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FBI files from one of Pa.'s most enduring mysteries

Plus, rare butterflies find refuge at a bombing range.

Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.

February 24, 2023
Inside this edition: Pa.'s original spy balloon, underground fires, state smell, butterfly effect, Koons crash, 401(k) boomer, and the mystery files.
🏆 TEST YOURSELF: Another big week of Pennsylvania news is in the bag. Test your grip on the latest headlines from Harrisburg and around the state with this week's installment of The Great PA News Quiz.
A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.
In 1861, a Lancaster County aeronaut named John Wise launched a large balloon with the goal of spying on which of the following? 

A. Canada
B. Confederate states 
C. Mexico 
D. Newfoundland 

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

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Newsletter Editor
Support Spotlight PA's vital journalism and for a limited time, all monthly gifts will be matched 12X!
Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» One thing worth reading: You've likely heard of Centralia, but WFMZ reports there's another underground coal mine fire, this one in Schuylkill County, that's been burning for at least 18 years. It's one of more than a dozen active or presumed active mine fires burning statewide.

» One thing worth smelling: New Mexico could become the first state with an official aroma — the smell of roasting green chile. The Inquirer (paywall) wants to know what Pennsylvania's official smell would be. A poll of readers landed on pretzels, but sulfur can't be ruled out.

» One thing worth sharing: Explosions at Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County have produced "grassland habitat that's ideal for the last notable population of beautiful and rare regal fritillary butterflies in the Eastern U.S.," according to the Bay Journal.

» One story worth following: A $42,000 sculpture by York native Jeff Koons — an artist known for his "balloon animals" — was knocked over and shattered by a Miami art gallery visitor. Now someone wants to buy the shards and the story that goes along with them

» One thing worth knowing: The man who invented the 401(k), earning him the nickname "The Father of Modern Retirement," became a farmer in Jersey Shore, Pa. who lamented the "monster" he created. His beef? The plans benefitted the financial industry more than the savers.

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Your guide to finding resources on cases, vaccines, and tests

» Did Gov. Shapiro's Super Bowl trip violate gift ban?
» The Pa. House is back. Will it finally move forward?
» Unequal policies disenfranchised Pa. voters in 2022
» PSU paid police almost $1.9M for 2021 football security
Kem Parada points to a rural hillside where the gold was suspected to have been located.
Kem Parada at the site of the FBI's March 2018 search for up to nine tons of suspected Civil War gold in Benezette, Elk County. (Jason Nark / Philadelphia Inquirer)

The FBI says it's done turning over records related to its dig for a trove of fabled Civil War gold in rural Elk County, Pennsylvania — the subject of decades of speculation and a now-years-old legal saga. 

A federal judge overseeing the underlying lawsuit — one filed by a pair of area treasure hunters who claim they were double-crossed on the suspected riches by federal agents — will have the final say.

We wrote about the case a few months back. It started with a furniture store psychic's premonition decades ago and has turned into one of the most enduring and unusual stories to come out of the commonwealth. 

Here's a relatively quick primer

Central to it all are Dennis and Kem Parada, a father-son treasure hunting duo who led agents to the site in hopes of recovering a finder's fee, and who now accuse the FBI of stealing the alleged gold away under the cover of night. The FBI says its dig simply came up empty. 

Unwilling to take the agency's word for it, the Paradas sued for access to the FBI's internal records from the 2018 excavation. 

They say the results, issued in a slow-motion release under court order, have only heightened their suspicions. The AP's Michael Rubinkam wrote last week about the anomalies that the Paradas call intentional government "distortions": reports with what appear to be missing pages; poor quality, almost indecipherable images; gaps in the photo and video records of the dig; and glaring continuity errors. 

On the latter point, Rubinkam writes: At issue is the presence or absence of snow in the images and the timing of a storm that briefly disrupted [the dig]... an FBI image that was supposed to have been taken about an hour after the squall does not show any snow on a large, moss-covered boulder at the dig site. That same boulder is snow-covered in a photo that FBI records indicate was taken the next morning — some 15 hours after the storm.

