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Treasure map fight leads to ex-Westmoreland man, Butler County Jail

Paul Peirce
| Sunday, June 23, 2013, 12:02 a.m.
Michael Charles Cunningham
Michael Charles Cunningham

Private investigators pored through a list of dozens of men named Mike Cunningham in Western Pennsylvania on a mission that reads like an Indiana Jones film script: Track down the one who purportedly sold a map to sunken treasure in the Gulf of Mexico for $500.

A Mike Cunningham who once lived in Westmoreland County is a key player in legal battles in Key West and Atlanta over Latrobe treasure hunter Jay Miscovich's claim that he discovered 154 pounds of emeralds worth untold millions on the ocean floor in 2010.

An attorney for a rival salvage company will argue to a federal judge in Key West next month that the Mike Cunningham who Miscovich claims sold him the map is now an inmate in the Butler County Jail.

Miscovich; his partner, Florida diver Steve Elchlepp; and their company, JTR Enterprises, LLC, are being sued for fraud by rivals for the shipwrecked treasure.

Miscovich revealed Cunningham's identity in December during a five-day trial in Key West, where he unsuccessfully sought salvage rights to the Atocha, a Spanish galleon that sank in 1622 about 20 miles north of Key West.

Miscovich, 54, testified the saga started in January 2010 at The Bull & Whistle, a popular bar in Key West, where he chatted with a fellow diver who was carrying a treasure map.

Miscovich claimed the man was Mike Cunningham, 51, a handyman who once worked for Miscovich in Latrobe and who coincidentally crossed paths with him nearly 1,400 miles from home. Cunningham sold the map because he was down on his luck and needed cash, Miscovich testified.

The “whole story is preposterous ... like hitting a Powerball lottery,” Tallahassee attorney Marlowe V. White told the Tribune-Review.

White represents Motivation Inc., the company that holds court-approved salvage rights to the Atocha. It claims Miscovich made up the story about the map and looted the emeralds from the shipwreck. Miscovich blocked its gem experts from examining the emeralds, purportedly mined in Colombia nearly 400 years ago, to lure money from investors, the company claims.

Miscovich refused repeated requests for comment.

Motivation alleges in court documents that “Miscovich had amassed tens of thousands of enhanced commercial-grade emeralds mined in the 20th century, some no earlier than 1999, but not immersed in seawater for more than a couple of months, mixed in with a few dozen gem-quality emeralds that had been immersed in seawater for hundreds of years and at least one Colonial-era pottery shard and Civil War cannonball.”

Once Miscovich disclosed where he acquired the treasure map, Motivation scoured public records for Mike Cunninghams in Western Pennsylvania, White said. The search narrowed to personal interviews with three Mike Cunninghams — including the one in the Butler jail for a parole violation.

Cunningham, formerly of Acme, was working for Miscovich when he was convicted of being drunk when he crashed his car on Route 30 in Hempfield on Jan. 5, 2007, killing his passenger, Kevin S. Nave. Cunningham was sentenced to three to six years in prison.

White said he will prove in court that Cunningham is the man Miscovich testified about in a story that was fabricated.

Court records don't disclose how much Motivation is seeking in its claim for sanctions against Miscovich's company. White said the sum will be substantial, with three years of fees paid to experts and attorneys to disprove Miscovich's claim.

“I can say the damages are in the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars,” White said.

Latrobe attorney Chris Nakles deposed Cunningham in jail on June 7 on behalf of Motivation. Nakles declined to comment, referring inquiries to White.

The fraud trial will begin July 29 before U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King, who ruled that Motivation can seek sanctions.

In a Jan. 25 ruling, King cast doubt on Miscovich's treasure find, which he calls “a three-year libretto ... where two friends follow a treasure map” to “a hoard of gems on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, then brave an onslaught of investor disputes and accusations of fraud in order to gain title to the massive amount of precious stones.”

“This record is devoid of any evidence of any shipwreck, 16th Century Spanish Galleon, or any proof of abandonment of prior owner,” King wrote in the 24-page opinion. The emeralds “appeared seemingly out of thin air, without proof of abandonment from prior owner.”

King refused to grant salvage rights to Miscovich and his partner. “There is just as much support for the theory that Jay and Steve planted the stones as there is for the assertion they found them,” the judge wrote.

Under admiralty law, King noted, the origin of the shipwreck or its original finder must be proven to win salvage rights.

While King said he could not determine the origin of the emeralds from the evidence, he ruled that Miscovich and Elchlepp could keep the gems.

Miscovich appealed King's ruling to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, but King has refused to delay the Key West trial.

Miscovich testified he paid Cunningham $500 for the map and a fragment of Aztec pottery he said he found at the shipwreck site, court records show.

When attorneys pressed to learn more, Miscovich claimed Cunningham had no cellphone or address.

After he used the map to find the emeralds, Miscovich testified, he met Cunningham on April 20, 2010, at the Fraternal Order of Eagles Club in Latrobe and paid him $50,000 more to block any new claim and got a signed, notarized agreement.

Miscovich described Cunningham as a former employee with a high school education. “The two other Mike Cunninghams we interviewed are highly educated and never heard of Jay. Michael Charles Cunningham used to work for Jay and meets the other criteria, according to Jay's own testimony,” White said.

Miscovich contends in court documents that the Butler County inmate is not “the Cunningham.” But in sworn affidavits, others who worked for Miscovich claim he is.

“This is definitely him,” White said.

Miscovich's attorneys, Joseph and Christy Janssen of West Palm Beach, did not return telephone calls seeking comment. In court filings, they say Motivation's case is without merit.

White deposed Cunningham in the law office of Allen Roth in Latrobe on Jan. 4, court records show. Cunningham said he hasn't been to Florida since 1995 and he last saw Miscovich in June 2007.

When investigators told him he supposedly sold Miscovich a treasure map, Cunningham replied: “I'd say that's news to me.”

Cunningham denied Miscovich paid him $50,000. “I've never been in the Eagles Club with Jay Miscovich — ever,” he said.

Cunningham told attorneys he couldn't have signed an agreement in April 2010 because at the time he was in the state prison in Mercer.

Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or

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