By Julie Manganis
SALEM — On a June day in 1975, lobsterman Michael Zdanowicz Sr. was pulling up a trawl line in Salem Harbor when he stumbled across something unexpected.
The artifacts he found that day touched off a 35-year quest for treasure buried centuries ago when a ship called Margaret smashed into a shoal and sank with her cargo of porcelain from China, Spanish silver and Dutch gold.
The Margaret sank in 1797, and since then, treasure hunters have hoped to find her and the riches onboard, likely worth millions.
Along the way, Zdanowicz, of Peabody, and his family found others who shared their dream. Two of them were Joseph Dietlin and Duane Rine.
In 2000, the Zdanowiczes agreed to team up with Dietlin and Rine, who, they say, told them that their business, which they called "North Atlantic Treasure Salvage Company," could help out with their expertise in marine salvage.
Instead, the Zdanowiczes contend, Dietlin, as well as Rine (who died last year in a diving accident), helped themselves, accepting money and equipment from the Zdanowiczes, but then getting a permit to explore the site under their own names.
Yesterday, they filed a lawsuit against Dietlin and the estate of Rine, claiming that the permit from the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources was obtained fraudulently and that Dietlin and Rine acted in bad faith, cutting them out of the loop.
The suit, filed in Salem Superior Court by Braintree attorney Charles Monahan, seeks a court order that bars Dietlin and any of Rine's heirs from taking anything from the site, or from disturbing it in any way.
The suit also asks that Dietlin be required to sign over all rights to explore the site, granted in the state permit, and to return any artifacts or other items recovered from the site or given to them by the Zdanowiczes.
They're also asking for $250,000 to compensate for lost income and interest from the site.
Monahan, who said yesterday that he is also a diver who came out of retirement to take the case for the Zdanowiczes, said the cargo of the Margaret could be worth more than $7 million in today's dollars, and may have included the belongings of Abigail Adams, the former first lady.
Zdanowicz and his sons met Dietlin and Rine in 2000 through a mutual friend. Dietlin and Rine said they had expertise in recovering sunken vessels.
Over the next several years, the Zdanowiczes say, they gave equipment and money to Dietlin and Rine, with the understanding that they'd share in the profits to come.
They had no idea that Dietlin and Rine went to the state board that issues permits for underwater archaeology and obtained one solely under their own names.
In fact, they didn't even realize they should get a permit until last year. That's when they found that their partners had already obtained one for the same location, near Gooseberry Island.
Then they learned that not only had they been cheated out of their rights to the site but that Dietlin and Rine didn't even have the proper equipment for the project — and that there was no such entity as the North Atlantic Treasure Salvage Company.
The Zdanowiczes aren't the only ones seeking fortune in the fathoms. Three years ago, Beverly diver Gary Esper was profiled in a Salem News story about his three-year quest to find the wreck.
Efforts to reach Dietlin yesterday were unsuccessful.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis may be reached at 978-338-2521 or at email@example.com.