There had always been two parts history, five parts myth to the tale of a Japanese general, later executed for atrocities committed during the Imperial Army's march through Southeast Asia, who hid a fortune in gold bullion and jewels somewhere in the heart of the Philippine jungle.
A golden Buddha, it was said, guarded by the bones of the American prisoners of war who had buried the loot, contained the key to locating the rest of Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita's fabled treasure.
By the end of the World War II, the jungle was alive with swinging pickaxes and flying sand. Purported maps were exchanged furtively on the streets of Manila; the government granted treasure permits by the hundreds.
But fortune fever had all but cooled when, in 1971, a young Filipino locksmith began digging a tunnel into the hills of the northern Philippines and claimed to have discovered, 100 feet within the mountain, another tunnel. Inside, he proclaimed, were hundreds of human skeletons, crude Japanese inscriptions, piles of gold bullion--and a 2,000-pound gold Buddha, stuffed with gems.
The young man, Rogelio Roxas, returned in triumph to Baguio City with the Buddha on the back of a truck. Newspapers all over the Philippines carried photographs of the 27-year-old villager and his golden treasure.
Then, on April 5, 1971, four armed men, including the Baguio City police chief and a member of President Ferdinand Marcos' security unit, arrived at the Roxas house just before 2 a.m.
Disappeared With the Buddha
The men displayed a search warrant signed by Judge Pio Marcos, the president's uncle, accusing Roxas of violating Philippine banking regulations and weapons registration laws. They held the Roxas family at gunpoint for nearly an hour, ransacked the house, then disappeared with the Buddha into the night.
Now, more than 15 years later, Roxas is bringing his claim to the so-called Yamashita Treasure before a state court in Hawaii.
Roxas' lawyers and business partner are preparing to file suit this month against Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, claiming that the deposed president made off with Roxas' Buddha, imprisoned and tortured him into revealing the location of the rest of the treasure and secreted its billions of dollars worth of gold in stashes all over the world.
The lawsuit seeks $60 billion in damages--the estimated worth of the entire treasure.
The case was within 20 minutes of being filed Friday morning in Hawaii Circuit Court. But Daniel C. Cathcart, the Los Angeles attorney who is supervising the case, learned late in the morning that the Honolulu lawyers with whom he had contracted as local counsel had decided at the last minute against it--allegedly after talking with Hawaiian law enforcement officials.
"My local counsel have withdrawn out of fear for their personal safety," said Cathcart, who declined to identify the law firm.
"I had one of the most prominent lawyers in the state of Hawaii, and they unanimously decided they'd be jeopardizing their personal safety if they took on Mr. Marcos," he said. "The term assassination was used. They talked it over with their partners and decided they didn't want to be involved."
In the past, Marcos has boasted on occasion that he has hundreds of metric tons of gold recovered from the Yamashita Treasure. But more often he has dismissed the entire yarn as "a bizarre tale out of the Arabian nights." His lawyers call Roxas' Buddha story "fantasy."
The current Philippine government views Marcos' occasional claims to have found the Yamashita Treasure as a convenient disguise for the billions he may have plundered from the government treasury.
As with many tales from a part of the globe that is still reeling with two decades of war, martial law and revolt, Roxas' story may be part fact, part fiction, the distinctions between the two blurred over a decade and a half of retelling.
"I have written probably thousands of letters to everybody in the world: to President Reagan, Edwin Meese, the Supreme Court justices, Mr. James Baker. No one has acted to help us," said Felix Dacanay, a childhood friend of Roxas who is filing the lawsuit on behalf of a Georgia corporation he and Roxas formed to recover the treasure, the Golden Budha Corp.
Roxas himself has been in hiding in the Philippines, fearing retaliation from Marcos, said attorney Cathcart.
"What we're afraid of is that his life won't be worth a plug nickel if we can't get him out of the country before we file this thing," Cathcart said.
The U.S. government has held Roxas' claims at arms' length, apparently reluctant to step into the legal quagmire. When the Golden Budha Corp. filed an initial claim with the U.S. government last year against the $7.1 million in jewels and cash the Marcoses had with them when they fled the Philippines--property that both Marcos and the current Philippine government are still warring over--the government asked the court to decide among the competing claims.