GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
OK, so they tell you to wait, that someday everything's going to be worth it, that patience is a virtue. It's just around the corner. Don't throw everything away. But what if there's nothing there? Well, today on SNAP JUDGMENT, we want to see what everyone's working so hard for. SNAP proudly presents the Brass Ring, amazing stories about reaching for the prize. My name is Glynn Washington. Close the door, set your phone to voicemail, and tell your boss you need a moment to prepare the big sale because you're listening to SNAP JUDGMENT.
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WASHINGTON: Now then, speaking of bosses, you want to quit your job? How about quit your job and get rich and have fantastic adventures? Well, it's probably not a good idea unless you're this next guy.
W.C. JAMESON: Hello, my name is W.C. Jameson, and I'm a professional treasure hunter.
ANNA SUSSMAN, BYLINE: For about 40 years, W.C. Jameson has searched for and recovered buried treasure - gold bars, silver ingots, ancient artifacts. And he's done it in secret.
JAMESON: I pretty much never let anybody know about it. My children didn't even know what I was doing, in large part because a lot of what we do is illegal.
SUSSMAN: He's a bit of a folk legend among treasure hunters. I met him at his home in East Texas. His lawn is decorated with found art, painted antlers, homemade windmills, something called a bottle tree, where he hangs blue bottles of Bombay Sapphire once he's done drinking the gin inside. On the wall of his study, he's hung a portrait of the great Texas poet Willie Nelson. Every Thursday, you can find him singing his own songs and playing guitar at the local bar. Now that he's getting older, he's begun to soften up a little about talking.
JAMESON: I don't care anymore.
SUSSMAN: You don't care what?
JAMESON: I don't care if I get caught.
SUSSMAN: What he does - and you have to do a lot more of - is sneak into national parks, sometimes onto private property, over national borders, searching for buried treasure. He used to work with three partners. Together, they were a kind of swashbuckling adventure team.
JAMESON: We - interestingly, we all had military experience. We were all sharpshooters. We all had black belts in martial arts. We're all university educated. Among the four of us, there were two Ph.Ds. and three master's degrees. Nobody agreed to have their own names used. A fellow I refer to as Slade was a six-year Marine. He spent four years in Vietnam. And the guy I referred to as Poet is from England. Stanley, Dr. Stanley, was a university professor. He was actually the brains behind the quartet.
SUSSMAN: Dr. Stanley would travel to Mexico City and troll the archives for old maps of silver and gold mines operated by the Spanish colonial government.
JAMESON: We would use the directional - the geographic information that we found in these to chase down these locations.
SUSSMAN: They'd pack up food and water and drive to abandoned ranches in Colorado, Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona, and then they'd head out on foot in search of hidden mines.
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JAMESON: A lot of times, these searches, we would find what we were looking for during the first expedition. Some of these searches took - one in particular was a silver cache in the Sierra Madres. It took us seven years to find 880 bars of silver, 18-pound silver ingots. Two or three of these locations where we found caches, we would return to time and again, and we would - we called them banks. That was a code word among ourselves. And we would, from time to time - I and the company of my partners from time to time would travel to these banks and make withdrawals. I don't owe anybody any money at all. Everything I pay for is in cash. I sent three kids through college. I bought a ranch at one point.
SUSSMAN: He's found treasure covered in hundreds of rattlesnakes. He's been swept up in river rapids on his motorbike.
JAMESON: About 100cc trail bike that I drove through a - flood waters of the Rio Grande one time.
SUSSMAN: He's camped alongside mountain lions and jaguars. A lot of his stories sound fantastical, especially the story he's about to tell.
Is this a true story?
SUSSMAN: How true is it?
JAMESON: It is - it's 100 percent true. If anything, on - in a lot of these stories, I hold back stuff, simply because I'm a little bit concerned that it - when I have in the past tried to explain what I do, I see a look of doubt in people's faces. And so I tend not to talk about this stuff all that much.
SUSSMAN: This story starts with a phone call from an elderly woman named Helen Pitcock.
JAMESON: That was, actually, one of the most bizarre experiences I've ever had. Yeah, I think she had learned about something I was doing through a newspaper article or some information that had escaped.
SUSSMAN: The woman said her husband was missing, and she needed Jameson's help finding him.
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JAMESON: She told me the story of her husband leaving their home in Georgia. I believe they were from Toccoa, Ga. And going into this mountain range in Arizona and him discovering a treasure - silver ingots in a silver mine - he returned back home in Georgia. He brought back a couple of silver ingots and told - informed his wife he was going to gather up some serious camping supplies, and he was going back. He was obsessed with recovering his treasure. He quit his job - I'm sure much to Mrs. Pitcock's dismay - packed their vehicle and headed back out to the mountains.
SUSSMAN: A year passed, and Herman didn't come home. Then, another year passed. Helen heard nothing from her husband. She hadn't heard from him in seven years by the time she called Jameson. She asked him to look for his remains.
