BELLEVUE, Wash. — For nearly four decades, Jack Harbeston has been trying to reach billions of dollars in gold, silver and jewels that he found at the bottom of the ocean – and now a legal battle over what’s considered the Holy Grail of shipwrecks could be coming to an end.
In 1981, Harbeston and his crew spent $12 million to rent a deepwater submarine to find the storied San Jose, which sank off the coast of Colombia in 1708.
Harbeston and his team notified the Colombian government of their find and struck a deal to split the gold, silver and jewels 50-50. But since then, Harbeston has been banned by the government from returning to the site.
In 2015, the president of Colombia staged a media event where he claimed the San Jose shipwreck had just been discovered and belonged exclusively to the Colombian government.
“I had a hot flash. I was stunned. It was a sense of betrayal,” Harbeston said.
The Colombian government then began salvaging what could be $10 to $20 billion in treasure.
“The President, his chief of staff and I don’t know how many others conspired to take the ship,” Harbeston said.
When asked if he believes there are individuals in the government who want it for themselves, Harbeston said: “Absolutely. No question about it. Politicians come along and see 10 to 20 billion dollars in gold and silver coins and ingots, buckets of emeralds and so on, and they can't resist it.”
However, after years of legal battles, a Colombian court has now ordered the government to stop salvaging the San Jose. The order clears the way for Harbeston and his 150 Sea Search Armada investors to claim what they say is rightfully theirs.
“I feel like our lawyer got a checkmate,” Harbeston said. “Everything that comes from that ship, every artifact, no matter who collects it, has to go to the bank and the court then holds it there for us.”
Harbeston said once the ship is completely recovered, the court will disperse the treasure. Half will go to the Colombian Government and half to Sea Search Armada.
“If it was just the money, I would have given up long ago. It is egregiously wrong what the government of Colombian has done over the years to cheat us. To take it all,” Harbeston said.
Harbeston told KIRO 7’s Dave Wagner he believes there’s about a 50% chance they’ll have a settlement with the Colombian government by the end of the year.
Harbeston and his investors say they're willing to accept less than 50% and they recommend that part of the treasure go to indigenous people. Their relatives were enslaved by the Spanish and responsible for mining the gold and silver discovered at the bottom of the ocean.
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