Phoenix bus driver Charles Spencer is a driven man. And for the past four years, in his spare time, that drive has led him to spend hundreds of hours searching for the treasure rumored to be hidden in the fabled Superstition Mountains.

But unlike thousands of hapless treasure hunters who have preceded him, Charles Spencer has finally hit pay dirt, locating a treasure-trove worth billions of dollars.

Or at least that's the way it looks on paper (photocopy paper, to be exact), many pieces of which are now spread across a table in a map-lined room in his west Valley apartment.

Many of the pages initially appear to be murky photocopies taken from a Spanish-language puzzle magazine. In reality, they're photocopied photographs of a series of stone tablets that Spencer believes lead to treasure that was hidden in the Superstitions by Spanish Jesuit priests two centuries ago.

Riddled with Xs, circles, dots, random zigzag lines and numbers, one of the slabs resembles a prehistoric doodle pad, the sort of thing you might find next to Fred Flintstone's telephone. Another slab features a rather detailed drawing of what appears to be a witch (Spencer insists it's actually a Jesuit priest), accompanied by some Spanish writing that loosely translates into the mushy phrase, "Search the map/Search the heart." Other slabs feature a mumbo jumbo of crosses, daggers, dates and misspelled Spanish words. As a set, the trio of stones looks like something cooked up as set decoration for Tom Sawyer's Island at Disneyland.

Vaguely indicating a portion of a topographical map of the Superstition Mountains where he believes the church treasure is hidden, the bus driver flashes a broad smile. "I'm 90 percent certain I've located it," beams Spencer, who says modesty alone prevents him from claiming a greater certainty. "Until you actually find it, you can never be 100 percent certain. I have to base everything I do on pure fact--and there could be something I overlooked, something I left out, something I missed or some twist that I didn't catch. That's why I arbitrarily assigned the 90 percent figure. Nobody's perfect."

But in Spencer's mind, at least, he's obviously come far closer than everyone else who's ever scoured the Superstitions. "Based on all my research, no one's come close to deciphering the stone tablets," boasts Spencer. "I have deviated from their thinking and utilized to the best of my ability a scientific approach with a whole lot of common sense. I'm completely an individual thinker."

Few who've waded through Spencer's copious notes will argue that point. While driving down Central Avenue one day, for instance, Spencer happened to notice a horse sculpted over the door of Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church. Because that horse roughly resembled the horse etched on one of the stone tablets, Spencer was instantly able to conclude that not only were the tablets authentic, but they were of Jesuit origins.

According to Spencer, much of his success in cracking the code can be attributed to his outgoing nature.

"Most treasure hunters stick to themselves," he explains. "I'm tired of sick mentalities like that. If you've got something, share it, because most of the folks who believe they have some kind of valid information go to their graves and they never found anything in their lives."
Spencer says he picks up valuable information from many sources, like the time he struck up a conversation with a drunken bus rider who revealed secrets about a cavern where Geronimo supposedly hid out. "He told me more than he should have," reports Spencer, who also has frequent run-ins with people "who know more than they were saying."

In the unlikely event that Spencer does uncover the Jesuit cache, it'll be something of a hollow victory. Following the 1983 Wilderness Act, any boodle found within the Superstition Mountains will almost certainly become the property of Uncle Sam. "The federal government will get the whole ball of wax," explains Spencer. "But I really don't care. I'm not in this for the money. I'm just like anyone else--I want that 15 minutes of fame."

Spencer first encountered the tablets during a 1988 visit to Mesa's Southwest Museum, where the controversial tablets have been on permanent loan for ten years from the A.L. Flagg Foundation (a Phoenix-based nonprofit mineral organization). That the museum clearly labels the tablets as a curio of dubious historical value merely whetted Spencer's interest.

"We present them as sort of tongue-in-cheek artifacts," says Tray Mead, director of the museum. According to Mead, the tablets were supposedly found near Florence Junction by a vacationing Oregon couple during the late Forties or early Fifties and were awarded to the Flagg Foundation some years ago following a court dispute nobody remembers much about.

"Or at least that's one version of the story," laughs Mead. "Nobody seems to know the real story."
Although not identified as such, the tablets currently on exhibit in the museum are actually replicas; the real tablets are stored in a vault for safekeeping. Yet for a $75 fee (which is used to help fund the Flagg Foundation), interested parties may schedule two-hour sessions during which they may photograph and study the genuine articles.

But many experts who've examined the real McCoys have hollered, "Fake!", dismissing even the originals as a hoax. One of the most consistent objections has been the tablets' smooth-textured inscriptions, strongly suggesting that the slabs were probably produced with tools that didn't exist prior to the 20th century. And you don't need to be a student of American technology to recognize that the etching of a horse prominently featured on one slab bears an uncanny resemblance to something out of a 1930s Max Fleischer cartoon.

