Victorio Peak: New Mexico's El Dorado, C.I.A. cover up, or fatal scam?
January 9, 2018 12:11 PM   Subscribe

Lost treasure stories are a dime a dozen in the Southwest. But when the Army; Air Force; the White House; Congressmen; New Mexico's Governor and F. Lee Bailey and dozens of other lawyers get into a single treasure saga, only confusion and rumors remain cheap (New York Times, 1973). It is one of the most celebrated legends of buried treasure in the history of the American West, a thriller that includes a gunfight, nuclear weapons and the Watergate hearings (N.Y. Times, 1992) These are two period-specific introductions to the ongoing saga of the treasure of the hollow mountain (Atlantis Rising Magazine, 2009), a cache of gold and loot that was re-discovered in 1937 by "Doc" Noss, in what is now part of the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico.

You might have seen this story covered on Unsolved Mysteries either presented by Robert Stack, with a 3 year anniversary follow-up, or in an updated, truncated segment hosted by Dennis Farina, or back in 1977 on 60 Minutes with Dan Rather in a 14 minute segment with Ova Noss, Doc's first wife, and many other treasure hunters who had no luck at that time. Or if you happened to live in Denver in 1990, you might have caught a five-part series on Channel 2 (19 minute compilation). If not, here's an extensive, sarcastic, critical (and unofficial) summary of the original tale and subsequent searches was written for The Missile Ranger, the local paper of the U.S. Army's military testing area, White Sands Missile Range:

Part 1 -- 1/26/90 -- Gold search set to begin
Part 2 -- 2/9/90 -- How the gold was found & how it got there
Part 3 -- 2/16/90 -- The Fiege and Gaddis searches
Part 4 -- 2/23/90 & 3/2/90 -- The 60s & 70s and the Scott search
Part 5 -- 7/20/90 -- The environmental assessment for the search
Part 6 -- 11/2/90 -- Gold partnership´s tape and a clarification
Part 7 -- 4/12/91 -- The licensing agreement
Part 8 -- 8/7/92 -- The search begins, no success yet

For an expanded (and hyperlinked) timeline of this tale, it begins with how the supposed gold and treasures ended up in Victorio Peak, assuming there was any treasure there in the first place. There are a few tales of the origins of the treasure trove, including gold mined by native people from Mexico under the guidance of a Padre Felipe La Rue (or Le Ruz), a loot hidden by Emperor Maximilian the First, German payments to Pancho Villa that were stashed away, or maybe it was a collection of items taken from battles and raids by Chiricahua Apaches, possibly lead by Victorio, the chief who is remembered with the name of this particular peak. Or maybe the treasure trove came from some combination of these sources. And if you look for more regional stories of gold found, stolen and lost, there are even more possible sources for an extensive treasure trove, at least enough to create a story or ten about a mountain full of loot.

Doc also reported to find a copy of one of the documents that was a translation from Pope Pius III, which lead some to think that Doc Noss found the Casa del Cueva de Oro, Spanish for the House of the Golden Cave, but the promised health, wealth, and honor would evade him.

The re-discovery of the gold came towards the end of the Great Depression, and followed the Gold Reserve Act, which outlawed most private possession of gold. Milton Ernest "Doc" Noss was a podiatrist by trade, but possibly not by license, and he was out hunting in 1937 with his wife, Ova "Babe" Beckwith, and others, when he was at the top of the peak, possibly looking for water, or just observing that the rock looked unnatural in that position. However it happened, he found an ancient ladder down to a trove of treasure, and 27 (later recounted as 79) skeletons.

In the spring of 1938, Doc Noss and Babe went to Santa Fe to file a lease with the State of New Mexico for the entire section of land surrounding Victorio Peak. Later, he also filed several mining claims on and around Victorio Peak, as well as a treasure trove claim. Each time Doc went back, he pulled out two bars of gold and some other treasures, but he trusted no one with them, even Babe, so he buried them in the desert, while trying to find some black market buyer for his loot. In the Fall of 1939, Doc hired a mining engineer by the name of S.E. Montgomery to enlarge the opening on the peak, but the engineer used too much dynamite and caved in the entrance.

Doc and Babe tried to re-open the entrance, but to no avail. Then, during World War II, Doc disappeared and divorced Ova while he was living in Arkansas. Meanwhile, Ova treated him as dead and called herself his widow, and renewed the mining claims in her name. He came back in mid-to-late 1940s, married to Violet Yancy. A small group of investors who backed the re-opening efforts wanted to incorporate but he refused.

After twelve years of looking for a way to sell a bulk quantity of the gold (he reportedly sold off some bars over the years, apparently ripping off some people in the process), Doc Noss thought he found that in Charley Ryan, a Texas oilman. But that relationship turned south, and ended with Doc shot in the back by Charlie, in what was determined by a court to be self defense. With Doc gone for good, Ova resumed trying to re-open and re-claim the loot, while Violet Yancy claimed to be his true widow, and owed a 76 percent interest in the treasure. Ova's effort to reclaim the claim, too, came to an end, with White Sands Missile Base expanded their facilities, first leasing the land around and including Victorio Peak from a local goat rancher in 1950, then reserving the region of "military purposes" only in 1951, and formally expanding the missile range in 1955, the same year a Mrs. Miller of Caldwell, Texas wrote to the Mint concerning the purchase of gold mining stock from Ova Noss. This is intriguing since public records showed Ova had no legal claims at the peak. There is some correspondence showing the Treasury Department was concerned about the possibility of fraud and an investigation was made.

