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New Gold Rush : Gold Miner Must Hit Pay Dirt to Stave Off Eviction From Claim

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Deep inside the granite peak of Roundtop Mountain in Angeles National Forest, Billy Joe Bagwell hammered a huge rock, looking for gold.

Sparks flew in the deep, narrow pit that cradled him at its bottom, part of a labyrinthine network of tunnels opening to the mountain face. Gold-colored dust soiled his sweaty T-shirt and the curly, graying hairs of his scruffy beard.

“This rock reminds me of a federal judge,” Bagwell hollered from the grimy hole on Tuesday. “This sumbitch don’t want to break.”

For him, the image was perfect. After all, a federal judge last month ordered Bagwell, his wife, Cynthia, and their three school-age children to leave five acres of Angeles National Forest that the Bagwells have called home for 17 years. The deadline is Wednesday.

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Fast-talking, with a hint of his native Alabama in his voice, Bagwell has become a local folk hero to his supporters, who can be found at the Hidden Springs Cafe and the tiny Ammo Dump gun supply store up the road.

They say he is a hard-rock gold miner extraordinaire. The federal government says he is a manipulative trespasser trying to live for free on a virtually worthless gold mine.

Now, in a last-minute effort to stave off eviction, Bagwell is frantically excavating ore and running tests on it in hopes of proving to the judge that the mine is legitimate.

For a half-dozen years, Bagwell and the U.S. Forest Service have been at war over his mining claims and gold-mining mill, located 10 miles due north of Pasadena. Last November, after a three-day trial in which Bagwell defended himself, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson concluded that Bagwell was both mining and living on public land in bad faith.

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“Billy Joe has cleverly manipulated the system . . . and the government has now exposed his lack of bona fides,” Wilson said three weeks ago in a decision that prosecutors say sets mining law precedent.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Robert Briggs said the case is unusual because Bagwell had built an elaborate, if somewhat rusty, gold-mining mill next to his house. “It was our position, and the court agreed, that the mill was built for show,” Briggs said.

U.S. Forest Service officials believe the Bagwells were “making a mockery of the mining laws,” Briggs added.

The mining laws allow people to live on public land under mining claims as long as they are actively engaged in a legitimate mining business.

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A second federal case, challenging three of Bagwell’s 10 mining claims, is pending. Bagwell, 45, believes a victory in that case could help him persuade the judge that gold-mining is a viable occupation in the area.

He also believes his way of life has been sadly misunderstood: “There is another side to the story of the guy everybody says is a welfare-hippie scavenging on the mountain.”

He once was a structural mechanic who made B-1 bombers, Bagwell said. But he gave it up in favor of a less structured life, scrounging to make a living for more than a decade. “I’m into bartering and trading,” he said. To support his children, he said, his family receives $980 in monthly welfare assistance. Except for his wife’s gold ring and vials of shimmering dust, Bagwell admits he has little gold to show for his years of working his Black Cargo Mine.

The trial in many ways was a judgment of Bagwell’s lifestyle, said Calvin M. Young III, a former assistant U.S. attorney who now practices in Acton, several mountain peaks northwest of Bagwell’s mine. Young, who has assisted Bagwell in his case, said:

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“The government didn’t like Bagwell’s personality, his style of speaking, the way he dressed, his apparent defiance, which caused them to . . . just steamroll him out of the forest.”

Bagwell and his family are the last prospectors living on a gold claim in the Angeles National Forest, site of California’s first recorded gold strike in 1842--seven years before Northern California’s famous gold rush of ’49.

Young argues that Bagwell in his own raucous way epitomizes the rugged individualism that made America great. “Bagwell provided, to those who know him and those who visited him in the forest, a view of the pioneer spirit of old,” Young said.

Not to say that Bagwell was a perfect gentleman. “Both the government and Bagwell were extremely pig-headed,” the attorney said.

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Bagwell admits it, but explained that he desperately wants to protect the life he and his family have developed.

