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.

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What would that something be? The section of mountains has brutal terrain, and it's been made worse by 120 years of surreptitious digging.

"We've seen [prospectors] dropped off and the vehicles leaving. They walk right past us. They don't want us to see their faces. They don't want to talk to us," he says. "We've found shovels, picks, pry-bars, axes, pans . . . There's a lot of mineshafts in that area. You've got these Gold Rush guys digging all sorts of holes."

These Gold Rush guys — some Dutchman hunters, others regular prospectors — are wild cards. Not only are they secretive, they've got a long and sordid history in the Superstitions — they're known to be dangerous. There are a few stories about the grisly deaths of Dutchman hunters, like Adolph Ruth, a retired veterinarian from Washington, D.C., who went into the mountains searching for the mine in 1931, only to be found a few months later with what appeared to be two bullet holes through his skull.

"If he walked into someone's campsite at the wrong time, you never know. I wouldn't put it past them," Cooper says. "I've had reports from people saying some guy jumped out with a stick and was screaming at them. For years, I've had reports of people yelling at hikers to get out of an area, and they've e-mailed me and I've told them, 'Well, then don't go in that area. If that guy wanted to hurt you, he would have hurt you. Apparently he was protecting something he believes is his.'"

Did Capen run afoul of a violent prospector? Though it's possible, Cooper says, probably not. However, there are, as Yukon poet Robert Service wrote, "strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold."

Suicide is another possibility, though Cooper has never seen someone do anywhere near this much work before offing himself. Usually, Cooper says, those who kill themselves leave their wallet and keys in the car, absolutely sure they won't need them anymore. Even then, the body is usually about a half-mile in, at the first place where the guy could find a nice view.

There's also some small chance Jesse faked his disappearance, though no reason for doing so has emerged. There was, however, a rental car with Colorado plates spotted at the trailhead within days of when Capen was reported missing. A coincidence, cops say, though Cooper mentions that he doesn't like coincidences.

Another serious possibility, the one searchers hate to think about, is that Capen set up camp, wandered off just before dark, and was unable to find his way back. Maybe he fell asleep halfway through his hunt for the tent, Cooper says, then woke up and continued walking. Under that scenario, he could've gone more than 20 miles into the wilderness.

All that uncertainty makes for a very, very long search. Of more than 2,000 search-and-rescue operations the team had done before Capen's disappearance, the longest was five weekends. As the guys make their way up the overgrown trail along Tortilla Creek, the search for Jesse is at seven weekends — and counting.

"This one has [few] clues," Cooper says. "The ones in the past, at least you had some clues that the person was in the area. Here you have his tent with all his belongings — and that's it."

Cooper supposes it's possible "that [Capen] dropped his belongings and left the state."

But, statistically speaking, Capen (or what's left of him) is within a half-mile of his camp.

On this beautiful Saturday, the team gathers just after dawn to work on slowly clearing every inch of that half-mile.

"We're not quitting until we find him. We never have," Cooper says. "I've been on the team since '94, and we've never not found someone we've started to look for. We have a perfect record."

This is the Lost Dutchman story that drew Jesse Capen to Arizona, stripped of disputed facts: An old German prospector named Jacob Waltz died in his modest Phoenix-area ranch house with a large pile of gold ore in or near that house, having told at least one person that the ore came from a gold-rich mine hidden in or near the Superstition Mountains.

The variations on that theme are the real heart of the legend, though. There is a seemingly unending list of added details — nearly a printed encyclopedia's worth of stories accompanied by enough crudely rendered maps to fill an atlas. They range widely in veracity. Some tack hard-boiled science onto that bare-bones Dutchman story; others are rooted in plausible but unprovable secondhand information; other bits revolve around curses enforced by mystical guardians.

But the talk of curses isn't taken seriously by many of those seeking the gold. After all, any serious Dutchman hunter would be foolhardy to pursue the treasure if he believed he might get an arrow in the back, fired by the apparition of a long-dead Apache warrior.

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Martin Cizmar
Contact: Martin Cizmar