Three years later, Leonard Fiege, an Air Force captain assigned to Holloman AFB were trekking in the Hembrillo Basin with Tom Berclett (or Bartlett), Ken Prather, and Mil [Milleadge] Wessel. The initial story was that they were hunting and stumbled upon a dusty, treasure-filled tunnel in Victorio Peak, but Berclett later admitted they were hunting gold from the start, not wildlife. In fact, the four had done extensive research on Victorio Peak, poring over old documents and records, and even traveling south into Mexico to check stories there regarding a man who has often been linked with the origin of the gold, Padre Philip La Rue. Fiege supposedly told several people that he had caved in the roof of the newly-found entrance to try to make it look as if the tunnel ended.

Berlett and Fiege formed a corporation and made a formal application to enter White Sands for a search and retrieval of the gold. However, White Sands initially issued an edict expressly forbidding them to return to the peak. Then in 1961, they were given permission to go back to Victorio Peak and look, accompanied by the missile range commander, Maj. Gen. John G. Shinkle, military policemen and Treasury agents. Unable to gain entrance to the tunnel, they called it a day.

Or did they? There's those who say the C.I.A. were involved with facilitating removal of treasures and gold, possibly involving approval or direction from Nixon himself. Various parties who claimed to have extracted a few bars from Victorio Peak or were associated with such explorations have since been threatened, moved away, or died in potentially suspicious circumstances. And then there's the time in early June 1963 that President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson visited White Sands, which sources claim include a visit to Victorio Peak, and following JFK's assassination, B-24 flights began carrying Victorio Peak gold to a ranch in Mexico, which was owned by former President Johnson, who had purchased it from former Mexico President Aleman.

Meanwhile, the Gaddis Mining Company and the New Mexico Museum were trying to gain access to the peak, starting in late 1962. On June 20, 1963 a license was finally granted by the Army for a 30-day exploration, which resulted in a lot of paths or dirt roads being bladed, but even with a 30-day extension that made the exploration period run from July 19 through September 17, the company found nothing.

In 1972, F. Lee Bailey represented 50 anonymous individuals who sought what they claimed was 100 tons of gold within the mountain (Google books preview). Then on June 25, 1973, during the Senate Watergate hearings, John Dean reported his knowledge of a conversation concerning F. Lee Bailey’s clients and about a huge amount of gold at White Sands Missile Range. From November 21 to November 25 of that year, some claim that 36.5 tons of gold was taken from Victorio Peak, repoured to be sold overseas, via the C.I.A.

But with all that gold to be extracted, assuming the U.S. Government hadn't already looted the peak, Ova and others were still on the hunt, perhaps in part because the price of gold was going up. In fact, there was such an interest and public fervor that the Army consented to allow a whole group of claimants (and reporters) on the peak. "Operation Goldfinder" finally started in March 1977. "If they do find something out there," Maj. Kenneth Abel told a briefing here today for members of Operation Goldfinger, "I assure you we will be as surprised as anyone." The discovery team had a few back-up plans to maximize their excavation permit, which ran out March 28. At that time no gold had been discovered, but one shaft was not fully excavated, and there was a large cavern that was supposed to exist that they could not reach.

Believers were not dissuaded. A decade later, when the L.A. Times revisited the story, former New Mexico Atty. Gen. David Norvell said "there's too much evidence to discount completely the possibility that there's something still in there." Terry Delonas, Ova's maternal grandson submitted to a 150-page petition asking for one more chance to excavate Victorio Peak in 1988.
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.
The search began on July 20, 1991, and the excavation was burning through its funds faster than anticipated. Still, Terry Delonas wanted to return and met with Pentagon officials in 2000 to negotiate a return (Gbp), but White Sands Missile Range officials wanted $350,000 escrow for past bills due to the range. The closest Delonas might have gotten to the fabled Victorio Peak gold started in 1989, when representatives of a Texas man named Billy Carr, who purportedly had been a friend of LBJ, reached out to a man named Jim McKee, a gold investor in Delaware.
McKee was told that Carr was working with the Johnson family to unload 6 million ounces of gold that was “part of a treasure removed by the United States Army from Victorio Peak” and that it was “located in underground bunkers somewhere on the Johnson ranch.”

McKee and Delonas started negotiating with Carr, who said he was willing to sell the gold to the Noss family well below market value. The Johnsons couldn’t sell the gold on the open market because they had no legitimate provenance. The Nosses, on the other hand, did. The gold was to be shipped to Canada, re-refined and sold there. Or so Carr’s story went.
McKee and Delonas negotiated with Carr between 1989 and 1993; that when Carr died, they continued negotiating with his partners until 1998; that attorneys and CPAs in the U.S. and Canada were involved.
But in the end, no gold changed hands, and funds fronted for an initial gold shipment were returned to McKee’s attorney. That trail has gone cold, but treasure hunters and armchair researchers still discuss the Victorio Peak treasures online.

