LAS CRUCES, N.M. — This is the astonishing story of Victorio Peak, a minor mountain with major history in the sandy southern deserts of New Mexico. Under its rocky and road-scarred topsoil lies one of two things: either a king's ransom in hidden gold bars--upwards of $2 billion, maybe--or the dusky nothingness of empty limestone caverns.
The sombrero-shaped peak, rising about 450 feet from the floor of the Hembrillo Basin in the San Andres Mountains, has held sway over the feverish yearnings of treasure seekers since 1939. In November of that year, Milton (Doc) Noss, a foot doctor with a 10th-grade education claimed to have stumbled onto a fortune vast enough to make the richest man in America look like a bum.
In the intervening half-century, Victorio Peak, halfway between Truth or Consequences and Alamogordo, has become a backdrop against which an amazing spectacle has played, one that involves killing, nuclear bombs, possible large-scale thefts, alleged government cover-ups, Watergate and an act of Congress. And very little sex.
Today, the heart of the story beats in the chest of Terry Delonas, a soft-spoken native New Mexican who dreamed of being a psychologist and living the good life in Santa Fe. Instead, the doe-eyed Delonas, 42, moved to California where he thought it would be easier to rally support for his life's mission: to vindicate the claims made by Doc Noss and Doc's long-suffering wife, Ova, who was Delonas' maternal grandmother. Delonas is no blood relation to Doc, who married Ova in 1933.
When Terry was 5, Ova moved in with his family in Clovis, N.M. Over the years, she filled him with tales of treasure and treachery, showed him documents, artifacts and assays and instilled in him a passion for the quest he tacitly inherited on her death in 1979 at age 85.
Without Delonas' efforts since then--including raising money, rallying a team of scientists, attorneys and supporters, and stalking the halls of Congress for support, the little peak might have receded into legend. But next month, Delonas and a team of about 30 people, who are incorporated as the Ova Noss Family Partnership, will begin what they hope will be the final excavation of Victorio Peak. The high-tech effort will cost an estimated $1 million. Though preparations have taken years, the world will know within weeks whether treasure exists at Victorio Peak.
Getting permission for the venture was not easy. Since 1955, the peak has been part of the White Sands Missile Range, a top-secret 3,200-square-mile testing ground where the atom bomb was first exploded in 1945. It is in the middle of what is called "The Yonder," an Air Force gunnery range used to train fighter pilots.
Dealing with Congress and the Pentagon, said Delonas, has been the most stressful part of the project.
"If we find nothing, it will be terribly disappointing, but not devastating," said Delonas, who is based in a suite of Santa Ana offices provided by supporter Ed Carpenter, an Orange County financial consultant.
Doc Noss, who was part German and mostly Cheyenne, treated people for bunions and ingrown toenails in the little town of Hot Springs, which later became Truth or Consequences.
In those parts, said Delonas, people treasure hunt the way New Englanders bird watch; it's second nature. So, although Doc was hunting deer when he made his discovery in the spring of 1937, Delonas believes he was hunting treasure as well.
R.L. Coker, a 70-year-old retired shoe executive in Rossmoor, Calif., was hunting with Noss, though not at his side, when Noss discovered a passage into the peak. Coker was 17.
"Doc knew where the spring was and he knew the deer would come down to the water, so he was sitting up at the top of the peak watching and waiting for the deer," said Coker, who added that Noss promised him one-tenth of 1% of the treasure for excavation work he did at the peak in 1946.
"He felt a breeze come up and fan his pant leg. He thought a sidewinder had come up from around the rock and struck at his pant leg, because, you see, they hit first, then rattle. But he found that there was a breeze coming up from under a rock. Moving the rock, he discovered the entrance to the peak."
What Doc is alleged to have found as he explored the guts of the peak later with flashlights and ropes is mind-boggling. He reported to Ova that, slithering along vertical fissures, he had discovered a series of interlocking caverns containing riches that would make men drool: chests filled with coins and jewelry, conquistador-era Spanish armor, statues of saints and Wells Fargo chests. There were also, he reported, 27 skeletons, and 16,000 bars of pig iron (a crudely processed form of the metal) stacked like cordwood.
Ova was never permitted very far into the peak because she was, to be genteel, rather large of bone. But in an interview videotaped before she died in 1979, Ova said her curiosity about the pig iron led to an exciting discovery about 18 months after Doc found the caverns: