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Miner May See the End of His Digs

May 31, 1990|BERKLEY HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Deep inside the granite peak of Roundtop Mountain in Angeles National Forest, Billy Joe Bagwell hammered a huge rock, looking for gold. Sparks flew in the deep, narrow pit that cradled him at its bottom, part of a labyrinthine network of tunnels opening to the mountain face. Gold-colored dust soiled his sweaty T-shirt and the curly, graying hairs of his scruffy beard.

"This rock reminds me of a federal judge," Bagwell hollered from the grimy hole last week. "This sumbitch don't want to break."

For him, the image was perfect. After all, a federal judge last month ordered Bagwell, his wife, Cynthia, and their three school-age children to leave five acres of Angeles National Forest that the Bagwells have called home for 17 years.

However, on Wednesday, the deadline for their departure, Bagwell drove to federal court in Los Angeles to submit a motion for a stay of the order. Even if that motion is denied, the U.S. attorney in the case anticipates that Bagwell and his family will return to the property. He was preparing to file a motion next week requesting the court's permission to forcibly remove Bagwell.

Fast-talking, with a hint of his native Alabama in his voice, Bagwell has become a local folk hero to his supporters, who can be found at the Hidden Springs Cafe and the tiny Ammo Dump gun supply store up the road.

They say he is a hard-rock gold miner extraordinaire. The federal government says he is a manipulative trespasser trying to live for free on a virtually worthless gold mine.

Now, in a last-minute effort to stave off eviction, Bagwell is frantically excavating ore and running tests on it in hopes of proving to the judge that the mine is legitimate.

For half a dozen years, Bagwell and the U.S. Forest Service have been at war over his mining claims,

located 10 miles north of La Canada Flintridge. Last November, after a three-day trial in which Bagwell defended himself, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson concluded that Bagwell was both mining and living on public land in bad faith.

Billy Joe has cleverly manipulated the system . . . and the government has now exposed his lack of bona fides," Wilson said four weeks ago in a decision that prosecutors say sets mining law precedent.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Robert Briggs said the case is unusual because Bagwell had built an elaborate, if somewhat rusty, gold-mining mill next to his house. "It was our position, and the court agreed, that the mill was built for show," Briggs said.

U.S. Forest Service officials believe that the Bagwells were "making a mockery of the mining laws," Briggs added.

The mining laws allow people to live on public land under mining claims as long as they are actively engaged in a legitimate mining business.

A second federal case, challenging three of Bagwell's 10 mining claims, is pending. Bagwell, 45, believes a victory in that case could help him persuade the judge that gold-mining is a viable occupation in the area.

He also believes his way of life has been sadly misunderstood: "There is another side to the story of the guy everybody says is a welfare-hippie scavenging on the mountain."

He once was a structural mechanic who made B-1 bombers, Bagwell said. But he gave it up in favor of a less structured life, scrounging to make a living for more than a decade. "I'm into bartering and trading," he said. To support his children, he said, his family receives $980 in monthly welfare assistance. Except for his wife's gold ring and vials of shimmering dust, Bagwell admits that he has little gold to show for his years of working his Black Cargo Mine.

The trial in many ways was a judgment of Bagwell's lifestyle, said Calvin M. Young III, a former assistant U.S. attorney who now practices in Acton, several mountain peaks northwest of Bagwell's mine. Young, who has assisted Bagwell in his case, said:

"The government didn't like Bagwell's personality, his style of speaking, the way he dressed, his apparent defiance, which caused them to . . . just steamroll him out of the forest."

Bagwell and his family are the last prospectors living on a gold claim in the Angeles National Forest, site of California's first recorded gold strike in 1842--seven years before Northern California's famous Gold Rush of '49.

Young argues that Bagwell in his own raucous way epitomizes the rugged individualism that made America great. "Bagwell provided, to those who know him and those who visited him in the forest, a view of the pioneer spirit of old," Young said.

Not to say that Bagwell was a perfect gentleman. "Both the government and Bagwell were extremely pigheaded," the attorney said.

Bagwell admits it, but explained that he desperately wants to protect the life he and his family have developed.

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