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From the archives 2022

How a psychic started Pennsylvania’s strangest treasure hunt

by Colin Deppen of Spotlight PA |

Dennis Parada
Jason Nark / Philadelphia Inquirer

This story first appeared in Spotlight PA’s PA Local newsletter, a fresh, positive look at the incredible people, beautiful places, and delicious food Pennsylvania has to offer. Sign up for free.

HARRISBURG — The most uncomfortable questions to ask Dennis Parada — the Pennsylvania man who’s spent years fighting the FBI over a suspected trove of Civil War gold he says the agency stole right out from under his nose — are also the most obvious ones.

What if he’s wrong? What if the psychic made it up? What if the geo scans were mistaken? What if the FBI didn’t actually steal nine tons of precious metal under the cover of night? What if all the legends were just stories? What if the gold simply never existed?

Parada, who invested countless hours and a small fortune just to locate the alleged treasure in rural Elk County, and who has since burned through more time and money ($20,000 and counting) waging a legal battle against the feds he brought in to retrieve it, scoffs at the suggestion that the simplest explanation is the right one here.

“The thought never even crossed my mind,” he insisted.

There are reasons for this beyond pride and confirmation bias.

Here’s a primer on the case based on several hours of interviews with Parada and his son, Kem, and this comprehensive piece in The Atlantic.

In 1974, a 22-year-old Parada was working at a furniture store in Philipsburg when a psychic named Michael Malley, brought in by the company as a promotional stunt, was shown this magazine article about a lost cache of Civil War gold buried in Pennsylvania.

The psychic grabbed a map, intuited the location, and dropped a pen on Dents Run, an extremely sparse stretch of Bennett’s Valley located an hour to the north in Elk County — a place famed for its engineered herd of the state’s largest wild animals.

Parada checked the location out but ultimately relented and gave up the search for decades until a tenant of his, in 2004, suggested a return. Parada agreed, to the surprise of his son Kem, a cop who recalls being lulled to sleep as a child by tales of the fabled bounty.

“I’m like, ‘You son of a gun, I’ve been trying to get you to do this for my entire life,’” Kem told PA Local by phone this week.

The three of them headed into the woods and located a cave Parada had never seen before. Everything changed, and the next few years became an exhausting, muddy blur.

Parada says they found encouraging clues underground — potential artifacts and signs of long-gone life, as well as traces of pig iron, a popular material for Civil War armaments, leaching through the rocks.

They pushed in farther until Parada, who says he stayed in contact with state officials throughout the work — which took place on state land — was warned about the structural integrity of the cave and urged to continue his search from the surface.

He did, putting a drill bit straight into the earth and pulling it out to find what he says was soft gold wedged into the tip.

Per Parada’s account, he showed the find to a representative of the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, but they doubted its authenticity.

“And that’s when we had a big fight,” he added. Parada was told to stop digging in 2012 but kept going back.

Fast forward to 2017, when a webpost about the search written by Parada grabbed the attention of a former Wall Street Journal reporter named Warren Getler, who set up a meeting with the FBI — a first step in circumventing the state while still potentially securing a sizable finder’s fee.

The FBI agreed to visit the site and applied for a warrant instead of simply asking the landowner, the state of Pennsylvania, for permission to dig.

Their reasoning added one of the oddest wrinkles in this very odd story.

The bureau said it feared that Pennsylvania would claim the gold for itself. It also cited the “corrupt” actions of an unnamed legislative staffer who, the warrant application claimed, had offered the Paradas a digging permit in 2013 in exchange for a cut of the proceeds.

The FBI also said a hidden trail camera at the site had captured an excavating machine working there in 2015, which the bureau believed to be operated by DCNR, per The Inquirer. DCNR has yet to comment.

(For the record, other details in the warrant application have since proven wrong.)

With the FBI on board and the warrant secured, they headed to Dents Run. Geo scans conducted months before had superficially confirmed underground pockets of metal with a density matching that of gold. One FBI agent estimated more than nine tons total, Parada recalled, a find that would potentially be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

It all looked very promising.

When the bureau’s excavation finally began in March of 2018, Parada says he was kept on the sidelines. After two days of digging, federal agents presented him with an empty hole and a sucks-to-be-you dismissal. Parada was shaken and irate, and quickly arrived at an alternate theory.

He believes — and that word may not fully capture the depth of his conviction — that the FBI, after capping day one of the search, returned in the overnight hours, exhumed the gold in secret, and carried it off in a fleet of armored trucks. Then, on day two, they declared the dig a bust.

One neighbor, Cheryl Elder, remembers a big commotion and lots of light at the mountainside site on that intervening night. Her husband, who was away on business, told The Atlantic she called him about it and said, “It was lit up like the Fourth of July.”

Some aspects of Parada’s theory are more fanciful — he said locals spotted a caravan of armored trucks leaving the area and snapped photos, but the digital files all quickly vanished from their phones. Some aspects are less far-fetched — Kem noted that while several geo scans hit on gold before the FBI dig, one done after the dig did not.

The Paradas sued the FBI for access to related records and have received a slow trickle of documents, photos, and videos that Parada argues confirm his hunch, if only indirectly. (A court-ordered Oct. 28 deadline for the FBI to release more material is looming.)

There hasn’t been a smoking gun, per se, but Parada says the little things are adding up. For example: The Paradas’ lawyers argued that while the FBI said it took no video of the excavation, trail camera images from the site contradicted that claim. Parada also can’t understand how agents pulled no metal — pig iron, gold, or otherwise — from the ground. Additionally, he said, photos turned over by the bureau to the court were suspiciously nondescript.

The FBI maintains that nothing was found at the site and that this is all merely conjecture and magical thinking.

“No work took place at the site after hours; the only nighttime activity was conducted by FBI Police personnel who secured the site around the clock for the duration of the excavation, conducting ATV patrols,” the bureau said via email.

Asked to reconcile geo scans that showed gold with an excavation that found none, the FBI added: “Investigators must follow the facts, and the fact here is that nothing was found in the excavation. The FBI did not take any subsequent steps to reconcile the geophysical-survey findings with the absence of gold or any other metal.”

The bureau says it “found no evidence suggesting theft by a third party” either.

The simplest reading of things then is that both the Paradas and the FBI were swept up by a fantastic, quixotic story and erred. Dennis Parada says no way.

Others argue, without proof, that the father-and-son duo was caught up in a jurisdictional dispute between state and federal agents, or that the FBI didn’t want to give them a cut, or maybe some combination of the two.

“I need answers,” Parada said on the phone, his pitch rising. “It wasn’t about the money or the finder’s fee. I set out to prove the psychic was crazy. But, you know what? The guy was 100% on it, within feet.”

Parada is eyeing new dig sites based on Malley’s premonitions now. There’s also cryptic talk of TV or movie deals around the Dents Run debacle.

Kem, meanwhile, has struggled more with the mental gymnastics of the whole affair.

“I couldn’t understand why a government agency would lie to us. For a minute after the dig I thought if there was nothing there then maybe the science was wrong. But the more time goes by, I still say something was there. Something had to have been there.”

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