The Mystery of the $30 Billion Treasure
From Freedom Magazine, July 1986
According to Freedom’s sources, hundreds — perhaps thousands — of tons of gold were secretly and illegally removed from Victorio Peak on White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico between 1964 and 1977.
A large number of sources had reported to Freedom that the gold was secretly and illegally removed from its underground chambers by a combination of interests that allegedly included the U.S. Army, the Central Intelligence Agency, organized crime and former President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The peak’s modern history began in November 1937 with the discovery by Milton Ernest “Doc” Noss of an immense quantity of gold bars. Over a period of about 21 months, Noss removed a large number of gold bars from one of the caverns, a fact attested to by more than a dozen people who worked directly with him. Estimates on the number of bars removed by Doc Noss and his co-workers range up to approximately 350.
During an attempt to enlarge a passage to the gold in August 1939, the shaft caved in, leading to frenzied and unsuccessful efforts by Doc, his family and a few close associates to regain access to the hoard through hundreds of feet of rocks and rubble.
Nineteen years after the cave-in, in November 1958, U.S. Air Force Captain Leonard V. Fiege led a team of treasure hunters who discovered a second, smaller treasure in another Victorio Peak cavern.
As described in Part I, Fiege and Airman Thomas L. Berlett found three stacks of gold bars that had lain undisturbed for so many years that they were covered by several inches of thick dust.
Freedom also unveiled some of the further history of Victorio Peak, including numerous reports by eyewitnesses and others that a tremendous quantity of gold bars were secretly and illegally removed from the mountain over a period of years, principally from 1964 to 1977.
In this article, Freedom continues the story.
By Thomas G. Whittle
The clandestine removal of tons of gold from Victorio Peak left legitimate claimants to the treasure with no money and little recourse. Principal among these unlucky individuals were Ova Noss and Leonard Fiege.
Ova had been with Doc Noss when he made his 1937 discovery of the tremendous stash of gold bullion inside Victorio Peak.
Fiege, Thomas Berlett and their companions — Ken Prather and Milleadge Wessel — were, at the time of their find, employees of Holloman Air Force Base, located just east of White Sands Missile Range.
As leader of the four treasure hunters, Fiege worked within the Air Force chain of command to get permission to legally return to Hembrillo Basin — the large, bowl-shaped area surrounding Victorio Peak — in order to recover the treasure.
In seeking to return to the site of his find, Fiege solicited the assistance of Holloman’s staff judge advocate, Lieutenant Colonel Sigmund I. Gasiewicz.
The aboveboard attempts by Fiege, Berlett and their companions were stymied, however. The White Sands commander, Major General John G. Shinkle, refused all requests for permission to enter the area, including one made by Air Force Major General Monte Canterbury on behalf of Fiege and his companions.
In August 1961, after forming a partnership with three Air Force attorneys, the men were allowed to meet in Washington, D.C., with senior representatives of the Department of the Army, the Department of the Treasury, the Secret Service and the Bureau of the Mint. Chairing the meeting was the director of the Bureau of the Mint. At the meeting, the four treasure hunters and the three lawyers stated their case. And, nearly three years after the discovery, the men were finally allowed to return.
The operation itself, a five-day affair in August 1961, was “carried out as a top secret project,” according to a heavily censored Secret Service report.
Those accompanying the four treasure hunters included General Shinkle and agent Liliburn “Pat” Boggs from the Secret Service’s Albuquerque office.
The passage used by Fiege and Berlett in reaching the gold was found. Unfortunately, as noted in the Secret Service report, the final 40 feet to the gold “was blocked by large boulders that could not be removed by hand or shoveled away.” Although the expedition had General Shinkle as a supervisor and 14 armed military policemen as guards, no equipment heavier than shovels and picks had been brought. It ended fruitlessly.
A heavily deleted August 31, 1961, Secret Service memorandum obtained by Freedom shows that on that date the missile range’s provost marshal met with Pat Boggs in the Albuquerque Secret Service office. The provost marshal stated that he was seeing Boggs at the order of the missile range commander.
