Dawn breaks quick and hard in Arizona's Superstition Mountains. Just after 6 a.m., the parking lot below the rugged road leading to the Tortilla Trailhead starts to fill up with trucks. Swaths of Mexican gold poppies are dotted with the purple blooms of hedgehog cacti on this spring Saturday, a day so pretty you can't imagine why anyone would call this rugged range "Hell's Backyard."
Near a cement slab that used to be a ranch house before the Forest Service torched it to keep out the drifters are the members of the Superstition Search and Rescue squad. They're looking for Jesse Capen, a 35-year-old Denver man who disappeared up this trail back in December. They've been out here at least six times in the past four months, combing the craggy terrain for any sign of his body, a shredded piece of clothing or the few belongings Capen brought with him to Arizona that weren't later found in his tent or his Jeep.
There aren't many clues, and that might just be how Capen would have wanted it. Capen was searching for the fabled Lost Dutchman Gold Mine, and like most of the other treasure hunters who've made their way to this remote area of the Tonto National Forest over the past 120 years, he was extremely secretive.
Capen was obsessed with the legendary mine. Though he barely mentioned the subject to family or friends, they found more than a hundred books and maps on the subject in his apartment after his disappearance. Capen saved up vacation time for two years so he could take a month off from his job as a bellhop at a downtown Denver hotel, giving him plenty of time to search. Last summer, he traded his car for a Jeep with four-wheel drive, a vehicle perfect for navigating the yard-high drop-offs on the pocked three-mile dirt "road" leading up to the Tortilla Trailhead.
Capen had been out to Arizona to look for this mine — probably the most legendary lost mine in American history — at least two other times in the past decade, though no one knew about those trips until after he disappeared and they searched his computer files. All in all, it's made for a hell of a mystery.
Capen's mother, Cynthia Burnett, regrets not asking more questions before her son left for Arizona. An experienced outdoorswoman herself, she says he was unprepared for what could happen in the backcountry. "He was there for the legend, and being prepared and thinking about his safety was not on his radar," she recalls. "I remember before he left, I said, 'Do you have a knife?' and he said, 'No, why?'"
Robert Cooper, commander of the search squad, says a lot of people don't have any idea how dangerous this area, fifty miles from Arizona's capital, can be. Several men in the first group of searchers who set out on the two-and-a-half-mile trail from the end of the road to Capen's campsite carry a sidearm. Mountain lions are the main concern — the area is crawling with them — but there's also a danger associated with the grizzled prospectors who squat in these mountains, hunting for gold. Not far from where Capen disappeared, there's a prospector living in the wild, poaching small game and dodging any Forest Service personnel who might make their way up the road to catch him digging on government land.
"We've seen [prospectors] dropped off and the vehicles leaving. They walk right past us. They don't want us to see their face. They don't want to talk to us," Cooper says. "We've found shovels, picks, pry-bars, axes, pans.... There's a lot of mine shafts in that area. You've got these Gold Rush guys digging all sorts of holes."
These Gold Rush guys — some Dutchman hunters, others regular prospectors — are wild cards. Not only are they secretive, but they've got a long and sordid history in the Superstitions; they're known to be dangerous. There are a few stories about the grisly deaths of Dutchman hunters, like Adolph Ruth, a retired veterinarian from Washington, D.C., who went into the mountains searching for the mine in 1931, only to be found a few months later with what appeared to be two bullet holes through his skull.
"If he walked into someone's campsite at the wrong time, you never know. I wouldn't put it past them," Cooper says. "I've had reports from people saying some guy jumped out with a stick and was screaming at them. For years, I've had reports of people yelling at hikers to get out of an area, and they've e-mailed me and I've told them, 'Well, then don't go in that area. If that guy wanted to hurt you, he would have hurt you. Apparently he was protecting something he believes is his.'"
Did Capen run afoul of a violent prospector? As Yukon poet Robert Service wrote, "Strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold."
Suicide is another possibility, though Cooper has never seen anyone do anywhere near this much work before offing himself. Usually, he says, those who kill themselves leave their wallet and keys in the car, absolutely sure they won't need them anymore. Even then, the body is usually about a half-mile in, at the first place where the guy could find a nice view.
There's also some small chance Capen faked his disappearance, though no reason for doing so has emerged. There was, however, a rental car with Colorado plates spotted at the trailhead within days of when he was reported missing. A coincidence, cops say, though Cooper doesn't like coincidences.