JAMESON: She mailed us a copy of that map. We made an arrangement that if we found him or found any of this alleged treasure that she would get a - certainly get a split of it. We had plans to go out to this area anyway to search for this silver cache that we had somehow heard about. It was like, you know, a message from above or something that we might ought to just go ahead and do this.
SUSSMAN: Would you say that your intentions were altruistic or opportunistic?
JAMESON: I would have to say it probably leaned more toward opportunistic. We were attracted by the notion of the lost treasure.
SUSSMAN: So Jameson and his team packed backpacks full of beans and chilis and oatmeal. They drove to the Dos Cabezas Wilderness in southern Arizona, about 100 miles from the Mexican border.
JAMESON: This is ranching country. It's desert country. It's ranching country. It's actually very poor ranching country. I think the nearest town would've been about 20 or 30 miles away, a good day's walk, surely. We all went as birdwatchers. We got into the canyon that was indicated on the map, and we set up camp, cooked our meal, our backpack stuff and basically sitting around the campfire doing whatever we usually did. And the sun went down, and we're transitioning to going to bed because we wanted to get an early start in the morning. And it was at that point where we kept hearing somebody walking around out there. The next morning, I set out on up the canyon. But we found footprints, so somebody was up there - could've been a rancher, could've been - could've been anybody. We didn't know, but we were mostly young. We were mostly full of ourselves, and we had guns, so you know, guy stuff.
SUSSMAN: Using the map, they found a clue that they were on the right trail. They found a talus pile. Talus is the rock that's dug out of the mine and dumped at the opening of the shaft.
JAMESON: You see this - this flow of rocks on a slope. You're sliding, and you're gradually making your way up to the top.
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JAMESON: We got fired upon. A shot rang out. We head for cover. The shot came from across the canyon, and we were in an open area. And so the first thing we needed to do was get the hell off the - the slope. We went back to the campsite, spent the night at the camp that night.
SUSSMAN: And what did that night like?
JAMESON: We'd been shot at. And so we actually had posted guard. We took turns standing guard. By the way, we heard footsteps again that night in camp.
SUSSMAN: Hold on. Why not turn around and go back home and say, we tried to find this and we got shot at and left? Surely, that's an acceptable defeat.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's giving up.
JAMESON: We were on an expedition. We were on an expedition to try to find what we were searching for. Leaving the scene and going back to - going back home would've been giving up.
SUSSMAN: So what were your plans for the next day? I mean, how did you figure out what to do next?
JAMESON: We didn't. We kind of made it up on the fly. Got up the next morning, we had breakfast, and we headed back up.
SUSSMAN: As they started carefully up the talus pile, Stanley, the oldest and most cautious, went first.
JAMESON: He stepped out, he spread his arms wide and turned around to show whoever might be watching that he was unarmed, and he yelled out as loud as he could. If the person that we couldn't see had a claim on this mine and wanted us out, just let us know and we'll be glad to go. Nothing happened. Stanley looked at us. We're looking around. We're looking for a target. I'm carrying my weapon. Slade has a rifle and a pistol. There was no response whatsoever, and he proceeded up the - the talus. We were in a we'll-see mode. We'll see. Stanley made it with some difficulty, made it to the top of the talus pile where we could see the opening of the shaft. He got up to the shaft. He looked down at us, did kind of a full circle as he looked around the canyon. And then all of a sudden...
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JAMESON: ...A shot rang out, and Stanley dropped. The way he dropped, it looked like he had been hit bad. We jumped across the entrance, didn't give the person inside a chance to take aim and fire at anything, tended to Stanley. And as it turns out, he wasn't hit with a bullet. He was hit with shards of rock. He was bleeding heavily from a - a lot of cuts. There was a lot of blood. On a hunch, I called into the mine, and I said Pitcock, Herman Pitcock - are you Herman Pitcock? There was silence, and I called again. And he said, I'm Herman Pitcock. And then he kind of broke down in a kind of a rage. He immediately started accusing us of wanting to steal his treasure.
SUSSMAN: Not entirely off base. I mean, not steal, but you were there for the treasure.
JAMESON: He had a prior claim to it. You know, while we are professional treasure hunters, we do have a certain set of ethics. I explained to him that we would be happy to assist him in recovering the treasure and getting it back to Georgia. And we had made arrangements with his wife, but he would have none of it.
