Did the FBI find a legendary cache of Civil War gold buried in the hills of Elk County? Thanks to a recent Commonwealth Court decision and a mysterious federal court Order, we may never know.
According to legend, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln sent a wagon train carrying two tons of gold from Wheeling, West Virginia, to Philadelphia. The gold, ultimately meant to pay the Union soldiers at Gettysburg, never reached its destination. Somewhere along its circuitous route through the wooded hills of northern Pennsylvania, it disappeared. For over 150 years, treasure seekers have been hunting for the vanished gold.
Dennis and Kem Parada are two such seekers. Guided by a treasure map given to him decades ago by an old man at the store where he worked, Dennis and his son Kem scoured the forests of Elk County with sophisticated treasure-hunting equipment. When their instruments consistently indicated gold buried on state forest lands at Dent’s Run, they took their findings to the FBI. To their surprise, the FBI opened an investigation, and in March 2018, agents with excavating equipment arrived at Dent’s Run and began digging.
Several days later, the FBI departed, claiming they had found nothing. Does this add up?
The Paradas claim the FBI’s own ground-penetrating scan had identified a large metallic mass buried in the woods. They believe the FBI then refused to honor a promise to allow them to observe the dig, requiring them to stay in their car, out of sight of the excavation. They say agents inexplicably called an end to the day’s work when they had come within feet of where their instruments showed an object to be buried, only to return in the middle of the night to complete the job. Did FBI agents transfer something from ATVs to black SUVs at the dig site and armored trucks leaving the area?
Convinced that “the truth is out there,” the Paradas’ company, Finders Keepers, LLC, engaged attorney William J. Cluck to file a Right to Know request with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (“DCNR”). He sought communications between DCNR and the FBI related to the Dent’s Run excavation. DCNR denied the request on the grounds that all related documents had been sealed pursuant to a Federal Court Order. The Office of Open Records later denied Cluck’s appeal for this information, and they kept on the trail an appeal to the Commonwealth Court. The Commonwealth Court reversed after reviewing the federal court’s Order and finding it did not prohibit the disclosure of communications between DCNR and the FBI. The Court ordered DCNR to produce the documents, with the exception of the Order itself, which it held to be exempt from disclosure under Section 102 of the RTKL. DCNR provided the requested records on November 8, 2019.
The disclosed records evidently were not the treasure trove of information Finders Keepers sought, and tapped Cluck to file a second RTKL Request on November 22, 2019. This time, Cluck requested the search warrant that the FBI relied upon for its entry into the Dent’s Run area. DCNR again denied the request on the basis that the Department had not been served with a search warrant but with a Federal Writ of Entry and Federal Seizure Warrant. DCNR claimed that these documents were the same sealed federal court Order the Court deemed exempt from disclosure in 2019. After reviewing the document, the Commonwealth Court concluded that the documents were indeed one in the same. The result: the Commonwealth Court again held that the documents were exempt from disclosure.
Although the Court’s decision leaves the contents of the federal court Order a mystery, it did uncover one nugget—the name of the federal magistrate judge who issued the federal Order. Finder Keepers’ next step? Reports are that attorney Cluck plans to petition that judge to unseal the records.
In the meantime, federal law may succeed where state law proved unavailing. The Paradas have also filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI. After initially denying having any files related to the Dent’s Run excavation in September 2019, the FBI indicated that it had thousands of pages of documents and video files. It warned, however, that it would likely take several years to compile and release them.
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