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Golden Opportunity

On the Trail of a Billion-Dollar Buddha, Arlene Friedman Lived the Life of a Tinseltown Private Eye

December 03, 1996|MICHAEL P. LUCAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ken Cheatham will never forget the day he saw the golden buddha. And Arlene Friedman will never forget Ken Cheatham.

The golden buddha was the stuff that dreams are made of: 2,200 pounds of solid gold--$13 million worth--with a chest cavity full of diamonds. As well, it was at the heart of a dark legend, a vast treasure plundered from Southeast Asia by World War II Japanese military officers and buried in the Philippine jungle with hundreds of living American POWs. It was pursued feverishly by fortune hunters.

Cheatham was an Air Force lieutenant stationed in the Philippines when, on March 30, 1971, he said he heard people on the streets of Baguio City excitedly spreading the word that the lost buddha had been found. The young officer hurried to the home of an easygoing 27-year-old locksmith, Rogelio Roxas.

"There it was, 36 inches tall, in his back room covered with a bunch of blankets," recalled Cheatham, now living in Las Vegas. "It was gold, all right. They showed me on the bottom where a sample hole had been drilled."

Roxas told Cheatham that he had been digging outside town when he broke into a horrid-smelling cavern. There, he said, was the buddha, a large store of bullion and hundreds of skeletons. He rounded up a crew of 18 people to hoist it out onto a truck.

Cheatham took some snapshots and left, never to see the buddha again.

Six days later, Roxas claimed, a group of armed men, including one of the security guards for the late President Ferdinand Marcos, swooped down and hauled away the buddha and all the maps to the treasure. Roxas said he was arrested, beaten up and forced to swear that the whole episode was a fraud--that he had found a buddha of brass, not gold.

But the locksmith wasn't finished. When the dictator fled his homeland and landed in Hawaii in 1986, Roxas was waiting--with a lawsuit. He and a friend had formed an entity known as Golden Budha Corp. and they sued for fraud, seeking compensation for the value of the buddha and the stolen gold.

It took almost a decade, but the old score seemed to be settled in July when a jury in Honolulu brought a $22-billion judgment against Marcos' estate. It was the largest award in history, and it was due in large part to the work of Arlene Friedman, a private eye whose career took a sudden turn from mundane office work to globe-hopping glamour and danger.

*

When she paused in Beverly Hills one recent afternoon to recount her role as a real-lifeRaider of the Lost Buddha, it would have been hard for a bystander to pick Friedman out as a world-class detective. A young-looking 50, she wore a denim mini-dress, tiny hoop earrings and shoulder-length hair the color of Chardonnay.

"People won't notice me unless I want them to notice me, which is a wonderful asset," she said with a characteristically brassy laugh.

Once she was a bride who dropped out of UCLA to have a baby. And she was barely 22 when she realized that her marriage wasn't going to work. "My daughter was a year and a half old and I knew I wasn't able to earn a living."

She would slip out of bed, pad to the kitchen and practice on a typewriter muffled with Band-Aids wrapped around the keys. She found a job as a law firm receptionist, quickly picked up secretarial skills and settled into the workaday world. "For 16 years I didn't go anywhere. It was like a prison sentence. I got up in the morning and went to work. I went home and took care of my daughter. Got up and went to work."

But when she typed reports from private investigators she would daydream: What an exciting job that would be. So for years she stayed up nights studying for the state exam.

While she'd hoped for the glamorous life of a Tinseltown private eye, mostly what she got was more secretarial work, with some occasional field assignments thrown in. It wasn't quite in Jim Rockford's league, but then she wasn't stuck around the office, either.

*

Soon after Marcos landed in Hawaii--where a marshal handed him a summons--Friedman went to work in the Century City offices of Magan~a, Cathcart & McCarthy. There, the fantastic saga of the golden buddha landed--along with a solicitation letter from Roxas' original attorneys seeking experienced trial lawyers--on the desk of Daniel C. Cathcart, a noted litigator of aircraft-disaster suits.

"I tossed it in the wastebasket because it sounded kooky," he said. "But I pulled it out later in the day and read it again."

Taking on the case would require a detective who could ferret evidence from the murky world of international gold traffickers and fortune hunters. Friedman was no jet-setter, but she had proven resourceful on an important product-liability case, so Cathcart called on her. "He told me the whole story and I thought, 'This is the weirdest thing I've ever heard,' " she said.

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