According to the memorandum, the commander, General Shinkle, “was anxious to determine the degree of interest” of the Secret Service in the gold.
In the memorandum, Boggs records that the interview with the provost marshal was interrupted by a telephone call from the Holloman commander, who wanted to know whether the Treasury Department would “permit exploration of the tunnel on weekends.”
Boggs resumed his interview with the provost marshal. The provost marshal “stated that should any gold be recovered from the tunnel, he would immediately notify the writer [Boggs] so that possession of the gold could be taken by this Service for delivery to the Federal Reserve Bank Branch at El Paso, Texas.”
After a flurry of additional memos, reports and top secret conferences, work at the site continued, this time with heavier equipment.
In the interim, Fiege and Berlett had authenticated affidavits they had previously written regarding the gold they had found by taking, and passing, lie detector tests. After those tests, the order to dig came — not from General Shinkle, but from Secretary of the Army Elvis J. Stahr Jr.
New Mexico law is quite clear on the point that there can be no mining or treasure troving on any land in the state without approval of the State Land Office. In carrying forward with this top secret project, neither the Army nor the Secret Service had consulted with that office.
On October 28, 1961, word of the digging leaked out after four civilians — friends of Ova Noss — “wandered” into Hembrillo Basin.
News of the Army’s activities quickly reached Ova, who wasted no time in telling Oscar Jordan, general counsel of the State Land Office in Santa Fe, that her claim was being jumped.
Jordan sent S.A. Floersheim, supervisor of the State Land Office’s Lands and Minerals Division, to investigate. Floersheim, in a memorandum dated November 6, 1961, wrote that he contacted Colonel Jaffe, the White Sands staff judge advocate.
Floersheim told Jaffe that he wanted “to make an investigation of the land down there in question to determine if any activity on the part of unauthorized persons had taken place.”
The colonel, in Floersheim’s words, “was not too cooperative.”
When Floersheim indicated that if necessary he would secure a court order from a U.S. district judge, Colonel Jaffe “attempted to assure me that there was no operation, that it was all a myth.”
The “myth,” however, was quickly shown to be fact. The four men who had visited the peak — Ray Bradley, Bob Bradley, Hugh Moreland and R.B. Gray — had drawn up notarized affidavits of what they saw and heard. The affidavits were specific, down to the serial number on one of the jeeps.
Before Jaffe was confronted with the affidavits, he told essentially the same story to Ova Noss and her attorney, and on a separate occasion to Ova’s son, Harold Beckwith.
According to a later account, “When informed of the affidavits, he [Colonel Jaffe] became quite upset.”
Eventually, Oscar Jordan and S.A. Floersheim got the digging to stop. The Army’s less-than-straightforward practices, however, were not corrected.
A report, for example, entitled “Explorations at Victorio Peak,” was prepared by the Museum of New Mexico in 1963, summarizing the highlights of the peak’s history. This report was heavily censored by the Army. All references to Captain Fiege’s 1958 discovery of gold bars and to the subsequent illegal excavation efforts by the Army — two full pages of material — were removed from the final report.1
Furthermore, the Army misrepresented some important excavation work in 1963 done by the museum and Gaddis Mining Company of Denver, Colorado.
The museum had obtained permission to conduct an expedition to Victorio Peak in 1963. As a key part of the expedition, extensive digging was done by Gaddis Mining Company in an attempt to contact a passage that would lead to one of the caverns.
The Gaddis team ran out of its allotted time and money before it could reach the shaft that would have led to a cavern. The team, therefore, was forced to leave the site before completing its work.
The man who supervised the work for Gaddis on the 1963 expedition, geologist Loren Smith of Denver, was not happy with the results and wanted to return to finish the job. As recently as 1981, Smith wrote a letter to the secretary of the Army requesting permission to conduct a 90-day search.
“We didn’t give up,” Smith told this writer in reference to the 1963 expedition. “We just ran out of money. We had spent $100,000, and when we ran out we were getting close to where Fiege found the bars.”
