PENFIELD, Pa. (AP) — In the heart of Pennsylvania elk country, Eric McCarthy and his client, Don Reichel, woke before sunrise to scour the forest for so-called “brown gold,” a rack of freshly shed antlers to add to Reichel’s collection.
One hill over, a team of FBI agents was also hunting for gold. The metallic yellow kind.
The FBI’s highly unusual search for buried Civil War-era treasure more than five years ago set in motion a dispute over what, if anything, the agency unearthed and an ongoing legal battle over key records. There’s so much intrigue even a federal judge felt compelled to note in a ruling last week: “The FBI may have found the gold — or maybe not.”
Now, two witnesses have come forward to share with The Associated Press what they heard and saw in the woods, raising questions about the FBI’s timeline and adding plot twists to a saga that blends elements of legend, fact and science — and a heavy dose of government secrecy.
The FBI insists nothing came of the 2018 excavation in Dents Run, a remote wooded valley about 110 miles (177 kilometers) northeast of Pittsburgh. But a treasure hunter who led FBI agents to the hillside where an 1863 gold shipment might’ve been buried is challenging the government’s denials. How could the dig have come up empty, he asks, when the FBI’s own scans showed the likelihood of a buried metal mass equaling hundreds of millions of dollars in gold?
McCarthy, a 45-year-old elk guide, recently decided to share his story because he thought the treasure hunter, Dennis Parada — who spent years looking for the gold before approaching the FBI with his findings — has been treated unfairly.
“I have no ties to anybody here. It’s just I felt like they were wronged,” McCarthy explained.
In an interview at a remote hunting camp about 25 miles (40 km) from Dents Run, McCarthy recalls hearing the unexpected clang of heavy equipment as he worked his way up the mountain in near-darkness.
Later that day, while breaking for lunch, McCarthy and Reichel watched a trio of armored trucks rumble past. One of the vehicles rode low, as if it was carrying a full load.
“They took something out of Dents Run,” McCarthy insists now. “Something heavy.”
Reached by phone, Reichel, McCarthy’s 73-year-old shed hunting client, corroborated his account of hearing early-morning clatter and seeing a loaded truck on March 14, 2018.
Their recollections echo earlier statements from residents who told the AP of hearing a backhoe and jackhammer overnight and seeing a convoy that included armored trucks.
Parada, co-founder of the treasure-hunting outfit Finders Keepers, has long suspected the FBI of conducting a secret overnight dig for the gold and spiriting it away. The FBI’s warrant to excavate the site limited work to 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The agency denies it dug after hours, and says it recovered nothing of value from Dents Run.
There’s little historical evidence to substantiate old stories that an Army detachment lost a gold shipment in the Pennsylvania wilderness. But the legend inspired generations of treasure hunters.
Scientific testing had suggested Parada was on to something.
The FBI said in a 2018 court document that its own geophysical consultant identified an underground metallic mass weighing up to 9 tons, suggestive of gold, at the site identified by Finders Keepers. A federal judge approved the FBI’s request for a search and seizure warrant. Parada hoped to earn a finder’s fee from the potential recovery.
On the second day of the dig, McCarthy and Reichel awoke at 4 a.m. and were on the mountain sometime between 5 and 5:30, splitting up to increase their odds of finding an elk shed.
McCarthy said he could hear the distant hum of an engine as soon as he got out of his truck. The noise grew louder as he walked up the hill, and he heard what sounded to him like heavy equipment meeting earth.
Cresting the ridge, McCarthy spotted the FBI operation on the opposite slope, about 400 yards (meters) away. He saw lights powered by a generator. A parked excavator. A smaller piece of equipment moving up and down the hill. A brown-black gash in the earth. People huddling under a canopy.
“It looked to me like they were wrapping up a dig,” he said.
Reichel, who was farther away, said he heard machinery from the top of the ridge.
“I can hear some machines, or something, clanging and banging and roaring and all that stuff,” said Reichel, a retired manufacturing worker. He said he was too far away to be able to see anything.
An FBI timeline says the search team didn’t arrive at the dig site until 8 a.m. that morning, and an excavator operator arrived even later. That’s well after the time McCarthy and Reichel say they detected signs of activity.
The pair reconvened for lunch several hours later. It was then, they said, that a convoy of unmarked SUVs and armored trucks went past. McCarthy and Reichel said one of the three armored trucks seemed to be weighed down.
“Eric and I both made the comment that one must be loaded.” Reichel said.
“It was loaded to the gills,” said McCarthy.
Not so, the FBI says. While “appropriate vehicles and equipment” were brought to Dents Run, armored trucks were not among them, said Carrie Adamowski, an FBI spokesperson.
After the FBI told Parada the dig came up empty, he filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking records. In 2022, a judge forced the FBI to release a trove of photos and documents, but Parada is pursuing additional material including an operational plan. A federal judge told the FBI last week it needed to come up with a better justification for keeping the disputed records under wraps.
Parada, meanwhile, hasn’t given up his search in the Dents Run area. He’s now seeking to partner with the state conservation agency, which owns the land, on a new excavation.
“It’s a part of our history that’s hidden away,” Parada said, “and I think it’s time that should be told.”