One particularly avid collector of stories and artifacts related to long history of efforts to (re)gain access to Victorio Peak and extract its treasures was Oren Swearengen, who fancied himself a real life Indiana Jones in his pursuit of the Victorio Peak treasures. Swearengen passed along his information to one Floyd Mann, who has uploaded the following videos with the help of Terry L. Carter, a fellow treasure hunter:

Part 1: Victorio Peak Spanish treasure, Oren Swearingen's early years, the untold story (27:55) -- Swearingen's extensive searches of the cave system that started in the 1950s and continued through 1983, with illustrations and maps, as well as his understanding of how the peak has been changed (possibly indicating activity related to the tunnels and mines) since his time there;
Part 2: Victorio peak and the Doc Noss saga, an overview of a massive treasure (12:04) -- interviews with various relatives of Doc and Ova, with poor audio quality.
Part 3: Victorio Peak, Ova Noss and the treasure Lyndon B Johnson stole from her (36:55) -- noisy VHS recording of Ova Noss and Letha Guthrie, Ova's eldest daughter from a previous marriage, who had been involved in the early explorations, interviewed in early March 1977, recounting the full story of Victorio Peak investigations as they knew it, edited to include additional still images related to her recollections
Part 4: Man hides 110 Spanish gold bars then fears for his life (25:59) -- an interview with Tony Jolley, who worked with Doc Noss to move gold bars in the 1940s, talks about meeting Noss and getting involved with the Victorio Peak gold, as well as his past efforts to find buried bars of gold;
Part 5: Doc Noss gives Spanish gold bars to some girls, as recounted by Ova Noss with Letha Guthrie and Dorothy Delonas (11:39)
Part 6: Man hides 110 gold bars then is killed by his partner (20:26) -- interview with Letha Guthrie, talking about past events, and touring (via car) some notable locations

[Though labeled as "parts," the videos aren't part of a cohesive whole, but appear to be part of a larger collection]
posted by filthy light thief (11 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
This post is a treasure.
posted by offalark at 1:54 PM on January 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

Thanks :)

It wasn't my plan to make this so long, but each article or series of articles covered different portions of this story, so here we are -- a megapost on something I saw one night on Unsolved Mysteries (via Amazon Prime streaming, so I only saw the first portion of the story, as covered by Robert Stack). I kept reading and finding tidbits mentioned in passing, or poorly covered in one place, so I went to find more.

As it is, I failed to cite the final blockquote, which comes from an article titled Mickadeit: Did LBJ, Nixon steal gold? from the O.C. Register in 2013, in promotion for The Gold House trilogy of books on this topic from
posted by filthy light thief at 1:59 PM on January 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Honestly, any story about New Mexico starts out being something you've seen on Unsolved Mysteries and then expands to become a megapost because that's just how that State is.

This is amazing, thank you.
posted by hippybear at 3:01 PM on January 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

That was a whole big rabbit hole to fall down into.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:12 PM on January 9, 2018

Where do I start??? Seriously, which one's the Wikipedia link.
posted by Leon at 3:38 PM on January 9, 2018

so here we are -- a megapost on something I saw one night on Unsolved Mysteries

That is great!

I am also looking forward to mega posts on Hunting Hitler and Oak Island.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 4:44 PM on January 9, 2018

This wins the December Best Post Contest... it just showed up a bit late.

The parts about Nixon/JFK/LBJ (and the latter’s ranch in Mexico) especially are fascinating.
posted by LeLiLo at 5:16 PM on January 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

So, this is where I live. I mean, I have to drive through White Sands Missile Range to get to Target. So if anyone wants to check it out, hey, I've got a guest bedroom. (There's liable to be a cat or three sleeping on the bed, though.) And while you're visiting, I'll tell you about the UFO I (and a lot of other people here) saw back in the late seventies.

I might even make you some tamales, since it would be Alamogordo's first Metafilter meetup.
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:53 PM on January 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

MexicanYenta: I lived in Las Cruces for 29 years. So yeah. *fistbump* I also come back every October. Maybe you should make the drive and join us at the big party we throw every Halloween!
posted by hippybear at 6:53 AM on January 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Leon: Where do I start??? Seriously, which one's the Wikipedia link.

Hah. Actually, there is no Wikipedia link in the OP, but here's the Victorio Peak article and a much shorter one for the treasure. Neither are particularly good at this date. As such, I tried to summarize the long and winding path, but there are a number of other tendrils and tales that branch off from here, so if a part of this story sounds interesting, pick a link and go for it ;)

MexicanYenta, I'm bound to be down your way some time this year. Otherwise, I might crash hippybear's Halloween party ;)
posted by filthy light thief at 7:28 AM on January 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

flt: you'd also be welcome. Both you and MY should MeMail me for details.
posted by hippybear at 7:39 AM on January 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

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