Case File: Victorio Peak Treasure
Location: White Sands, New Mexico
Date: November 1937
Description: Victorio Peak is surrounded by inhospitable environment near Hot Springs, New Mexico. The peak is riddled with a network of tunnels. Parts of the treasure were described as gold, silver, jewels and as many as 16,000 gold bars estimated around $1.7 billion dollars. Seventy-nine skeletons were described in an adjacent cavern.
History: The Victorio Peak Treasure is one of the most famous treasures in the United States, second only perhaps to the Lost Dutchman Mine. In November 1937, deer hunter Milton "Doc" Noss went searching for fresh water and springs near the peak when he discovered the hidden entrance to a tunnel. An old ladder led into a maze of tunnels around a large cavern containing an old chest inscribed with the words "Sealed Silver" in Old English. Inside the chest were a large amount of coins. This was just the beginning. Doc would soon discover a treasure that was estimated (in 1989) to be worth around $1.7 billion.
Doc had been a travelling medicine showman. In 1933, he married Ova Beckwith, whom he nicknamed "Babe". They settled down and opened a foot clinic in Hot Springs, New Mexico. Doc was known to love adventure and history. Babe was described as strong-willed, loving, and generous. From the moment Doc discovered the treasure at Victorio Peak, he and Babe spent every free moment exploring the tunnels that led deep inside the mountain.
Doc found that the passageways in the mountain led to several caverns. In one of them, he found seventy-nine human skeletons stacked in a small enclosure. In another cave, he found amazing riches - jewels, coins, and priceless artifacts. He described three huge oval-topped chests which he opened. He brought a couple of swords and knives out. He also brought out a crown, which Babe cleaned off in her sink. According to her, there were 243 diamonds and one pigeon blood ruby in the crown.
In a deeper cavern, Doc found what appeared to be a stack of worthless iron bars. Babe asked him to bring out some of those bars. However, he said they were too heavy to get out of there. He was able to find a small one and bring it out to show her. When she rolled it over, she noticed it was shiny. They also noticed that there was some yellow on it. At that point, they realized that the "iron bars" were actually gold. He later told her that inside the cavern, there were as many as 16,000 bars of gold.
In the spring of 1938, six months after Doc made his discovery, he and Babe went to Santa Fe to establish legal ownership of his find. They filed a lease with the state of New Mexico for the entire section of land surrounding Victorio Peak. Subsequently, they filed mining claims on and around Victorio Peak. They then filed a treasure trove claim, which has since become the historic Noss family claim to the treasure in Victorio Peak. This paperwork provided the Noss family's legal claim to the property.
Over a period of two years, Doc mined the peak. Witnesses say he took out more than 200 gold bars from the cavern. He then proceeded to hide the bars from everyone, including his own family. They were re-hidden in a variety of locations all over the desert. Some were hidden by the roads by a certain marked telephone pole. Some were dropped in horse tanks at the nearby ranches. Others were buried in the sand with a different colored rock over the top of it. He did this not only because of a fear of theft, but also because it was illegal at the time to own gold that was not in the form of jewelry.
As Doc and Babe solicited more help from friends and neighbors, they became more paranoid that someone would steal the treasure. In the fall of 1939, Doc decided to try and open a larger passageway into Victorio Peak. He hired a mining engineer to go with him and help him dynamite out of the way a huge boulder that was hanging in the lower portion of the shaft. Doc and the engineer got into an argument about the dynamite. Doc did not believe that the mountain could handle the dynamite; however, the engineer claimed that it would.
Doc was right; the blast caused a cave-in which collapsed the fragile shaft. He had shut himself out of his own mine. With only a few gold bars left in his possession, Doc spent the next nine years trying to sell them illegally on the black market. He hoped to raise the funds to reopen his claim. In 1948, he entered into a partnership with Charlie Ryan. He struck a deal to sell him fifty-one of his gold bars.
At the last minute, Doc felt that Charlie would double cross him. He asked an acquaintance, Tony Jolly, to help him rebury the gold in a new hiding place. Tony recalled handling 110 bars of gold that night. The next day, March 5, 1949, Doc and Charlie got into an argument. At one point, Charlie pulled a gun on him. He demanded that they discuss the whereabouts of the gold. He allegedly said that he would kill Doc if he did not tell him the location of the gold. Doc fled the home and went towards his truck. Charlie shot and killed him; his body landed on the truck's front bumper.
