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?

July 2009By Comments

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!”

Indeed, the story of Nathan’s hunt for the Spanish shipwreck plays out partly as an old-fashioned adventure tale, partly as a courtroom drama, and most definitely as a comedy; think of it as Raiders of the Lost Ark meets The Verdict meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail. For nearly two centuries, treasure hunters have been wandering Refugio’s Barkentine Creek (also known as Burgentine Creek), which is named for a type of Spanish ship that sailed to Texas during the nineteenth century. But when Nathan studied a picture of it online, he noticed that the creek didn’t connect to the Mission River, as the book had said. So he jumped over to the Web site for the General Land Office, which posts early maps of Texas. Looking at an 1851 map of Refugio County, he spotted Melon Creek, about twenty miles away, which did connect to the river. He returned to Google Earth, hunted down Melon Creek, and noticed that it made a sudden turn to the right and then back to the left. He zoomed in closer, to a spot where the creek flowed into Melon Lake. To his amazement, he saw a large, dark, shoe-shaped image where the water made its turn. As unbelievable as it sounds, Nathan was convinced he was looking at the outline of a ship. “And I had to get to Texas right then and there just to make sure that shoe shape existed,” he says.

As they approached the bridge that October night, Nathan asked Kathryn for the map. She rummaged around the backseat, then suddenly exclaimed, “Nathan, I left it in L.A.!” Undaunted, he persuaded her to swim across the Mission River with him and hike in the general direction of the creek. When they stepped toward the river, they saw a large shape moving through the water. “An alligator!” Nathan screamed. “Or a wild hog that can swim!”

They ran to the car, where they waited until daybreak. Then they “borrowed” an abandoned boat they found on the bank, rowed up the river, turned into Melon Creek, turned again into a smaller tributary, and finally reached Melon Lake. They saw no signs of life aside from snakes slithering on the banks and spiders hanging in the trees. The closest house was miles away. Trying to remember his treasure map, Nathan got out of the boat and walked through six inches of water thick with coastal grass until he reached a muddy area with no vegetation. Nathan remembered that he had read that creosote from an old ship could inhibit plant growth. “We’re here!” he cried, and he ran over to hug Kathryn.

Nathan said he attempted to find out who owned the land adjoining Melon Lake. One of the first people he called was the local sheriff, T. Michael O’Connor—yes, a member of the O’Connor family. “He kept telling me, ‘Take heed. Texans don’t take kindly to people trespassing on their property,’ ” Nathan said. “I tried to be as nice as I could, and I said, ‘You take heed. My ship is in a navigable waterway.’ ”

On a return trip, Nathan and Kathryn brought metal detectors, which Nathan claims were silent until they arrived at the site. Suddenly the instruments began beeping, and the gauges swung wildly back and forth, indicating that gold and silver were under the ground. Nathan hugged Kathryn again and then danced spontaneously on his hallowed ground. “Gold and silver!” he cried. “Gold and silver!”

Still, he had no physical proof that he had found anything at all. So Nathan filed a lawsuit, dramatically named Nathan Smith v. The Abandoned Vessel, in which he sought title to the ship he claimed to have found and asked for an order preventing anyone from trying to stop his recovery efforts. He then applied for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to excavate the site.

There is no question that Melon Lake is located inside one of the O’Connor family’s ranches. But maritime law states that if someone in a boat can get to a lake through the rivers and creeks that feed into it, then it’s considered publicly navigable. And what about marshy wetlands adjoining a lake that sometimes fill up with water after rains and sometimes go dry in the summers? The law says those too are considered navigable, no different from the Rio Grande when it slows to a trickle during a drought.

Judge Hittner held a nonjury trial in December 2008 to gauge the merits of Nathan’s claim. The property had belonged to Marie O’Connor Sorenson, one of the family’s grande dames, who had died earlier that year, at the age of 84. The executor of the estate was Sorenson’s daughter Morgan Dunn O’Connor, a striking, elegant brunette who received her law degree from St. Mary’s University, in San Antonio, and who now manages part of the family’s agricultural and oil-and-gas interests (she is also a former regent for the University of Houston). She was so unhappy she had to attend the trial that she refused to shake hands with Nathan, who showed up wearing a striped suit, a striped shirt, and a striped tie.