The Museum of New Mexico also wanted to get back in. In a 1965 application to return to the peak, the museum stated, “The results of the exploration program conducted in 1963 proved the existence of a number of open cavities within Victorio Peak similar to those described by the individual who claimed to have been in the caves and seen the artifacts and treasure.”
And yet, through the 1960s and 1970s, the Army would repeatedly and falsely state that the 1963 expedition had “proved” there were no caves or caverns.
According to Sam Scott, a retired airline pilot who with his brother, Norman, led another expedition into the area in 1977, the Gaddis effort got very close to the fault which led down to the main cavern — the passage which Doc Noss had apparently used to haul up hundreds of bars of gold.
The Army consistently misrepresented what occurred on the Gaddis expedition, citing the “negative results” of the 1963 expedition as a reason all future treasure searches would forever be banned as a matter of official policy.
The reason was never sufficient, however. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, pressure for a bona fide search for the treasure continued to mount.
Among the leaders in the push for a new expedition was nationally known attorney
Another expedition to the peak was finally mounted. With a twist of irony, this very limited search was dubbed by the Army “Operation Goldfinder.” Although brief and tightly constrained, it became the ultimate excuse to ban people from Victorio Peak.
The ostensible purpose of Goldfinder, as expressed at the time by expedition leader Norman Scott, was to “validate or not validate” stories about the gold and other treasure.
When contacted, Scott said that he and his company, Expeditions Unlimited Inc. of Pompano Beach, Florida, had been “used” by the Army.
Asked to elaborate, Scott expressed the theory that he had served as a “patsy” to give the appearance of a search in order to release the tremendous pressure that had been brought to bear on the Army by F. Lee Bailey and others.
One of the claimants to the gold who was there during Operation Goldfinder was Joe Newman of El Paso, Texas. Newman told this writer that he had found three piles of gold bars in a small cave within the peak in November 1973. He counted the bars in one pile — there were 600. The other piles were identical. Each bar, he said, weighed up to 60 pounds. They were roughly formed, as though from a primitive smelting process.
Newman provided photographs to Freedom showing extensive activity around Victorio Peak shortly before Operation Goldfinder. According to Newman, the photographs demonstrate that Victorio Peak gold was removed just weeks before the expedition.
By the time of Operation Goldfinder, the entrance Newman used to gain access to the small cavern was covered up by the Army. All possible entrances to the peak, according to Newman, had been sealed with concrete, steel bars, steel plates, mounds of earth, or two or more of those in combination.
“There was no way in hell we could get in there without heavy equipment,” Newman said. “ And then we showed up there without bulldozers, without backhoes, without anything but picks and shovels.”
When heavy equipment finally did arrive at the site, both Newman and Sam Scott charge, its use was restricted to locations where “we knew there wasn’t any gold.”
Attorney F. Lee Bailey had similar words. Bailey acknowledged that his group — one of a half-dozen claimant groups on the expedition — had been stopped in its efforts to dig at Bloody Hands, a site in an arroyo by Victorio Peak so named because of five red hand prints on the arroyo wall.
Because those he represented couldn’t look where they wanted to, Bailey told this writer that the expedition “didn’t really prove anything one way or another.”
There was universal agreement among all of the participants interviewed — except for Army spokesmen — that the 1977 expedition had been poorly executed and had not satisfactorily explored for gold.
Sam Scott charged that the expedition was “conceived to fail.” He continued, “I originally made arrangements for a 60-day expedition. The Army cut that down to 30 and then to 10.”
Nearly 19 years after he had made the dramatic three-stack find, Leonard Fiege crawled down the long passage which led to the same room. In the intervening years, much had changed.
As Fiege told newsmen during Operation Goldfinder, “It’s entirely different. There are timbers in there now. It’s all shored up.” And the gold was gone.
Ova Noss continued to press the family’s claim to the treasure after Doc Noss was shot and killed in 1949. Here she makes a point during Operation Goldfinder in 1977.