With the murder of Doc Noss, his claim fell to his heirs; for three years, they struggled to reopen the passageway to the treasure. But in 1952, as it seemed they were getting close, the United States Army chased them off the peak. The State of New Mexico had relinquished the peak out from under the Noss Family to the United States Army for the expansion of the White Sands Missile Range. Babe and the Noss family were forced off the land by the army. She was told that she would be allowed to return to the site as soon as it was convenient and not an interference to national security.
Babe continued to petition the Department of the Army at White Sand Missile Range level and Pentagon level, asking permission to go back and conduct a proper excavation to reopen the treasure cavern. However, she was repeatedly denied access to the peak. Interestingly, some of the personnel from Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range inadvertently stumbled into a cavern on Victorio Peak and reported finding a room stacked full of gold bullion.
Airman First Class Thomas Berlett and a group of off-duty soldiers were told that the peak was off limits. However, they used the excuse that they were hunting to go to the peak and search for the gold. They were the ones that stumbled upon a back door entrance to the cave and the treasure within it. However, they decided to not bring any gold out of the peak. Berlett reported his find, but he was denied permission to explore further. He later returned on his own and dynamited the new entrance in four places to conceal it.
Over a year later, the Secretary of the Army created a top secret classified military operation at Victorio Peak. In 1961, Babe, along with the state of New Mexico, filed an injunction against the Army to stop them from excavating Victorio Peak. In 1963, the Army sought exclusive rights to the peak, including mineral rights. The state of New Mexico denied the request. However, aerial photographs showed several roads crisscrossing the peak, suggesting that they had tried to excavate from there.
Word of Doc's hidden gold leaked to other treasure hunters. An anonymous group hired Boston attorney F. Lee Bailey. They were seeking permission from Attorney General John Mitchell, both to excavate at Victorio Peak and to sell gold bars. The secret of the gold became public at the Watergate hearings when John Dean testified about Bailey's client's requests. Bailey and his group, which consisted of several military and ex-military people, had a vast treasure in gold bars, located somewhere in the Southwest. Allegedly, this was the same place that Doc had made his discovery.
Because of the enormous publicity, the Army finally allowed a group of private claimants to undertake a ten-day expedition in 1977. The group included: Babe Noss, F. Lee Bailey's clients, and Airman Berlett's partner, as well as representatives of the Apache Nation, and the alleged heirs of Jesse James. Led by professional treasure hunter Norman Scott, his purpose was to determine, once and for all, if treasure really did exist at Victorio Peak.
During the expedition, scientist Lambert Dolphin from the Stanford Research Institute conducted ground radar tests to determine if there was an underground chamber deep inside the mountain. He discovered echoes that were at least 300 to 400 feet deep; this led him to conclude that there was indeed a large cavern at the base of the mountain. This was exactly where Doc said it was located.
The 1977 expedition was the last official attempt to find the treasure inside Victorio Peak. The crown Doc found lies buried, along with other parts of the treasures, somewhere in the New Mexico desert. After his death, his heirs never recovered any of the gold bars. However, Tony Jolly, the man who helped him hide the bars, went back years later and retrieved ten of them. After decades of controversy, legend, and intrigue, the heirs of Babe and Doc Noss are still fighting for their rights.
Background: The origin of the treasure is unrevealed; there are four theories to explain its origins. One theory is that it is the lost treasure of Juan de Onate, the man who founded New Mexico as a Spanish colony. Reportedly, he had amassed an Aztec treasure of gold, silver, and jewels.
Another theory is that it belonged to a Catholic missionary named Father LaRue. He operated gold mines near Victorio Peak in 1797 and stored his gold in a cavern there.
Yet another theory is that the treasure belonged to Maximilian, the Emperor of Mexico during the 1860s. He attempted to get his wealth out of Mexico when he learned of an assassination plot. Legend says that he sent a palace full of valuables to the United States.
A final theory is that the treasure belonged to an Apache tribe which had raided stagecoaches carrying California mined gold.
Extra Notes: This case originally ran on the May 10, 1989 episode. There was a substantial update that aired on the 3rd Anniversary episode that aired on February 11, 1990.
Although Babe died in 1979, part of the broadcast included a previously un-televised interview with her, provided by her family.
Results: Unresolved. After the broadcast, two viewers called the telecenter to report information about the treasure that had been told to them by an Army captain assigned to security at White Sands Missile Range. He told them that he had not only seen the treasure, but also had been ordered to remove it during a top secret operation.
