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Hunting for Treasure on Hallowed Ground : Texas: Californian seeking Jim Bowie’s gold at the Alamo is guided by a Mexican psychic’s map.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the hallowed grounds of the Alamo, a shrine so sacred that men still must doff their hats before setting foot in the limestone chapel, Frank Buschbacher is digging for gold.

For the last month, his team of excavators has delicately sifted through a gaping hole carved out of the plaza floor, an unprecedented treasure hunt somewhat akin to burrowing for riches underneath the Vatican. If Buschbacher finds his bonanza, which he thinks was stashed down a well during the fateful 1836 siege, he will have rewritten a crucial chapter of Texas history and challenged one of the most jealously guarded icons of American folklore.

“When I started out, the idea of digging a hole in front of the Alamo was like mom’s underwear or something; it was sacrilegious to even talk about it,” said Buschbacher, 46, a freewheeling, beer-bellied adventurer from California. “All I knew is that I wanted that hole worse than anything in my life.”

The fact that Buschbacher has received San Antonio’s official blessing speaks to an evolving shift in attitudes about the Alamo, which for generations has been treated more as a sanctum than as an objective historical landmark.

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In a mystical twist that has made the excavation even more unlikely, Buschbacher credits his success to the psychic guidance of an elderly Mexican prophet, who not only steered him to the exact spot where he is digging but also helped exorcise many of his own demons from the past.

For all the talk of treasure, it is really the hunt for tranquillity that has driven this ex-Hell’s Angel and former marijuana farmer who lost his youth 25 years ago in the jungles of Vietnam. Whatever he may happen to find--and sophisticated electromagnetic equipment shows something metallic is buried there--Buschbacher has discovered his biggest prize might just be the boyish wonderment of the pursuit.

“Treasure is not about rolling around in wealth, but going out to look for it,” said Buschbacher, who would be required, at any rate, to hand over his booty to San Antonio officials.

That spirit has swept like a contagion across this old Spanish mission city, drawing huge crowds to the chain-link fence that surrounds the 15-by-15-foot pit in the Alamo’s flagstone plaza. Tourists snatch up samples of authentic Alamo soil being hawked for $3.25 a vial. The descendants of famed battle heroes have volunteered to help scoop it from the ground.

The producers of the TV program “Unsolved Mysteries” wait anxiously on stand-by, having paid $13,000 for the rights to film the first glitter--whether it’s from Jim Bowie’s lost fortune or a pile of Lone Star beer cans. Already archeologists are ecstatic about an array of Native American artifacts, including remnants of an 18th-Century barbecue pit, unearthed in the first days of the dig. Even the most sober Alamo scholars have been swayed by Buschbacher’s tenacity and charm.

“When I first met Frank, I thought: ‘Oh, no, here comes a true soldier of fortune,’ ” said Ann Fears Crawford, a noted Texas historian and former director of the Alamo research library. “But I ended up admiring him tremendously. You can’t help but get turned on. It’s his search, his quest, his drive--and that’s what history is all about.”

There is nothing about Buschbacher’s past that could have predicted his current fixation, other than the childhood photo he still carries of an 8-year-old boy in a Davy Crockett T-shirt. The cherubic smile on that face soon soured into a surly adolescence, capped by his expulsion from Eisenhower High School in Rialto after bloodying the shop teacher’s nose.

Two weeks after his 18th birthday, Buschbacher enlisted in the Marine Corps. It was 1966. He returned from Vietnam in one piece, but the memories continued to haunt him, filling his nights with flashbacks that left his sheets soaked with sweat. He moved to the Mendocino area and toiled in his father’s electrical contracting business. But he had no patience for the drudgery of such a conventional job, choosing instead to recreate his combat experience as a hard-drinking, bar-brawling rogue.

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“I was on a death course--and I was enjoying it,” said Buschbacher, who still looks the part, but is disarmingly funny and self-deprecating. “I don’t think I would have taken my own life, but I probably would have forced someone to kill me.”

His rescue, as he sees it, came during a 1986 journey through Mexico with a treasure-hunting friend, who boasted of knowing a spiritualist in the southwestern state of Colima. Buschbacher, whose mother died of cancer after supposedly being cured by a faith healer, was less than sympathetic to claims of paranormal prowess. But the second he met Maria Ahumada de Gomez, a frail, silver-haired woman with a renowned collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, he was floored.

