Tussle over treasure
ABOARD THE EDMUND Z. - Mike Zdanowicz Sr. idles his lobster boat near North Gooseberry Island, in Salem Harbor. It is a warm, windless afternoon. Above us are clear skies, herring gulls, and cormorants.
Below us: 40 feet of water, lobster traps, and $700 million.
Or so Zdanowicz believes. And whatever others say, he reckons some of that money is his.
Zdanowicz is an earnest man with a gray beard, a booming voice, and anchor tattoos on his formidable forearms, a la Popeye. His people have been lobstering here since they arrived from Poland in 1902. Now 59, he’s been swinging pots since he was 13.
In the summer of 1975, Zdanowicz was hauling in a trap when it caught what looked like the rib of a ship. He kept finding artifacts, and in 1983, he pulled up an old anchor. There was definitely a ship down there.
Zdanowicz kept his discovery mostly quiet. If there was treasure below, he wanted to be careful whom he told about it.
“I held my silence,’’ he says over the whir of the engine. “Several people approached me, but no, I didn’t give in.’’
Until 2000, when a friend put him in touch with two divers named Joe Dietlin and Duane “Charlie’’ Rine, who had been searching for a shipwreck in that area since the 1980s, and who at one point had taken out a permit giving them exclusive rights to the area where Zdanowicz made his discoveries.
The divers believed the wreck was the Margaret, which sank in a nor’easter in 1796, with its cargo - worth hundreds of millions - intact. He says the divers convinced him they could recover the vessel, and promised him a healthy share of the riches.
So Zdanowicz showed them where the ship lay, and, according to him, the men became partners.
There are at least 3,000 shipwrecks in Massachusetts waters. And legions of dreamers trying to recover them, certain there are millions to be hauled from the deep. But locating and recovering wrecks takes huge amounts of money - and decades.
These dreamers caught a break when National Geographic agreed to search the site a couple of years ago. Zdanowicz says the equipment found the wreck buried under 5 feet of sand, and that a consultant told him the Margaret’s sunken cargo was worth $700 million.
With so much at stake, Zdanowicz wanted to make sure he had a rock-solid deal with Dietlin and Rine. He started pushing the men to guarantee his share.
Rine, whom the lobsterman considered a friend, died in a diving accident last year. Zdanowicz says Dietlin froze him out after that. So he hired a lawyer. That’s when he learned his name wasn’t on any of the paperwork.
“I’ve never been so upset in my life,’’ the lobsterman says. “That knife went right in my back. That’s my site. I found it when they were sucking their thumbs.’’ He has sued Dietlin, and Rine’s estate, for what he says is his right to the Margaret.
Dietlin’s attorney tells a different story. The site belonged to the two divers long before they met Zdanowicz, says Stephen Ouellette. The lobsterman never even applied for a permit.
“There are an awful lot of dreamers out there,’’ Ouellette said. “There are dreamers who get out and do the work, and there are others who stand by and say ‘Just let me know when I can pick up my check.’ And this guy wants a check he’s not entitled to, for something nobody’s ever collected on.’’
Nobody has ever gotten rich off a shipwreck around here. Eventually, most give up. Those who don’t find that the value of the cargo they recover - usually pedestrian items like pottery rather than chests full of gold - falls woefully short of initial projections.
Usually, the ocean and the passing decades wreck treasure hunters’ dreams. Zdanowicz might find his dream was dashed much less romantically, on the shoals of a Salem courtroom.
Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.