A court-ordered release of photos, videos, maps and other documents involving a secretive FBI search for civil war-era gold has a treasure hunter convinced of a cover-up.
Dennis Parada sued to force the FBI to turn over records of its excavation in Dents Run, Pennsylvania, where local lore says an 1863 shipment of gold disappeared on its way to the US Mint in Philadelphia. The FBI went to Dents Run after sophisticated testing suggested tons of gold might be buried there but says none was found.
Parada believes otherwise. He accuses the FBI of distorting key evidence and improperly withholding records. The FBI defends its handling of the materials.
The dispute is playing out in federal court, where a judge must decide whether the FBI will have to release records it wants to keep secret.
“We feel we were double-crossed and lied to,” said Parada, co-founder of the treasure-hunting outfit Finders Keepers.
Solving the mystery is not his only goal. He also hoped to earn a finder’s fee from the recovery of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of gold.
An FBI spokesperson declined to answer questions, citing ongoing litigation. Last year, the FBI publicly acknowledged it had looked for gold in Dents Run. It said it did not find any and “continues to unequivocally reject any claims or speculation to the contrary”.
There is little evidence in the historical record to suggest a US army detachment lost a gold shipment in the Pennsylvania wilderness – possibly in an ambush by Confederate sympathizers – but the legend has inspired treasure hunters for years.
Parada and his son spent years looking for the gold of Dents Run, eventually guiding the FBI to a remote woodland site 135 miles north-east of Pittsburgh where they say instruments identified a large quantity of metal.
A geophysical consulting firm detected a seven- to nine-ton mass suggestive of gold. A team of FBI agents came in March 2018. An FBI videographer was on hand, at one point interviewing a Philadelphia-based agent on the FBI art-crime team.
“We’ve identified through our investigation a site that we believe has US property, which includes a significant sum of base metal which is valuable … particularly gold, maybe silver,” the agent said, his face blurred.
Calling it a “155-year-old cold case”, the agent said the FBI corroborated Parada’s information through “scientific testing”. He said only a dig would help law enforcement “get to the bottom of this story once and for all”.
Parada obtained the video and other FBI records through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. He was mostly kept from the dig site and now suspects the agency conducted a clandestine overnight dig, found the gold and spirited it away. Residents have told of hearing a backhoe and jackhammer overnight, when the dig was supposed to have been paused, and seeing FBI vehicles including large armored trucks. The FBI has denied it conducted an overnight dig.
Parada and a consultant, Warren Getler, have focused on FBI photos and a photo log. At issue is the presence or absence of snow in the images and the timing of a storm that disrupted operations. One FBI image supposed to have been taken about an hour after the squall does not show any snow on a large boulder. The same boulder is snow-covered in a photo FBI records indicate was taken the next morning, 15 hours after the storm.
“We have compelling evidence a night dig took place, and that the FBI went to some large effort to cover up that night dig,” said Getler, co-author of Rebel Gold, a book exploring the possibility of buried civil war-era caches.
There are other seeming anomalies in the records, according to Finders Keepers’ legal motion.
The FBI initially turned over hundreds of photos but rendered them in low-resolution, high-contrast black-and-white, making it impossible to tell the time they were taken or in some cases what they show. The treasure hunters requested several dozen photos in color, which the FBI provided.
Also, the agency did not provide any video of the second day of the dig or any photos or video showing what its own hand-drawn map described as a 30ft-long, 12ft-deep trench, which the treasure hunters claim could have only been dug overnight. Government lawyers acknowledged these gaps in the record but did not elaborate in a court filing last week.
The consulting firm hired by the FBI to assess the possibility of gold produced a report on its findings, but the version given to the treasure hunters seems to be missing key pages. The FBI did not provide any travel and expense invoices.
Such released records “cast doubt on the FBI’s claim to have found nothing and raise serious and troubling questions about the FBI’s conduct during the dig and in this litigation, where it has gone to great lengths to distort critical evidence”, Anne Weismann, a lawyer for Finders Keepers, wrote in a legal filing.
The US justice department did not address claims of a cover-up. The government instead told a federal judge in Washington the FBI had satisfied its legal obligation to search its records, and asked for the case to be closed.
The judge has yet to rule. Parada will keep asking questions.
“I will stick at this until I know everything that happened to that gold,” he said. “How much, where it went to, who has it now. I gotta know.”