Another serious possibility, the one searchers hate to think about, is that Capen set up camp, wandered off just before dark and was unable to find his way back. Maybe he fell asleep halfway through his hunt for the tent, Cooper says, then woke up and continued walking. Under that scenario, he could've gone more than twenty miles into the wilderness.
Odds are, though, that Capen had some sort of accident that left him incapacitated, and his body will eventually be found within a rugged half-mile of the campsite. Statistically speaking, people are almost always found within that distance, says Cooper. "The scenario we're going with is that he walks 2½ miles to camp, drops his gear, sets up his tent and throws everything in it. He never unpacked his bedroll, he never broke down food, so it's obvious he turned up missing the first night," he explains. "We're running under the assumption that he took a short walk from his tent and something happened."
All that uncertainty makes for a very, very long search. Of more than 2,000 search-and-rescue operations the team had done before Capen's disappearance, the longest was five weekends. As the guys make their way up the overgrown trail, the search for Capen is at seven weekends — and counting.
"We're not quitting until we find him. We never have," Cooper says. "I've been on the team since '94, and we've never not found someone we've started to look for. We have a perfect record."
This is the Lost Dutchman story that drew Jesse Capen to Arizona, stripped of disputed facts: An old German prospector named Jacob Waltz died in his modest Phoenix-area ranch house with a large pile of gold ore in or near that house, having told at least one person that the ore came from a gold-rich mine hidden in or near the Superstition Mountains.
The variations on that theme are the real heart of the legend, though. There is a seemingly unending list of added details — nearly a printed encyclopedia's worth of stories accompanied by enough crudely rendered maps to fill an atlas. They range widely in veracity. Some tack hard-boiled science onto that bare-bones Dutchman story; others are rooted in plausible but unprovable secondhand information; still other bits revolve around curses enforced by mystical guardians.
There are two main camps of serious Dutchman hunters: Petrasch and Holmes. Helen Corbin, wife of former Arizona attorney general and avid Dutchman hunter Bob Corbin, breaks down the details of the two factions in her book, Curse of the Dutchman's Gold. The Petrasch faction believes the dying Dutchman told the secret of his mine's location to Julia Thomas, a black woman who'd been his caretaker, and her adopted son, Reiney Petrasch. Holmes followers believe Waltz confessed the location to Dick Holmes, who'd previously tried to trail the Dutchman to his mine. The Petrasch faction tends to end up searching on the east side of the Superstitions, where their clues fit, while the Holmes supporters stick to the west. Both stories tie the mine back to the Peralta family of Sonora, Mexico. Both versions are full of riddles about unnamed places and vague references to common natural features. And both stories involve murder, betrayal and misfortune.
But neither has led anyone to the mine. Even the people who supposedly heard the details from the Dutchman's mouth couldn't find it, though Thomas, Petrasch and Holmes all searched extensively, as did their kin.
The fact that nearly every detail associated with the mine is hearsay has done nothing to dampen interest in it. The truth is, legendary lost mines were clichés even in the Dutchman's time. A blurb from an 1892 edition of the Arizona Daily Gazette, a short-lived Phoenix newspaper, barely restrains the reporter's mocking tone about the very first Dutchman hunters, Julia Thomas and Reiney Petrasch, in a story headlined "A Queer Quest in Search of Gold: Another 'Lost Mine' Being Hunted for by a Woman": Mrs. (Julia) Thomas, formerly of Thomas Ice Cream Parlor, is now in the Superstition Mountains engaged in a work usually deemed strange for a woman's sphere. She is prospecting for a lost mine, the location of which she believes she holds the key. But somehow, she has failed after two months work to locate the bonanza, though aided by two men. The story about the mine is founded upon the usual death-bed revelations of the ancient miner usual in such cases.
The Lost Dutchman Gold Mine may have ended up another footnote in Western history if it weren't for retired Washington veterinarian Adolph Ruth.
Ruth went missing in 1931, just after the start of the Great Depression. Though a little more grandiose, his backstory is similar to Jesse Capen's: A naive outsider becomes obsessed with the mine, underestimates the dangers of the Superstitions and goes into the mountains alone. Then, predictably, he turns up missing, and a massive search is launched.