You have killed eight men, she told him, picking the exact number he had felled as a machine-gunner in the war: “Let go of your pain.” As Buschbacher reeled from her assessment, his companion seized the moment, shoving a map in front of Dona Maria’s face and asking where she saw gold.

Without hesitation, Buschbacher said, the old woman pointed to San Antonio, then drew a crude diagram of the Alamo grounds, a place she claimed never to have been. She explained that she had once seen the tattered diary of a Mexican Army officer, which spoke of gold coins pillaged from the Alamo battle. The bulk of the treasure, she said, closing her eyes and waving her outstretched palms, still remained.

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“That night, I had my first full night of sleep in 17 years,” said Buschbacher, who continued returning to Colima until Maria Ahumada’s death in 1991. “She gave me a life.”

Armed only with her hand-drawn map, Buschbacher began a decade-long quest to recover the cache, a journey that put him on a collision course with the guardians of Texas’ most cherished monument.

Excavations at the Alamo have been conducted before, but only when engineering problems already necessitated breaking ground--and always under the watchful eye of the site’s politically powerful custodians, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

Under their rule, the Alamo has been designated as the “Shrine of Texas Liberty,” a memorial to all 189 defenders who died battling the Mexican army of Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. “Be silent, friend,” admonishes a plaque on the chapel’s thick wooden door. “Here heroes died to blaze a trail for other men.”

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Iconoclastic, mystically inspired Californians generally are not well received. “Those grounds have been excavated many times before,” said Virginia Nicholas, chairwoman of the Daughters’ Alamo committee. “But, no, we’ve not been hunting for treasure.”

After getting virtually every bureaucratic door slammed in his face, Buschbacher realized he would have to assemble a more scholarly body of evidence if he hoped to make Maria Ahumada’s visions palatable to the public.

Poring through documents at the Alamo library, he discovered stories about the lost treasure of the San Saba mines, a region Jim Bowie had traversed shortly before the legendary knife-wielder died in the 13-day siege.

He also found maps indicating that wells once existed on the Alamo grounds, which led him to theorize that Bowie had ditched the loot down one of those shafts.

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“Having been in combat myself, I always felt there had to have been another incentive for those guys not to skedaddle,” said Buschbacher, whose own efforts have been financed largely by his girlfriend, Shelley Nordyke. “It doesn’t make them any less of heroes; they just might have been guarding what could be construed as the ‘First Bank of Texas.’ ”

His biggest break came in 1992 when Buschbacher finally persuaded the Houston-based Earth Measurement Corp. to survey the plaza with a smorgasbord of high-tech instrumentation, including ground-penetrating radar and electromagnetic sensors. Although Buschbacher insists that he knew it all along, the equipment revealed several underground anomalies and metallic deposits right where Dona Maria had predicted.

“At that point, we knew he wasn’t a mental case,” said Joe Austin, president of the firm, which usually tests for buried pipes and toxic drums. “But I still didn’t believe he’d actually get to dig. I mean, this is the Alamo.”

The technical data, however, gave Buschbacher the selling point he needed. Archeologists, even though they discounted his theories, were eager to examine whatever might be down there. City and state officials, equally skeptical about the possibility of treasure, saw a chance to broaden the Alamo’s historical interpretation. Native American groups also signed off, despite concerns about the disruption of ancient graves. Even the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, whose jurisdictional boundaries end just a few feet shy of the dig site, did not put up the fight that was expected.

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“This is a politically groundbreaking event here in San Antonio,” said Tom Guderjan, director of archeology at St. Mary’s University, which is conducting the excavation. “All sorts of constituencies, which usually hate each other, have come together over this project. . . . And the truth is, it wouldn’t have happened if Frank hadn’t pushed.”

As the dig enters its second month, Buschbacher tries to cool his heels across the street in a bare-bones office, donated by the Texas Adventure Special Effects Theatre. He is anxious to break out the backhoe and burrow down at least eight to 13 feet, which is where the anomalies are located. But the archeologists are still in the 2- to 3-foot range, sifting through the dirt by hand. At this rate, the dig likely will go for weeks.

“It’s become almost an obsession,” Buschbacher said. “I can’t think of doing anything else.”

Whenever he begins to lose faith, he looks at the photo of Maria tacked to his office wall. Her face appears blurry and unsmiling, but she reminds him why he is here.

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