Advertisement

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?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is the astonishing story of Victorio Peak, a minor mountain with major history in the sandy southern deserts of New Mexico. Under its rocky and road-scarred topsoil lies one of two things: either a king’s ransom in hidden gold bars--upwards of $2 billion, maybe--or the dusky nothingness of empty limestone caverns.

The sombrero-shaped peak, rising about 450 feet from the floor of the Hembrillo Basin in the San Andres Mountains, has held sway over the feverish yearnings of treasure seekers since 1939. In November of that year, Milton (Doc) Noss, a foot doctor with a 10th-grade education claimed to have stumbled onto a fortune vast enough to make the richest man in America look like a bum.

In the intervening half-century, Victorio Peak, halfway between Truth or Consequences and Alamogordo, has become a backdrop against which an amazing spectacle has played, one that involves killing, nuclear bombs, possible large-scale thefts, alleged government cover-ups, Watergate and an act of Congress. And very little sex.

Today, the heart of the story beats in the chest of Terry Delonas, a soft-spoken native New Mexican who dreamed of being a psychologist and living the good life in Santa Fe. Instead, the doe-eyed Delonas, 42, moved to California where he thought it would be easier to rally support for his life’s mission: to vindicate the claims made by Doc Noss and Doc’s long-suffering wife, Ova, who was Delonas’ maternal grandmother. Delonas is no blood relation to Doc, who married Ova in 1933.

Advertisement

When Terry was 5, Ova moved in with his family in Clovis, N.M. Over the years, she filled him with tales of treasure and treachery, showed him documents, artifacts and assays and instilled in him a passion for the quest he tacitly inherited on her death in 1979 at age 85.

Without Delonas’ efforts since then--including raising money, rallying a team of scientists, attorneys and supporters, and stalking the halls of Congress for support, the little peak might have receded into legend. But next month, Delonas and a team of about 30 people, who are incorporated as the Ova Noss Family Partnership, will begin what they hope will be the final excavation of Victorio Peak. The high-tech effort will cost an estimated $1 million. Though preparations have taken years, the world will know within weeks whether treasure exists at Victorio Peak.

Getting permission for the venture was not easy. Since 1955, the peak has been part of the White Sands Missile Range, a top-secret 3,200-square-mile testing ground where the atom bomb was first exploded in 1945. It is in the middle of what is called “The Yonder,” an Air Force gunnery range used to train fighter pilots.

Dealing with Congress and the Pentagon, said Delonas, has been the most stressful part of the project.

Advertisement

“If we find nothing, it will be terribly disappointing, but not devastating,” said Delonas, who is based in a suite of Santa Ana offices provided by supporter Ed Carpenter, an Orange County financial consultant.

Doc Noss, who was part German and mostly Cheyenne, treated people for bunions and ingrown toenails in the little town of Hot Springs, which later became Truth or Consequences.

In those parts, said Delonas, people treasure hunt the way New Englanders bird watch; it’s second nature. So, although Doc was hunting deer when he made his discovery in the spring of 1937, Delonas believes he was hunting treasure as well.

R.L. Coker, a 70-year-old retired shoe executive in Rossmoor, Calif., was hunting with Noss, though not at his side, when Noss discovered a passage into the peak. Coker was 17.

Advertisement

“Doc knew where the spring was and he knew the deer would come down to the water, so he was sitting up at the top of the peak watching and waiting for the deer,” said Coker, who added that Noss promised him one-tenth of 1% of the treasure for excavation work he did at the peak in 1946.

“He felt a breeze come up and fan his pant leg. He thought a sidewinder had come up from around the rock and struck at his pant leg, because, you see, they hit first, then rattle. But he found that there was a breeze coming up from under a rock. Moving the rock, he discovered the entrance to the peak.”

What Doc is alleged to have found as he explored the guts of the peak later with flashlights and ropes is mind-boggling. He reported to Ova that, slithering along vertical fissures, he had discovered a series of interlocking caverns containing riches that would make men drool: chests filled with coins and jewelry, conquistador-era Spanish armor, statues of saints and Wells Fargo chests. There were also, he reported, 27 skeletons, and 16,000 bars of pig iron (a crudely processed form of the metal) stacked like cordwood.

