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The Treasure Trove of the Trinidad : New Attempt to Hunt for Fabled Galleon Off Oceanside

For 10 years, Bill Warren has dreamed of finding it: a Spanish galleon that sank 4 1/2 centuries ago, in shallow water tantalizingly close to Oceanside, while carrying $11 million in Aztec gold.

In 1976, Warren and a partner obtained a permit from the city to explore for the wreck, and spent long days trying to locate it with a sophisticated metal detector.

Once they believed they had pinpointed the old ship, they spent more time and money trying to clear away 25 feet of sand that had apparently buried it over the centuries.

That effort was unsuccessful, but now Warren is trying to round up experts and equipment to mount a new salvage effort for a ship that he believes is the Trinidad, one of three ships commanded by the Spanish explorer Francisco de Ulloa in 1539-40.

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State OK Expected

Warren has applied to the state for a new permit to explore the ocean bottom about 1,000 feet offshore, and expects it to be approved in a couple weeks.

Finding the Trinidad and its treasure “has become an obsession with me,” Warren said. “Once you start reading about it and exploring the possibilities of what’s out there . . . .”

Obsession and eternal optimism are two of the hallmarks of modern-day treasure hunters, whose ranks include a few--such as Florida treasure-hunter Mel Fisher--who hit pay dirt, and thousands who don’t. Fisher spent 16 years searching for the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha that sunk off Key West, Fla., in a 1622 hurricane. He and his crew recovered the first riches from the wreck in 1971 and eventually recovered $130 million in glittering gold, silver and emeralds from the sunken ship.

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Guru of Treasure Hunters

The advanced techniques that led him to the wreck of the galleon have made Fisher the guru of modern treasure hunters.

Warren may not have the resources of Fisher and his salvage company, Treasure Salvors Inc., but the Trinidad exerts the same magnetic pull on Warren’s imagination that the Atocha did on Fisher’s.

And Warren is not the only treasure hunter to search for the ship. Since 1968, at least four other groups have attempted to locate the Trinidad and its alleged cargo of gold. All have spent thousands of dollars and countless man-hours in the process, and all received extensive media coverage.

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Since Warren renewed his search for the Trinidad in November, several newspapers and one local TV station have interviewed him about his plans. And he has at least one other thing in common with previous treasure hunters: Warren isn’t bothered by the fact that historians are all but certain that neither the Trinidad nor any other treasure-laden Spanish galleon ever sank here.

“It’s my judgment that the (story of the sinking of the Trinidad) is a very artfully contrived hoax,” said Ralph Heiser, curator of the museum at Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside. “I don’t know how the hell it got as wide a dissemination as it did.”

The sinking was a pet theory of the late Joseph Markey, an Oceanside ophthalmologist, amateur archeologist and treasure hunter. Although historians insist that in 1542 Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to set foot in California, Markey was convinced that Ulloa anchored his ship near the mouth of the San Luis Rey River in 1540, two years before Cabrillo arrived.

Ulloa and his crew died after going ashore, and the Trinidad subsequently broke up and sank, Markey said.

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Diary and Skeletons

He based his theory primarily on a sailor’s diary that he claimed to have discovered in Spain--it was supposedly written by one of Ulloa’s crewmen--and on two “finds” he made in the San Luis Rey Valley in the 1950s: a cave containing 22 skeletons and a cache of gold coins dating from the 1st Century BC to AD 1500. The skeletal remains belonged to Ulloa’s crew, Markey said, and the coins were a fraction of the treasure on board the Trinidad, which Ulloa had planned to use in bartering with local Indian chieftains.

No one but Markey was ever able to examine the diary, however, leading to doubts about its existence. And the skeletal remains were never subjected to expert analysis to determine if they were Indian, European or even human. But Markey believed he could clinch his argument by locating the wreck of the Trinidad, and he became the first of many to look for it.

For three years, he and a small group of interested supporters built rafts laden with iron and cement, set them adrift near the mouth of the San Luis Rey River, and documented where they sank. Markey believed that, in this way, he would be able to determine approximately where the Trinidad went down, but the rafts sank in a wide area between Encinitas and Del Mar, and, frustrated, he eventually gave up his attempts to locate the Spanish ship.

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However, Markey’s theory that Ulloa, not Cabrillo, had discovered California attracted considerable media attention, and eventually brought other treasure hunters to Oceanside.

In 1968, a group called Aztec Six, headed by Charles Tinch of Mission Viejo, hunted for the remains of the Trinidad without success.

Finding the Deck

The following year, Bill Takasato, a diver from San Pedro, began the first of several attempts to locate the Trinidad. Using a metal detector, he located what he said was a wreck lying in 31 feet of water about 3,500 feet offshore. Takasato even claimed to have partly uncovered the ship’s deck.

