By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
By Pete Kotz
By Monica Alonzo
By New Times
Bill Mahoney is a real estate agent by trade, and, being a real estate agent, he talks to a good amount of people and can hold forth on many subjects. Tell you what, he says, and, next thing you know, you're wrapped in gab and squirming for freedom.
Before long, the prattle leads to his pet topic--the mining claim he owns and how the title companies and their lawyers are out to deprive him of it and his dreams of what it can become.
Then come the miniature show-and-tell documents he keeps in his wallet--a color-coded map of Tombstone, a copy of a mining patent issued to Wyatt Earp and his brothers Virgil and James.
Mahoney looks right at home in Tombstone. He's a burly, hopelessly disheveled man with a rough past, leathery skin and morning-slicked hair that goes dry and awry by afternoon. He rides into town on the Friday before Memorial Day--the beginning of Wyatt Earp Days in Tombstone. The celebration catches Mahoney off guard, a bit surprising considering the 55-year-old Peoria resident has been immersed in Wyatt Earp and Tombstone for the past 30 months.
In December 1993, Mahoney and his wife, Martha, shelled out $8,600 for the First North Extension of the Mountain Maid, a mining claim patented by the Earps and a feller named R.J. Winders on October 21, 1881. The claim, one of ten staked out by various groupings of Earps, was the only one they patented, meaning that's where the Earps planned to stay and make their living. The patent came just five days before the brothers survived the famous shootout at the OK Corral, an event that keeps "The Town Too Tough to Die" teeming with tourists today.
At the time, there was a silver boom, and the feds were issuing patented claims left and right. In mining meccas like Tombstone, the 20-acre claims, which included surface rights, lay next to and all over each other on the map like spilled dominoes.
Squatters had spread like mumps. Community leaders figured they could establish some control by applying for a township patent.
But according to historians, before the township became official, the unscrupulous mayor presold all but a few town surface lots to his cronies for less than six bucks. Residents of those lots who refused to pay rent were then hassled by a cowboy cadre that included the notorious Clanton and McLaury brothers. The shakedown lasted nine months, until the courts ruled that the mayor had had no right to convey deeds to land the township hadn't owned.
In Mahoney's view, things in Tombstone haven't changed much. "That gives you an idea of the kind of people we're dealing with," he grumbles.
As Tombstone was sorting out the property disputes, Virgil Earp was appointed marshal, placing the Earps in position for the showdown at the OK Corral. Those were the days of real-life characters like Big Nose Kate and Doc Holliday, of Curly Bill Brocius and Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce.
With all that history going for the place, Bill Mahoney has this idea, something that would add some authenticity to all the false-fronted stores that line Tombstone's boardwalks. Despite genuine landmarks such as the old Cochise County Courthouse and the Bird Cage Theatre, Tombstone to Mahoney isn't the town too tough to die; it's the town too tacky to tolerate, a bunch of stores, as he puts it, "all sellin' the same junk."
There's the Crystal Palace Saloon, the historic meeting spot: "Now this," he says of the storied saloon, "is just a tourist thing, and a fun one. But I'm just sayin', when you come down here, and you got two or three kids in the car, and you wanna have a beer at the Crystal Palace, that's all great and everything. But let the kids learn something."
What he finally gets around to saying is that he means to convert a mine shaft on the Earps' old claim into an educational tour, something that could be linked with the OK Corral and the Boot Hill graveyard in a sort of historic trinity for tourists.
"Plus," he says, "we make money, the city'd make a lot of money. It's just a win-win for everybody. What are they making now? I mean, by suppressing Wyatt Earp's mine, what are they making right now? Not a dime. And it's the dumbest thing."
The original language of the patent grants the claim to the holder "forever." And so Mahoney figures this is a no-brainer, a case of simple black and white--that it's the lawyers, with their howevers and excepts and betwixts and whereases, who are twisting everything around by saying his claim is no good.
As years went on, Tombstone grew, and stretched right over the Earps' patented mining claim.
"They never had a right to do that from day one," Mahoney says.
Thing is, when that happened, houses went up, taxes got paid, properties sold, years went by, chains of title tangled. Nearly 40 separately owned parcels blanket the surface of the First North Extension of the Mountain Maid mining claim--a surface Bill Mahoney is now proclaiming to be his.
