In Search of a Legend

updated 09/14/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1992 01:00AM

GROWING UP DURING THE 1950s AND '60s in the dusty plains town of Clovis, N.Mex., Terry Delonas heard about the treasure of Victorio Peak from his grandmother almost every day. Sitting at the dinette table in Ova "Babe" Noss' narrow aluminum trailer, Terry and his brother Jim would listen entranced as she told them how her late husband, Milton E. "Doc" Noss, had found a fabulous hoard of gold in a cavern deep inside the mountain back in 1937.

"We would always ask, 'What did Doc find in there?' " Delonas recalls. "We were just wide-eyed and captivated by the whole thing."

But the story always ended with Babe telling how Doc had accidentally dynamited the tunnel shut before he could get the gold out and how, years later, he'd been shot to death before he could reopen the passageway to the cave. The fact that no one except Doc Noss ever laid eyes on the treasure led some to denounce him as a fraud, but Babe never wavered. "She'd always say, 'Just remember, Terry, quitters never win and winners never quit,' " Delonas says. "I can tell now that she was kind of setting me up to finish this thing in case she couldn't."

Now, 13 years after Babe's death, Terry Delonas is determined to find the treasure that fired his boyhood dreams. This month he will lead an expedition up the rugged slopes of Victorio Peak, a 5,550-foot-high ridge of limestone and lava on the White Sands Missile Range, about 150 miles south of Albuquerque. There, under the watchful gaze of a squad of military police, Delonas's team will use a special drilling rig, video probe and ultrasonic range finder to look deep into the rock, continuing the search for one of the most famous and elusive treasures ever to enrich the lore of the American Southwest.

Delonas, now 44, is general partner and spokesman for the Ova Noss Family Partnership, an organization formed five years ago by Noss' stepchildren and their children and outside investors with the aim of recovering a trove of gold bars, coins, jewels and other artifacts that the family speculates could be worth as much as $2 billion. In July, thanks to an act of Congress granting the partnership one year to hunt for the gold, Delonas and his relatives began a $1 million effort to reclaim the fortune that they believe is rightfully theirs.

"The family can't get away from this story," says Delonas, who has devoted a dozen years of his life to the search. "I figured the only way we were going to escape it is to turn around and face it." Adds Delonas's cousin Jerry Cheatham: "I can recall all during the '60s and '70s and '80s, it was like an unresolved portion of our family history that we couldn't do anything with. It was a feeling of anger and helplessness and frustration."

The roots of the riddle reach hack to 1933 in Oklahoma City, where Noss, a local chiropodist, met and married Babe Beckwith, a divorcée with four children. The couple moved in 1934 to Hot Springs, N.Mex. (later renamed Truth or Consequences, alter a popular radio program), where Noss opened an office and look up treasure hunting as a hobby. According to local legend, Indians and other groups had hidden gold in nearby caves for centuries. In 1937, the family says, Noss was on a hunting trip on Victorio Peak when a sudden squall forced him to take shelter against a boulder. Noticing a current of air blowing up from under a large stone, he lifted it and discovered a hole leading to a series of chambers deep underground.

Returning with a miner's lamp and a rope ladder, Noss began exploring the narrow natural cavities within the peak. It was during one of those expeditions, he later said, that he stumbled onto a cave filled with thousands of gold bars. "If all of that is gold," he boasted to Babe, "you can call John D. Rockefeller a tramp."

Over the next two years, the family believes, Noss painstakingly carried some 200 bars of gold out through the treacherous passage that led from the cavern and buried them in the desert for safekeeping. He also produced a number of artifacts, including a 19th-century German sword that the family still has in its possession. Stepdaughters Letha Guthrie and Dorothy Delonas, who spent time at the peak when they were young women, say that though Noss never let them accompany him to the cave, he did show them a few gold bars and artifacts. "He said the less we knew, the safer we'd be," says Dorothy, now 73, who recalls being handed a gold bar by Doc while they were camping near the peak. "I tried to put it under my pillow, and it was too long. I was up all night trying to protect it."

The family says that in 1939 New Mexico officials assured Noss that if he could widen the access into the peak so that they could inspect the claim, he would be granted title to the site. It was then, they say, that bad luck struck when a dynamite blast by a mining engineer intended to open up the passage caused a cave-in that sealed it closed.

In the following years, with the help of various investors and hired laborers, Noss intermittently worked on digging a 180-foot shaft through the rubble. Increasingly wary of would-be claim jumpers, he took to carrying a gun, often dropping out of sight for long periods. As time wore on, some locals accused him of fraud, and he took to drink. "People were following and making fun of him," Dorothy Delonas says. "He'd get disgusted with things, and so he'd get drunk."

At one point, the family says, some men kidnapped Doc and took a blowtorch to the soles of his feet to get him to divulge the whereabouts of the gold he claimed to have taken from the cave. "It was right after that that he disappeared," Dorothy says. "He always fell he'd get killed over it."

He turned out to be right. In 1949, during a dispute with Charley Ryan, a Texan who was helping to finance the search, Noss was shot in the back of the head as he ran down the main street in Hatch, N.Mex. He died slumped over the fender of a Chevrolet truck. (Ryan was acquitted of the shooting after arguing that he acted in self-defense because Noss was running to get his own gun.)

Babe, who moved to Clovis after Victorio Peak was incorporated into the White Sands Missile Range in 1955, returned to the mountain in 1963 for a 60-day expedition in cooperation with the Museum of New Mexico. Nothing was found. A dig led by Florida-based treasure hunter Norm Scott in 1977 proved equally fruitless. Yet Babe, who died in 1979 at the age of 84, never doubled that her husband would be vindicated. Says Jim Delonas: "She was determined to prove that Doc was not a liar and a con man."

Skeptics believe she was destined to fail. Jim Eckles, a White Sands public-affairs officer who has followed the case, thinks that Noss used bogus gold bricks and store-bought artifacts to dupe his family and gullible investors. "You're running a scam, and you've got some brass bars or gold-covered copper bars," say Eckles, "and you're telling people that you can't get to this treasure because it's caved in, and you need some backing. You just kind of string this along."

Critics also point out that there is no historical evidence of a large fortune being lost or stolen in the area. They scoff at theories that the gold was buried on the peak during the 16th century by Aztecs fleeing the Spanish Conquistadors or that the treasure is actually booty confiscated from Germany after World War II by the U.S. government.

Yet legends have a way of lingering, perhaps because they arouse such an irresistible temptation to believe—and to hope. Even Eckles admits that "if they find something, it would be one of the neatest things to happen around here." Noss' descendants, meanwhile, may find that knowing the truth is its own best reward. "I've really taken a hard, skeptical look at this," says Terry Delonas, who is willing to accept the possibility that no gold will be found. But, he adds, "I'm not prepared myself to believe that Doc Noss made up the whole story."

GUY GARCIA
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in New Mexico

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