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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

"We were very young and maybe a little too naive," said Berlett, now a 51-year-old petrochemical salesman near Peoria, Ill. "I was 19. I still had a little too much confidence in my government."

In 1961, after passing Air Force and Secret Service polygraph tests, Berlett and his comrades were allowed back to the peak. Unfortunately, they had dynamited their tunnel to protect their find. They couldn't find a way back in and were ordered off the site.

After that, witnesses sneaking onto the range reported a lot of Army activity at the site, trucks and crews and helicopters that appeared to be removing material. The Army admitted that it conducted some work at the peak, but denies that any treasure was ever found or removed.

Oddly, Victorio Peak played a part in the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings during testimony by President Richard Nixon's former White House counsel, John Dean.

When asked if he knew of any other irregularities in the Nixon White House, Dean replied: "Mr. Mitchell raised the fact that F. Lee Bailey had a client who had an enormous amount of gold . . . and would like to make an arrangement . . . whereby the gold could be turned over to the government without the individual being prosecuted for holding the gold," said Dean.

Bailey's clients, said to be a group of former military men, have never been identified, but they were later recognized by the Army as claimants to the gold. Berlett is convinced that renegade military personnel removed the treasure between 1961-64.

A Texan named Gene Erwin who saw the Watergate hearings remembers turning to his son at the time and saying, "They can look all they want, but they ain't gonna find anything there because the Army already took it."

Erwin's brother-in-law, Capt. Orby Swanner, was executive assistant to the provost marshal at White Sands in 1961. Swanner, who has since died, told Erwin that he had helped supervise an Army operation that removed about $300 million in gold from the peak. Swanner swore Erwin to secrecy and never mentioned it again.

Meanwhile, Tony Jolley, now a 69-year-old rancher living outside Boise, Ida., never forgot those bars of gold he helped bury in 1949. In 1961, he returned to the desert and claims to have found 10 of them. "When all the smoke cleared," said Jolley, "I had $66,000."

In 1963, Ova Noss, under the aegis of the New Mexico Museum, was allowed to excavate at the peak for 60 days. She hired a mining company, which burrowed a 200-foot tunnel into the peak, but nothing was found.

Then, in 1977, in an effort to put the legend to rest, the Army allowed a group of claimants, including the Noss group and the airmen, back to the peak. Again, nothing was found, and the Army closed the range to treasure seekers for "the foreseeable future."

What the Army could not have foreseen, however, was the "Mr.-Smith-Goes-to-Washington" appeal of Terry Delonas, who compiled and submitted to the service in March, 1988, a 150-page petition asking for one more chance to excavate Victorio Peak.

The Army told Delonas he would need permission from Congress to reimburse the Army for expenses incurred by the search. Delonas roamed the halls of Congress, enlisting the aid of Rep. Joe Skeen (R-N.M.) and an assortment of senators and congressmen, all of whom were willing to lend support. In 1989, a rider was attached to the Defense Authorization Bill for Fiscal Year 1990, giving the Army permission to issue the Ova Noss Family Partnership a license to look for treasure.

Delonas had his act of Congress in hand, and the Ova Noss Family Partnership was ready to roll.

In July, when Delonas and his team return to the peak, they will have with them readings by the most powerful ground radar in the world, the prototype of which was developed to explore the pyramids of Egypt.

Using readings taken in 1990, geophysicist Lambert Dolphin said he has discovered previously unknown caverns located well below the surface of the mountain, matching descriptions given by Noss.

"I go on treasure hunts of any kind for clients in the U.S. and overseas," said Dolphin. "Lost mines, sunken ships. I have never been involved in a successful hunt and I don't know anyone who has. Most of these treasure stories are mythology. But Doc Noss' story is probably one of the more believeable ones."

If treasure is found, work will immediately stop while the objects are inventoried. Any cultural artifacts will belong to the state of New Mexico, while any treasure, such as gold bars or jewels, will be deposited in a vault, awaiting final disposition in the federal courts.

White Sands Missile Range spokesman Jim Eckles thinks the legend is immortal: "If they go in this time and find nothing, the Army will be accused of stealing it, then the question will be, where did the Army put it? What did they do with it? It will never end."

In one sense, the story will never end because, like any good tale and many mediocre ones, it is bound to live on in celluloid and print. Delonas is being courted by movie producers. A former New York Times reporter is writing a book for Simon & Schuster.

Ova's daughter, Letha Guthrie, chuckles when she thinks back on the 54-year three-generation quest of her family.

"You know what I got out of it?" asked Guthrie, who still lives in Clovis, N.M. "A great pair of $169 sunglasses." (The glasses were donated to the searchers, as were computers, software, boots and camping equipment.) Next month, as her nephew and the others set about putting an end to the ultimate material quest, Guthrie and her sister, Dorothy Delonas, hope to settle a more spiritual account.

"I have my mother's ashes and we are gonna spread them out over that hill," said Guthrie. "I don't know where else she would rather be."

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