COLUMBUS (TDB) -- The daily newspaper in Ohio's capital city, The Columbus Dispatch, is best known for a fairly stolid editorial page and lots of rah-rah coverage in its sports section for Ohio State University, where athletic prowess has produced the nation's No. 1 ranked college football team.
Who would have ever guessed that the Dispatch helped finance a bunch of treasure hunters and now wants to find out what happened to the money? Anybody who has read the newspaper knows its personality is not given to high-risk or edgy journalism in the company of Slate or Rolling Stone. But the paper looks to have more than Buckeyes in its DNA.
What's emerged recently is that The Dispatch Printing Company, the newspaper's parent, invested $1 million years ago to search for the S.S. Central America, a ship that sank off the coast of South Carolina during a hurricane on Sept. 12, 1857 carrying several tons of gold, silver and other treasures to the bottom. The ''ship of gold," as the Central America has been called, was bound for New York with untold wealth accumulated during the California gold rush. It was found in November 1988 about 160 miles off shore, though the exact site remains a closely held secret.
Now the Dispatch is in federal court in Columbus seeking to pore over financial records kept by salvagers that recovered some of the treasure. At a time when most of America's newspapers are desperate to find readers and advertisers -- after all, daily circulation has been sinking faster than a storm-ripped galeon -- this publisher has unleashed a team of lawyers to search for profits from precious metals and jewels. The case is pending before U.S. District Judge Ed Sargus, who has opened some of the records to the newspaper publisher's accountants. (Case No. C2-06-296, Southern District of Ohio.)
D. Eric Stovall, a principal with the accounting firm's forensic practice area, has said in court documents that he has been engaged by Dispatch Printing Co., and another Ohio investor, Donald Fanta, ''to conduct comprehensive examination and analysis of the financial transactions and affairs of Columbus Exploration LLL and Recovery Limited Partnership. I am leading this engagement on behalf of the accountant."
Fanta and the newspaper publisher contend more than a ton of gold has been recovered, but that they have been kept largely in the dark about what has happened to the treasure. ''This case is about directors who blieve they can take millions from their investors but then refuse to tell the investors what happened to their money,'' says the lawsuit, filed by John W. Zeiger, Steven W. Tigges and Bradley T. Ferrell, who represent Fanta and Dispatch Printing.
Life Magazine called the discovery of the side-wheeler and its trove The Greatest Treasure Ever Found in a March 1992 article that described the hunt that found the ship. ''The Central America remained lost and largely forgotten for more than a century until three young men from Columbus, Ohio decided they could find her,'' Life said, not knowing there were new chapters still to be written in the legal system.