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Bad Luck Buddha : Filipino to Sue Marcos in Seizure of Fabled $60-Billion Japanese Treasure

Times Staff Writer

There had always been two parts history, five parts myth to the tale of a Japanese general, later executed for atrocities committed during the Imperial Army’s march through Southeast Asia, who hid a fortune in gold bullion and jewels somewhere in the heart of the Philippine jungle.

A golden Buddha, it was said, guarded by the bones of the American prisoners of war who had buried the loot, contained the key to locating the rest of Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita’s fabled treasure.

By the end of the World War II, the jungle was alive with swinging pickaxes and flying sand. Purported maps were exchanged furtively on the streets of Manila; the government granted treasure permits by the hundreds.

But fortune fever had all but cooled when, in 1971, a young Filipino locksmith began digging a tunnel into the hills of the northern Philippines and claimed to have discovered, 100 feet within the mountain, another tunnel. Inside, he proclaimed, were hundreds of human skeletons, crude Japanese inscriptions, piles of gold bullion--and a 2,000-pound gold Buddha, stuffed with gems.

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The young man, Rogelio Roxas, returned in triumph to Baguio City with the Buddha on the back of a truck. Newspapers all over the Philippines carried photographs of the 27-year-old villager and his golden treasure.

Then, on April 5, 1971, four armed men, including the Baguio City police chief and a member of President Ferdinand Marcos’ security unit, arrived at the Roxas house just before 2 a.m.

Disappeared With the Buddha

The men displayed a search warrant signed by Judge Pio Marcos, the president’s uncle, accusing Roxas of violating Philippine banking regulations and weapons registration laws. They held the Roxas family at gunpoint for nearly an hour, ransacked the house, then disappeared with the Buddha into the night.

Now, more than 15 years later, Roxas is bringing his claim to the so-called Yamashita Treasure before a state court in Hawaii.

Roxas’ lawyers and business partner are preparing to file suit this month against Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, claiming that the deposed president made off with Roxas’ Buddha, imprisoned and tortured him into revealing the location of the rest of the treasure and secreted its billions of dollars worth of gold in stashes all over the world.

The lawsuit seeks $60 billion in damages--the estimated worth of the entire treasure.

The case was within 20 minutes of being filed Friday morning in Hawaii Circuit Court. But Daniel C. Cathcart, the Los Angeles attorney who is supervising the case, learned late in the morning that the Honolulu lawyers with whom he had contracted as local counsel had decided at the last minute against it--allegedly after talking with Hawaiian law enforcement officials.

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“My local counsel have withdrawn out of fear for their personal safety,” said Cathcart, who declined to identify the law firm.

“I had one of the most prominent lawyers in the state of Hawaii, and they unanimously decided they’d be jeopardizing their personal safety if they took on Mr. Marcos,” he said. “The term assassination was used. They talked it over with their partners and decided they didn’t want to be involved.”

In the past, Marcos has boasted on occasion that he has hundreds of metric tons of gold recovered from the Yamashita Treasure. But more often he has dismissed the entire yarn as “a bizarre tale out of the Arabian nights.” His lawyers call Roxas’ Buddha story “fantasy.”

The current Philippine government views Marcos’ occasional claims to have found the Yamashita Treasure as a convenient disguise for the billions he may have plundered from the government treasury.

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Blurred Distinctions

As with many tales from a part of the globe that is still reeling with two decades of war, martial law and revolt, Roxas’ story may be part fact, part fiction, the distinctions between the two blurred over a decade and a half of retelling.

“I have written probably thousands of letters to everybody in the world: to President Reagan, Edwin Meese, the Supreme Court justices, Mr. James Baker. No one has acted to help us,” said Felix Dacanay, a childhood friend of Roxas who is filing the lawsuit on behalf of a Georgia corporation he and Roxas formed to recover the treasure, the Golden Budha Corp.

Roxas himself has been in hiding in the Philippines, fearing retaliation from Marcos, said attorney Cathcart.

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“What we’re afraid of is that his life won’t be worth a plug nickel if we can’t get him out of the country before we file this thing,” Cathcart said.

