Golden Opportunity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ken Cheatham will never forget the day he saw the golden buddha. And Arlene Friedman will never forget Ken Cheatham.

The golden buddha was the stuff that dreams are made of: 2,200 pounds of solid gold--$13 million worth--with a chest cavity full of diamonds. As well, it was at the heart of a dark legend, a vast treasure plundered from Southeast Asia by World War II Japanese military officers and buried in the Philippine jungle with hundreds of living American POWs. It was pursued feverishly by fortune hunters.

Cheatham was an Air Force lieutenant stationed in the Philippines when, on March 30, 1971, he said he heard people on the streets of Baguio City excitedly spreading the word that the lost buddha had been found. The young officer hurried to the home of an easygoing 27-year-old locksmith, Rogelio Roxas.

"There it was, 36 inches tall, in his back room covered with a bunch of blankets," recalled Cheatham, now living in Las Vegas. "It was gold, all right. They showed me on the bottom where a sample hole had been drilled."

Roxas told Cheatham that he had been digging outside town when he broke into a horrid-smelling cavern. There, he said, was the buddha, a large store of bullion and hundreds of skeletons. He rounded up a crew of 18 people to hoist it out onto a truck.

Cheatham took some snapshots and left, never to see the buddha again.

Six days later, Roxas claimed, a group of armed men, including one of the security guards for the late President Ferdinand Marcos, swooped down and hauled away the buddha and all the maps to the treasure. Roxas said he was arrested, beaten up and forced to swear that the whole episode was a fraud--that he had found a buddha of brass, not gold.

But the locksmith wasn't finished. When the dictator fled his homeland and landed in Hawaii in 1986, Roxas was waiting--with a lawsuit. He and a friend had formed an entity known as Golden Budha Corp. and they sued for fraud, seeking compensation for the value of the buddha and the stolen gold.

It took almost a decade, but the old score seemed to be settled in July when a jury in Honolulu brought a $22-billion judgment against Marcos' estate. It was the largest award in history, and it was due in large part to the work of Arlene Friedman, a private eye whose career took a sudden turn from mundane office work to globe-hopping glamour and danger.

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When she paused in Beverly Hills one recent afternoon to recount her role as a real-lifeRaider of the Lost Buddha, it would have been hard for a bystander to pick Friedman out as a world-class detective. A young-looking 50, she wore a denim mini-dress, tiny hoop earrings and shoulder-length hair the color of Chardonnay.

"People won't notice me unless I want them to notice me, which is a wonderful asset," she said with a characteristically brassy laugh.

Once she was a bride who dropped out of UCLA to have a baby. And she was barely 22 when she realized that her marriage wasn't going to work. "My daughter was a year and a half old and I knew I wasn't able to earn a living."

She would slip out of bed, pad to the kitchen and practice on a typewriter muffled with Band-Aids wrapped around the keys. She found a job as a law firm receptionist, quickly picked up secretarial skills and settled into the workaday world. "For 16 years I didn't go anywhere. It was like a prison sentence. I got up in the morning and went to work. I went home and took care of my daughter. Got up and went to work."

But when she typed reports from private investigators she would daydream: What an exciting job that would be. So for years she stayed up nights studying for the state exam.

While she'd hoped for the glamorous life of a Tinseltown private eye, mostly what she got was more secretarial work, with some occasional field assignments thrown in. It wasn't quite in Jim Rockford's league, but then she wasn't stuck around the office, either.

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Soon after Marcos landed in Hawaii--where a marshal handed him a summons--Friedman went to work in the Century City offices of Magan~a, Cathcart & McCarthy. There, the fantastic saga of the golden buddha landed--along with a solicitation letter from Roxas' original attorneys seeking experienced trial lawyers--on the desk of Daniel C. Cathcart, a noted litigator of aircraft-disaster suits.

"I tossed it in the wastebasket because it sounded kooky," he said. "But I pulled it out later in the day and read it again."

Taking on the case would require a detective who could ferret evidence from the murky world of international gold traffickers and fortune hunters. Friedman was no jet-setter, but she had proven resourceful on an important product-liability case, so Cathcart called on her. "He told me the whole story and I thought, 'This is the weirdest thing I've ever heard,' " she said.