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But his efforts were plagued by high seas and a failed compressor, among other things, and finally ran aground when he was unable to obtain a powerful suction dredge from San Diego. Three months after the search began, it was abandoned, and although Takasato continued to search for the Trinidad’s treasure off and on for the next three years, he never found it.

In 1973 a new salvage team headed by Wilmington yacht broker Lawrence Johnston and commercial diver Patrick Carson of Los Angeles obtained a permit from the City of Oceanside to look for the Trinidad. Using low-frequency sonar, the two men said, they located a ship 25 feet wide and 88 feet long under 18 feet of sand. But during their subsequent effort to remove the sand and expose the ship, Johnston and Carson lost a valuable underwater propulsion unit, a “sub,” and they eventually called off the search.

Bill Warren first learned of the Trinidad in 1972, when he was working as a singer on a religious television program in Anchorage, Alaska. In his spare time, he read books about old shipwrecks, and in one of them he came across the story of the Trinidad.

Four years later, with an Escondido building contractor as a partner and financial backer, Warren obtained a permit from the City of Oceanside to look for the Trinidad. The two towed a $7,000 underwater metal detector behind a small boat until they had located the remains of the ship, which produced a prolonged “ping” on the metal detector’s sensors, Warren said.

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“There are a couple of cannons down there and I think that’s what we were detecting,” he said.

Hoses Too Short

Only 25 feet of sand separated him from the Trinidad and its mythical treasure. Warren planned to use suction dredges with six-inch hoses to expose the ship, but the hoses were too short to reach the bottom and he abandoned the effort.

“Most salvage operations are underfinanced, and that applied to us. We just didn’t have enough money to continue,” he said.

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However, using a backhoe to dig a trench on nearby Buccaneer Beach, he did obtain a chunk of wood that he claims may have been part of the Trinidad’s bulkhead. Warren said he paid $500 to have the wood carbon-dated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, “and it came out about 550 years old, which substantiates that it came from the Trinidad,” he said.

“I renewed the permit twice, but basically I let the project die because I was busy singing and promoting myself as a singer,” said Warren, who now lives in Oceanside and performs under the stage name Michael Valentino.

He said he is convinced that the wood he found, along with the coins found in the San Luis Rey River Valley by Markey, are ample proof that the Trinidad did sink here.

Some of the coins are far older than the ship, but, Warren said, “It wasn’t uncommon for Spanish sailors to carry old coins. They used them for barter.”

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However, David Weber, a professor of history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and an expert on the early exploration of California, said that “to my knowledge, Spanish explorers didn’t need to use (old) coins or any other coins for barter, because they were quite successful using inexpensive trade beads and cloth to win the favor of the Indians. The Spaniards were in the habit of taking gold from the Indians, not trading it to them.”

Analyzing the Coins

Markey claimed the coins he found were made of gold; Warren said they were silver. But Heiser, curator of the museum at Mission San Luis Rey, where some of the coins found by Markey are stored, said the coins are made of copper and tin.

“Experts have looked at them from time to time, and say they could be bought at any coin shop,” Heiser said. “There’s not even circumstantial evidence that they were part of Ulloa’s hoard.”

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Heiser said Markey was interested in promoting the mission and the San Luis Rey Historical Society, and may have fabricated the story about the sinking of the Trinidad to attract attention to the area.

“One thing led to another, and Markey picked up on this Ulloa story, and then got caught up in the fighting” about it, Heiser said.

“It was a beautiful piece of fiction. There may be ships out there, but they’re not the Trinidad, and they don’t have $11 million in gold on board.”

Weber has also expressed skepticism that Ulloa would have loaded a fortune on board his vessel and then sailed north from Mexico, rather than back to Spain. Other historians have documented Ulloa’s return to Mexico and Spain after his voyage on the Trinidad, which further undermines the notion that he died near Oceanside. But Warren said he is convinced that the man who returned to Spain is not the same Ulloa who commanded the Trinidad.

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Talking to Others

Warren conceded that his research has consisted primarily of talking to others who searched for the wreck, including Markey.

“I met (Markey) at his house in Oceanside, and at his office, several times. He was a gruff man, very defensive about his findings,” Warren said.

“But he shared information with me--I think he wanted me to find the Trinidad. He was older and couldn’t do much himself (to locate the ship), I guess.”

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Warren said that, rather than furnish all the equipment needed to uncover the ship himself--an expense that could top $500,000--he hopes to get professional salvors to donate equipment and time in return for a share in the treasure. One local resident has already donated an old 40-foot boat that can be used as a diving platform, and Warren is trying to arrange private financing for a film he plans to make of the salvage effort.

The work will take only a few weeks, he said.

“One way or another, it will be a relief to find out what’s out there under the ocean. If we bring up the loot, I won’t have to struggle any more as a singer,” he said with a smile.

“If we don’t find it, then I guess I’ll go to the Philippines,” he said. “There’s a Japanese ship that sank out there during World War II with $1 billion to $2 billion in gold that belonged to the Philippine government.”

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