Legal Quagmire

The U.S. government has held Roxas’ claims at arms’ length, apparently reluctant to step into the legal quagmire. When the Golden Budha Corp. filed an initial claim with the U.S. government last year against the $7.1 million in jewels and cash the Marcoses had with them when they fled the Philippines--property that both Marcos and the current Philippine government are still warring over--the government asked the court to decide among the competing claims.

“We did not make a determination of the merits of the claim,” said John Seibert, a Justice Department attorney in Honolulu.

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“I think it’s safe to say that we determined that it was more than frivolous. If it was a patently ridiculous figment of someone’s imagination, we wouldn’t have brought it to the attention of the court,” Seibert said. “But I think there’s a big difference between saying something’s not frivolous and saying it has merit.”

Committee Investigation

In early 1971, a Philippine Senate committee launched an investigation almost immediately after Roxas first raised allegations that Marcos and his mother were behind the disappearance of the Buddha, taking testimony from nearly a dozen witnesses and gathering documents related to the case.

“The committee felt even more impelled to proceed with its investigation when the president publicly threatened to go after all those who have implicated his mother and his family even after he is no longer president, if only to make clear that the Senate Committee on Justice . . . cannot be dissuaded by such threats,” the panel said in its May 4, 1971, report to the full Senate.

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The committee, whose membership included a number of Marcos critics, including Benigno Aquino, slain husband of current President Corazon Aquino, never established any direct connection between Marcos and the disappearance of the Buddha.

Admitted Seizing Buddha

But the panel did ascertain that a party of six armed men, including Baguio City Police Chief Victorino Calano, Master Sgt. Victoriano de Vera of the Criminal Investigation Service and Romeo Amansec, a member of Marcos’ Presidential Security Unit, obtained a search warrant from Judge Pio Marcos and served it at Roxas’ residence in the middle of the night.

The men admitted seizing the Buddha, a gun and several other items from the residence, but claimed that they had sought the warrant because of a report from a Japanese treasure hunter that he had discovered the Buddha, but it had been stolen from him nearly two years earlier.

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The Japanese treasure hunter, who went alternately by the name of Takeshi Uehara, Jose Williams and Joe Cheng, was never produced, according to witnesses and documents.

No Explanation

Witnesses provided no explanation for why the search warrant made no mention of the reported theft, instead saying that Roxas was under investigation for violation of Central Bank regulations and possession of an unregistered firearm.

Judge Marcos refused to testify, citing constitutional issues over the separation of powers.

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And the key mystery swirling around the hearings--never, ultimately, resolved--was the Buddha itself. When the search party finally hauled the statue they had seized to the court, it turned out to be not a golden Buddha at all, but a brass figure.

Roxas cried foul, claiming the brass figure had been substituted. He produced photographs that showed that his Buddha had a removable head, and claimed that his Buddha had a small section missing from the back that he had removed to ascertain that it was, in fact, made of gold. The brass Buddha had a fixed head and no test boring.

Confession Claimed

Roxas was imprisoned shortly after the hearings, and a few months later government officials claimed that they had a signed affidavit from him denying the whole story and admitting the Buddha he had found had, after all, been made of brass.

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Authorities also claimed that Roxas confessed that he had been bribed by four senators, a news commentator and a judge into implicating Marcos and his mother in the Buddha affair.

Despite repeated demands from the committee and the Manila press corps, the affidavit was never produced, although officials did produce a letter from Roxas asking that the affidavit not be circulated. Roxas himself later admitted signing the affidavit, but claimed that he had only done so after two days of torture in prison.

What happened next has never been clear. Cathcart and Dacanay claim that Roxas spent two years in prison, then went into hiding. They claim there is evidence--nowhere clearly documented--that Marcos sent search parties into the Philippine jungle and recovered the rest of the treasure.

Plaza Miranda Massacre

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Roxas’ name did surface in connection with an incident in 1971 that is widely believed to have been one of the major factors in Marcos’ declaration of martial law in the Philippines: the so-called Plaza Miranda Massacre.

On Aug. 21, 1971, terrorist grenades shattered a crowded speaker’s platform at a political rally of the opposition Liberal Party in Manila, killing 10 people and wounding 66 others. Among the wounded were all eight of the party’s senatorial candidates in the November elections, in which they had been scheduled to face the candidates of Marcos’ Nationalist Party, and Liberal Party President Sen. Garardo Roxas.

