Longform

Fool's Gold: Prospectors Have Looked for the Lost Dutchman's Gold for a Century, But Jesse Capen Figured He Could Find It. He Probably Died Trying.

Dawn breaks quick and hard in the Superstition Mountains. Just after 6 a.m., the parking lot below the rugged road leading up to Tortilla Trailhead starts to fill up with trucks. First light is bright, but there's a chill in the air at this spot, just beyond where the winding coil of asphalt carrying the Apache Highway around man-made Canyon Lake gives way to a stretch of wide and flat dirt. Swaths of Mexican gold poppies are dotted with the purple blooms of hedgehog cacti on this spring Saturday, a day so pretty you can't imagine why anyone would call this rugged range "Hell's Backyard."

The guys gathered here, near a cement slab that used to be a ranch house before the Forest Service torched it to keep out the drifters, are all wearing a glaring shade of yellow, but they're otherwise a mismatched crew of outdoorsy types. A badass dude with a spider-web tattoo on his neck looks like he's itching to shoot something. Next to him stands a grandfatherly granola who probably has a Sierra Club card in his wallet. There is, of course, the standard-issue ex-military guy with close-cropped hair, his pants tucked into his calf-high boots. They're members of the Superstition Search and Rescue squad and they're here looking for Jesse Capen, a 35-year-old Denver man who disappeared up this trail back in December. They've been out here at least six times in the past four months, combing the craggy terrain for any sign of his body, a shredded piece of clothing, or the few belongings Capen brought with him to Arizona that weren't later found in his tent or his Jeep.

There aren't many clues, and that might just be how Jesse would have wanted it. Capen was searching for the fabled Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine, and like most of the other treasure hunters who've made their way to this remote area in the south-central portion of Tonto National Forest over the past 120 years, he was extremely secretive.

Capen was obsessed with the legendary mine. Though Jesse barely mentioned the subject to family or friends, they found more than 100 books and maps on the subject in his apartment after his disappearance. Capen saved up vacation time for two years so he could take a month off from his job as a bellhop at a Denver hotel, giving him plenty of time to search. Last summer, he traded his car for a Jeep with four-wheel drive. The vehicle is perfect for navigating the yard-high drop-offs on the pocked three-mile dirt "road" leading up to the Tortilla Trailhead.

Capen had been out to Arizona to look for this mine — probably the most legendary lost mine in American history — at least two other times in the past decade, though no one knew about one of the trips until after he disappeared and his computer files were searched. All in all, it's made for a hell of a mystery.

Capen's mother, Cynthia Burnett, regrets not asking more questions before her son left for what was to be a month-long trip to Arizona. An experienced outdoorswoman herself, she says he was unprepared for what could happen in the backcountry.

"He was there for the legend, and being prepared and thinking about his safety was not on his radar," she says. "I remember before he left, I said, 'Do you have a knife?' and he said, 'No, why?'"

A knife would have been good; a pistol would have been better.

Robert Cooper, commander of the search squad, says a lot of people don't have any idea how dangerous this area, 50 miles from Arizona's capital, can be. Several men in the first group of searchers who set out on the 2½-mile trail from the end of the road to Capen's campsite carry a sidearm.

Mountain lions are the main concern — the area is crawling with them — but there's also a danger associated with the grizzled prospectors who squat in these mountains, hunting for gold. Not far from where Capen disappeared, there's a prospector living in the wild, poaching small game and dodging any Forest Service personnel who might make their way up the road to catch him digging on government land.

Odds are, though, that Jesse had some sort of accident that left him incapacitated, and he'll eventually be found within a rugged half-mile of the campsite. Statistically speaking, people are almost always found within that distance, says Cooper, whose froggy drawl recalls a soft-spoken Jim Nabors.

"The scenario we're going with is that he walks 2½ miles to camp, drops his gear, sets up his tent, and throws everything in it. He never unpacked his bedroll, he never broke down food, so it's obvious he turned up missing the first night," Cooper says. "We're running under the assumption that he took a short walk from his tent and something happened."

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Martin Cizmar
Contact: Martin Cizmar