Monday, May 21, 2012

Gold Fever - Contagious!

May 14, 2012 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Thirty years ago I was involved in a very bizarre search for a Crystal Skull in the rugged and vast Superstition Wilderness Area. Joseph Mays was so convinced he had found an ancient Aztec treasure he convinced “Arkie” Everett Johnston to pack his outfit into the mountains on July 6, 1980. The temperatures were extremely hot, both animals and men could easily become dehydrated. Somehow, I was convinced to make this trip with Mays and Johnston. I must admit the temperatures were extreme but Joe and Arkie made sure we had the proper supplies and sufficient water for the expedition. If ever there was a gold expedition into these mountains that could go deadly wrong, it was this one. Joe’s crew spent nine days digging for gold in extreme heat. The gold hunt was a total failure, but to save face Joe Mays made a video documentary about the trip.

I spent three days and nights with them in the mountain. It was hot, but we managed because we had plenty of water, shade, and food. “Arkie” had a packer going out daily and returning with ice, soft drinks and water. We were there under ideal conditions, and still we had one case of sun poisoning, one case of heat exhaustion, and one severe laceration. The outfitters were well prepared for emergencies and could get someone out quickly to the hospital. We all survived this living hell because of the thorough preparation.

Ironically, thirty years later three Utah prospectors ventured into the mountains on July 6, 2010 looking for gold. They literally vanished. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office conducted a two-week search without finding a trace of the missing men. After the sheriff’s office closed down their search, the Superstition Search and Rescue continued the search for six months. On January 5, 2011, Richard “Rick” Gwynn, a local prospector and author, discovered two of the missing men’s remains on Yellow Peak, virtually ending a long and difficult search. Again, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office withdrew from the search for the remaining third member of the expedition. The Superstition Search and Rescue, under the direction of Commander Robert Cooper, located the remains of the expedition leader Curtis Merworth about a quarter of a mile from the other two men on July 15, 2011, ending the search for the three missing Utah prospectors.

Today, Monday, May 7, 2012 Carol Merworth, age 70, her daughter Tammy and other family members met with member of the Superstition Search and Rescue (SSAR) at the Apache Junction Elks Club. Members of the SSAR were on a humanitarian mission that day visiting with Carol, her daughter and family about the search for her son and the two men who accompanied him into the mountains.

After the discussion was completed at the Elk’s Lodge, the group drove out to First Water Trailhead. Carol Merworth wanted to see the general area where her son and friends went missing. SSAR Commander Cooper carefully explained the search sequence undertaken by the search team to try and find her son and friends.

Shortly after the visit to First Water I interviewed Carol Merworth and her daughter Tammy. Carol was a very serious and matter-of-fact person. She appeared to be very independent and self-reliant. She wasn’t gregarious by any means, but she did answer questions and offer opinions. However, some of rhetoric was very similar to what we hear everyday about the government. For example, “the government will not allow people to take the gold out of the mountains.” She was convinced that her son knew where the gold was located in the mountains.

Carol Merworth stated she believed the gold was located back in the mountain and the government protected it. Tammy said she warned her mother if Curtis went into the mountains in the summer heat he wouldn’t make it out alive again. The interesting thing about this whole story is that all three prospectors shared equally in the expense of the trip, according to Merworth’s mother. She said it was Malcolm Meeks idea to go during the height of the summer heat, however Tammy said it was her brother’s idea because he wanted to get into the mountain unnoticed by other treasure hunters. All of these statements point to
an obsessed gold hunter so cautious that he endangered himself and others.

Curtis Merworth outfitted his crew with umbrellas, one plastic bottle of water, a battery-type lantern and other unknown items. The men did not take enough water with them to survive. Water is the single most important item to carry in the summer months. Carol Merworth didn’t mention what else the men carried on this expedition planned by her son. She said her son was also convinced that James Wilson had the puzzle of the lost gold buried around Yellow Peak figured out in his book “To Crack A Golden Egg.” Merworth used this book to search the Superstition Wilderness Area for lost gold bullion. A copy of Wilson’s book lay in back of the prospector’s vehicle at First
Water parking lot.

As we look back, can anyone be held responsible for this human tragedy? I would say no. However, there are many contributing factors to this very sad scenario that led these three men to their deaths. Could their deaths been avoided or prevented? Yes, if common sense had prevailed.

I interviewed the last man the three men talked to on July 6, 2010. I ask Louis Ruiz a very blunt and direct question. “When these men asked to buy a map of the area and told you they were headed for First Water when you knew temperatures were soaring to about 114 degrees, what did you tell them?”

Louis Ruiz replied, “You’re stupid going in there this time of the year.”

Knowing Louis personally, I am sure that is exactly what he told them. That was a very blunt warning as to how dangerous these mountains could be in the summer time. Merworth had been here before and been lost, so therefore he knew the dangers they faced. The loss of the lives of these three gold prospectors under nearly identical conditions is very difficult to accept or even fathom.