In Tombstone, them's fightin' words. The townfolk are rather up in arms that Mahoney's claiming property they've held title to for decades.
"He wants something for nothing," says Peter Kline, who has put up a trading post at one edge of the old Earp claim. "I said I'd like to see him put one foot on my property."
Former Tombstone mayor Alex Gradillas shrugs and says, "You don't really know what to say to the guy, because he throws all these documents in front of you, and what are you gonna say? 'I think you're crazy'? You're liable to get shot nowadays."
So far, the only shooting has been off at the mouth, and much of it by lawyers. A lawsuit filed against the Mahoneys on behalf of some of these Tombstoners means someone stands to lose a lot--a whole bunch of lots, really. The Mahoneys are already bankrupt, homes are tied up in litigation and title companies are referring all questions to their attorneys.
It's a modern-day showdown starring characters like our protagonist, Wild Bill Mahoney, along with Prospector Steve Tima, Smokin' Irene and Pete-Behind-the-Counter.
And it's all playing out in a place where things aren't always as they seem, where no one is really buried on the Boot Hill tourists pay to visit, and the OK Corral isn't really the site of the old shootout--it just sounds a lot better than "The Shootout in the Vacant Lot Next to C.S. Fly's Photo Gallery."
"I've been through Black's Law Dictionary," Wild Bill says, "'cause I know that what something means to me might mean something different to a lawyer. But my argument goes back to the original argument: 'forever.' It's pretty hard to dance around that one."
If there's anything that binds the folks who own and study mining claims, it's a verbosity arising from their voluminous research. They become miners of documents. And to hear them tell it, patented mining claims are the most powerful titles in the land.
Patented claims are apparently mighty enough to give pause to Diane Bain of the Arizona Department of Mines and Mineral Resources. When told how Tombstone basically grew over the Earps' old mining claim, she halts and says: "That should never have happened." She looks puzzled. "Wait--maybe I'm not understanding. That wouldn't happen with a patented mining claim. That's somebody's property."
But Ken Phillips, the department's chief engineer, has heard rumors of this case and is eager to see what it is all about. He pulls out tomes of state mineral districts and leafs to a page showing many of Tombstone's mining claims overlapping the original township site. It is the first time he has ever seen a township on a mineral district map.
"Hmmmm. There's not going to be many places where this happened," he says. "Morenci, maybe. Bisbee. Jerome. It may very well come down to whoever has prior existing rights."
And certainly with Arizona's history as a mining state, you'd think real estate schools would offer a course or two covering the goofy, troublesome area of patented mining claims. Think again.
"Not that I'm aware of," says a woman at Bud Crawley Real Estate School in Phoenix. "I know we don't."
"Not a one," another woman reports from the Arizona School of Real Estate and Business.
"We can't make money on it, is what it is," says a guy at the Professional Institute of Real Estate in Scottsdale. "That's such a specialized area. Nobody cares about it."
Nobody but Wild Bill Mahoney.
When you buy land, your rights usually extend to 40 feet below the surface. Typical mining claims begin at 40 feet below. But when you get a patented mining claim, you get it all--the surface, the minerals, the insects, the antiquities. (A few years ago, a miner in Alaska found a mastodon skeleton on his patented mining claim and sold the bones for $200,000.)
In the 1880s, with all that frontier just a-waitin' to be staked out, patented mining claims rained upon the landscape like Jolly Ranchers from a pinata. The U.S. included the surface since prospectors would usually build a blacksmith's shop, maybe even a shack to live in, somewhere near their mine shaft. Many of them, though, amounted to homesteads: "Most people had no idea what was down deep underneath," says Tucson attorney John Lacy, an expert in Arizona mineral and water rights.
Still, applicants had to show some amount of mining activity there and make certain improvements. "If you go to that much trouble to patent a mine, it's usually because you think it's got more value to it than your other mines," says Bob Palmquist, another Tucson attorney who is well-schooled in all things Earp.
The First North Extension of the Mountain Maid mining claim is two blocks from the OK Corral. It includes a home whose owner can rightly claim that Virgil Earp slept here. U.S. 80 pythons through the claim on its way to Bisbee, and there is a well-trafficked Circle K. But the silver lode the Earps apparently were banking on never materialized on this claim.
