LAS CRUCES, N.M. — After a half century of disappointment and delay, a band of Southern California treasure hunters has launched a high-tech search for a hoard of gold they believe lies deep beneath a fissured limestone ridge on the White Sands Missile Range.
With the help of ground radar, a miniature television camera and a global satellite positioning system, descendants of the late M. E. "Doc" Noss hope to establish once and for all whether he told the truth about stumbling across a cavern full of bullion inside Victorio Peak.
TC "It's not the dream of finding billions," says Noss' step-grandson Terry Delonas, a 43- year-old former advertising executive from Irvine, Calif., who heads the Ova Noss Family Partnership. "We need to finish what this family was challenged with."
Victorio Peak poses a formidable challenge.
It rises 400 feet above the Hembrillo Basin in the hot, inhospitable San Andres Mountains.
Last week, a team of 15 workers under the watchful eye of military police graded roads and surveyed the area around the peak with metal detectors, preparing for the arrival of drilling rigs needed to bore six-inch diameter holes into underground rooms.
The searchers plan to lower a torpedo-shaped probe into the holes to take precise measurements of each cavern's dimensions and see whether they contain anything unusual. The probe is equipped with a 750-watt lamp, video and still cameras and a precision compass.
Mr. Delonas hopes the data will expose the shortest route for tunneling into the rooms.
Victorio Peak has tantalized treasure hunters since 1937, when Noss, a foot doctor and prospector with a 10th-grade education, claimed he stumbled upon a passageway leading into the ridge while taking refuge from the rain during a deer-hunting trip. Deep underground, he said, was a huge chamber filled with gold, jewels and artifacts, guarded over by chained skeletons.
Afterward, Noss displayed gold bars he claimed he had retrieved from the cave, but he said that the narrow entrance had collapsed when he set off dynamite to widen it.
He was shot to death in a 1949 fight with a Texas man who helped Noss finance further digging.
Ova Noss spent the next 30 years trying to retrieve the treasure that she believed her husband had found. Her task grew more difficult after 1955, when the government expanded the missile range and restricted access to the peak.
Several Air Force officers claimed to have found gold in 1958, leading to an Army-sanctioned search in 1961 that turned up nothing. A 1963 dig and a 10-day surface survey in 1977 also produced nothing, although ground radar used in 1977 did locate a large cavern 400 feet under the peak.
Eight years after Ova Noss died in 1979, her children and grandchildren joined with friends and investors to form the family partnership dedicated to solving the mystery. Many believe the whole thing is a hoax, however.