Yet in spite of the tablets' dubious heritage, Mead claims that they remain one of the museum's most popular attractions. "We've had treasure hunters travel the globe in an attempt to decipher these things," says Mead. "Everyone's convinced that these are going to lead them to fabulous treasure--whatever that is. And three or four times a year, someone comes in who's absolutely sure they've solved the thing, then we never hear from them again. My personal belief is that they are old forgeries of some kind. But who knows?"

@body:Charles Spencer, perhaps.
In addition to such obvious areas of study as Arizona and Jesuit history, the bus driver claims he's pursued such arcane subject matter as geology, celestial navigation, desert flora and Hebrew in an attempt to make sense of the hieroglyphics on the tablets. Those figures that he can't readily identify may be meaningless red herrings, he theorizes.

While many might question Spencer's wisdom in devoting four years to unscrambling a monolithic rebus puzzle that may lead nowhere, you've got to admire his perseverance. After perusing photocopies of the alleged "maps," most casual observers would probably opt for a less-taxing pastime, like, say, solving Albanian cryptograms.

If the sandstone slabs are indeed a directory to hidden treasure, the tablets are certainly the most user-unfriendly maps in the history of cartography. Rand McNally on loco weed couldn't have come up with anything weirder.

The sandstone tablets consist of three major pieces--four, if you count the heart-shaped insert that fits into a corresponding heart-shaped cutout in one of the slabs. Each slab measures 20 to 25 inches long, 10 to 12 inches high and is approximately two inches thick.

Since all three slabs are inscribed on both sides, it is impossible to view the entire map at once. Adding further difficulty is the problematic heart-shaped jigsaw-puzzle piece, which is also inscribed on both sides. Because it is symmetrical, this piece can be inserted into the heart-shaped hole with either side up, drastically altering whatever meaning the surrounding jumble might have.

If Charles Spencer is correct in identifying the tablets as a guide to hidden church treasure, one can only assume that once upon a time, the Superstitions were crawling with confused Jesuit priests.

But thanks to his four years of intensive research, you won't find this bus driver asking directions. Spencer claims that while many treasure hunters randomly prowl the vast Superstition range, his research has enabled him to narrow his search to a specific area no bigger than one-fifth of a square mile.

Exactly where that might be, he's not saying--yet. "Once I get out there, it's just a systematic grid search, though," explains Spencer, who hopes that publicity about his theory will help him land financial backing to salvage the treasure. "The Jesuits [had planned] to come back to get it themselves, so they'll have left something out there--a treasure sign--to tell me where it is. It'll be a pile of rocks, three trees planted in a triangle, or maybe a rock with a picture of a snake on it."

When it's pointed out that the Superstitions are rife with hieroglyphics, manmade rock formations and other freakish natural landmarks (all of which might be considered "treasure signs), Spencer smiles patiently.

"Once I've found the treasure, it'll be obvious what the treasure sign is," announces Spencer. "For instance, the sign might be the only huge boulder in the area that does not match the geology of the area."
Charles Spencer is nothing if not determined. Folding his hands across his chest, he dutifully listens to a list of seemingly unanswerable questions that could pose insurmountable roadblocks to the so-close-yet-so-far-away Jesuit cache.

How, for instance, can Spencer be sure there are really only three pieces to the map?

How can Spencer be sure someone didn't find the treasure years ago?
And assuming that the maps are indeed authentic, how can Spencer ever hope to match the sketchy topography indicated on the ancient tablets with the Superstition landscape of today?

When that mini-inquisition is over, Spencer flashes a confident smile--he's already taken all that into account, thank you very much. "It's all in the research," he says, thumping his finger on a thick ream of photocopied documents and photographs.

@body:The curator of the Superstition Mountain Historical Society is all too familiar with the legends that have sprung up around the artifacts since they were discovered some four decades ago in the Florence Junction area.

"I've made a lot of people unhappy, but I just can't get very excited about these stone tablets." So says curator Tom Kollenborn, who is frequently quizzed about the alleged maps by would-be treasure seekers, nearly all of whom believe they have finally cracked the code that has eluded everyone before them.

Chuckling wanly, Kollenborn reports that over the years, he's heard practically every stone-tablet theory imaginable--not to mention a few that border on the unimaginable.

"Some people believe they show where the treasure is, some say they are really surveying maps, other people say this, others that. Someone's always coming up with a 'new' angle.

"I can't prove it, of course, but I've always thought they were some sort of hoax," insists Kollenborn. Although he concedes the tablets are "undoubtedly old" (or at least appear to be), the curator claims he has extreme doubts that the tablets are actually of Spanish origin. Instead, he theorizes that the tablets may actually have been manufactured as "evidence" in hopes of swaying a judge in a long-ago land-rights lawsuit.

