Wednesday, January 26, 2005


Novelist and Tampa company both in hunter's cross hairs


St. Petersburg Times
By Scott Barancik
January 26, 2005

A South Carolina man, suing over the SS Republic, tangled with Clive Cussler over the HL Hunley.

Bestselling novelist Clive Cussler. Tampa shipwreck-hunter Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc.

Two very different animals with something in common: Both have been sued by a South Carolina man who claims he deserves credit for shipwrecks they discovered.

Shipwreck hunter E. Lee Spence is one of four men who recently sued Odyssey over the SSRepublic, a side-wheel steamer that sank in the Atlantic Ocean about 100 miles off the Georgia coast with thousands of gold and silver coins aboard in 1865. Odyssey found the ship in June 2003 and parlayed it into a National Geographic TV special and millions of dollars in coin sales.

Spence and his co-plaintiffs claim the company used their research to find the ship but failed to share the booty.

Odyssey says it relied on its own data.

Spence, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has rowed this path before.

For more than three decades, he has claimed he discovered the HL Hunley, a hand-cranked Confederate submarine that successfully torpedoed a Union warship in 1864 and disappeared the same night. Spence says he was fishing off Charleston Harbor in 1970 when a fish trap snagged on something. According to a court filing, he dove down and, "realizing what he had found, raced to the surface and repeatedly screamed, "I've found the Hunley."

Spence continued to make the claim even after a nonprofit that Cussler founded, the National Underwater Marine Agency, discovered the Hunley in 1995 and after the South Carolina Hunley Commission deemed NUMA the ship's official founders in 1997.

NUMA sued Spence for defamation in 2001; he countersued. The case has dragged on for four years. It is scheduled for trial in April.

At times during the case, it has seemed as if Spence might fold. In 2003, he asked the U.S. District Court judge in Charleston, S.C., to delay the proceedings because they were aggravating his "severe depression and bipolar disorder" and twice led him to be hospitalized.

Cussler asked U.S. District Court Judge Sol Blatt Jr. to order a mental evaluation for Spence and alleged Spence was seeking a delay not because of mental illness but because he had run out of money to pay his lawyers.

Indeed, Spence's lawyers dropped him for nonpayment that year. He has represented himself since.

Spence and Cussler each wrote a nonfiction book containing details about their hunts for the Hunley. In 1995, Spence self-published Treasures of the Confederate Coast: The "Real Rhett Butler' & Other Revelations. A year later, Cussler released The Sea Hunters: True Adventures With Famous Shipwrecks.

Spence claims Cussler engineered the Hunley's discovery in order to boost sales of Sea Hunters. Cussler's attorney, John Lay Jr. of the Ellis Lawhorne law firm in Columbia, S.C., said his client had given far more money to NUMA than he had received in royalties from the book.

The Hunley was exhumed in 2000. It is housed at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, S.C.
Spence's involvement in research on the Republic is well-documented. A 1995 news release issued by Seahawk Deep Ocean Technology, a company founded by Odyssey co-founders Greg Stemm and John Morris, identified Spence as one of two researchers on the project. Another credited Spence and co-plaintiff Alan Riebe with helping prove that the Republic was carrying gold coins when it sank.

A 1995 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission said Seahawk gave Spence 40,000 shares of its stock in exchange for his 10 percent share of the Republic, if found.

Stemm and Morris say they never had access to the plaintiffs' research because they resigned from Seahawk a year prior, in 1994. They formed Odyssey in 1997.

Odyssey spokeswoman Laura Lionetti Barton declined to comment.

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