By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
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By Chris Parker
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Phoenix bus driver Charles Spencer is a driven man. And for the past four years, in his spare time, that drive has led him to spend hundreds of hours searching for the treasure rumored to be hidden in the fabled Superstition Mountains.
But unlike thousands of hapless treasure hunters who have preceded him, Charles Spencer has finally hit pay dirt, locating a treasure-trove worth billions of dollars.
Or at least that's the way it looks on paper (photocopy paper, to be exact), many pieces of which are now spread across a table in a map-lined room in his west Valley apartment.
Many of the pages initially appear to be murky photocopies taken from a Spanish-language puzzle magazine. In reality, they're photocopied photographs of a series of stone tablets that Spencer believes lead to treasure that was hidden in the Superstitions by Spanish Jesuit priests two centuries ago.
Riddled with Xs, circles, dots, random zigzag lines and numbers, one of the slabs resembles a prehistoric doodle pad, the sort of thing you might find next to Fred Flintstone's telephone. Another slab features a rather detailed drawing of what appears to be a witch (Spencer insists it's actually a Jesuit priest), accompanied by some Spanish writing that loosely translates into the mushy phrase, "Search the map/Search the heart." Other slabs feature a mumbo jumbo of crosses, daggers, dates and misspelled Spanish words. As a set, the trio of stones looks like something cooked up as set decoration for Tom Sawyer's Island at Disneyland.
Vaguely indicating a portion of a topographical map of the Superstition Mountains where he believes the church treasure is hidden, the bus driver flashes a broad smile. "I'm 90 percent certain I've located it," beams Spencer, who says modesty alone prevents him from claiming a greater certainty. "Until you actually find it, you can never be 100 percent certain. I have to base everything I do on pure fact--and there could be something I overlooked, something I left out, something I missed or some twist that I didn't catch. That's why I arbitrarily assigned the 90 percent figure. Nobody's perfect."
But in Spencer's mind, at least, he's obviously come far closer than everyone else who's ever scoured the Superstitions. "Based on all my research, no one's come close to deciphering the stone tablets," boasts Spencer. "I have deviated from their thinking and utilized to the best of my ability a scientific approach with a whole lot of common sense. I'm completely an individual thinker."
Few who've waded through Spencer's copious notes will argue that point. While driving down Central Avenue one day, for instance, Spencer happened to notice a horse sculpted over the door of Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church. Because that horse roughly resembled the horse etched on one of the stone tablets, Spencer was instantly able to conclude that not only were the tablets authentic, but they were of Jesuit origins.
According to Spencer, much of his success in cracking the code can be attributed to his outgoing nature.
"Most treasure hunters stick to themselves," he explains. "I'm tired of sick mentalities like that. If you've got something, share it, because most of the folks who believe they have some kind of valid information go to their graves and they never found anything in their lives."
Spencer says he picks up valuable information from many sources, like the time he struck up a conversation with a drunken bus rider who revealed secrets about a cavern where Geronimo supposedly hid out. "He told me more than he should have," reports Spencer, who also has frequent run-ins with people "who know more than they were saying."
In the unlikely event that Spencer does uncover the Jesuit cache, it'll be something of a hollow victory. Following the 1983 Wilderness Act, any boodle found within the Superstition Mountains will almost certainly become the property of Uncle Sam. "The federal government will get the whole ball of wax," explains Spencer. "But I really don't care. I'm not in this for the money. I'm just like anyone else--I want that 15 minutes of fame."
Spencer first encountered the tablets during a 1988 visit to Mesa's Southwest Museum, where the controversial tablets have been on permanent loan for ten years from the A.L. Flagg Foundation (a Phoenix-based nonprofit mineral organization). That the museum clearly labels the tablets as a curio of dubious historical value merely whetted Spencer's interest.
"We present them as sort of tongue-in-cheek artifacts," says Tray Mead, director of the museum. According to Mead, the tablets were supposedly found near Florence Junction by a vacationing Oregon couple during the late Forties or early Fifties and were awarded to the Flagg Foundation some years ago following a court dispute nobody remembers much about.
"Or at least that's one version of the story," laughs Mead. "Nobody seems to know the real story."
Although not identified as such, the tablets currently on exhibit in the museum are actually replicas; the real tablets are stored in a vault for safekeeping. Yet for a $75 fee (which is used to help fund the Flagg Foundation), interested parties may schedule two-hour sessions during which they may photograph and study the genuine articles.