While the gold had apparently been removed right from under the claimaints’ noses, Operation Goldfinder was important in that it provided high-tech proof that Victorio Peak harbored a very sizable cave. Using sophisticated ground-penetrating radar, a team from Stanford Research Institute headed by Lambert Dolphin determined that there indeed was a very large cavern situated right at the base of Victorio Peak. “It’s about where Doc Noss said it is,” Dolphin told this writer.
The geological structure of the peak is odd, according to Dolphin. Regarding the cavern, he said that “It’s an unusual geological formation, more or less a freak of nature, but it’s there.”
Dolphin is one of the many Goldfinder participants who sought to return to the site. His scientific interest was not shared by the Army, which summarily turned down his 1977 request for re-entry.
Dolphin would like to reach the big cavern, and he had the idea of lowering a remotely operated television camera through a shaft in order to see what remains in the cave described by Doc Noss as being “big enough for a freight train.”
Expressing a thought echoed by virtually everyone interviewed for this article, outside of military spokesmen, Dolphin said that the Army had been very active in and around the mountain. “Everybody who was there would like to know why the Army dug up the mountain so thoroughly,” said Dolphin. “You could see they went in through the existing openings, explored them, and then covered them over.”
One source familiar with Victorio Peak’s history who asked to remain unidentified described the mountain as being “like a hotel.” There were “five layers of caverns in that mountain,” he said.
The top caverns or rooms held “as little as 10 or 15 tons” of gold, according to this source. The bigger caverns were not all cleared out until the 1970s.
Operation Goldfinder “was all basically a show,” said Sam Scott. “Something the Army could turn around and say — ‘See? This proves there’s no gold!’”
But, at the time, the Victorio Peak show was one of the hottest things around. Scores of reporters from various news media were on hand, including CBS-TV’s Dan Rather.
According to several sources, Lady Byrd Johnson, the widow of former President Lyndon Johnson, reportedly called White Sands every day during the expedition in order to be kept posted.
This writer endeavored to reach Mrs. Johnson but was told that any questions had to be submitted via a staff assistant in Austin, Texas.
The answer that came back was that “Mrs. Johnson has no knowledge about that [the phone calls] at all.” The assistant said that Lady Byrd “was entertaining friends here” at the time of the expedition, and, she asserted, “Mrs. Johnson just doesn’t do things like that. It would be out of character for her.”2
By the last day of Operation Goldfinder, a carefully orchestrated public relations scenario had apparently done its work. Those most closely connected with the treasure had seen their dreams trampled and their claims ridiculed. For them, the 1977 expedition must have represented the end of any hope of confirmation of what they knew to be true.
One of these people was Leonard Fiege.
Sam Scott and Fiege were close friends. According to Scott, “Fiege was threatened. He didn’t like to talk about it. But that’s why he left the 1977 expedition early.”
In an affidavit in the possession of Freedom, Thayer Snipes of El Paso, Texas, confirms the threat and sheds some additional light on the overall situation.
The affidavit states that Snipes first met Dr. Robert Welch of Denver, Colorado, around 1975 or 1976. Welch, according to the affidavit, went to Snipes’ home on several occasions to buy turquoise for jewelry .
On one of these occasions, the affidavit states, Welch gave Snipes his business card. The card identified Welch as a medical doctor and a psychiatrist, although he jokingly referred to himself as a “head shrinker.”
The subject of treasure at Victorio Peak came up on one occasion. On this occasion, according to Snipes’ affidavit, “Dr. Welch stated that a U.S. Air Force captain had been sent to his office by the military.”
Snipes continues, “Dr. Welch stated that ‘the military wanted this man to be put away,’ which he further explained as meaning locked away in an insane asylum.
“ ... Dr. Welch stated that on numerous occasions he hypnotized the captain.
“ ... while under hypnosis, the captain told him he had found gold bars in a cave in Victorio Peak.
“ ... also while under hypnosis, the captain stated he had held gold bars in his hands and had covered up stacks of gold bars with rocks and dirt, intending to return later and retrieve the treasure legally.
