has followed Brooks' treasure-hunting career for decades, both believe the U.S. attorney's office in Portland has been dragging its feet, but not because Brooks is innocent.
"This case was delivered to him (Thomas Delahanty, former U.S. attorney for Maine) in a box with all the research done, with an admission of guilt, criminal activity and conspiracy and any U.S. attorney worth anything would have pursued that and brought indictments, and this case should have already been disposed of and Brooks should be in a federal prison serving time now," Lawton said. He is hoping that the U.S. attorney that President Donald Trump chooses to replace Delahanty will decide to prosecute the case.
Three critical documents Brooks used to attract prospective investors ended up being forgeries. The original document used to attract investors in 2008 showed 1.7 million ounces of platinum on board the ship, coming from Russia as a payment on war materials. It is a figure transposed from a 1942 mineral yearbook and equal to four or five years of world production. Another document had the word "bullion" typed onto the photocopy, and the third document recorded 741 bars of platinum and 4,889 bars of Russian gold loaded onto the British freighter.
Brooks blamed those forgeries solely on Edward Michaud, a Framingham researcher who worked for him as a consultant for over 16 years, including on the Nicholson project. According to an affidavit in support of the search warrant on Brooks home, Special Agent William Johnson of the National Archives and Records Administration wrote that Michaud admitted to a scheme to defraud investors by altering copies of records from the archives. In the affidavit, Johnson claimed that Michaud admitted that Brooks had pressured him to alter documents to attract investors.
Brooks has denied that.
On Nov. 25, 2014, Brooks said in an affidavit that Michaud admitted to him he had forged some of the documents Brooks was using to attract investors. Brooks claims he had no knowledge of the fraud prior to that time.
"He ruined my life," Brooks said in the interview. "He had been my friend and our researcher and we had just buried his mother because he couldn't (afford to). And we did all these things, so I had to give him the benefit of a doubt."
Brooks claimed Michaud forged documents in 2012 to boost the value of his 5 percent share of the expedition. Michaud, Brooks said, was trying to sell half of his share. But the court was also demanding concrete proof that there was treasure on board as a condition for allowing Brooks to continue salvaging the vessel, and the documents Michaud produced helped both men.
Brooks referenced many people, most of whom are now dead, as having corroborating information. He claimed it all started when his company paid an Australian with an intriguing story to fly over and meet with them. Terry Kelly supposedly had a book with the location of "700 and something bullion wrecks" — WWII freighters allegedly transferring gold and other payments between countries. Although Brooks didn't know where Kelly lived in Australia, he said he heard he'd passed away a few years ago.
According to Brooks, Kelly wanted to sell the book for $5 million. Michaud met with him, but Brooks said they didn't have that kind of money. Neither man ever got a look inside the book, Brooks said, but Kelly, according to Brooks, dropped enough of a hint about the location of one wreck that he was able to zero in on the Port Nicholson, whose manifest listed only auto parts, scrap metal, and military equipment.
"The court has declared it's a fraud," said Lawton of Brooks' claim.
On April 1, 2015, U.S. District Court Judge George Singal slammed the door on Brooks' treasure hunt. Citing the falsified documents and his inability to produce any treasure in seven years as court-designated sole salvager of the British freighter, Singal permanently denied him access to the vessel.
Lawton, the maritime historian and attorney, tracked both Brooks and Michaud independently for decades, suspecting both of them of scamming investors.
"Then, in the late '90s, I saw they became partners and thought this was a really sinister development," Lawton recalled.
Brooks was a talker and Michaud was good at fabricating false historical documents and spinning wild tales, Lawton said.
Many of those investors were from the Gorham/Portland area, people Brooks said he sees in bars and restaurants. Brooks said he can hold his head up in public and will talk with anyone who approaches him.
"Until they kill me, I still believe they have a chance (to recoup their investment)," he said.
Brooks claimed he never met with investors, except for a few occasions in New York. He said his financial adviser John Hardy, a respected local businessman, and Hardy's son, John Hardy Jr., handled the local investors.
"The entire town knows they are a good family," investor Susan Gallagher said of the Hardys. In the prospectus provided to Gallagher, the company claims to have worked on a number of wrecks but had very little to show for it — a handful of coins, some pieces of porcelain. She believes few local investors did any homework on the project, but trusted Hardy, who she said believed in Brooks and wanted to help his neighbors.
"Whatever he says, you can't believe unless he comes out and says that he's been scamming people for 20-plus years," said Gallagher, who paid $10,000 of her savings to purchase a portion of a share in 2008 and said she has no hope of ever getting it back.
Experts say Brooks failed to check Michaud's research thoroughly. Shusta and Lawton said that was calculated, with Brooks able to use his researcher's false documents to attract investors but pin the blame on Michaud by saying he relied on him being accurate and honest.
