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.

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Likewise, there's a glut of information from people who claim to know this or that about the search for Capen — which is good and bad, say Robert Cooper and Cynthia Burnett. On one hand, people are interested, and some kind folks have gone online to provide search support and to offer Cynthia a shoulder to cry on. On the other hand, there's a lot of misinformation. It used to take several years and access to a printing press to widely circulate variations on a Dutchman story; now anyone with a computer can do it instantly.

One poster says Capen staged his disappearance and is working on a book. Several vehemently assert that he must've been caught in a storm and tried to hurriedly make his way back to his Jeep, running recklessly down the wash. He fell, they suppose, and the water carried him away, the rushing current pummeling his body against rocks until there was nothing left to find. Some say he probably went into a tiny cave that no one will ever find and was bitten by a snake. Others look at his flabby countenance in the driver's license photo and surmise it was a heart attack. There are cruelly imaginative posts, too, including one that suggests hungry animals ate Jesse's body as he was alive and incapacitated. His family, understandably desperate for any information, reads this kind of stuff, and it's hard on them.

All told, thanks to Superstition Search and Rescue, the hunt for Capen has probably been the longest organized search in the history of the Superstitions. He's part of the lore now, and the stakes are high.

For SSR, gathered at the Tortilla Trailhead for another early-Saturday hike into the area where Jesse was last seen, there's a palpable sense of urgency. Foremost, it seems, squad member are there to provide closure to his family. But there's also a chance to score a huge 'W' in a simmering feud with Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu.

Cooper and his crew publicly supported the old sheriff, whom "Sheriff Paul," as he likes to be called, defeated two years ago. As Maricopa County residents are painfully aware, sheriffs can be more politicians than actual law enforcement agents, and Sheriff Paul has been trying to settle the score with SSR by pulling its county-tied insurance and trying to force Cooper out. Babeu also has started a posse to handle searches and told the rest of Cooper's team they're welcome to join. So far only a K-9 unit has defected.

Undaunted, Cooper says his guys shine when the county gives up on finding a missing prospector.

"When they stop searching, that's a cold case for us, and unfortunately, it's a great opportunity for us to do what we do," he says.

Meanwhile, at her home in Denver, Cynthia Burnett mostly mourns but sometimes worries. She still frets about anything unusual, even though she's 99 percent sure her son was killed in a run-of-the-mill mishap, his body somehow ending up somewhere searchers haven't yet thought to look. Still, doubts pop into her head. A mysterious cashier's check turned up in the mail a while ago, inspiring her to dream up a long list of dark, far-fetched theories and causing a week of panicked agony before some of her friends 'fessed up to sending it, worried she needed money.

Cynthia, like her son, is now drawn to the Superstitions by an intense force she can't fully verbalize. She's read all her son's books, but it's not about the lust for gold or the photos of gorgeous desert scenery, she says; it's that the Superstitions are the only place she imagines she'll really feel connected to her Jesse. The mountains were a sacred place to the Apache, which is how they got their name, and now they're sacred to Cynthia Burnett.

She dreams of walking the trails someday, seeing what Jesse saw in the place he didn't dare tell her he was going, but sacrificed everything to get to.

"We've got no place to go in memory of Jesse because we don't have his body," she says. "So, down the line, I'd like to go into the area, maybe with some of the men who've been hunting for him, and have them take me down one of those trails — just to be where Jesse was last alive. That was Jesse's bliss, and I want to go where he found his bliss."

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Martin Cizmar
Contact: Martin Cizmar