In any event, Kollenborn suggests that from a purely practical standpoint, the mysterious "maps" (if that's indeed what they are) are almost certainly a hoax.

"Those rocks are big--they probably weigh 90 pounds apiece," says Kollenborn. "Why would anyone put a map on stone unless it was for some sort of permanent display? Can you imagine anyone packing these things around? It simply doesn't make sense."
@body:So much has been published about Superstition Mountains treasure that Kollenborn has compiled a computerized listing of literature, cataloguing (at last count) 72 different books and some 18,000 newspaper articles dating from 1859.

Randomly scanning an additional list of the hundreds of articles about Superstition treasure that have been published in various magazines over the years, it's easy to see how many an armchair adventurer has been inspired to throw a pickax in the back of the family sedan and head for the hills.

Never mind that many of the articles (like the ominously titled "Stay Away From Up There!", a piece that appeared in a 1938 issue of Family Circle) warned of the horrors of the sinister Superstitions. For every cautionary tale of the perils of the mountains, gold-digging wanna-bes could find five articles ballyhooing "The Richest Mine in the World" or, even more promising, "Treasure Enough for Everyone." Besides, no pain, no gain. Rattlesnake fangs be damned! Come and get it!

That gilt-edged clarion call was never louder than when Life magazine trumpeted the stone tablets in an article that it ran in June 1964, perhaps the first (and best-known) article about the artifacts to be printed in a mainstream publication.

While long on photos of the sandstone curiosities, the article was suspiciously short on facts regarding the tablets' origins. Oddly, the question of the tablets' authenticity was never even broached.

Instead, the article focused on the melodramatic trials and tribulations of one "Travis Marlowe," a 58-year-old Apache Junction prospector who was so busy staring down bobcats, sidestepping sidewinders and dodging bullets that he scarcely had time to decipher the tablets that were to be his claim to fame. The article read more like a slick piece of Western pulp fiction--hardly the kind of coverage you'd expect to find in a national news magazine with Life's fact-finding resources. Despite a dearth of any verifiable information about the tablets, the nearly-30-year-old magazine story continues to be one of the best-known pieces of literature on the subject.

Not to Superstition historian Robert Sikorsky, author of two books (Fools' Gold and Quest for the Dutchman's Gold) that delve into legends and lore regarding lost mines and treasure in the area.

"The reason Life glossed over the facts was that there was nothing substantive there in the first place," contends Sikorsky, a syndicated automotive columnist who lives in Tucson. "You see, that's the bread and butter of most 'lost treasure' tales: You can't go and verify anything." As a result, he contends that treasure hunters can easily delude themselves into believing anything is possible.

A good-natured skeptic who is, nonetheless, fascinated with the lore enshrouding the Superstition Mountains (the writer jokes that "the Lost Dutchman is the most 'found' lost mine in the world), Sikorsky explains that he initially included material about the stone tablets in his books simply as "an interesting sidelight" to "show the ridiculous lengths to which this thing can be carried and to show how gullible some really are."

The plan backfired.
Although Sikorsky's books question the stones' authenticity (the writer reveals that he has since developed information that a couple of Apache Junction cowboys carved the tablets and buried them in the desert as a practical joke), some readers who were previously unaware of the tablets apparently felt as if they'd just stumbled upon the key to the southwest branch of Fort Knox.

And according to Sikorsky, some treasure hunters have gone broke trying to break that bank.

"There are cases where people have given their whole life to the search for a treasure that was never really there in the first place," says Sikorsky. "Once you dip into this area, there's a good chance you're eventually going to drown in this stuff. It's nearly impossible to sift whatever facts there may be from all the chaff of lies and innuendo and hearsay and tall tales and wishful thinking. Yet this kind of mindset is very common among treasure hunters. Whenever someone thinks they've got the key to something, they think anyone else who tells them anything to the contrary is simply trying to get them off the path."
Informed of Charles Spencer's four-year effort to make sense of the tablets, Sikorsky says, "I personally feel sorry for this guy. There's really nothing there to decipher."

No argument there from Dr. Charles Polzer, Jesuit ethnohistorian at the Southwest Mission Research Center at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson.

"The whole thing with the tablets is just insane," laughs Polzer, who theorizes that interest in the slabs can be directly related to downswings in the economy. "The Church has records going way back, and we weren't even out here when all this was supposed to be happening. Still, you continue to have these people who insist we're hiding something. It's like arguing about UFOs."
Nonetheless, says Polzer, "You have these people who see the stones, then they start reading the books and these little pieces of fantasy kind of get trapped in the intestine of literature. And they just keep creating gas."

And it just might be that kind of gas that continues to fuel the fires of a man like Charles Spencer, who, no matter what, is determined to go for the gold.

Even if it isn't his.

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Dewey Webb