By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Scott introduced his brother to deep-pocketed investors in New York City who might be interested in financing a unique investment with high return. These moneymen, wanting to assess the risks, demanded to know how Miscovich had found the emeralds. He told them about Cunningham — who presented a problem. If the drifter reemerged, he could put up a legal challenge.
Miscovich unrolled the same Cunningham story that would later sound unbelievable on the witness stand. He claimed he didn't have any way to contact the drifter; he had always called from different numbers, and Miscovich didn't know where he lived. The investors said if Cunningham ever showed up again, offer him $50,000 for his release on the claim.
In April, Miscovich's phone rang. Cunningham was going to be visiting Latrobe soon. Miscovich — who was then bouncing among Key West, Latrobe, and New York — arranged to meet and got a contract drawn up, just in case.
At a local bar, Miscovich told Cunningham he'd found some valuables — but didn't specify thousands of emeralds — near but not at the exact spot that had been marked on Cunningham's treasure map.
Miscovich says Cunningham was happy to take cash rather than get involved in a legal mess. A notary came to the bar and witnessed Cunningham sign the contract and accept cash. Then, Cunningham disappeared — completely. Later, no one would be able to find him. He couldn't be reached by phone and didn't have a Facebook page, and mutual friends didn't know where he might have gone. This is the part of Miscovich's story that's hardest to swallow, even among his supporters.
Court records show that by September 2010, the Miscovich brothers, Elchlepp, and eight other investors formed a company called Emerald Reef LLC to salvage the site. Elchlepp stayed in Key West, dangerously diving alone, each time handing his girlfriend a sealed envelope with the GPS coordinates, in case he didn't return. His partner took meetings in Manhattan — sessions with lawyers, marketers, moneymen, and gem experts.
Around this time, Miscovich walked into the New York office of Josh Lents, an expert with the Gemological Appraisal Laboratory. "He started pulling these specimens out one by one," the expert recalls. "Before I knew it, my entire desk was fully covered by these green rough emeralds. It took me a little while to actually realize what was in front of me." When Miscovich asked Lents about how much a few of the pieces could fetch, the expert couldn't answer. He wasn't sure comparable specimens existed in the world. Initial spectroscopic tests showed the stones were in fact emeralds, probably from Colombia. But the pieces were so rare — large chunks, colored a deep green, sprinkled with valuable pyrite — that Miscovich might be able to ask whatever he wanted.
Carats aside, what really spikes the price of precious gems are their backstories. One sample emerald was appraised at $25,000 by a New York City lab, but Sotheby's valued the same rock at $40,000. Another appraisal said 25 of the pieces could fetch more than $100,000 each. But if Miscovich had proof these had come from a famous shipwreck, the price could easily quadruple.
As long as he could get the admiralty title and secure the rights to the emeralds, Miscovich's haul could fetch a few million dollars — or a few hundred million.
But the arrangement with investors soured by late 2010. Elchlepp and the Miscoviches say the moneymen tried to yank away control. The investors charged Miscovich and Elchlepp with stashing emeralds in Pennsylvania and Key West after agreeing all the treasure would reside in a New York bank. A lawsuit was filed in Delaware, freezing the money flow.
The legal action made the find a matter of public record and tipped off the treasure community. In October 2011, the Key West Citizen ran an article announcing that a half-billion dollars in emeralds had been found 30 miles off the island. Attention fixed on Miscovich and Elchlepp, jacking up their paranoia. On internet messageboards devoted to treasure hunting (like treasurenet.com and investorshub.com), posters questioned the emeralds' authenticity and referred to Miscovich as "Scrooge Mc Duck" and the "300lb plus diver."
The pair became convinced they were being followed. Elchlepp called the police after spotting prowlers across the channel from the dive house. A CBS News crew turned up at Miscovich's Latrobe address.
By September 2011, the investors settled with the treasure hunters. Per a court order, details of the settlement are confidential, and neither side would discuss them for this article. Miscovich, with his partners, filed an admiralty action under their newly formed company, JTR Enterprises, that October, then waited, anxious Spain would intervene.
Instead, Mel Fisher's family filed a competing claim on the emeralds.
Manuel Marcial slowly picked through the milky-green stones poured out on the white linen cloth, occasionally purring approval. An elderly jeweler with a chin frosted by a dapper goatee, he sidelined a handful of promising pieces, next examining each between his fingers. On August 14, 2012, after about five hours and 80 bags of green rocks, the jeweler stepped into the office hallway filled with lawyers.