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.

"What I honestly thought would happen," Mahoney says, "is I could sit down with the title companies and Tombstone and resolve this. Maybe a land trade. Some sort of compromise."

"Not a whit," Cornelio, the title companies' lawyer, says when asked how much of a case Mahoney presents. "Not a prayer." Look, he says, Mahoney knew the homes and commercial development were there when he acquired the claim. "What's he doing? Is he truly innocent, truly buying in good faith?"

It was Steve Tima of Tima Oil and Mining Company who set this whole wagon train rolling when he bought the claim in 1945 at a Cochise County tax sale.

At the time, Tima was stationed at nearby Fort Huachuca. A budding prospector, he just wanted a mining claim to fiddle with on weekends. Cochise County, like much of Arizona and the country, was emaciated. Tombstone had little meat on its bones. Taxes went unpaid; homes were abandoned. Properties, if anyone wanted them, were available for bargain rates--including the Earps' patented claim, since no one knew who the owners were anymore.

"For $8,000, you could have bought the whole county," says Tima, a stocky, bespectacled 74-year-old who now lives in Phoenix. He speaks slowly, in a documentarian's voice, describing how he got his pick of the county's four-drawer file cabinet full of tax-delinquent parcels.

For 20 bucks, he bought the First North Extension of the Mountain Maid. There were some homes on it, but because he'd bought a patented mining claim that appeared to include the surface, he considered them squatters. He knew a war lay ahead.

One day Tima drove by the claim and saw blocks and tile roofing all over the place and decided it was time to go to battle. It was part of the Bowman Addition, a subdivision Tombstone had platted atop the mining claim in 1910. Tima says he would have relinquished rights to his portion of the lots for cheap, but the builder said he was loony and wouldn't pay Tima a dime. Tima sued.

Without explaining why, a judge pronounced Tima's deed to the claim void. The year was 1949, four years after Tima's purchase. Tell you what, says Wild Bill--there's something called a five-year rule on tax sales, which means that once you buy a property and pay taxes on it for that long, it's yours. So even if Tima's deed had been void, once he paid taxes in 1950, it became his--except for the portion ruled on by the judge.

Cornelio disagrees, saying that if the deed was void, it was void. There's no claim. Which doesn't explain why Fidelity Title, whose researchers are paid to uncover complications like these before title insurance is issued, went ahead and gave title to the Mahoneys. "Your claim has raised issues which involve a complicated area of mining law as well as historical and factual data which we are continuing to gather," reads a September 1994 letter to Mahoney from Fidelity's Patricia Ihnat, vice president and associate counsel.

Says Tima: "I told [Mahoney], 'You're gonna antagonize a lot of people. . . . Some of them have been living there 30 or 40 years.'"

A few months later, Fidelity dropped Mahoney like an overheated branding iron, paying off the insurance--an $8,000 check--and nixing the deal. "They're saying it was a mistake," Wild Bill says. "They're saying I don't own anything. They're chasing their tail."

The Mahoneys are perplexed that Fidelity would issue them title to a patented mining claim, then five months later give title to a parcel of the surface--their surface, they say--to someone else. Then turn around and sue the Mahoneys through that title.

Do these sorts of snafus happen often? "No," Cornelio says. "But it happens in any business where you have the potential for error or human mistake. Sometimes it happens when people are researching title."

Fidelity won't discuss it. Ihnat refers questions to Cornelio.
It's the title companies, says Wild Bill, who have been issuing title to portions of the claim for years when they should have known better, who must atone for their sins. If the courts agree, title companies like Fidelity and Pioneer and Transamerica could be kneeling for a spell.

"We could technically have everybody thrown off the land," Mahoney says. But he adds that has never been their intention.

Says Martha Mahoney, "This is something title companies have been doing for years and years, hoping it would never catch up with them, and now they've gotta deal with it."

Wild Bill Mahoney grew up in Lewiston, Idaho, in a poor but honest Irish Catholic family where if you found so much as a nickel on the floor under the table, you put it back up there and waited for the rightful owner to reclaim it. Dad drove a laundry truck for 30 years, Mahoney says, and ran an outfit called Mahoney Monument, making tombstones.

Mahoney is six-foot-two and walks with a noticeable limp, one leg shorter than the other--the result, he says, of being run over by a pair of angry bikers 25 years ago. He never knew what he did to piss them off. But that's how it was in those wild, drinking days. As he motors the inhospitable stretch of highway between Phoenix and Tucson, taking note of new property-for-sale signs, he unbuttons his shirt to show a prominent chest scar.

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