They live in a rough-hewn, wood-and-stucco house Bagwell built. “As far as I’m concerned, this is paradise,” Bagwell said, looking down at his domain. The San Gabriels lay below: rows of sleeping dinosaurs shrouded in green and topped by clouds. “I got more room between me and my neighbors than anybody else in L.A. County.”

This time of year, white flowering stalks of yucca illuminate the sage-colored chaparral. Snakes shimmy across rocky, dirt roads. Deer and rabbit poke through the underbrush.

“I ain’t got any money, but I don’t owe nobody. I built a house for my wife and kids. I’ve got all the tools I need. And I found a way to be the boss of what’s going on in my life,” said Bagwell, who has no phone and gets his water from an artesian well.

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His house sits alongside Monte Cristo Creek, which is lined with cottonwoods the Bagwells planted after a 1979 forest fire turned the mountains into a moonscape. All around is equipment in every sort of repair and disrepair. There are barrels, beams, a 1948 boom truck, a 1963 Ford pickup, air compressors, a canary-yellow mining assay truck and a silver cigar-shaped trailer identified as the “Black Cargo Mining Office.” At the heart of it all is the mill itself, a Rube Goldberg contraption that Bagwell said he and a small army of mining buddies put together from 1981 to 1985.

“That’s a masterpiece,” said mining engineer Tom T. Heywood, an expert witness at the trial who on Tuesday was helping Bagwell pull ore. Heywood, a 1943 graduate of London’s Royal School of Mines who has worked all over the world, said few people these days could have devised the mill, which is designed to extract gold from rocks through a series of crushing and filtering procedures.

Bagwell, a self-taught miner who studied chemistry and geology at Antelope Valley College, said he doesn’t want to get rich. “I have no desire to have a Cadillac. I don’t even need a BMW. I just want half an ounce of gold per ton of ore, then I can break even. There’s three-quarters to one-and-a-half ounces per ton in some of this rock.”

Government witnesses roundly disputed this claim.

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Both Bagwell and his opponents agree that he has mined little ore: 18 tons in six years.

“If they’d gave me a blasting permit in 1987, I’d be off welfare,” Bagwell said, complaining that the Forest Service thwarted him at every turn. He resorted to home-made dynamite, he said, to clean out tunnels abandoned for years.

Bagwell said he has spent much of the last six years fighting the government. After initially approving his mining plans in 1984, the Forest Service one year later reversed itself, accusing Bagwell of living on the land while only pretending to actively mine his claims. Two-and-one-half years later, the U.S. attorney stepped in to oust Bagwell.

“I had to quit being a hard-rock miner and become a lawyer,” said Bagwell, who types his legal briefs on a borrowed computer at a neighbor’s house trailer five miles away. “It’s been a quagmire of paper work.”

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The paper work was the last thing Bagwell was looking for when he came to the mountain 17 years ago, serving first as a caretaker for the previous owner, then taking over his claims in 1976. He built a house and a mill, and grew some marijuana, a practice he says he has discontinued since Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies raided the premises in 1984.

“Everybody’s entitled to one mistake,” said Bagwell, who attended a drug diversion program with his wife after the bust.

Cynthia Bagwell, 37, said the government’s current eviction efforts are unfair to her husband. “He risked his life every day in Vietnam for 14 months, and he feels so betrayed by the government he fought for. He won’t tell you this, but he was shot down twice over North Vietnam.”

The other day, as Bagwell hammered away on a rock, he said he plans to ask the judge for a stay of the eviction order. Negotiations over the family’s departure continue.

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Young, the attorney, said a last-minute compromise may be possible. “The Bagwell family is one-of-a-kind,” he said, “and somebody ought to step forward and offer them a way out.”

For his part, Bagwell said he will celebrate Memorial Day by running the mill and offering tours Monday to anyone willing to journey the 2 1/2 miles of rocky road from Monte Cristo Campground.

“If you don’t find gold in that rock, you ain’t gonna find gold anywhere,” Bagwell said, finally cracking open a reddish rock. It glittered with fool’s gold. But the layering, Bagwell said, told him that real gold, just maybe, was hidden underneath.


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