Ruth's story ties back to the Peraltas. While on a business trip in Mexico, Adolph's son Erwin was given a map to several rich American mines from a Mexican facing either imprisonment or execution, depending on which tale you believe. Erwin shared that map with his father, who became obsessed with finding the mines, crippling himself in a fall while hunting for one hole in California. Even with a bum leg, and with his son too busy to help him, Adolph Ruth wanted to search for a mine in Arizona's Superstition Mountains. He went out alone, stopping at a ranch and talking freely with some men about his map, apparently unaware of the intrigue surrounding this particular mine and assuming the men to be simple, harmless cowpokes.
Ruth wanted to immediately hunt for the mine, even in the June heat of the desert. Despite discouragement by a local rancher, he hired two cowboy prospectors to pack him into a canyon that matched the one on his map. He was never seen alive again, though searchers did find a slip of paper where he'd written "Veni, vidi, vici" — Latin for "I came, I saw, I conquered." Despite an exhaustive manhunt, Ruth wasn't found until an expedition to document unexplored Indian ruins turned up his bullet-shattered skull under a palo verde tree a few months later.
Arizona's backwoods justice system refused to even open an inquest into his death, despite international attention from newspapers, which brought an unexpected consequence: His unsolved murder turned out to be a boon to the area, re-establishing a legend and sparking a blaze of interest that's still smoldering.
No one knows exactly how or when Jesse Capen became interested in the Lost Dutchman Mine almost eighty years later. Capen was a loner, says his mother, Cynthia Burnett, and the intrigue around the mythical mine apparently put this tendency into hyper-drive.
Actually, Capen reluctantly told Burnett he was headed to Tonto National Forest for a month only after she pushed him for information while altering a sleeping bag to comfortably fit his well-padded, 6' 4" frame. At 2.8 million acres, Tonto National Forest is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined — so that wasn't much to go on.
"He's been looking at this area since 2000. We found pictures [that] he had taken, which were developed on November 1, 2000, so we know for sure that he went three times, and he could have gone more," she says. "He never, in his whole life, mentioned the Lost Dutchman mine to me.... One time I asked him if he'd been reading any good books lately, and he said, 'Yeah, but trust me, Mom, you wouldn't be interested in this.' And I said, 'Well, give me a try,' and he said, 'No, these aren't the kind of books you read.' I just let it go; I wasn't going to pry anymore."
Typical of a Dutchman hunter to keep quiet, but his mother found his behavior illogical. "I could see him being secretive, in general, but I can't imagine him being that secretive with his parents," she says. "That's just going to remain a mystery."
Capen was, his mother says, perhaps too right-brained for his own good. A lifelong bachelor who'd been diagnosed as bipolar, he was a high-school dropout who scored near the top of his class on his SATs. He was a responsible sort, never having missed a day of work in eleven years on the same job. His co-workers called him "The Gentle Giant," his mother says. (A night manager at the Sheraton Downtown Denver said the hotel has a strict policy forbidding employees from commenting on Capen, though why is anyone's guess.)
Capen left for Arizona before Thanksgiving, telling his mom he'd be back before Christmas and promising to try to call her a few times if he could. The first call Burnett and her ex-husband got from Arizona was from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, who told them their son was missing. Capen's parents went to Arizona on December 24 and returned to Denver on New Year's Eve, having been questioned by searchers and given a helicopter tour of the area, which is in both Pinal and Maricopa counties.
All that is known about Capen's activities in Arizona comes from what was found in his apartment and from reports offered by people he talked to, like the owner of the Apache Junction Motel, where he stayed before heading into the bush. Maybe it was the new, anti-anxiety medication he'd recently been prescribed, but Capen was chatty, stopping by Apache Junction's museums and historical society, which had helped him acquire out-of-print Dutchman books, and buying a soda at the Blue Bird Mine general store.
Those who met him say that like old Adolph Ruth, Capen showed no signs of worrying about the dangers of the area. His mother doesn't understand that. The fact that Capen went in without a gun — and actually hadn't even thought to bring a knife — bothers her. "It's not television danger. It's real danger," she says. "I don't know if he thought it was different, that it wasn't going to happen to him...but if I had read those books, I would have been frightened out of my mind going out there."
Part of her thinks he may have had some idea what he was getting into. "The last few months [before he left], he kept telling me that he loved me and appreciated me," she continues. "And he didn't say a lot of things like that. I don't know if that was a coincidence, or if he knew the danger he was going into, like he might not see me again."
Teton Ken is today's version of the Lost Dutchman. An actor who specializes in depicting the fabled miner, Teton certainly looks the part, having grown a gray beard so bushy it obscures most of his facial expressions. He lives in a trailer that doubles as a staging ground for his act, moving it from one area tourist trap to another. He's the sort of grubby old coot whom kids love and yuppie parents watch with a wary eye.
