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Buried booty still attracts curious treasure hunters

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Legend has it that the gangster's millions are buried in the Catskills.
PHOENICIA, N.Y. (AP) -- Dutch Schultz's long-lost millions might be buried in this patch of pines, if Hayden Henningsen is reading the sketchy treasure map correctly. Searchers perk up when a metal detector skimming the forest floor starts sounding:
"Mwwooooop! Boooooop! Boooooop!"
Could it be?
Maybe these four guys out on a bachelor party weekend jaunt will succeed where generations of searchers have failed. Maybe they will uncover the gangster booty buried in the Catskill Mountains during the Great Depression. Maybe they will strike it rich.
"It's tin foil," Jared Polis says after barely scratching the ground cover.
Then they find a rusted bullet casing.
"I have a feeling this is not Dutch Schultz's treasure," Polis says.
Schultz's loot
Like many before them, the group came to the Catskills looking for its most elusive, or illusory, attraction. Millions in loot was supposedly hidden near the Esopus Creek by Schultz before he was mowed down in a New Jersey tavern in 1935.
Details are worse than foggy, they're contradictory -- a confusing set of stories about fedora-wearing gangsters digging by moonlight in different places. But no matter. The thought of treasure underfoot has been enough to leave local woods pockmarked with holes for decades.
"When people latch on to this story they get very determined and very obsessed," said Laura Levine, a local antique store owner whose documentary, "Digging for Dutch," chronicles the phenomenon. "What kid doesn't grow up wanting to find a buried treasure?"
The Catskills, with their craggy woods and foggy shrouds, have inspired fantastic stories dating back to Rip Van Winkle's 20-year sleep. But unlike Washington Irving's tales, this story involves real people.
A Bronx tale
Schultz was born Arthur Flegenheimer in 1902 in the Bronx. His hangdog face belied a cunning that propelled him to prominence in the murderous New York City underworld of the '20s and '30s. He was a bootlegger and a numbers racketeer. Enemies often ended up with bullets in them. One was hung by his thumbs on a meat hook.
Schultz's success -- and probably his talent for making headlines -- caught the attention of prosecutor Thomas Dewey, the future New York governor and Republican presidential candidate. Mob historians believe that by 1935, Schultz wanted Dewey killed. But New York City's other crime lords, uncomfortable with the murder of the high-profile lawman, decided instead to get rid of Schultz.
Assassins were dispatched to The Palace Chophouse in Newark, N.J., the night of Oct. 23, 1935. As his henchmen were sprayed with gunfire at a table, Schultz was plugged in the bathroom with a rusty .45 bullet.
Schultz lingered in a state of fevered delirium. As police questioned him, he spewed out a soliloquy resembling surreal haiku.
"Oh, oh; dog biscuit, and when he is happy he doesn't get snappy," he said. And later: "We don't owe a nickel; fold it! Instead, fold it against him. I am a pretty good pretzeler."
Schultz died the next day.
The treasure stories came sometime after.
Treasure talk
Usually the tales go something like this: Fearing a prison sentence during a tax evasion trial, Schultz stuffed $5 million of his fortune in a metal box and had henchman Lulu Rosenkrantz bury it during a trip to Phoenicia, marking a nearby tree with an "X." Schultz and Rosenkrantz were rubbed out before they could make a withdrawal.
Details of the story vary. The stash was cash. It was gold and jewels. It was Liberty bonds. It was buried by a sycamore. It was buried between two pine trees, which -- considering the Catskills are a state forest preserve -- would be like burying something in a desert next to a sand dune.
The story's fuzzy features have done little to dissuade the occasional visitors who turn up at the Esopus Creek with shovels instead of fishing poles or inner tubes.
Like a lot of persistent tales, it can seem plausible.
Schultz really did make millions from his rackets. He traveled upstate. And Depression-era criminals tended to avoid banks, except to rob them. Some, like "Machine Gun" Kelly, were even known to hide loot in the dirt.
Still, there is no definitive proof that Schultz buried anything anywhere. But the story seems too good to die.
Polis called the tale an irresistible combination of murder, deathbed ramblings and buried treasure. He dreamed up the treasure hunt as part of his cousin Matthew Polis' bachelor party -- something different from strip clubs or a ball game. He Googled a bunch of information and even got a treasure map e-mailed from Bennett.
On the lookout
The group left New York City on a recent Saturday with rented metal detectors, digging tools, sunscreen and a what-the-heck attitude. After stopping at Levine's Mystery Spot Antiques shop for some tips, they hit the woods.
Like other diggers, they discovered the high proportion of heavy rocks in Catskill soil and the surprising number of metal objects. Aside from the bullet and the tin foil, they uncovered an old can and a piece of rusty metal cable.
Some Schultz treasure theorists believe better digging is at a local campground, or along the railroad tracks. Local funeral home operators interviewed in Levine's documentary, which is playing at film festivals, say they have a map placing the treasure directly under what is now state Route 28, the main road here.
Others say it's buried by a rock outcropping called "Devil's Face," arguing Schultz uttered a crucial clue as he lay dying: "don't let Satan draw you too fast." Of course, Schultz also said "he eats like a little baloney sausage maker," so others discount that theory.
Taking all theories into account leaves a search area more than four times the size of Central Park in Manhattan. Searchers have tried everything from backhoes to psychics to even the odds. But even if it existed, it might be gone by now.