PENFIELD, Pa. (AP) — In the heart of Pennsylvania elk country, Eric McCarthy and his client, Don Reichel, got up before sunrise to scour the forest floor for so-called “brown gold” — a rack of freshly shed antlers to add to Reichel’s collection back home.
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 that 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 that late-winter morning, 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 March 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 have 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, had never met treasure hunter Dennis Parada. But he watched from afar as Parada took the FBI to court and told his story in the media. McCarthy recently decided to share his own story because he thought Parada, who spent years looking for the gold before approaching the FBI with his findings, has been treated unfairly.
“I just felt like I needed to say what I saw, you know?” McCarthy explained. “I have no ties to anybody here. It’s just I felt like they were wronged.”
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, a dusting of snow on the ground from a recent squall.
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 of FBI vehicles, including armored trucks.
Parada, co-founder of the treasure-hunting outfit Finders Keepers, views the eyewitness accounts as important because they could bolster one of his main contentions — that the FBI conducted a secret overnight dig for the gold and spirited it away. The FBI’s warrant to excavate the site limited work to 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day.
The agency strenuously denies it dug after hours, saying FBI police merely conducted nighttime ATV patrols to secure the site.
“No gold or other items of evidence were located or collected. The FBI continues to unequivocally reject any claims or speculation to the contrary,” said spokesperson Carrie Adamowski.
Indeed, there’s little historical evidence to substantiate apocryphal accounts that an Army detachment lost a gold shipment in the Pennsylvania wilderness, possibly after an ambush by Confederate sympathizers. But the legend has inspired generations of treasure hunters, Parada among them.
Scientific testing suggested he 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, with the density of gold, at the site identified by Finders Keepers. A federal judge approved a search and seizure warrant, and the FBI set up camp in Dents Run, later describing it as a possible “cultural heritage site containing gold belonging to the United States government.” Parada hoped to earn a finder’s fee from the potential recovery.
On the second day of the FBI dig, McCarthy and Reichel awoke at 4 a.m. and were on a mountain that parallels the narrow Dents Run valley sometime between 5 and 5:30.
By then, the FBI’s presence had become the talk of the backcountry, with speculation running rampant that agents were hunting for gold. The FBI had shooed McCarthy away from a different part of Dents Run a day earlier. But he was determined to help his client find an elk shed. Splitting up to increase their odds, McCarthy dropped Reichel off then parked more than a mile away.
He said he could hear the distant hum of a running engine as soon as he got out of his truck. The noise grew louder as he made his way up the hill and he heard metal on stone, or metal on metal — what sounded to him like heavy equipment meeting earth.
McCarthy said he got to the top of the ridge and started back down the other side. That’s when he laid eyes on 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, perhaps a skid-steer or quad, moving up and down the hill. A brown-black gash in the earth surrounded by snow. People huddling under a makeshift canopy.
“It looked to me like they were wrapping up a dig,” he said.
Reichel, who was farther away from the dig site, said he heard machinery when he crested 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 that 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 black SUVs and armored trucks drove by them on Pennsylvania Route 555, heading out of Dents Run. McCarthy and Reichel said one of the three armored trucks seemed to be weighed down — more squat than the other two and lagging behind.
“Eric and I both made the comment that one must be loaded.” Reichel said.
“It was loaded to the gills,” said McCarthy, adding he’s driven overloaded dump trucks and “I know what it looks like.”
Not so, the FBI says. While “appropriate vehicles and equipment” were brought to Dents Run, armored trucks were not among them, according to Adamowski, the FBI spokesperson.
Warren Getler, a consultant who has worked closely with Finders Keepers, argued the eyewitness accounts add up to one thing – a clandestine night dig.
“And why would you do a night dig,” he said, “unless you wanted to remove the gold under cover of darkness?”
Getler, co-author of “Rebel Gold,” a book exploring the possibility of buried Civil War-era caches of gold and silver, joined Parada in Dents Run for the 2018 dig. But the FBI mostly kept them confined to their cars at the bottom of the hill, showing them an empty hole when the work was done.
The agency subsequently stonewalled Parada’s Freedom of Information Act request for records on the dig, prompting him to file a lawsuit. In 2022, a judge forced the FBI to release a trove of photos and documents.
But the agency refuses to turn over its operational plan for the gold dig — which Parada and Getler believe might include information about an overnight excavation — and other records the government says are exempt from disclosure. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta told the FBI on Sept. 27 it needed to come up with a better justification for keeping the disputed records under wraps.
While Parada pursues the FBI in court, he hasn’t given up his search in the Dents Run area. He recently hired a New Jersey geophysical company that identified several underground anomalies near the site of the original FBI dig, one of which measures 25 feet (7.62 meters) by 8 feet (2.44 m).
Finders Keepers’ own equipment detected metal objects in the same location, perhaps 15 feet down, presumably in a tunnel or cave, said Parada, playing a video that shows a detector emitting a high-pitched squeal as it is swept across the ground.
He’s now seeking to partner with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which owns the land, on a new excavation in Dents Run. Parada, his lawyer and top officials from the conservation agency plan to meet later this month.
“It’s a part of our history that’s hidden away,” Parada said, “and I think it’s time that should be told.”