Roxas flew to Los Angeles, where Friedman ushered him into a studio to film a segment of the television series "Unsolved Mysteries." The cameras vividly captured his misshapen features from his earlier beating, his left eye bulging precariously from its socket.

It was then that Roxas told Friedman that an American serviceman had taken snapshots of the buddha. But he couldn't remember his name. He thought it sounded like "Chitem."

She began poring over Pentagon records. It took her more than a year to trace Ken Cheatham to Las Vegas, where he was working in the security department of a hotel. "It was like, Eureka!" she said.

Cheatham, now 52, proudly displayed a collection of mementos from his two years in the Philippines, when he did a little treasure hunting of his own: "I'd take my metal detector and follow a relic trail. I'd find bayonets, rifles, and I even saw some human skulls."

But the photos he took of the golden buddha proved the key to the case, Cathcart said.

Nearly as important was to be able to show a jury that Marcos actually possessed the amount of gold that Roxas and other witnesses claimed they saw. That could be illustrated by revealing deals the Philippine president made for brokering bullion--another tricky assignment for the investigator. By now, Friedman had grown adept not only at finding witnesses, but getting them to talk. And she's candid about one of her techniques: using her gender.

"In all honesty, as long as it's legal and it won't give me a disease, I will do anything to get information," she said, crossing a pair of legs sculpted by years of dance studio workouts. "If it means playing dumb woman or flirt or putting on my Shirley Temple outfit, I'll do that."

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Unleashed on the gold contracts, Friedman followed the trail to Australia, where she found three businessmen who had dealt with Marcos. They were reluctant but eventually handed over copies of nine contracts Marcos had signed in the mid-'80s--but later reneged on--to sell $1.63 trillion in gold.

"She did some marvelous work. She found people in Australia who definitely did not want ever to be found," Cathcart said.

Friedman doggedly traced assets and business records through New York, Canada, Hawaii, Nevada and Northern California. Along the way, the case took some strange turns. One morning Cathcart's staff arrived to find the doors open and files rifled. He called in security experts who swept the offices.

"We were bugged and broken into five or six times. We were being observed from over there," he said, pointing from his office on the eighth floor at 1801 Avenue of the Stars to a building across the street. He spirited the case files away to a secret office.

Friedman also noticed that she was being followed. One morning, a man grabbed her from behind as she got out of her car in the parking garage. "We just want your help," he whispered. She punched her way free, getting cut and bruised as she slid down a flight of stairs.

Cathcart said he never encountered anything of the sort in a nearly 40-year career.

Another twist came in 1993 when Roxas died in the Philippines on the eve of the trial. Cathcart had just called to tell him it was time to catch the next plane to Honolulu. By one account he dropped dead in his apartment after a mysterious stranger gave him what he said was medicine for his wan appearance. By another account he died after experiencing chest pains on the way to the airport.

When the case finally went to trial last summer in Circuit Court, Cheatham's testimony proved to be crucial evidence, Cathcart said. The four-week trial was a wild and woolly affair, with lurid testimony from witnesses such as a metallurgist from Las Vegas who said he was shown a roomful of gold to re-smelt into commodity grade ingots and then shown an open grave with his name on a tombstone, and a psychic hired to find a sunken gold-laden shipwreck. At one point, according to defense attorney James P. Linn of Oklahoma City, Judge Marie Milks said: "All we need now is Indiana Jones."

Linn openly scoffed at the plaintiff's case, arguing that it was simply too fantastic to believe. Nevertheless, the 12-member jury found for the plaintiffs.

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Collecting the award won't be easy. Linn has appealed the verdict, arguing that the plaintiffs failed to lawfully name the Marcos estate as the defendant. Anyway, he said, the judgment is uncollectable because assets in Marcos' estate are tied up by the government of the Philippines.

But Cathcart obtained an attachment on $450 million Marcos deposited in Swiss banks and he predicted that every penny of the award will eventually be paid to Roxas' estate and his friend, Felix Dacanay.

As for Friedman, she was compensated in time and expenses, leaving her little more than memories to show for the adventure. She is continuing in her career for now, and meanwhile thinking of going to work for producers of investigative-report television shows who have heard of her exploits.

And for women who want to follow in her gumshoe footsteps, she offers one important key to success: "I just sit and listen to people. There were a lot of times in my life when people didn't listen to me, and I know the value of talking to someone and knowing that the other person is really listening."

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