Teton, whose given name is Ken Eddy, has lived in Apache Junction for a decade and embodies the town's attitude toward the Dutchman myth, literally and figuratively. He plays the part of ol' Jacob Waltz at community events while privately regarding the Dutchman stories with bemused detachment.
Actually, Teton doesn't just play up the myth for the kids who stop by his trailer for story time and a mule ride. Like a lot of locals with experience in the Superstitions, he's been known to guide full-grown men into the bush on treasure-hunting expeditions. For a fee, of course. "The number-one rule is, we stick to the proven trails," he says. Trails that any real Dutchman hunter will tell you lead toward nothing. On the other hand, sticking to such trails is a good way to make it out alive — which is Teton Ken's main goal.
So, seeing how he is the Lost Dutchman, maybe Teton has some insight into the legend. Geologically, there shouldn't be any gold in them hills, at least not a huge deposit in the heart of the range, as Dutchman hunters believe. It's not that there's no gold in the general area — in fact, millions of dollars' worth has been pulled from the nearby hills, and a few pieces of gold-lined quartz show up in the Superstitions from time to time. A mine fitting the Dutchman's description, though, doesn't appear possible. But might there be one rich vein?
Teton pauses. "Let me put it to you this way: There could have been a fluke."
Steve Jakubowski, an assistant park manager at Lost Dutchman State Park, says that although the postage-stamp-sized plot in the gigantic Tonto National Forest isn't the focus of anyone who is serious about searching for the mine, many wannabe prospectors spend a few nights there. "We get gold hunters all the time. I've seen people come in here in $100,000 motor homes, and I've seen people come in here on foot after catching a ride. They are all looking for it," he says. "A lot of them are not the most organized. They're not going too far off, but they want to find the Dutchman's gold."
Some have experienced a "find," Jakubowski says, which is how die-hard prospectors are minted. "They have a big pendant with a piece of gold on it, and they love to show it to you, too," he explains. "That's what got them going. They find one piece like that — one big piece of rock gold in quartz — and they're addicted to prospecting."
Which is to say that small amounts of gold have been found near the Superstitions, though nothing like the Dutchman's lode.
If prospectors are addicts, Louis Ruiz, a salty old shopkeeper who runs the Blue Bird Mine store, is a twelve-stepper. "A mine is a hole in the ground owned by a liar," he spits.
Sure, Ruiz says, he spent time out in the mountains hunting the Dutchman. Then he started developing an interest in geology, concluding that the main range of the Superstitions has been stripped of valuable minerals. Now he believes Waltz actually got his gold by poaching the nearby Bulldog Mine, one of many old-time shafts in the area. "I just came to the conclusion, after wearing out boots, that it ain't out there," he says of the Dutchman. "It wasn't a waste of time — I had a good time out there hiking and saw some pretty scenery."
He's not the only Dutchman hunter who'll tell you "the gold is in the hunt," which is maybe the only thing that all hunters can agree on.
The current owners of the Bulldog Mine, for example, don't agree that it could be the source of the Dutchman's ore. How do they know? They've had it tested against some purported Dutchman ore, which they own, handed down from old Dick Holmes. Considering he's a relative newcomer, born back east before moving to Arizona in the '60s, it's a little surprising that Ron Feldman and his family are the top outfit in the Dutchman-hunting game. But then, they own the OK Corral riding stables, which take city folk on tours of the area, complete with history lessons from their guides. The gold is truly in the hunt for the Feldmans, who charge $1,200 a head for one of their three-day Dutchman-themed riding trips.
Ron Feldman first heard of the Dutchman legend while growing up in Buffalo, New York, then started exploring the Superstitions when he lived in California. In 1968, he opened his stables, mostly so he could finance his hunt for the Dutchman. Feldman's oft-repeated quip about his first quarter-century of searching is that he followed the typical threads and "became an expert on where the mine wasn't."
Then Feldman started poring over the notes of Ted Cox, an old-timer whose father claims to have known Waltz and who himself purports to have overheard plotters discussing the murder of Adolph Ruth. That led Feldman to an abandoned mine far east of where most Dutchman hunters concentrate. To explore that mine, Feldman had to assemble a team and file a "treasure trove permit," which had never been done in the Superstitions before. The Feldmans got the permit in 2004 and started digging without power tools, using basically the same technology the mine would have made do with in the 1850s. Officially, they were digging under the auspices of an archeological expedition, trying to prove the Spanish made their way into the Superstitions, far north of where most historians believed they'd been.
