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Treasure or Treachery? : Did 'Doc' Noss Really Find Caverns of Gold or Did He Pull Off a Hoax That Has Plagued His Kin for Years?

June 16, 1991|ROBIN ABCARIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I asked him to bring out some of that pig iron he was talking about and he said it was too heavy. But he found a small one and brought it out and said, 'That's the last one of them babies I'm gonna bring out.' "

"When I rolled it over, I said, 'Well, Doc, this is yellow! Look at it! He looked at it and said, 'Well, Babe, if that's gold and all that other is gold, we can call John D. Rockefeller a tramp!' "

The Nosses filed mining and treasure trove claims on the land, which was leased to them for a nominal amount by the state of New Mexico.

In 1939, said Delonas, the federal government told Noss to make a safe passage into the peak for Treasury agents to inventory the trove.

"My grandfather was climbing down this vertical fissure of 100 feet, squeezing under rocks and boulders and very few people could follow him in there, so he hired a mining engineer to help him widen the vertical entrance by blasting a huge rock out of the way. When they did, they put too much dynamite in and collapsed the whole top of the mountain.

Thus was the treasure lost. Or so the story goes.

At this point, however, the tale tangles into a Gordian knot. Every explanation that seems to confer legitimacy on the treasure claim has an equally plausible counter-argument:

* Some say Doc was nothing more than a con man who took money from people to excavate a nonexistent treasure, who hoaxed even his wife. It is true, said Delonas, that Noss had a drinking problem, and was increasingly fearful of being robbed after his claims became known. Records show Noss spent time in jail for a variety of alcohol-related minor offenses. But others, including his stepdaughter, say he was a kind and loving man, driven to erratic behavior by those who tried to take advantage of him.

* Skeptics claim that tons of rubble blocking the way to untold wealth is a convenient ruse for a man trying to run a gold scam. Believers think it's grounds for some heavy-duty despair by an alcoholic who possesses an inaccessible mint.

* The Gold Reserve Act of 1934 outlawed the private holding of gold by U.S. citizens. Skeptics say the law, which was rescinded in 1974, was the perfect excuse for Noss not to produce the 200 bars he claimed to have lifted out of the peak. Believers say it's why he feared involving the authorities in his activities.

"He couldn't convert the gold to cash easily," said Delonas. "They were poor people and it would cost money to get legal help, so they started selling the gold off in nugget-sized pieces, thousands of dollars worth but a little bit at a time."

Local law enforcement officers made a habit of arresting Doc, hoping to confiscate gold from him, said Delonas. So Doc began carrying decoy bars.

"He thought it was better to be thought of as a con man than to be killed over the real gold."

Ah, but he was killed over the gold.

During the war years, attempts to open up the peak moved slowly. During this time, Noss disappeared for about 18 months, and when he returned, he had a new wife with him.

"She was younger, a little thinner than Mama. I don't think she was as pretty but maybe someone else would," said Ova's daughter, Letha Guthrie, 75.

"He got a fraudulent divorce, really. Mama was gonna have it undone, but the lawyer told her just to leave it. He said, 'She got the husband. You got the treasure.' But Mama was devastated. She cried. She was in her 40s then, and she was 85 when she died. She never had anything to do with a man after that."

Besides marrying again, Doc also met a Texas man named Charley Ryan, who ended up investing some money in attempts to open up the peak. Ryan testified in court that he spent about $28,000; Delonas said the money was used to build an airstrip near the peak and to pay for some phony drilling rigs used as decoys.

Doc had agreed to sell 50 or so of his bars to Ryan, but something went awry.

According to Delonas, Noss suspected that Ryan was going to steal his gold. So Noss enlisted a 27-year-old rodeo rider named Tony Jolley to help him hide 110 bars. They finished at sunup on March 5, 1949.

Later that day, there was a big fight: Ryan accused Noss of bilking him. And as Noss ran away, Ryan pulled out a gun and shot him in the back of the head. Noss slumped against the bumper of a pickup truck and died. Ryan said Noss was running for a gun, and the jury believed him: He was acquitted of murder on grounds of self-defense.

Noss, 42, died with about $2 in his pocket.

For the next six years, Ova Noss continued to work her claim. But in 1955, she was forced off the site when the boundary of the White Sands Missile Range was extended. She never stopped trying to get back to Victorio Peak.

Where Ova Noss failed, others succeeded.

In 1958, four airmen from nearby Holloman Air Force Base, including Thomas Berlett, spent several months excavating at the site and claim they discovered stacks of gold bars in several caverns. They took nothing, and tried to get permission to recover the treasure.

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