Liberal Party leaders blamed Marcos for the carnage. Marcos denied any responsibility, condemning the incident as a “heinous crime” that he said was probably instigated by “subversives or Communists” bent on destroying the electoral process.

‘Prevent Him From Talking’

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Years later, former journalist and Marcos aide Primitivo Mijares, in his book about the Marcos regime, “The Conjugal Dictatorship,” said Rogelio Roxas was to have been the primary speaker at the rally that day and was on the stage, about to speak, when the first grenades hit.

“In the case of the Plaza Miranda carnage, as far as I have been able to gather from the president’s security men, the instruction given to the grenade throwers was to ‘get Rogelio Roxas killed’ to prevent him from talking about the ‘Golden Buddha’ for the first time before the nation on television,” Mijares wrote.

Others are skeptical. “It sure is hard to believe that they went out to kill Roxas and blow up half the government as well,” said Richard Kendall, a Los Angeles attorney who is representing the present Philippine government in its attempts to recover Marcos’ hidden assets.

Found Some Treasure

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Ironically, Marcos himself has lent some credence to the Filipino locksmith’s story, perhaps deliberately. In occasional interviews, Marcos has traced the source of his wealth to his own discovery of the Yamashita Treasure--claims that some Filipino journalists investigated and concluded that, at least, Marcos had found some Japanese treasure of some kind in the Sierra Madre area of the Philippines, according to Mijares.

Last July, a pair of American businessmen, who claimed that Marcos tried to negotiate a loan through them with which to buy weapons, produced tapes of their conversations that showed that Marcos, again, was talking about buried treasure.

In a transcript of the tapes released by a U.S. congressional subcommittee investigating the affair, Marcos assured the businessmen he could repay the loan, claiming he had $40 billion in gold secreted in the Philippines.

Marcos Conversation

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“Most of it was mine, the gold, because the fact that, that we were the ones who found it,” Marcos said. “This son of a gun of a, you remember, there was somebody who, who files an intervention in the RICO (lawsuit) in California, saying that I stole the gold, the golden Buddha from him and the other gold treasure of Yamashita.”

“Can he prove it?” one of the businessmen inquired.

“That’s what I asked him. Why, if you can prove it, why don’t you and I talk.”

“He can’t prove it,” the businessman suggested.

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“And he said, ‘You son of a gun you,’ etc. And he started to curse me--'You know damn well that you got the gold.’ ‘But not from you,’ and he said, ‘All right, not from me but from my principal.’ ‘OK,’ I said, ‘why don’t we strike a bargain?’ This is one of the reasons why I cannot sell the gold now.”

“My God,” Marcos added later, “that gold is worth a lot.”

Denies Having Gold

The tapes are far from conclusive. Marcos has claimed that they were doctored and denies having any gold stashed away anywhere.

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For once, the Philippine government is inclined to agree with him--at least on the latter point.

“The current view of the Republic of the Philippines, at least one view held by some investigators, is that Marcos benefited greatly from the Roxas story because it has served as a very useful smoke screen to conceal where he really got his money,” Kendall said.

“It’s not so bad to steal from one kid as it is to steal from a whole country,” he said.

Marcos’ lawyers take an even dimmer view of the allegations.

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“My reaction to it is it’s another fantasy,” said San Francisco attorney John J. Bartko, who is representing Marcos in the Philippine government’s civil suits. “All it’s been is these kinds of bizarre claims and a refusal to ever present them for judgment.”

Little Chance of Winning

Others who have been close to the case say lawyers may be reluctant to pursue it because there is so little chance of winning. Legends, after all, are not easily pleaded in civil complaints.

“The first attorney we had, they were not able to pursue it. Without manpower, they realized the enormity of the case and said they wouldn’t be fair for me if they took the case,” Dacanay said.

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“I think there is some kind of curse with that golden Buddha. Whoever has it gets in kind of bad trouble,” he said. “Marcos had it, now he gets in trouble. When Roxas had it, he had trouble. You know, people are superstitious.”


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