After taking five years to fill out a mountain of paperwork, plus months of digging, a highly paid archeology consultant gave the Feldmans what they wanted, declaring that the timbers in the abandoned mine were Spanish. This gave more credence to any Peralta-related story, which holds that a Spanish family discovered the mine. This is what the Feldmans believe about the Dutchman.
As serious treasure hunters, the Feldmans are cagey about how their discoveries fit in with the Dutchman, even after writing three books on the subject. They imply that they believe there was a Dutchman mine and that it's been emptied — and that's okay with them. "Whether the Lost Dutchman Mine has gold dripping from the walls or not is immaterial to anyone who hunts it, basically," Ron Feldman says. "To a Dutchman hunter, if you found the mine and there was gold dripping from the walls and there was a blinking neon sign that said 'Lost Dutchman Mine,' other Dutchman hunters would say, 'No, that's not it,' because they don't want their dream squashed. The search is more important than the find if you're a true treasure hunter."
What the Feldmans do say, without reservation, is that geology and archeology, not cryptography and cartography, are the sciences important to real Dutchman hunters. "You can't find anything if you follow the stories and the clues and the riddles and the arrows carved on saguaro cactus," says son Josh Feldman. "You're not going to find your ass with two hands."
Perhaps that's where Jesse Capen went wrong. Jesse took a studious approach to his Dutchman research — his mother calls it his "doctoral thesis" — highlighting and underlining certain things concerning codes and cairns in the stories told by old-timers. Books are what his family found in his apartment — not rocks.
Though he's certainly not the first prospector to go missing on a hunt for the Lost Dutchman's gold, Jesse Capen's disappearance does mark the dawn of a new era. Capen is, after all, the first high-profile disappearance of the Internet age. Though they're still intensely secretive, Dutchman hunters now use the web to keep tabs on each other, spreading news, lies and rumors.
Likewise, there's a glut of information from people who claim to know this or that about the search for Capen — which is good and bad, say Robert Cooper and Cynthia Burnett. On one hand, people are interested, and some kind folks have gone online to provide search support and to offer Burnett a shoulder to cry on. On the other hand, there's a lot of misinformation. It used to take several years and access to a printing press to widely circulate variations on a Dutchman story; now anyone with a computer can do it instantly.
One poster says Capen staged his disappearance and is working on a book. Several vehemently assert that he must've been caught in a storm and tried to hurriedly make his way back to his Jeep, running recklessly down the wash. He fell, they suppose, and the water carried him away, the rushing current pummeling his body against rocks until there was nothing left to find. Some say he probably went into a tiny cave that no one will ever find and was bitten by a snake. Others look at his flabby countenance in the driver's license photo and surmise it was a heart attack. There are cruelly imaginative posts, too, including one that suggests hungry animals ate Capen's body as he was alive and incapacitated. His family, understandably desperate for any information, reads this kind of stuff, and it's hard on them.
All told, thanks to Superstition Search and Rescue, the hunt for Capen has probably been the longest organized search in the history of the Superstitions. He's part of the lore now, and the stakes are high.
At her home in Denver, Cynthia Burnett mostly mourns but sometimes worries. She still frets about anything unusual, even though she's 99 percent sure her son was killed in a run-of-the-mill mishap, his body somehow ending up somewhere searchers haven't yet thought to look. Still, doubts pop into her head. A mysterious cashier's check turned up in the mail a while ago, inspiring her to dream up a long list of dark, far-fetched theories and causing a week of panicked agony before some of her friends 'fessed up to sending it, worried that she needed money.
Burnett, like her son, is now drawn to the Superstitions by an intense force she can't fully verbalize. She's read all her son's books, but it's not about the lust for gold or the photos of gorgeous desert scenery, she says; the Superstitions are just the only place she imagines she'll really feel connected to her Jesse. The mountains were a sacred place to the Apache, which is how they got their name, and now they're sacred to Cynthia Burnett.
She dreams of walking the trails someday, seeing what her son saw in the place he didn't dare tell her he was going but sacrificed everything to get to.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"We've got no place to go in memory of Jesse because we don't have his body," she says. "So down the line, I'd like to go into the area, maybe with some of the men who've been hunting for him, and have them take me down one of those trails — just to be where Jesse was last alive. That was Jesse's bliss, and I want to go where he found his bliss."
Contact the author at