A federal judge on Friday denied title to the finder of a cache of emeralds discovered three years ago, but what that means for the salvor remains as unclear as the murky tale's origin in a dusty Duval Street tavern.
U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King ruled that former real estate agent and Mel Fisher-investor-turned-salvor Jay Miscovich and his company, JTR Enterprises -- as well as his business partner, Steve Elchlepp -- failed to prove that they found the 154 pounds of gemstones scattered across the Gulf of Mexico seafloor some 30 miles off Key West, as he testified in court.
Although JTR can keep the gemstones, King's ruling means neither Miscovich nor Elchlepp can legally claim the gemstones are "court-validated" sunken treasure, and that significantly hurts their value, said attorney Gene Lewis.
Kim Fisher, son of famed salvor Mel Fisher and owner of Motivation Inc., said Friday that he felt vindicated by King's ruling.
"He basically said in his ruling that this was a scam," Fisher said. "We've spent a lot of time and money on this case in an effort to protect the integrity of the legitimate treasure-hunting industry."
Lewis represented Fisher's company in court and argued that JTR committed fraud and lied about the emeralds' origin after one of Motivation's emerald experts -- Duval Street-based Emeralds International owner Manuel Marcial -- determined the lot was worth only $50,000 and not the millions Miscovich claimed.
"This is a more of a victory for the treasure salvage industry," Lewis said. "The plaintiffs in this case were attempting to put phoney trash in the marketplace, and the judge is saying, 'No dice.' It's a win, because these stones were a tarnish and blight on the industry."
Miscovich testified in court that he bought a treasure map from a man named Mike Cunningham at the Bull Whistle Bar, 224 Duval St., and later bought him off for $50,000 when he discovered emeralds at the site.
King wrote that the emeralds appeared "seemingly out of thin air," and that JTR failed to prove their origin.
"When all is said and done, there are two options: Jay and Steve legitimately found lost stones on the floor of the Gulf, or Jay and Steve placed stones acquired elsewhere on the ocean floor in order to 'find' them and thereby establish an ancient provenance and greatly enhance the value of the stones and the reputation of the men as treasure salvors," King wrote in his ruling.
"There is just as much support for the theory that Jay and Steve planted the stones as there is for the assertion that they found them.
"The court cannot simply accept the uncontradicted testimony of Jay and Steve that they followed a treasure map to the site, dove to the floor, and found the emeralds. Each story represents one possible interpretation of entirely circumstantial evidence, and neither persuades the court."
JTR attorneys Joe and Christy Janssen said JTR will appeal King's ruling and that they disagree with King's case law analysis.
Christy Janssen noted that nowhere in King's 24-page ruling did he use the word "scam."
"What the court is saying is, we didn't prove (the gems') abandonment," she said, adding that was a "subjective" test. "To prove anyone has abandoned anything is next to impossible. So we disagree with the court's finding and will prepare an appeal."
She also noted that "at the end of the day, we still get the emeralds."
Motivation wants JTR Enterprises to pay for its legal fees, citing alleged fraud on Miscovich's part.
A hearing on whether or not Miscovich will pay for Motivation's legal fees is scheduled for March 18 at the Sidney M. Aronovitz federal courthouse on Simonton Street in Key West.
That ruling will finish what has been a roller-coaster legal ride for both sides since Miscovich filed an admiralty claim to the stones in 2011, which drew the attention of CBS news and led to a feature on "60 Minutes."
That segment was aptly titled, "The trouble with treasure."