“ ... Dr. Welch stated that he felt he could not put this man away because he was telling him the truth about the gold, and that he could not lie while under hypnosis.”
Snipes’ affidavit states that “I later met U.S. Air Force Captain Leonard V. Fiege while on the March 1977 expedition to Victorio Peak.
“ ... while on the expedition, I told Captain Fiege the story in front of several witnesses.
“ ... Captain Fiege’s reaction to the story was one of extreme surprise and shock.
“ ... Captain Fiege said he remembered being sent to a psychiatrist named Robert Welch by the military, but that he did not realize that he had been hypnotized.”
According to the affidavit, “Captain Fiege said he had been shipped overseas after finding gold in Victorio Peak, and that he had been ‘harassed ever since’ by the military.”
The affidavit states that Fiege “said he was going to investigate the matter of his visits to the psychiatrist and see what had happened during those visits.”
The affidavit closes with the statement that “Captain Fiege left the expedition a couple of days later, saying that he and his family had been threatened with death if he continued his efforts to prove gold had been in Victorio Peak.”
Fiege did leave the expedition, but, as described by Sam Scott and others, threats did not shut him up.
Scott signed a sworn affidavit regarding the harassment and intimidation leveled at Fiege which only ended with his death in 1979.
According to this affidavit, “I can recall many occasions (probably 10) that Leonard told me about his harassments and the threats to his and his children’s lives. For example, the time that Leonard spoke to a Lion’s Club luncheon in Milwaukee, only to be threatened that night on the telephone. Then there was the time that he was told at supper time what his kids had for lunch in the school cafeteria, their route to and from school, times, etc. Again, a nasty voice on the telephone — a threat on their lives.”
In a personal interview, Fiege’s daughter, Jan, confirmed for this writer the fact of the threats which plagued the family. In 1971 or 1972, for example, shortly after moving to Denton, Texas, she received a phone call from her father telling her that he had just received a call threatening all three of his children if he did not keep his mouth shut about Victorio Peak. Fiege had called her to see if she was all right. The caller knew where all three of his children were, Fiege told his daughter. He even knew that Jan had just taken a job at a diner in Denton. The bewildered Fiege told his daughter that with the operator’s help he had been able to trace the call to Kansas City, Missouri — hundreds of miles from himself in Wisconsin and from his daughter in Texas.
According to Jan, she returned to the family home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, not too long after that and heard a threatening voice on the phone there herself. The male caller told her that unless her father shut up about Victorio Peak, someone was “going to die.”
Similar threats were made to others. Harvey Snow, for example, was told over the phone where each of his five children were by geographic coordinates — including a son who was on a U.S. Navy ship in the Pacific at the time. Snow was told to stay away from White Sands Missile Range or his children would be killed. Snow disregarded the warning, and his youngest daughter was found shot to death shortly thereafter.
A grandson of Ova Noss described an apparent attempt on Ova’s life to Freedom. Shortly after the expedition, someone entered her house at night by forcing a window. The intruder turned on the gas on the stove. “If we hadn’t gotten there,” the grandson said, “in 10 or 15 minutes, she would have had it.”
As it was, Ova had to be hospitalized. The grandson mentioned that after the expedition, Ova’s home was broken into two or three more times. Various items connected to Doc Noss’ treasure were stolen.
By the end of 1979, both Leonard Fiege and Ova Noss — the two major living claimants to the gold — were dead.
While it cannot be proven that their names should join the roster of people who died in connection with an apparently violent cover-up of the removal of gold from Victorio Peak, their deaths did mark the end of vigorous pursuit of the gold by active claimants.
Nearly 10 years after Operation Goldfinder failed to answer the many questions about Victorio Peak, the mystery surrounding the treasure has deepened and darkened.
1 “Explorations at Victorio Peak,” by Chester R. Johnson Jr., Division of Research, Museum of New Mexico, 1963. Freedom Magazine obtained copies of both the censored and uncensored reports, as well as copies of the affidavits mentioned above from the four men.
2 For the role that President Johnson played in the removal of tons of gold bullion from Victorio Peak, see Part 1.