"It was a dog," says Hollis Cook, park manager for the old Cochise County courthouse in Tombstone, now a state museum.
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.
"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.
"Look there," he says. "See that?" That's where a guy in a bar slashed him for poking his nose into a lovers' quarrel. But he figured the whole thing was his own fault, because he should have been home instead of out getting drunk. He's been sober now for 13 years.
"Every scar I've got on me, I was drinking," he says. "I brought it on myself. There's a scripture I like from First Corinthians: 'Do not be misled: Bad association spoils useful habits.'"
On his right hand is a turquoise ring; on the other, his wedding band. "If there's any regret I have about this whole thing, it's what it's done to Martha," he says. "I've gotten so engrossed."
There've been countless trips to Tombstone and Bisbee, which literally stole the Cochise County seat from Tombstone in 1929. In two years, Mahoney's created his own little title library at home, poring through records into the night. He has a habit of scratching notes, comments, corrections and counterpositions all over anything he files. He is a man of impish humor and bulldog persistence who maybe should have backed down long ago but wouldn't know how.
He met Martha about 20 years ago at Jim's Cocktail Lounge in Glendale.
"I thought she was the prettiest woman I'd ever seen," he says. Martha, a thoughtful, flaxen-haired model of stability to her husband's impulsive nature, helped him get his life back on track. "I'd be dead today if it weren't for her."
"It's his dream," Martha Mahoney says of the mine tour. "You really have to work hard on your dream. It's a dream I want to share with him, but it's been very difficult for me. My health is not the best. We're having tremendous financial difficulties."
What keeps Mahoney going are the items he found in the suitcase Irene Parrisella had kept all those years.
In 1959, an Arizona Republic column by Don Dedera first detailed the conflict of ownership posed by the claim. Gus Fotopulos was the owner at the time and, according to Dedera, was "something like a kid with a grip on the rug where the preacher is standing. He hasn't decided to yank or run."
Fotopulos went on paying the taxes anyway.
According to a Tombstone Epitaph story dated August 22, 1963, Pioneer Title and Trust Company president Loris Woolery told the Tombstone mayor and council that deeds to the lots atop patented mining claims in the Bowman Addition apparently were worthless.
When the federal government gave the land to Tombstone for its town site, Woolery said, it couldn't include sections already inside patented mining claims. In a Bowman Addition plat map filed by a city engineer, portions atop mining claims were shown in dotted lines. Among them were lots overlaying the First North Extension of the Mountain Maid.
Woolery told the council that people with deeds to residential lots on patented mining claims in the Bowman Addition held deeds to zero, unless they were granted by the owner of the claim. The city attorney, meanwhile, told the council the only financially feasible escape for property holders would be for each to get a deed from Fotopulos for title.
The next year, a Bisbee law firm wrote Fotopulos, asking him to quit-claim his interest in a piece of property that apparently sat on the surface of the claim and was being sold. He refused.
In 1966, in a letter to Fotopulos, Tombstone mayor Thomas Pitcher began: "As you know the City of Tombstone does not have surface rights to the streets in the portion of the Bowman Addition that falls within the 1st North Extension of the Mountain Maid mining claim. The legality of expending tax funds on street and other utility improvement in this area is questioned."
Pitcher asked Fotopulos to deed the Bowman Addition property to the city. Fotopulos again refused.
Cornelio, attorney for the title companies and homeowners, pooh-poohs Mahoney's documentation as "intermittent and unconnected." Pitcher's letter to Fotopulos, he says, didn't treat the claim as valid; it was just a possible title question the city hoped to clear up. "If it was a valid claim, they wouldn't have built streets and sewers. They just went ahead and did it. Did [Fotopulos] sue the city? No."
Mahoney won't be deterred. He recalls the Dedera column about Fotopulos, "the one that said he was like a little kid with his hand on the rug, not sure whether to jerk it or not.
"My problem is," he says, "I jerked it."
"All legal questions aside, a mine tour would be a very good attraction here in town," says Nina Parker, director of the Tombstone Chamber of Commerce. "The town . . . was established because of mining. We should have a mine tour."
But as far as Mahoney's case goes, she says, "I don't want to touch that with a ten-foot pole."