Ova was never permitted very far into the peak because she was, to be genteel, rather large of bone. But in an interview videotaped before she died in 1979, Ova said her curiosity about the pig iron led to an exciting discovery about 18 months after Doc found the caverns:

Advertisement

“I asked him to bring out some of that pig iron he was talking about and he said it was too heavy. But he found a small one and brought it out and said, ‘That’s the last one of them babies I’m gonna bring out.’ ”

“When I rolled it over, I said, ‘Well, Doc, this is yellow! Look at it! He looked at it and said, ‘Well, Babe, if that’s gold and all that other is gold, we can call John D. Rockefeller a tramp!’ ”

The Nosses filed mining and treasure trove claims on the land, which was leased to them for a nominal amount by the state of New Mexico.

In 1939, said Delonas, the federal government told Noss to make a safe passage into the peak for Treasury agents to inventory the trove.

Advertisement

“My grandfather was climbing down this vertical fissure of 100 feet, squeezing under rocks and boulders and very few people could follow him in there, so he hired a mining engineer to help him widen the vertical entrance by blasting a huge rock out of the way. When they did, they put too much dynamite in and collapsed the whole top of the mountain.

Thus was the treasure lost. Or so the story goes.

At this point, however, the tale tangles into a Gordian knot. Every explanation that seems to confer legitimacy on the treasure claim has an equally plausible counter-argument:

* Some say Doc was nothing more than a con man who took money from people to excavate a nonexistent treasure, who hoaxed even his wife. It is true, said Delonas, that Noss had a drinking problem, and was increasingly fearful of being robbed after his claims became known. Records show Noss spent time in jail for a variety of alcohol-related minor offenses. But others, including his stepdaughter, say he was a kind and loving man, driven to erratic behavior by those who tried to take advantage of him.

Advertisement

* Skeptics claim that tons of rubble blocking the way to untold wealth is a convenient ruse for a man trying to run a gold scam. Believers think it’s grounds for some heavy-duty despair by an alcoholic who possesses an inaccessible mint.

* The Gold Reserve Act of 1934 outlawed the private holding of gold by U.S. citizens. Skeptics say the law, which was rescinded in 1974, was the perfect excuse for Noss not to produce the 200 bars he claimed to have lifted out of the peak. Believers say it’s why he feared involving the authorities in his activities.

“He couldn’t convert the gold to cash easily,” said Delonas. “They were poor people and it would cost money to get legal help, so they started selling the gold off in nugget-sized pieces, thousands of dollars worth but a little bit at a time.”

Local law enforcement officers made a habit of arresting Doc, hoping to confiscate gold from him, said Delonas. So Doc began carrying decoy bars.

Advertisement

“He thought it was better to be thought of as a con man than to be killed over the real gold.”

Ah, but he was killed over the gold.

During the war years, attempts to open up the peak moved slowly. During this time, Noss disappeared for about 18 months, and when he returned, he had a new wife with him.

“She was younger, a little thinner than Mama. I don’t think she was as pretty but maybe someone else would,” said Ova’s daughter, Letha Guthrie, 75.

Advertisement

“He got a fraudulent divorce, really. Mama was gonna have it undone, but the lawyer told her just to leave it. He said, ‘She got the husband. You got the treasure.’ But Mama was devastated. She cried. She was in her 40s then, and she was 85 when she died. She never had anything to do with a man after that.”

Besides marrying again, Doc also met a Texas man named Charley Ryan, who ended up investing some money in attempts to open up the peak. Ryan testified in court that he spent about $28,000; Delonas said the money was used to build an airstrip near the peak and to pay for some phony drilling rigs used as decoys.

Doc had agreed to sell 50 or so of his bars to Ryan, but something went awry.

According to Delonas, Noss suspected that Ryan was going to steal his gold. So Noss enlisted a 27-year-old rodeo rider named Tony Jolley to help him hide 110 bars. They finished at sunup on March 5, 1949.

Advertisement

Later that day, there was a big fight: Ryan accused Noss of bilking him. And as Noss ran away, Ryan pulled out a gun and shot him in the back of the head. Noss slumped against the bumper of a pickup truck and died. Ryan said Noss was running for a gun, and the jury believed him: He was acquitted of murder on grounds of self-defense.

Noss, 42, died with about $2 in his pocket.

For the next six years, Ova Noss continued to work her claim. But in 1955, she was forced off the site when the boundary of the White Sands Missile Range was extended. She never stopped trying to get back to Victorio Peak.

Where Ova Noss failed, others succeeded.

Advertisement

In 1958, four airmen from nearby Holloman Air Force Base, including Thomas Berlett, spent several months excavating at the site and claim they discovered stacks of gold bars in several caverns. They took nothing, and tried to get permission to recover the treasure.

“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.

Advertisement

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.”

Advertisement

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.”

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.”

Advertisement

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.”

Advertisement


Advertisement
Advertisement