O’Connor testified that there was no ship anywhere near Melon Lake or Melon Creek. She said that, according to local history, a house had been built from the wood and iron from a lost ship, but it was on a ranch miles from her mother’s. When Nathan took the stand, Walker, the O’Connors’ attorney, asked him a series of slightly sarcastic questions about his inability to make money in his music and film ventures. Walker then asked Nathan to talk about the other treasure-hunting expeditions he had undertaken while waiting for the court to rule on his claim. Without the slightest hesitation, Nathan declared that he had found Jesse James’s buried treasure on Google Earth as well. He explained that he had not yet gone after the loot because he thinks there is a death trap in the form of a giant teetering rock just outside the entrance to the cave.

To some observers in the courtroom, Nathan looked like, well, a kook. But in late April, when Judge Hittner finally issued his ruling, he didn’t ridicule the young treasure hunter. And though he didn’t give Nathan title to the alleged vessel, he refused to prevent Nathan from continuing his efforts to recover the ship. Based on a videotape he’d watched of Nathan and his lawyer reaching Melon Lake in an airboat and after hearing testimony that a fisherman also periodically sailed to the spot, Hittner declared that the alleged ship, if it was located where Nathan said it was, did lie “within the navigable waters of the United States.” In other words, the O’Connors couldn’t stop Nathan—or anyone else—from returning to Melon Lake to look for evidence of the ship’s existence. (The precise location has been sealed in court papers, but treasure hunters—experienced and otherwise—will be able to make a pretty good guess.) Thrilled to have a second chance, Nathan is already talking to potential investors about funding his next adventure to Texas, in which he wants to complete an archaeological survey and attempt to get an image of the ship with an expensive MRI-like scan. He hopes to receive approval from the Corps of Engineers to bring in a small tractor on a barge and do what he describes as a “minor sample dig.” Nathan has gone so far as to hunt down the project manager responsible for the salvage operations of the Titanic to ask if he would do the same thing for him.

The O’Connors, of course, will be watching. “We’re convinced he wants to dig outside the boundaries of the lake, and we’re not going to let that happen,” Walker said. The State of Texas will also be watching. “If it turns out a historic shipwreck is under submerged public waters in Texas, a private citizen doesn’t have the right to it,” Hoyt said. “Our law makes no exceptions.”

Nathan has called Hoyt and the state’s attorneys “highway robbers.” For his part, Schwartz acknowledges that the state can claim shipwrecks found under state-owned submerged land (off the coast, for instance). But he insists that the Antiquities Code does not grant the state the right to every artifact discovered in navigable waters. But even if the state does take away his ship, Nathan says he will be vindicated. “Everyone thinks I’m out of my mind. They call me a California gold digger. Well, they’re wrong. They know something is down there. They know I’ve beaten them all to it. And it’s time we take a look and see what we’ve got.” Schwartz, a reserved, soft-spoken man who took Nathan’s case on a contingency fee, agrees that some sort of dig should take place. “When I went with Nathan in the airboat to the lake, he turned on his metal detector, and there was dead silence. Then we stepped into the area where he thinks the ship went down, and the beeping began and the gauges started swinging. It was exciting.”

Because he doesn’t want to tip off the O’Connors, Nathan is not saying exactly when he will come back to Texas. But until he returns, he insists that he and Kathryn will continue to look for more buried treasure. Unfortunately, the Treasure Car has broken down for good after so many trips to Texas, so they have been forced to focus their searches around Los Angeles. Most recently, they have been taking a city bus, their trusty metal detectors in hand, out to an area near the Hollywood Bowl to look for the location of the Cahuenga Pass treasure, which Nathan also thinks he’s found with the help of his beloved Google Earth.

“I know people on that bus are laughing at me, but that’s all right,” Nathan says. “I’ve found my calling. I’m going to spend my life looking for treasure. And to all those who tell me I’m never going to find anything, I smile politely and say, ‘Just wait and see.’ ”

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  • HisMajestyOKeefe

    Don’t think the article takes that approach.
    Woke up in Cat Cay next to the O’Conners yacht ( w matching helicopter) nice people.

    Fellow office worker at Lehman Bros. in Dallas tried to introduce me to Bridey, should have paid attrention