In the initial months after a cache of emeralds was discovered off Key West, some lawyers recommended that their finder file claim to the purported multi-million dollar fortune outside the United States, a move that flabbergasted a federal judge Wednesday during a day of courtroom testimony that shed more light on the origins of the gems.
Former real estate businessman and nursing home executive turned treasure salvor Jay Miscovich, who claims to have found the emeralds in January 2010, spent much of the day on the witness stand fielding questions mostly from Key West lawyer Hugh Morgan, who attempted to poke holes in his story.
Miscovich testified that he was advised by his former lawyers to file his admiralty claim to the emeralds in another country such as the Cayman Islands or the Dominican Republic due to the fact that the emeralds were found in international waters.
Also, New York City investors were vying for more control over Miscovich's treasure hunting venture, which spurred a separate Delaware lawsuit.
That lawsuit delayed the filing of the emeralds claim in the U.S., Miscovich told U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King.
King then stopped Morgan's questioning for a moment to ask Miscovich whether his earlier lawyers claimed to be knowledgeable about marine salvage law.
They apparently did, Miscovich testified.
King was dumbfounded upon hearing of the alleged advice to file the claim in another country.
"That offends my sense of what lawyers do for a living," King said. "That is outrageous advice. Did they explain you have to take these emeralds in [to a courtroom]? That there would be issues with taking them from Florida to the Dominican Republic or wherever?" Miscovich told the judge he recalled that one of those former lawyers or advisors may have been a board member of a bank in the Cayman Islands.
"Oh, he's a master of hiding money, is he?" King said, referring to the attorney and stressing that he was not accusing Miscovich of wrong doing. "It is unbelievable such advice was given. It is shocking to me."
King is considered an expert on admiralty law. He presided over the early proceedings of Mel Fisher's famed discovery of the Spanish galleons Nuestra Señora de Atocha and Santa Margarita in the 1980s. King also presides over yearly adjudication of ownership -- federal court proceedings that formally grant Fisher's group title to treasure they found in the preceding year.
Map seller identified
In an answer to a direct question from Morgan, Miscovich testified that a man named Mike Cunningman bought him a beer and sold him a hand drawn treasure map at the Bull &Whistle Bar on Duval Street in January 2010.
Miscovich has known Cunningham, a semi-homeless handyman and landscaper, for 20 years. Cunningham once worked for Miscovich in their home state of Pennsylvania.
Cunningham's identity had been a closely guarded secret until Wednesday.
Miscovich testified that he has no way of reaching Cunningham.
Miscovich said he was told by his former lawyers to offer Cunningham an additional $50,000 to buy him out of any future claim to the emeralds or anything found in the area pictured on the treasure map, about 30 miles northwest of Key West.
Cunningham allegedly signed a document agreeing to the $50,000 buy-out, but Miscovich told King he has no copy of that document.
Miscovich testified Wednesday that he paid Cunningham $50,000 in $100 bills at a bar in Pennsylvania about two weeks after discovering the emeralds.
King then wondered aloud why it would take a purportedly poor man two weeks to collect $50,000.
The issue appeared to be momentarily quelled when Miscovich's lawyers produced a copy of the signed agreement between Miscovich and Cunningham, but Morgan objected that it wasn't the original. King tabled the issue until lawyers find the original agreement.
Meanwhile, marine archeologist Robert Baer testified that Miscovich told him he found the emeralds with two Mexican divers in early 2009, which appears to contradict Miscovich's testimony Tuesday and Wednesday during which he said he found the emeralds in January 2010 with fellow treasure salvor Steve Elchlepp.
Miscovich and Elchlepp started what is now known as JTR Enterprises after the find.
Miscovich attorney John Siracusa of West Palm Beach questioned the accuracy of Baer's recollections.
King will decide whether Miscovich owes Kim Fisher, son of Mel Fisher, money for lawyer fees.
Kim Fisher is the owner of Motivation, Inc., a Fisher family company founded after Mel Fisher's death.
Motivation filed court papers last year suggesting the 154 pounds of emeralds -- valued anywhere from $50,000 to millions -- came from the Fishers' Atocha and Santa Margarita treasure sites.
But in August, Motivation announced it wasn't interested in the gems after Duval Street-based Emeralds International owner Manuel Marcial De Gomar examined them and said they didn't come from those wrecks and were worth only about $50,000.
King denied Motivation's motion to dismiss its claims to the emeralds, saying he wanted to know why the company thinks Miscovich should pay its legal fees.
King demanded a trial in light of Motivation's allegations that Miscovich's find was a fraud.
Attorney and JTR Enterprises investor Bruce Silverstein is expected to testify today.
Expected witness Ken Rose, owner of a salvage area from Woman Key to Satan Shoal known as the Kirby site, was removed from the witness list Wednesday. Rose has become an auxiliary player in the drama due to Motivation allegations that some of the emeralds may have come from the Kirby site and not the JTR site as Miscovich claims.
"We may never know where they came from," Rose said outside of court. "The only witnesses in this thing are hammerheads and jellyfish."