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JAMESON: He fired a couple of more times, and we heard the hammer of his rifle finally strike on an empty chamber. You have the empty chamber - if you ever heard that, you know what that - that sound is like. I said, wait a minute. And I looked in because I knew, you know, he would have to take a moment to reload. And so I peeked around, and I looked in the shaft, and about maybe 10 feet or a little bit more inside the shaft, as far as the morning sunlight would penetrate in there, I saw Mr. Pitcock. He was a skeleton of a man, and his clothes were just simply rags. He'd looked like a man who had not taken a shower in seven years. And, you know, what I could see in the shadows, he looked like a man who needed some serious help. I also saw that he was standing behind several kegs of what clearly was powder, used for blasting in a mine. There were also at least two, maybe more, rolls of dynamite, several sticks of dynamite, which I couldn't see anything clearly, but I could see enough of it to make out what it was. And I also watched long enough to see him strike a match. Now, we have a man who is clearly upset and possibly deranged with a lighted match, standing next to dynamite and powder. And so I shouted, we need to get out of here.
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JAMESON: And so we started scrabbling up this - roughly, it's a 45-degree slope. It wasn't easy to do. It was rocky. There was some brush there that we pulled ourselves up with.
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JAMESON: And I would say we were maybe 15 or 20 seconds into doing this when the explosion hit. He had ignited the dynamite and the powder, and the explosion just reverberated through that canyon. It seemed like it echoed forever and ever and ever. We were several seconds, basically, in a fetal position, covering our heads. Within just a few seconds, the entire canyon filled up with dust, and you couldn't even see the floor of the canyon from where we were perched on the slope. But we probably sat there for about an hour, at least, hour, hour and a half, waiting for some of the dust to settle before we set out back to the - back to the campsite. The - where the shaft was was kind of a concave scar at the slope of the mountain. There was no shaft that was discernible, no shaft left.
SUSSMAN: So what happened to Herman Pitcock, and what happened to all the silver?
JAMESON: Well, Herman Pitcock blew himself to smithereens, and the silver was blown to smithereens.
SUSSMAN: Jameson and his wounded crew stumbled down the rubble and regrouped again at their campsite.
JAMESON: That evening, we talked around the campfire. We asked ourselves the question, how did this guy survive for seven years in this canyon? You can live off the land if you know what you're looking for. There were deer in these mountains. He had a weapon. It's not unreasonable to think that he did some hunting. It's not unreasonable that he traveled back and forth to some town and picked up supplies.
SUSSMAN: Well, what do you think happened with him? Why didn't he go home to his wife? What happened?
JAMESON: He had a treasure. He had at his disposal a treasure, stacks of silver ingots, a fortune that for some reason he decided to hoard in that shaft. Wealth, a wealth that you could perhaps measure in the millions, does funny things to people. My theory on Mr. Pitcock is that he probably had mental problems to begin with.
SUSSMAN: Is it fair to say you hesitate to tell this story?
JAMESON: I've always felt uncomfortable about that whole episode, and I thought it was a somewhat sad and bizarre story. If somebody told me that story, I'm not sure that I would've bought into it entirely, or I may have wanted to figure out a better way to do things.
SUSSMAN: You second-guess yourself?
JAMESON: Yeah, relative to our strategy. I mean, we made a strategy as we went along. And with a little bit more thought, could I have summoned somebody who was a little more skilled at retrieving lost souls like this? But we were being shot at, and you make decisions on the spot like that that don't necessarily - driving back into town and chasing down the local psychologist to come and help a crazy guy who's shooting at you.
SUSSMAN: Do you feel guilt?
JAMESON: I feel no guilt whatsoever, no, nope. On the way out of the canyon, I was pondering. I initiated the discussion relative to what we're going to tell Mrs. Pitcock, and we decided that she didn't need to know this. We decided that we would just say that we investigated the canyon, and there was no sign of her husband. If I just - I didn't want to be the bearer of that kind of news to Ms. Pitcock.
SUSSMAN: So did you call her or write her a letter?
JAMESON: Yeah, called her. I had her phone number. I called her and explained to her. And she said it was just exactly what she expected, that there would be no sign.
SUSSMAN: Was that for your own good or for her own good or both?
JAMESON: Maybe for both us, for her own good, and it was - the truth is, and I - this sounds a little cowardly, but it was easier on me.
SUSSMAN: If you - if you had been Herman Pitcock and your wife had - had - you know, someone - someone else to go find out happened and this is what happened to you, would you want your wife to know the truth?
JAMESON: If I were - if I met my end similar to or at least was in the condition that Herman Pitcock was in, I think I would prefer that my wife and my children did not know that stuff. I've always told my wife that if it looks like my time was coming, what I would really like to do is throw on a backpack and head back into the Sierra Madres or into the Guadalupe Mountains and just simply find a place to lie down.
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WASHINGTON: Now, it turns out that W.C. did find a few silver ingots on his way down the mountainside, but he says they barely covered his travel costs for the trip. And if you want to find out more about W.C. Jameson - and he's written more books than most of us have even read in a lifetime - head on over to our website, snapjudgment.org. The original sound design was by Leon Morimoto, and the story was produced by Anna Sussman. Now, when SNAP returns, we're going undercover. And we're going to the NBA, maybe, when the snappage continues. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.