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Originally published June 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 3, 2007 at 6:16 PM

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Colombia fights U.S. diver over gold-filled shipwreck

The Spanish galleon San Jose was trying to outrun a fleet of British warships off Colombia's coast on June 8, 1708, when a mysterious explosion...

The Associated Press

BOGOTA, Colombia — The Spanish galleon San Jose was trying to outrun a fleet of British warships off Colombia's coast on June 8, 1708, when a mysterious explosion sent it to the bottom of the sea with gold, silver and emeralds now valued at more than $2 billion.

Three centuries later, a bitter legal and political dispute over the San Jose is still raging, with the Colombian Supreme Court expected to rule this week on rival claims by the government and a group of U.S. investors to what is reputed to be the world's richest shipwreck.

Anxiously awaiting the decision is Jack Harbeston, managing director of the Cayman Islands-registered commercial salvage company Sea Search Armada, who has taken on seven Colombian administrations over two decades in a legal fight to claim half the sunken hulk's riches.

"If I had known it was going to take this long, I wouldn't have gotten involved in the first place," said Harbeston, 75, who lives in Bellevue.

In 1982, Sea Search announced to the world it had found the San Jose's resting place 700 feet below the water's surface, a few miles from the historic Caribbean port of Cartagena. Under well-established maritime law, whoever locates a shipwreck gets the rights to recover it in a kind of finders-keepers arrangement meant to offset the huge costs of speculative exploration.

Harbeston claims he and a group of 100 U.S. investors — among them the late actor Michael Landon and convicted Nixon White House adviser John Ehrlichman — have invested more than $12 million since a deal was signed with Colombia in 1979 giving Sea Search exclusive rights to search for the San Jose and 50 percent of whatever they find.

But all that changed in 1984, when then-Colombian President Belisario Betancur signed a decree reducing Sea Search's share from 50 percent to a 5 percent "finder's fee."

Current President Alvaro Uribe's office declined to discuss the impending court decision, which is expected by Wednesday. But over the years successive governments have argued that Colombia's maritime agency never had the authority to award exploration contracts to Sea Search because the wreck is part of the country's cultural patrimony.

The government may also be motivated by dollar signs. Harbeston believes that if sold skillfully to collectors and museums, the San Jose's treasure could fetch as much $10 billion — more than a third of Colombia's foreign debt.

The real value is impossible to calculate because the ship's manifests have disappeared. But the San Jose is known to have been part of Spain's only royal convoy to try to bring colonial bullion home to King Philip V during the War of Spanish Succession with England from 1701-1714.

"Without a doubt the San Jose is the Holy Grail of treasure shipwrecks," said Robert Cembrola, director of the Naval War College Museum in Newport, R.I.

The San Jose has become a national obsession among Colombians, for whom the "gringos" are the latest in a long line of foreign plunderers dating back to the Spanish conquerors. But that has not prevented three lower courts from ruling that Sea Search is entitled to half the treasure.

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Several U.S. congressmen and the State Department also took up the cause, warning in letters to successive Colombian presidents that what they considered a de-facto expropriation could jeopardize unilateral trade privileges.

Luis Felipe Barrios, a former government attorney on the case, said pressure from Washington was so intense that in the late 1990s he received a fax from former Sen. Jesse Helms, then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, threatening to revoke his visa.

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., one of the most active campaigners on Sea Search's behalf, did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment. Most of the dozen other congressmen who took part in the letter-writing campaign have since retired.

Adding to this modern-day pirate drama is a mystery: Some question whether the ship has even been found.

In 1994, Colombia hired treasure hunter Tommy Thompson to verify Sea Search's coordinates. Thompson, an American who has since disappeared allegedly with millions in investors' loot from a previous deep-sea find, turned up nothing.

Another oceanographer, Mike Costin, who worked on a commercial submarine brought in by Sea Search for one of the company's early, booze-filled expeditions, also has his doubts.

"We found something, but I don't think it was the San Jose," he said.

An underwater video taken of the alleged wreck in 1982 shows what looks like a corral reef-covered woodpile.

"But drink a glass of wine and it can look like almost anything," said Tony Dyakowski, a Canadian treasure hunter based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Dyakowski claims to have uncovered sea logs that put the San Jose miles closer to the mainland.

Harbeston shrugs off his detractors, saying, "If everyone's so sure it's not down there, then why don't they let us finish what we've started?"

Wherever the hulk lies, marine archaeologists say advances in diving, sonar and metal-detection make it possible to find almost any underwater wreck today. The problem is fending off rivals for whom the glint of gold is too powerful to resist.

"It's like when you light a lantern in the forest and you discover all these insects you didn't know were there before are now descending on you," said Peter Hess, a Delaware lawyer who represents salvage companies.

Besides Sea Search, rival salvage companies and the Colombian government, Spain has also actively defended its sovereign rights over sunken ships that flew its flag. Last week, Spain filed claims in a U.S. federal court seeking up to $500 million in colonial treasure a Florida firm estimates it found recently in a shipwreck in the Atlantic Ocean.

Archeologists also have voiced concern, pointing to a 2001 UNESCO convention — backed by Spain but not signed by Colombia or the United States — that outlaws commercial exploitation of sunken cultural heritage.

"People forget the San Jose is an underwater grave of 600 men," said Carla Rahn Phillips, a University of Minnesota historian and author of the new book "The Treasure of the San Jose." "The wreck deserves to be treated with respect, and most salvors I know only pay lip service to its historical importance."

The Colombian court ruling will also affect other commercial salvage companies eager to dive for more than 1,000 galleons and merchant ships believed to have sunk along Colombia's corral reefs during more than three centuries of colonial rule. Almost none have been recovered due to the legal limbo in the San Jose case.

Daniel de Narvaez, a scuba-diving businessman hoping to salvage a wreck near the Caribbean island of San Andres, said that given the long, tortuous battle, he expects the decision could go either way.

"After such a laughable and tragic ordeal, nothing surprises me anymore," he said.

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