Today, Tombstone is "100 percent" based on tourism, Parker says, but the city itself is only along for the ride. The real power brokers are the folks who own all the curio shops and, yes, the tourist attractions like the OK Corral's "Walk Where They Fell" exhibit.
But, says Martha Mahoney, there's little in Tombstone for the kids. "Except for the shoot-outs. When we'd walk down the street, we'd hear all these languages, like you were in another country. People come from all over the world. But they were actually being cheated, I think, because there's a lot more to that town than they're getting."
She hates even going to Tombstone anymore, watching as her husband bullishly kicks up the dust of his conviction. But the two say the tour they have in mind wouldn't uproot anyone's household.
"Their perception . . . is that we're big-time developers from Phoenix, trying to take away their property," Wild Bill says.
". . . It's not like [Arizona Diamondbacks owner Jerry] Colangelo going down there and moving an old lady out of her house and getting all this bad publicity."
Residents atop Mahoney's claim aren't so sure about that.
In general, the residents appear to be two groups--those who hold title insurance, those who do not. Most of those who do are parties to the suit. Those who do not--well, for instance, there is a whole family of longtime residents in several properties who have simply signed over ownership amongst themselves through the years. "They didn't send us no lawyers," says one of them, Alfonso Altamirano.
It's more of an irritation than a threat, the parties to the case say, ever since Cornelio gathered them up and told them the score. The title companies, they say, are financing the lawsuit.
"That lawyer just told us not to worry," says Frances Martinez, who with her husband Ernest retired into their red brick house in 1982. "We've paid taxes for a long time."
Would Mahoney try to kick them off the property if he could? "He probably would," Ernest Martinez says.
The name of Bill Mahoney draws a growl from Evelyn Thomas, a part-timer at Territorial Book Trader. She dearly wants to sell her 1910 house and find a place with decent, full-time jobs.
"I'm really fed up with Mr. Mahoney," says Thomas, a personable redhead. "Here in Tombstone you pretty much work in a gift shop or you don't work. But until this is settled, I can't do anything. It does not make me a happy camper."
To get an idea of how jumbled Tombstone's real estate really is, consider that Thomas lives at 11 West Safford while her neighbor, right next door, lives at 7 East Safford.
"It's not the kind of place I'd want to retire to," says Tombstone history buff Carl Chafin, who considered buying property in the city's Bowman Addition until he found too much rested on suspect quit-claim deeds. "You're better off going somewhere like Patagonia."
Thomas grumbles, "I cannot believe we would have gotten clear title to this house if he [Mahoney] owned the land. If we'd known there was even a chance of this happening, we wouldn't have bought a house here."
The most vocal critic of Mahoney's claim has been Peter Kline, who transformed an old Texaco station located on Mahoney's claim into the Tombstone Territorial Trading Company, where tourists typically find Kline behind the counter and Southwestern kitsch on display.
Kline penned a letter "to the people of Tombstone" decrying Mahoney's claim of ownership. "Mr. Mahoney called my wife . . . saying he owned our property and planned to put a chain link fence up all around it and sell it to some Canadians," he wrote. (Mahoney denies this.)
Kline says he listened to Mahoney for as long as he could and then called Fidelity to see what was up. Fidelity told him Mahoney only held the mineral rights. "I immediately formed an opinion as to what type of gentleman Mr. Mahoney is," Kline wrote.
"I have talked with a few influential people in Cochise County and other individuals, and their feelings basically are that Mr. Mahoney is full of baloney!" Kline continued. He went on to say he'd sent a certified letter to Mahoney ordering him to stay off his land.
Also, Mahoney says, Kline believes the real shaft of Wyatt Earp's mine sits on the trading-post parcel. An employee confirms this one day in Kline's absence.
"Yeah," he says. "It's out back. We've got it covered with lumber."
Maybe this is just one of those things that, like bitter divorces, belong in a lawyer's hands. At any rate, says Bob Boze Bell, who has written books about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday: "Both Wyatt and Doc would laugh to know they're still causing problems in Cochise County."
In the case of the First North Extension of the Mountain Maid, years passed before anyone formally challenged the settlers whose homes now cover the claim. About a half-dozen homeowners are claiming ownership by adverse possession--a way of saying, look, I've obviously been here long enough; no one's objected; this should be mine.
