Sleeping Booty

How on Google Earth did an out-of-work musician from California stumble across the possible site of a fabled Spanish shipwreck in Melon Lake?
Sleeping Booty
Private Detector: Nathan Smith has survived snakes, lost maps, and lawsuits in pursuit of the treasure.
Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

One morning in October 2006, Nathan Smith, a 38-year-old musician from Los Angeles, jumped into his dented red 1972 Thunderbird, picked up his friend Kathryn Brown, and headed to Texas for the first time in his life. He drove nonstop, except for bathroom breaks, pushing the car as fast as he could through Arizona and New Mexico. Not long after he crossed the Texas state line, a DPS trooper pulled him over for speeding and asked him where he was going. “To find treasure,” Nathan exclaimed. “I’m on the hunt for buried treasure!” The puzzled officer let him go with just a warning, and Nathan was soon barreling down the highway again, finally arriving outside the tiny town of Refugio, north of Corpus Christi. It was nearly three o’clock in the morning. Nathan drove to a bridge over the Mission River and stopped, his heart pounding. He turned to Kathryn, a pretty 27-year-old graduate of Duke University, and said, “We’re here.”

Three days earlier, Kathryn and Nathan had been at a Borders bookstore not far from his West Hollywood apartment when he spotted Lost Treasures of American History on a discount shelf. The book is a compilation of legends, more than two dozen in all, about forgotten mines, shipwrecks, and hidden gold. At that very moment, Nathan, a handsome guy with a big smile and short dreadlocks, was looking for something that would change his life, “something that could capture all my passion,” he later said. Besides composing music and playing guitar in bands, he had designed Web sites for small companies, and he had made a couple films that he had released on the Internet. Most recently he and Kathryn had finished shooting a horror movie for $20,000 titled Skeletons in the Closet , about a greedy banker who is haunted by the ghost of a man from whom he has stolen some land.

As Nathan started flipping through the pages, he turned to Kathryn and said, “We can do this! We can find one of these treasures!” He paid $10 for the book, walked to a nearby Internet cafe, rented a computer, and went to Google Earth, a site that allows users to zoom in on detailed satellite images of places around the globe. On a whim, he decided to investigate a shipwreck that occurred near Refugio. In 1822, according to author W. C. Jameson, a Spanish ship laden with gold and silver had encountered a hurricane along the Gulf Coast. To avoid sinking, the captain had navigated the vessel into Copano Bay and sailed into the adjoining Mission River, only to run aground in a tributary. The crew was surrounded and slaughtered by the Karankawa, and settlers later carried away much of the lumber and iron from the doomed ship. But no one ever found the treasure. “Somewhere in or near this creek, covered only by a thin layer of prairie soil, lies one of the greatest lost treasures in the history of the United States,” wrote Jameson. “Experts suggest it may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.”

After staring at pictures of the area, Nathan suddenly leaped up from his computer, shouting, “I’ve found it! I swear I’ve found it!” And that was how he and Kathryn ended up 1,500 miles from home on a bridge over the Mission River in Nathan’s Thunderbird, which they had dubbed the Treasure Car.

It sounded like an absolutely ridiculous scenario, that a rank amateur with no experience whatsoever in map reading, navigating, or salvaging would believe he had discovered the site of a fabled Spanish shipwreck. Was Nathan Smith out of his mind, carried away by what he himself admitted was “gold fever”? Or had he truly stumbled across the clue to a fortune he could claim as his own—the ultimate case of beginner’s luck?

For the past several months, a parade of attorneys has been showing up at a federal courtroom in Houston to make heated arguments about just that. Nathan’s attorney, Dick Schwartz, the managing partner of a prominent civil law firm in Houston, has told U.S. district judge David Hittner that Nathan has found the location of the wreck beneath part of a small lake. According to federal maritime law, Schwartz has argued that the spot is considered publicly accessible “navigable waters,” and anyone who finds an abandoned ship in such a location has the right to dig it up and keep the spoils.

But the owners of the property that surround the lake insist that the ship—if, in fact, there is a ship—is not in navigable waters. And the owners, incidentally, are not the type of people who take kindly to someone suddenly showing up with a shovel, especially a dreadlocked outsider from California. They happen to be members of the O’Connor family, one of the most powerful clans in South Texas. Thomas O’Connor, who came to Texas from Ireland in 1834, was reputed to be the state’s richest man when he died, in 1887, having accumulated 500,000 acres and 100,000 head of cattle. In 1933 his heirs became even richer when wildcatter Hugh Cullen discovered a giant oil field on their land, resulting in millions of dollars in royalties. “Needless to say,” said Ron Walker, an O’Connor family attorney in Victoria, “we’re not going to let someone come down here and do whatever he wants, all because he bought a book in a bookstore in Los Angeles. That’s just offensive.”

As if that’s not enough, attorneys for the State of Texas have also taken an interest. “We have a very important law called the Antiquities Code of Texas,” said Steve Hoyt, the state marine archaeologist for the Texas Historical Commission. “And it says that any historic wrecks in public waters belong to us. We are here to preserve our antiquities.”

“Oh, man, talk about some complications,” said Nathan cheerfully, sitting one recent morning in his West Hollywood apartment with the windows open, sirens blaring away in the distance. “It’s just like a movie!”

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