Thursday, February 02, 2023

The Victorio Peak Treasure Part Three


With the death of Doc Noss, Ova Noss became the force behind the attempts to recover the treasure. Others who believed the tale and who believed they had some sort of a claim to it or part of it also came forward. One of those was Noss’ second wife but Ova dismissed that claim, saying that her divorce from Noss was not valid which made the marriage to Violet Noss invalid. But Violet Noss was inquiring about the legality of the permits held by Ova Noss and was attempting to have them switched to her. This was something of a minor distraction.

The real problem was the U.S. Government and the U.S. Army were now standing in the way. Not long after Doc Noss was killed, the Army entered into a lease agreement with Roy Henderson for the land where Victorio Peak is located. In other words, much of the disputed land didn’t belong to the Noss family but to someone else.

A search of the records in 1950 showed no existing mining claims. On November 14, 1951, Public Land Order No. 703 was issued, which withdrew all the White Sands Proving Ground (later White Sands Missile Range) from prospecting, entry, location, and purchase under the mining laws and reserved them for the military.

The White Sands Missile Range with the San Andres Mountains in the background
Photo copyright by Kevin Randle

New Mexico state officials claimed that they leased the surface of the land to the military. The underground wealth, in whatever form it took, belonged to the state, or to the holders of the various types of licenses. If there was a treasure on the land, it didn’t belong to the Army. In fact, a good case could be made that it belonged to the Noss family, if there was anything there.

Ova Noss contacted the two New Mexico senators and enlisted their aid. In December 1952, Senator Dennis Chavez wrote to Brigadier General G. G. Eddy, about the White Sands Proving Ground. Ova Noss also succeeded in convincing Senator Clinton P. Anderson to write to Eddy as well. The general, however, ruled that no further operations would be allowed on the Proving Ground because the paperwork was being prepared to transfer all mineral rights to the government.

The dispute was settled in a federal court that worked out a compromise of sorts. The Army had the right to use the surface of the land, and no one would be allowed on the Proving Ground without Army consent. But like so much else in similar circumstances, that didn’t resolve the matter. Ova Noss refused to leave Victorio Peak. All she wanted, according to various documents, was to recover what her late husband had discovered inside the mountain.

It all came to a temporary end during the summer of 1955, when federal marshals escorted her from Victorio Peak. But that didn’t mean she was going to give up the fight. For the rest of her life, she would engage in activities that would enable her to return to the peak so that she could continue in her effort to recover the treasure she believed belonged to the family.

Within months, a group led by Gordon Bjornson petitioned the Land Office, suggesting they had the financial backing to find the treasure. General Eddy, the White Sands commander, agreed to let them on site for two inspections. Then, however, the group couldn’t decide whether to dig out the shaft at the top of the peak that had been found by Doc Noss or search for another entrance rumored to be hidden at the base of the mountain.

Bjornson did write to the Land Office expressing his faith in the story told by both Doc and Ova Noss. He even mentioned that Noss removed eighty-six bars of gold, a statue of pure gold and relics of Spanish origin. Of course, none of that has been found.

Bjornson obtained permission from the state to begin his operation. But the White Sands commanding general issued a denial of permission. The general said that he was afraid of allowing Bjornson onto the range would set a precedence that would allow others to petition for entrance and make the similar claims. That would hinder the Army’s mission, which was missile testing and not treasure hunting.

Captain Leonard V. Fiege Finds a Treasure

All that legal maneuvering in the civilian world didn’t stop military personnel from exploring portions of the range. Victorio Peak, which is now on land controlled by the Army, was a popular attraction. In 1958, four men, two on active duty with the Air Force at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, which it in close proximity of White Sands, found what they believed was an entrance into the caverns that Noss had located about twenty years earlier. Captain Leonard V. Fiege, in an affidavit signed later, claimed that he had entered the cavern. He said that it was dark and dusty and hard to breathe. Fiege said he sat down on a pile of rocks to catch his breath and noticed that they weren’t rocks. According to him, they were bars of smelted gold about the size of normal house bricks.

In the flashlight beam, he saw other stacks of similar bricks. Some of them were visible out in the open while others were lost in the dimness of the cave and all the dust hanging in the air.

Fiege returned to the opening to find his friends. He was sick and dirty, but once he told them what he had found, they were all interested in returning for the gold. Two of the men were too big to slip through the opening into the main part of the cave but Fiege and Tom Berclett continued on until they came to the stacks of gold. The other two, identified only by their last names, Prather and Wessel, remained outside.

While in the cave, Fiege and Berclett talked about what they should do. Neither was familiar with the laws governing the discovery of treasure on a military reservation, nor were they aware that the White Sands command did not hold the mineral rights to anything found on the range. In any case, neither Fiege nor Berclett carried any gold from the cave. Or, at least, Fiege later claimed that they had not removed anything. This seems to be a little strange. No one who claimed to have seen the gold bars ever brought out one or two of them… or rather Noss did removed some of the gold bars, but he buried them elsewhere and no one actually saw them.

Fiege said that they did their best to seal off the passage that led to the gold chamber. Fiege told several people that he had caved in the roof and walls to make it look as if the tunnel came to a dead end.

Unlike some of the others, Fiege did show a certain intelligence. He went to the JAG Office and at Holloman and conferred with Colonel Sigmund I. Gasiewicz, who, in turn, called the Land Office in Santa Fe. Gasiewicz told Oscar Jordan, a land office attorney, that an officer at Holloman, an air force facility had found a gold bar on the White Sands Missile Range which was an Army post. Jordan suggested that the gold be sent to the Department of the Treasury or to the Secret Service office in Albuquerque. It was Jordan’s belief that the gold had been taken to the JAG office, which would have established a solid claim about the treasure.

Both Gasiewicz and Fiege denied this. Instead, they decided to form a corporation to protect Fiege and what he had found. They would contact the various government agencies to make sure that they violated no federal or state laws or violated any military regulations. They would then make a formal application to enter White Sands for a search and retrieval of the gold.

It took them three years to work their way through the maze of red tape in both the state governments and Washington, D.C. In May 1961, Fiege and his group began to seriously petition for permission to enter the missile range to search for and claim the treasure. Fiege met with Major General John Shinkle, then the commanding officer at the missile range. Fiege explained that they merely wanted the opportunity to recover a few bars of gold. Shinkle denied the request.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of it. Fiege and his group visited the director of the Mint to ask for his permission to recover the gold. The director wrote to the Secretary of the Army asking that permission be granted, not because he believed there was gold to be found or that there was any treasure hidden on the range at all, but because the Mint had been bothered by so many requests for additional information. The Secret Service said that there was a real possibility that nongold bars had been place in the cave by Doc Noss in some kind of scam or con game.

Next up, Questions about the Reliability of the Information Part Four

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