Reached by PA Local this week, the FBI declined to comment. The bureau has steadfastly denied that any secretive night dig took place, insisting FBI police providing security accounted for overnight noise reported by a neighbor. It also said no effort was made to reconcile pre-dig geo-scans that suggested something with a density matching that of gold at the scene (and lots of it) with an excavation that reportedly found no metals at all.

A large antlered elk crosses a rural roadway.
The area of the FBI's search is home to Pennsylvania's imported herd of elk, the largest wild animals in the state. (Tom Gralish / Philadelphia Inquirer)
You can find many of the documents released by the agency here. It's well over a thousand pages of material — loosely organized and at times heavily redacted — covering photographic evidence and a mountain of correspondence seeking but failing to find a definitive paper trail for the legendary gold. In emails to banks, archives, U.S. Mints, and military historians, FBI agents chase ancient anecdotes, the ghosts of dead soldiers, and purported shipments of federal bullion.

Included in the record are news clippings and book excerpts that paint Elk County as a hotbed for Union Army deserters and Democrats opposed to the Civil War, aka Copperheads. Some suggest the ambush of a Union gold-laden, Philly-bound transport driven north by fighting in Pennsylvania's southern tier, though concrete evidence proved elusive.

"The question has been asked: Did Wells Fargo ship any gold in bullion bars or coins for the U.S. Mint during June to August 1863," a representative of the bank wrote in response to an FBI inquiry in the days leading up to its March 2018 Elk County dig. "It is currently unknown what records of the company's business from 1863 survive," the rep continued.

The email signs off with: "Everyone is very intrigued by your request and research, and we wish you the best of luck."

The FBI records from the dig that followed — administrative accounts start on page 141 of this document — describe an abject failure. 

"We dug deeper and wider than we originally intended but did not find anything to corroborate or explain the information yielded from the gravity scan and other geological analysis at the site," the dispatch concludes.  

And while the FBI says it's fulfilled its disclosure obligations, the Paradas want more — specifically the bureau's operational plan for the dig and other records the agency says it doesn't have to legally disclose.

A judge could compel more releases. The case continues.

There were other people at the dig who aren't party to the ongoing lawsuit, but few, if any of them, are talking. The land involved is owned by the state of Pennsylvania, and while the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources had representatives on hand, it isn't taking questions. 

Meanwhile, the man hired to run the excavator itself, identified in FBI records as Dave Roman of Dave Roman Excavating in Reynoldsville, told PA Local this week that he has zero interest in entering the fray. Roman declined to answer questions about a possible night dig or any potential signs of his equipment having been used in his absence.

"That would ruin a good story either way," he said with a laugh.

Colin Deppen, PA Local editor 
Support Spotlight PA's vital journalism and for a limited time, all monthly gifts will be matched 12X!

"It's like us winning the Oscar. It's that kind of feeling of overjoyed."

—Brian Mendelssohn, owner of Pittsburgh's Row House Cinema, on a high-profile shoutout from Tár star Cate Blanchett in Vanity Fair 

Our favorite photo of the week submitted by a PA Local reader.

Rosencrans Falls in Clinton County, via Wayne M. Send us your photos, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.

A series of waterfalls cascade into a pool.
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.
John Wise of Lancaster County launched a surveillance balloon targeting Confederates before the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861.

According to LNP (paywall), the official U.S. military report says the balloon quickly got tangled in trees and never got off the ground.

LNP adds: "Wise’s total career was considerably more successful than his 1861 launch. He made 463 ascensions in 44 years, several of them from Lancaster. He perfected varied ballooning techniques. His last balloon fell into Lake Michigan [in 1879], where Wise drowned."

Thanks for reading PA Local. We'll see you back here next week. But first ... send us your feedback. What did you like? What didn't you like? 
Support Spotlight PA's vital journalism and for a limited time, all monthly gifts will be matched 12X!
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