VICTORIO PEAK, N.M. — The answer that has eluded so many for so long lies 400 feet down below, in the bowels of a rocky peak littered with creosote trees, rattlesnakes and bullet-pocked military targets.
On top, rusted steel bars bolted to weathered timbers guard the four-foot-square opening to the secret of Victorio Peak. Underneath, buried by time and temptation, lies either 100 tons of gold bars worth perhaps $1.2 billion, or one of the wildest hoaxes of the Wild West.
It's a puzzle whose solution has eluded treasure hunters and presidential aides, a treasure so great people have died for it, a legend so compelling that even the U.S. government has dug for it.
'Too Much Evidence'
"There's too much evidence to discount completely the possibility that there's something still in there," said former New Mexico Atty. Gen. David Norvell.
"It's absolute nonsense," said former state historian Mary Ellen Jenkins. "How can it be anything else?"
But 50 years after a self-styled traveling foot doctor known as M. E. (Doc) Noss first reported finding gold bars "stacked like cordwood," a few believers continue the quest for the treasure of Victorio Peak.
Some have written books; more are in the works. Two of Noss' stepchildren hope someday to make a movie that will help pressure the government into allowing a full-scale search of the peak, now surrounded by the U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range, closed to the public in 1955.
"I know it's there because I saw it," said 64-year-old Marvin Beckwith, Noss' stepson, who lives in Blaine, Wash. "My stepdad took 51 bars out and hid them, and he was killed over those."
Cave-in Sealed the Mystery
The story is told that Noss, Beckwith and some others began carrying gold out, a bar at a time, through the narrow crevasse that led to the cavern. They tried to enlarge the passageway, but a dynamite charge misfired, causing a cave-in that buried the treasure and sealed the mystery.
Noss later was killed in a 1949 gun battle with partner Charles Ryan over Noss' failure to turn over a share of the bars. He died with $2.16 in his pocket.
Since then, the family has spent more than $500,000 fighting for another chance at the gold, most of it from eager investors, said Beckwith, whose back was broken on one search when a plane crashed, killing another man.
"If you saw what I'd seen, I assure you you'd do the same thing," he said.
If there ever was gold in Victorio Peak, and historians discount the possibility, or if there still is, where it came from is itself a mystery.
Mine Never Found
Although New Mexico's history began with the Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado's search for gold, no mine capable of producing 100 tons was ever found in the southern part of the state.
Some said Noss might have discovered a secret stash of Mexican Emperor Maximilian. Some said the Apache chieftain Victorio, for whom the peak was named, hid his spoils at his headquarters. Some say gold arrived much later as secret U.S. booty from World War II, hidden at the Army base under cover of the Noss tale.
However it got there, if it ever got there, wasn't an issue until 1937, when Noss was hunting on the peak.
He claimed that he stumbled into a cavern and saw stacks of gold bars, 27 skeletons, Wells Fargo chests and Indian artifacts. Over the years, he and his partners removed some gold, his family says, and Doc hid the bars. After his death, his widow, Ova Noss, continued to press the Army for permission to search.
In 1958, Air Force Capt. Leonard V. Fiege claimed that he stumbled on gold while deer hunting on Victorio Peak. He passed a lie detector test, and his claim set off a "top secret" search of the peak by Army and U.S. Treasury agents in 1961.
Steel Door Implanted
The Army denied the search at first, only acknowledging it a year later. Military police patrolled for trespassers and treasure hunters, and a steel door was placed over the new shaft that had enlarged the old crevasse.
But public attention waned, and it wasn't until 1973 that the trail began heating up again. The legend became part of Watergate lore when presidential aide John Dean recounted John Mitchell's and John Ehrlichman's interest in the treasure. It had been brought to their attention by attorney F. Lee Bailey, who represented some claimants and even produced a gold sample for the governor of New Mexico.
In 1977, the Army agreed to recognize six claimant groups, including the Noss family, and allow a two-week search led by Florida treasure hunter Norman Scott, with Ova Noss and a horde of reporters in tow.
Ground radar readings at the time indicated the existence of a cavern right about where Noss had said it was. But 400 feet of dirt and debris in the caved-in shaft was too much for the expedition. Again, no gold was found.