Brooks said he did have things double- and triple-checked. In his deposition in a related case, crewman Kevin LaChance said Brooks asked him in 2012 to take a look at some of Michaud's documents to see if he thought they were forgeries. LaChance told him he thought they were faked, and that the word "bullion" had been added to one cargo manifest that hadn't been there in an original.
But Brooks never sent anyone to check on the original documents Michaud had photocopied. In June 2013, Michaud traveled to College Park, Maryland, and photographed some of the fake documents inside the National Archives building as if they'd originated there. At the same time, Brooks' attorneys were requesting that archives staff authenticate Michaud's forged documents, but they refused when they couldn't locate the originals, some of which the researcher had hidden in other files.
"We have tons of pictures of him in the archives holding up documents and smiling like this with a sticker on it and I'm assuming like everyone else that he's down there getting the documents and they are certified," Brooks said.
Brooks claims he was suspicious enough of the document Michaud produced in 2012 showing platinum and gold on the Port Nicholson that he never intended to submit the faked documents to court. He said it was done without his permission by his attorney. Still, Brooks continued to use the documents to attract investors. According to Johnson's affidavit, Michaud, now turned informant, taped Brooks admitting he had used the faked documents to solicit the hedge fund investors from New York.
Brooks allegedly contemplated other tactics. At one point, according to the LaChance deposition, Brooks purchased a fake gold bar and wanted to plant it on the wreck to videotape for investors.
Brooks still has believers
Don Rodocker, the co-founder of SeaBotix, a San Diego firm specializing in remotely operated underwater vehicles, worked on the HMS Edinburgh expedition in 1981, which recovered $68 million in treasure. He was a late investor in Brooks' project, coming on board in 2014, and he rounded up a group of West Coast investors. Rodocker admired Brooks' persistence and was attracted to invest in the Nicholson wreck because the documentation he was shown resembled what he'd seen on the Edinburgh.
"Perseverance is the key to success," he said.
Rodocker is convinced there is treasure on the Port Nicholson, but that retrieving it would be difficult and costly, especially since they don't know exactly where on the ship it is located.
During the interview in Maine, Brooks admitted he was in over his head with the Port Nicholson. Neither he, nor anyone on his crew had ever done a deep-water salvage operation.
"I didn't feel he was being dishonest at all. I felt he believed what he believed and for all the right reasons," Rodocker said. "I thought he was naïve and that his skill set certainly prevented him from getting anything."
Rodocker felt that, instead of purchasing inferior equipment like older vessels and underpowered ROVs, and paying an inexperienced crew, Brooks should have hired a company with deepwater saturation diving experience, which is expensive, at $150,000 a day.
"You can spread $8.5 million over seven years and get nothing, or do it right and get it," Rodocker said.
But Brooks' critics say there never was any treasure, and he employed a delay tactic he'd used before, returning to investors over and over for more money with the pitch that they were a trip away from bringing back proof of treasure. In 2002, Brooks claimed to have found the Notre Dame de la Deliverance, a French vessel he and Michaud said sank off Florida carrying $2 billion to $4 billion in Spanish gold. Brooks solicited investors and made big claims generating a lot of publicity, then quietly left a few years later without any treasure.
In the case of the Edinburgh, there was a paper trail. Both the British and the Russians took out insurance on the treasure in case it was lost. And the fact that treasure was on board was acknowledged by both governments for decades before the ship's successful recovery in 1981.
The only authentic manifest from the Port Nicholson said it was carrying auto parts and military equipment. In the interview, Brooks said he now has only circumstantial evidence on which to base his claim that there is treasure aboard the freighter.
After Michaud's forgery came to light, Rodocker ended his participation.
"I couldn't go to a diving company and say, 'Let's do this,'" he said.
Sitting in his cigarette-smoke-filled kitchen, Brooks, who once described himself to a TV reporter as a "treasure hunter extraordinaire," said he'd spent all of the $8 million he raised from investors, which includes an estimated $1 million in legal fees in a losing battle to retain control of the salvage operation of the Port Nicholson.
He'd like to go back out again, still insisting he's just one voyage away from making it and paying investors back, with a profit. And there seems to be no lack of others searching for treasure. Martin Bayerle is soliciting investors to retrieve what he is claiming may be "the largest treasure recovery" of all time from what he dubs "The Millionaires' Ship," the RMS Republic, which sank off Martha's Vineyard in 1909. In 2015, British divers recovered $65 million in silver coins from the SS City of Cairo, sunk 500 miles off St. Helena Island in the South Atlantic. And recently, a British company calling itself "Brittania's Gold" has made the news claiming to have a database showing the location of over 700 sunken WWI and WWII freighters supposedly carrying over $5.6 billion in bullion.
"You could say I am in possession of the "Treasure of the Port Nicholson," Shusta wrote in an email that included a photo of a box of rusty hatchets that Brooks laid out on his bathroom vanity. Brooks submitted the hatchets to the court as one of a handful of items, none valuable, he salvaged from the vessel.
Courtesy: Cape Cod Times