The first call came from C.G. and Juanita Erwin, a retired couple living in Baytown, Texas. Juanita's brother, Captain Orby Swanner, was stationed at White Sands Missile Range in the early 1960s. When the Erwins visited him in 1961, he told them an extraordinary story, which he asked them to keep secret. He told them about the treasure and said that he had gone to Victorio Peak and confirmed that it was there.
A secret mission was then conducted to extract the gold. The Pentagon sent a task force, which included Captain Swanner, to the peak. The task force inventoried the treasure within the multiple caverns. They also photographed it. According to Swanner, it was worth over $3 million (in 1961). They then removed the gold by helicopter and truck. Juanita was shocked by her brother's story; however, she was certain that he would not make it up. C.G. asked him what they did with the gold. He believed that they took it to Fort Knox.
Unsolved Mysteries contacted the Pentagon. They confirmed that Captain Swanner had indeed served as an officer assigned to security at the White Sands Missile Range in 1961. Gordon Hobbs from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army responded to Swanner's allegations. He claimed that there were no records that said that the secret mission and removal of gold took place. Babe's grandson Terry Delonas questioned the Erwins about their story. According to C.G., only Swanner and three others at White Sands were involved in the treasure removal. The others were employees from the Pentagon.
The Erwins' story was corroborated by another caller, Russell Dunn. He had worked with Captain Swanner after Swanner retired from the Army. He claimed that Swanner had told him the same story that he allegedly told the Erwins. He told Russell that the Sercet Service and another government agency were involved in removing the gold. He told Russell that the gold was in bars and that they were taken away in trucks. Russell is convinced that Swanner was telling the truth.
There is still more evidence that suggests that the gold was removed from Victorio Peak in a clandestine operation. In an affidavit, Judge H.L. Moreland of Loveland, Texas, claimed that on October 28, 1961, he and three friends observed several men in Army fatigues on the peak. They also saw a military jeep, a weapons carrier, a number of poles about the width of telephone poles and other timbers, cut and notched. In his affidavit, Moreland said that he and his group actually talked to Captain Swanner. He ordered them to leave the missile range.
Moreland reported the Army activity on Victorio Peak to Babe Noss. She told Oscar Jordan, a lawyer with the New Mexico State Land Office. He contacted a colonel at White Sands and asked him if someone was digging there. The colonel told him that there was no digging at the peak. However, he also said: "If there is, it's none of your damn business!" According to Jordan, he received a call within twenty-four hours from Major General John R. Shinkle, the commander at White Sands. He admitted that there had been digging on the peak, but said that it would stop immediately.
Thirty days later, under cover of darkness, Moreland and his friends returned to the peak. By that point, it was totally deserted. He saw the remains of extensive excavations apparently carried out by the government. There were roads, scaffolds, and tunnels. However, there was no sign of Babe's treasure. Moreland believes that the government still has possession of it. Hobbs from the Secretary of the Army denies this. He claims that the government has been refuting this claim for decades.
According to C.G., Captain Swanner left evidence of his presence in one of the caves at Victorio Peak. During the 1977 expedition, Babe and the other excavators found Swanner's evidence. Inside the peak, they found some military debris and battery packs. In one of the deeper tunnels, they took pictures of an inscription on the wall which read: Captain Orby Swanner. 7 October 1961. Swanner's military serial number was also included.
It is not known if any other treasure has ever been found at Victorio Peak.
- Victorio Peak Treasure at Wikipedia
- Victorio Peak Treasure at Unsolved.com
- Victorio Peak at Legends of America
- Two Die Violently In Treasure Hunt - April 6, 1949
- Buried Treasure Sought In 'Operation Goldfinger' - March 19, 1977
- The Mystery of the $30 Billion Treasure - Freedom Magazine Article - June 1986
- Quest For Fabled Gold Starts Anew - January 28, 1990
- Golden Opportunity - Chicago Tribune - January 14, 1991
- 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? - June 16, 1991
- High-Tech Expedition to Search for Doctor’s Buried Treasure - July 20, 1992
- Following 1937 Story of Buried Gold, Family Searches New Mexico's Sands - July 29, 1992
- In Search of a Legend - September 14, 1992
- Legends of lost hoards of gold and silver still thrive in the West - November 13, 2005
- Doc and Ova at Find a Grave