Since time unremembered there has been a certain allure to the idea of lost treasure. To think that there is a vast hoard of loot or priceless artifacts just lying around out in the wilds has driven people to the point of madness and obsession, and there seems to always be room for a good treasure story. Back in 1937, the place called Victorio Peak, named after a 19th century Apache war chief, was just a craggy rocky outcropping jutting up out of the parched, desolate wilds of southern New Mexico, in the United States, right next to the sprawling desert called the Jornada del Muerto and within what is in present day the White Sands Missile Range. At the time it was in the middle of nowhere, and just about the only people who ever saw it were sporadic hunting parties that would come through the region from time to time. In November of 1937, one of these hunting parties was passing through, consisting of a Milton Ernest “Doc” Noss, his wife Ova “Babe” Beckworth, and four others, out hunting for deer. While out scouting the area, Noss did not manage to find any deer, but he did find something rather strange out there in those badlands, which would start one of the biggest mysteries in New Mexico history.
As he looked around the area he climbed up the peak and found near the top a rock that didn’t seem to fit, and which looked as if it had been worked or tooled with human hands. He would dig at this anomalous stone to find that it was loose, and that it was situated over a shaft that led down into the gloom, along with a wooden pole fastened to its side. He assumed that he had found an old mining shaft, but as he did not have the proper equipment to investigate it, he went back to the camp to tell his wife, but the two kept it to themselves, planning to come back and explore that mysterious tunnel into the dark on their own.
A few days later, Noss and Ova came back to the mystery shaft, this time prepared with ropes and flashlights. The wooden pole on the side of the shaft proved to be too old and unstable to use, and so Noss descended into that murky darkness by rope, his flashlight piercing a beam through the black into the dank unknown. He and his bobbing light would pass by a series of interconnected chambers and a maze of labyrinthine tunnels leading off from the main shaft, and after descending around 60 feet straight down into the mountain he came to a chamber with what appeared to be ancient paintings and inscriptions by the Natives of the region. Past this chamber was an inclined tunnel that he followed down deeper into the bowels of the peak, soon coming across a rather macabre site buried down there. In one chamber the wavering light of his beam danced over a row of skeletons down there in the gloom, all of them having had their hands bound behind their backs and tied to immense wooden stakes driven into the ground, the dead, empty sockets of their skulls looking lifelessly out onto their subterranean domain. Noss was able to get over his shock at this grim discovery and continue on into other rooms, finding various signs that Natives had once lived here, as well as other things such as a room full of swords and guns, and another containing letters dated back to the 19th century. Yet this was only the beginning of the secrets of this mysterious labyrinth.
In yet another chamber, Noss was surprised to find a treasure trove of coins, jewels, gemstones, and even a shimmering gold statue of the Virgin Mary. Past this was a dank room with what seemed to be just worthless bars of iron stacked against a wall, and by this time he was eager to get back to the surface and tell his wife what he had found. Upon telling Ova of the bars, she excitedly told him to bring one of them up, and so he returned through the dark tunnels and that gauntlet of skeletons to grab one of them to show her. Although it did indeed look to be just a tarnished hunk of worthless metal, Ova suspected differently, and after buffing away the layer of grime she found what she was looking for. This was not iron, but rather a bar of gold, and there were thousands more where it had come from. Looking about the barren landscape around them and paranoid of anyone else seeing what they were up to, they carefully replaced the boulder over the shaft and were determined to come back with what they would need to remove all of that loot. When they left that day, they did so with dreams of hitting it rich dancing through their heads.
The determined Noss knew he needed help, but was extremely careful about who he chose to bring back to the peak with him, taking along only close family and friends to help him remove the the heavy gold bars, which could weigh up to 100 pounds each. The team worked under strenuous conditions down there in the dark, hauling up bar after bar from that subterranean chamber, as well as all manner of other valuable treasures, including an ornate crown studded with 243 diamonds and one pigeon blood ruby, and many of these objects Noss allegedly secretly hid in various spots without telling even his wife. Indeed, there supposedly were countless gold bars hidden away like this by the greedy Noss, who never would reveal their location. Besides coins and bars, there were apparently other valuables down there as well, including documents dated to 1797 written by Pope Pius III, but mostly Doc was all about the gold and the coins, concentrating on all of that loot hidden down there in the earth and ignoring many of the other artifacts. At the time they were barely making a dent in the total haul, which Noss would estimate as being around 16,000 bars of gold, and they tirelessly toiled away trying to get as much as they could.
One of the problems Noss faced at the time was that this was all highly illegal, as the Gold Act passed just a few years before his discovery had forbidden private owner ship of gold, but he meant to remedy this. In the spring of 1938 he and his wife made a trip to Santa Fe in order to apply for legal ownership of the land, several mining claims, and a treasure trove claim, which he successfully acquired, making his claim on the treasure legal. Even so, he was extremely paranoid, and continued to hide secret stashes of gold amounting to millions of dollars out in the desert wilds. He would mine the chambers of Victorio Peak nearly every day, bringing up an estimated 200 to 350 bars of gold, but things were about to take a turn for the worse, and bring the dig grinding to a halt.