"If they did it properly, then so be it," Wild Bill says. "And some did." As for the others, he says, "if you can show a deed from the mine owner, fine; I don't have a problem with that."
Upon discovering late last year the 1949 ruling in which a judge had voided the deed to Doc Tima's claim, Cornelio filed for summary judgment, saying the matter was settled since the claim was no good in the first place. On top of that, because the Mahoneys had made such improper claims, Cornelio asked for damages, $5,000 per plaintiff.
Before the Mahoneys could respond, their attorney was excused from the case. With their finances depleted and their counsel gone, the Mahoneys threw up their arms and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
For Martha and Bill Mahoney, things had gone from good to bad to ugly.
When the Mahoneys filed for bankruptcy, the homeowners' lawsuit was put on hold. Dennis Wortman, attorney for the trustee in their bankruptcy case, is now asking that the Cochise County land dispute be resolved; Judge Redfield Brown will rule on that request June 19.
"Between now and then, if we don't come up with a big war chest, we're in deep doo-doo--and it has nothing to do with right and wrong," Wild Bill says.
Bill Mahoney is heading to Bisbee, because there is a docket he wants to look up, something listed as an exception in Kline's title insurance for the trading-post property. As the day begins, his hair is slicked back with water, but by midday it will be windswept and frazzled.
He has a flair for the dramatic, getting out of a car on a blustery day and struggling with a flailing map, slyly setting up the question of where exactly the real mine shaft is.
"You're standing right on it," he says, smiling.
He does whatever it takes. He'll stand on a hill in 100-degree heat with his hands outstretched if he has to. He'll read books, call historians, talk to lawyers and politicians.
Phoenix attorney John Acer, who specializes in landlord/tenant law, says after reviewing Mahoney's files: "Those people in that area pulled some unbelievable things. I certainly hope Mr. Mahoney gets his day in court and is able to hold on. . . . He has basically mounted a crusade. He has lived and breathed this thing."
Acer looked into Mahoney's case because he represents Arizona Gold, a pawnshop that may have some interest in marketing whatever junk can be mined out of Mahoney's claim should he emerge victorious. Any rocks that could be called Wyatt Earp's could be a mother lode indeed, Acer says.
For months, Wild Bill tried to contact Attorney General Grant Woods, finally breaking through on Woods' radio show in the last couple of minutes of a broadcast.
Woods listened, and Mahoney sent him copies of the 1963 Epitaph story, documents, letters--"everything showing where the title companies were aware of what was going on and were still issuing title," he says. Now, during a lunch break in Tombstone, he calls Martha at home. She says Paul Crane, their new attorney, got a call from Woods' office, saying they'd be looking into it.
"I'm just elated," says Wild Bill. "They're not looking to make a buck. The wheels moved."
As Mahoney gets out of the car in Bisbee, where the county Recorder's Office sits in the shadow of a mine-pocked mountainside, his hair thrashes about in the wind. "You'd think I could spend 30 cents on a comb," he says.
Inside, he checks the record he wants and can't believe his eyes. Kline's title insurance contains all the usual exceptions, what Wild Bill likes to call "weasel clauses"--mineral possibilities, city improvement rights and so on--but one of them in the docket he's staring at seems to tell him that Kline's property is fine except for anything included in the patented mining claim issued to Wyatt and Virgil and Morgan Earp and R.J. Winders, which basically means Kline's title is about as clear as Doc Holliday's lungs.
"Every time I come look at these records," Wild Bill says, "it just flabbergasts me."
Pretty soon he's yanking out the mini-color-coded maps and the minipatent and trying to get a couple of real estate speculators from Guam to invest in his cause. The conversation moves outside and the Guamanians cannot break free.
Longtime county recorder Christine Rhodes, running for office again in the fall, arrives in a family van and starts unloading promotional items on the people gathered here--little five-inch plastic combs reading "Christine Rhodes--Cochise County Recorder."
"Boy," Wild Bill says excitedly, "what timing for the comb."
He mows it futilely through his mangled hair as he heads back to the parking lot. It doesn't bother him that he is attempting to do this in the face of a gusty wind.