When Ed Milota, a 40-year resident of Ventura, checked his answering machine one day several years ago, he had seven calls from a desperate-sounding man who said, "My phone has been disconnected. I buried $25,000 in gold Krugerrands in my backyard and now I can't find them. I need them right away for a down payment on a house."
Milota went to the address given in the message and, using his metal detector, found the coins in three minutes.
The man paid him $400.
Retired from the Southern California Edison Co., Milota, 72, has been hunting for treasure around the world and on the beaches of Ventura County for more than 45 years. Through his company, Search and Recover, he is ready to tackle any assignment, no matter how difficult.
He is also a member of the Gold Coast Treasure Hunters, a group that meets monthly in a Ventura church to discuss strategies, exchange tips and show off recent finds from their excursions up and down the "gold coast," which they define as from Malibu to San Luis Obispo. Milota usually charges clients a fee of 10% of the value of what he recovers. He doesn't charge if nothing is found.
He has been to the Philippines four times in search of the billions in gold rumored to have been hidden by the Japanese in World War II.
He's found Italian tombs containing daggers from 150 B.C. In Greece he found the hand of an ancient bronze statue after descending 150 feet on a rope ladder.
His searches have taken him to the Dominican Republic and to Mexico, where he's trudged through deserts and crossed rivers on a raft, narrowly escaping with his life in some of the more exotic locales. "When I'm looking for one thing, I always find another," Milota said. "Everything from septic tanks to $48,000 in gold coins buried in the Ojai area."
One of his happier finds was on a Ventura beach. It was a diamond and emerald ring he was able to return to the woman who had lost it eight years before. "My aim is to return everything possible to the owners," he said. "It means so much to them. I don't expect any reward for things I find."
Twenty-three years ago, Milota met a woman at a Long Beach picnic who saw his detector and asked if he could help her find an 18-karat gold ring with six rubies that a doctor had given her when she was a little girl.
She had lost it on the lawn of her house in Illinois. Not long after their meeting, Milota traveled to the Midwest and called the woman.
He had found the ring, lost 59 years before, within 10 minutes.
Sometimes coincidence plays a role in Milota's ability to return items. Nine years ago he found a ring on a Ventura beach. There was a name in it and Milota checked with lifeguards about a report of loss, but there was none. So he held onto it.
Last year, Milota was listening to a radio program one Sunday. One of the speakers had the same last name as the one engraved on the ring, so he called the station.
Soon after, he received a return call from the speaker who was the father of the woman who lost the ring. Because she lived in another city, Milota gave the ring to her father. Milota refused a reward.
Milota tells of working with law enforcement officials and helping, in one case, to find the bullet and cartridge near where a body had been discovered in Santa Maria. He has also, he said, trained prison guards in the use of metal detectors to find hidden weapons in areas such as an exercise yard.
As a member of the Gold Coast Treasure Hunters, Milota enjoys sharing his stories and expertise with others. He also gives talks about treasure-hunting equipment and places to hunt. "Digging is not allowed in county parks and other inland property without permission," he said, adding that careful treasure hunters always replace the earth they dig up.
Metal detectors range in price from about $150 to $1,200, with the average between $300 and $400.
The Gold Coast Treasure Hunters meet the third Thursday of each month in Ventura, with May through October the best months to scout the beaches. The club was founded 10 years ago and has about 55 members, 90% of whom are men of various ages.
Many wives also belong, and so do three generations of women in the Kater family of Santa Barbara. Grandmother Tina, mother Rosie and 9-year-old granddaughter Donzie regularly hit the beaches around Santa Barbara.
Members have found many types of items. Ken Hammond located a missile on the beach near Point Mugu. He took it to Naval authorities who commandeered it, which disappointed Hammond, who had hopes of keeping it.
Vern Yeck, 70, a former club member and recreational gold miner, has been treasure-hunting for 10 years. Two years ago, when he was still a club member, he found a heart-shaped ring with 13 diamonds set in gold buried in the sand of Hueneme Beach. After checking the lost-and-found section of the newspaper, he returned the ring to an amazed woman who said she had never been to that beach. She had lost it at a Kmart in Santa Paula while trying on blouses.
"Obviously, someone picked it up, and when that person was on Hueneme Beach, the ring fell off a finger and disappeared in the sand," Yeck said.
Member Gordy Lienemann, 40, said, "I used to laugh at oldsters I saw treasure-hunting." Then he went to a garage sale where found items were being sold.
He's interested in the history of items and says, "You don't find old things at beaches but in fields and in and around old houses."
On the outskirts of Ojai, Lienemann found a 1920 class ring buried about 5 inches underground. Diligent research helped him locate the owner.
"It was the first and only class ring I've found," he said.
Sam Bernstein, 65, the new president of the Gold Coast Treasure Hunters, has been a member for three years. He and longtime member Pete Padilla, 57, the new vice president, always hunt together. One Saturday, a year and a half ago, they were in Agoura Hills near Peter Strauss Ranch, hunting at an old overgrown swimming area.
At a muddy area near a dam, Bernstein found a gold souvenir coin and Padilla found an earring. Then they saw a stack of bonds worth $6,275 with the same name on them as on other paperwork discovered nearby. They realized there had been a robbery--the items were scattered in a 100-square-foot area.
On one paper they found a phone number. When Bernstein called it, he learned that robbers had broken into a family's wall safe two days earlier. The grateful couple, carrying flowers and champagne and accompanied by a law enforcement official, met at Bernstein's office that Monday.
"The biggest thrill," Bernstein said, "was to see their faces when we gave things back. The personal items were so valuable to the people. This means more than any monetary reward. It's more fun doing the research than the hunting."
Antelope Valley Treasure Hunters Society. Contact Rick Wyatt at (805) 942-1281.
* Keene's Engineering, 20201 Bahama St., Chatsworth 91311; (818) 993-0411.
* Antelope Valley Treasure Supplies (Rick and Vicky Wyatt), 620 W. Lancaster Blvd., Lancaster; (805) 942-1281. Hours: noon-6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, others by appointment.
* R.T. Enterprises, Simi Valley; (805) 522-1955.
General information on treasure-hunting or metal detectors.
* White Metal Detectors, (800) 547-6911.