In the fall of 1939, Noss was starting to think that the rate of pulling up the heavy bars was not as fast as he would have liked, and so he came up with the idea of widening the main passage. To this end, he brought in a mining engineer to use dynamite to enlarge the tunnel, but this would backfire tremendously. Rather than widening the passage, the blast caused a cave-in, bringing the entire tunnel down in a heap of rock and rubble, much to the utter shock of Noss. He would then spend the next decade selling some of the treasure he did have on the black market and trying to regain access to no avail, the thousands of remaining gold bars out of his reach. His obsession with this spelled the end of his marriage, and still he was undeterred to re-access his hoard. He would forge a business partnership with a Texas oil man named Charlie Ryan, and in the meantime his growing paranoia in the face of increased media coverage of his discovery had him decide to move a good portion of his hidden stash. He especially did not trust Ryan, with whom he had entrusted with the location of some of his buried treasure, and so enlisted one local rancher by the name of Tony Jolley to help him relocate it. Jolley would later say of the operation:
In March of 1949 I handled 110 rough poured bars of gold in the area which is now White Sands Missile Range which is now the area of Victorio Peak. On the night of March 4, 1949, I went with Doc Noss and dug up 20 bars of gold at a windmill in the desert east of Hatch, New Mexico, and reburied them in the basin where Victorio Peak is. We took 90 bars … stacked by a mine shaft at Victorio Peak and reburied them 10 in a pile scattered throughout the basin with the exception of 30 bars that we buried in a grassy flat near the road we came out on.
It was perhaps a portent of things to come, as the very next day after this Noss got into an argument with Ryan and things turned ugly, ending with Noss shot to death. In the years after this, Noss’s ex-wife, Babe, continued to try to assert her own claim on the land and try to reopen the collapsed tunnel, without success. In 1955, the U.S. Army expanded the territory of their White Sands base and seized Victorio peak, in the process denying the Noss family any more access to the site. She would vehemently challenge this over the years, but was unable to regain access to the treasure. As all of this was going on, it had become no secret that the peak was supposed to harbor possibly billions of dollars in gold, and there were people willing to go in and risk their lives to find it.
The first of these were airmen from the nearby employees at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, who went out to poke around the peak and see what they could find. Captain Leonard V. Fiege and Airman First Class Thomas Berlett took a group of others to Victorio Peak under the pretense of a hunting trip, during which time they stumbled across a natural passage that led within the peak and ended up at a chamber filled with stacks of the gold bars. At the time, they decided not to take any with them, but to rather seek permission to explore further, which was denied. Then, in 1961 the Army would send a convoy of men with Fiege in order to assess whether the claims were true, but they were unable to get back into the entrance, as it had since collapsed. Not long after this, the Army began a covert mining operation in the area, despite the fact that the New Mexico government had denied their requests to do so. They were eventually shut down from further excavations, but in 1963 the Gaddis Mining Company of Denver, Colorado, was given legal rights to work the site. They supposedly found no sign of the treasure.
In September of 1968, a civilian security guard from White Sands Missile Range named Clarence McDonald went out to the peak with businessman Lynn Porter and Porter’s friend on a hunting trip to the peak, and would purportedly find a passage into the peak that led to stacks of gold bars in a chamber. They removed one of the smaller bars, at only 40 pounds, in order to keep as evidence for seeking permission to mine the area at a future date. The bar was given to an Army major at Fort Bliss who was a friend of Porter’s for safekeeping, but this major was soon reassigned without warning to move off with his family and the bar of gold. It was never seen again. In 1977, professional treasure hunter Norman Scott was able to determine through ground penetrating radar that there were indeed large chambers down beneath the peak exactly where Noss had said they would be, but that was as far as he got, and he was unable to find any of the actual gold.
In the meantime, there would be signs of some sort of sinister cover-up when several people who had claimed to have seen Army personnel removing gold from the peak received death threats, and those who got anywhere near the peak were met with armed military escorts out. Indeed, a man by the name of Captain Swanner, who had been stationed at White Sands Missile Base, would later claim that the military had managed to find and remove all of the gold to Fort Knox. Others have come forward to also claim the government removed all of the treasure as well, including security guards and officers at the base. Some of these have claimed to have been part of the government cover-up of the treasure, including an engineer by the name of Dick Richardson, who claimed that he had personally counted 18,888 of the bars in service of the military, but the military has always denied all such claims, and has sought to squash what they call baseless rumors and discourage treasure hunters from entering the area.
In 1989, after years of legal wrangling and continuous efforts to have the site reopened, the Noss family was finally allowed to search for the treasure, but they have never been able to find it. Indeed, there is no solid physical evidence that the treasure ever even existed at all other than the claims, documents, photographs, and affidavits of those who say they saw it, and the Army has always been vague and ambiguous as to whether such a thing ever was at Victorio Peak. The theories on why so much gold and other artifacts and valuables would be stashed at this remote peak has seen many theories spring up, such as that it was treasure that the Apaches had stolen, the hoard of the founder of New Mexico as a Spanish colony, Don Juan de Onate, or the missing wealth of Emperor Maxmillian, who served as Mexico’s emperor in the 1860s.
At the same time that people were talking about where the treasure came from, they were talking about where it went. Is it still under that mountain? Did the military remove it? Where are the various stashes that Doc Noss supposedly hid all over the desert? Did the treasure ever really exist at all, and if so who put it there? What was the meaning of the skeletons and other oddities to be found within this dim place? These are things we will perhaps never know, and the Victorio Peak treasure has remained shrouded in mysteries and unanswered questions to this day.