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.

Page 4 of 7

Arizona's backwoods justice system refused to even open an inquest into his death, despite international attention from newspapers, which brought an unexpected consequence: His unsolved murder turned out to be a boon to the area, re-establishing a legend and sparking a blaze of interest that's still smoldering.


No one knows exactly how or when Jesse Capen became interested in the Lost Dutchman Mine almost 80 years later. Jesse was a loner, says his mother, Cynthia Burnett, and the intrigue around the mythical mine apparently put this tendency into hyper-drive.

Actually, Capen reluctantly told Burnett he was headed to Tonto National Forest for a month only after she pushed him for information while altering a sleeping bag to comfortably fit his well-padded, 6-foot-4-inch frame. Keep in mind that at 2.8 million acres, Tonto National Forest is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined — so that wasn't much to go on.

"He's been looking at this area since 2000. We found pictures [that] he had taken, which were developed on November 1, 2000, so we know for sure that he went three times, and he could have gone more," she says. "He never, in his whole life, mentioned the Lost Dutchman Mine to me . . . One time I asked him if he'd been reading any good books lately, and he said, 'Yeah, but trust me, Mom, you wouldn't be interested in this.' And I said, 'Well, give me a try,' and he said, 'No, these aren't the kind of books you read.' I just let it go; I wasn't going to pry anymore."

Typical of a Dutchman hunter to keep quiet, but his mother found his behavior illogical.

"I could see him being secretive, in general, but I can't imagine him being that secretive with his parents," she says. "That's just going to remain a mystery."

Capen was, his mother says, perhaps too right-brained for his own good. A lifelong bachelor who'd been diagnosed as bipolar, he was a high school dropout who scored near the top of his class on his SATs. He was a responsible sort, never having missed a day of work in 11 years on the same job. His co-workers called him "The Gentle Giant," his mother says. A night manager at the Sheraton Downtown Denver said the hotel has a strict policy forbidding employees from commenting on Capen, though why is anyone's guess. Capen was overweight — at least he appeared that way in the driver's license photo that circulated after he went missing — but he carried an immense amount of gear to the campsite from which he disappeared.

Jesse left for Arizona before Thanksgiving, telling his mom he'd be back before Christmas and promising to try to call her a few times if he could. The first call Burnett and Jesse's father, her ex-husband, got from Arizona was from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. Capen's parents came out to Arizona on December 24 and went back to Denver on New Year's Eve, having been questioned by searchers and given a helicopter tour of the area, which is in both Pinal and Maricopa counties.

All that is known about Jesse's activities in Arizona comes from what was found in his apartment and from reports offered by people he talked to, like the owner of the Apache Junction Motel, where Capen stayed before heading into the bush. Maybe it was the new, anti-anxiety medication he'd recently been prescribed, but Capen was chatty, stopping by Apache Junction's museums and historical society, which had helped him acquire out-of-print Dutchman books, and buying a soda at The Blue Bird Mine general store.

Those who met him say, like old Adolph Ruth, Capen showed no signs of worrying about the dangers of the area. His mother doesn't understand that. The fact that Jesse went in without a gun — and actually hadn't even thought to bring a knife — bothers her.

"It's not television danger. It's real danger. I don't know if he thought he was different, that it wasn't going to happen to him . . . but if I had read those books, I would have been frightened out of my mind going out there."

Part of her thinks he may have had some idea what he was getting into.

"The last few months [before he left], he kept telling me that he loved me and appreciated me. And he didn't say a lot of things like that . . . I don't know if that was a coincidence, or if he knew the danger he was going into, like he might not see me again."


Teton Ken is today's version of the Lost Dutchman. An actor who specializes in depicting the fabled miner, Teton certainly looks the part, having grown a gray beard so bushy it obscures most of his facial expressions. He lives in a trailer that doubles as a staging ground for his act, moving it from one area tourist trap to another. He's the sort of grubby old coot whom kids love and yuppie parents watch with a wary eye.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Martin Cizmar
Contact: Martin Cizmar