Not Mining His Own Business

Wild Bill Mahoney owns Wyatt Earp's patented mining claim in Tombstone. All that prevents him from turning it into a tourist attraction are the dozens of people living on it.

Says Palmquist, the Tucson attorney: "I've never seen any indication that it was a big strike in terms of other mines down there . . ."

Just the same, it was Wyatt Earp's mine, and to Wild Bill Mahoney, that's the important thing. "There's no way in my estimation to put a price on Wyatt Earp's mine shaft," Mahoney says. He notes that the U.S. surveyor who went out to make sure the Earps were meeting patent requirements found four houses, a mill and a foundry on the site, which at least shows they were trying.

The shaft, Mahoney says, isn't visible anymore, and he is reticent to say exactly where it is for fear that someone will go digging around on the site before this is all settled.

But his mine tour would involve tourists entering an elevator that would drop them into the shaft where they could see exactly how mining was done in the 1880s--by hand, since there weren't any hydraulic tools as yet. "Maybe we'll have some mannequins with hats on, chiseling into the vein with a steel bit and a hammer," he says.

"And it won't be a lie, unlike some of the other things down there. You will actually be entering the shaft."

The Mahoneys bought the claim from Irene Parrisella, whom Bill met four years ago during a real estate deal. She told him that she and her late partner, Gus Fotopulos, owned an Earp mining claim in Tombstone, but that she'd fallen years behind in taxes since Gus died. Mahoney paid little attention.

"I didn't think I'd be interested in a silver mine," Mahoney says. "I had never been to Tombstone."

But a year later, Parrisella pulled out a suitcase full of old letters and documents backing up the claim. Mahoney said he'd take another look.

He and Martha went to Tombstone for the first time. The two agreed they were on to something historically excellent. They also figured they knew a potentially good deal when they saw one. They paid the eight years of back taxes and threw in a couple thousand dollars extra, and the First North Extension of the Mountain Maid was theirs.

These days, Irene Parrisella is a tiny, cigarette-puffing woman of 67 with a dilapidated apartment next to Interstate 10 in central Phoenix. Taxes were her downfall--she lost a house, then the bar she and Fotopulos ran near Seventh Street and Roosevelt.

She opens the screen door in a house robe, offers a cup of coffee. She sits and lights a cigarette. "That was his pride and joy, buying this [claim]," she says, remembering Gus. He'd bought it in 1952, but in 18 years never summoned the grit or finances to joust over ownership of the land; meanwhile, houses sprouted through the '50s and '60s and title companies insured the deeds.

"I thought that was gonna be my retirement money," Parrisella says.
She was happy to let Mahoney finally take the property off her hands.
"I liked his spunk," she says. "But I told him he was gonna have a fight."

Apparently not realizing what it was getting into, Fidelity Title insured the Mahoneys' title to the claim. In January 1994, the couple filed a declaration-of-land grant, a rarely used procedure basically proclaiming their title to the claim, and summoning anyone holding better title to the land to come forward. They published newspaper notices; they sent the City of Tombstone certified letters. They got no response.

Five months later, Wild Bill was in Tombstone telling a local reporter about his mine-tour plans when the scribe told him a guy had just purchased a property atop the claim and was opening a trading post. Fidelity had insured that guy's title as well.

Mahoney was aghast. He called a Fidelity rep in Sierra Vista and said, "I don't know how you can do that, because we own the surface and minerals."

"I find it a sorry state when credence is given to these kinds of claims," says Carmine Cornelio, the Tucson-based real estate attorney who represents several title companies who are suing the Mahoneys on behalf of 16 titleholders on the Mahoneys' claim.

Because of the litigation, none of the parties can sell or refinance their houses.

Ownership disputes like this one have surfaced before, in Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado--anywhere last century's mineral booms drew hordes of people looking to cash in.

Last year, in Central City, Colorado, a developing casino burg west of Denver, one casino operation gambled $1.3 million on a mining claim it intended to use for a parking lot. That didn't sit well with the guy who'd bought a parcel on the surface 22 years prior and had been faithfully paying taxes. The casino company claimed paramount title and the two are set to duke it out in court in November.

Mining scholar Earl Koskella of Glendale says that back in the '60s, Arizona lost a case against a Pinal County woman whose patented mining claim exceeded the state's right to extend U.S. 60 across her property.

Patented claims historically get the nod in court. So parties try to work out some financial agreement to avoid getting there, and matters are handled as simply as a handshake. That will not be the case with Wild Bill's claim.

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