Surrounded by dozens of stone-faced FBI agents on a frigid winter's day, Dennis and Kem Parada stared down at the empty hole and knew something wasn't right.
The father-son duo spent years combing this bit of Pennsylvania wilderness with high-end metal detectors, drills and other tools to prospect for a fabled cache of Civil War gold. They felt certain they'd discovered the hiding place of the long-lost booty, leading the FBI to the mountainous, heavily wooded area last March.
Now, at the end of the court-sanctioned excavation, the FBI escorted the treasure hunters to the snow-covered site and asked them what they saw. They gazed at the pit. Not so much as a glimmer of gold dust, let alone the tons of precious metal they said an FBI contractor's instruments had detected.
"We were embarrassed," Dennis Parada told The Associated Press in his first interview since the well-publicized dig last winter. "They walk us in, and they make us look like dummies. Like we messed up."
Since that day, however, neighbors' accounts of late-night excavation and FBI convoys have fueled suspicions that the agency isn't telling the whole truth. The Paradas are challenging the FBI's account of the dig, insisting that something had to have been buried in the woods near Dents Run, about 135 miles (220 kilometers) northeast of Pittsburgh.
That something, they believe, was gold.
"After my years of experience here using equipment, there was something here, something here of value, some kind of precious metal. And whatever it is, it's gone now. And that's what I want to get to the bottom of, is what was in that hole," Kem Parada said.
Federal investigators insisted a few days after leaving the site that the search came up empty, adding cryptically that its work there was related to an "ongoing investigation." The FBI declined further comment, and a bureau spokeswoman told the AP last week that court documents related to the dig are sealed.
The dispute between the Paradas and the FBI is the latest chapter in a mystery that has persisted for more than a century and a half. As the story goes, around the time of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, the Union Army sent a shipment of gold from Wheeling, West Virginia, to Philadelphia. The wagon train took a circuitous route through the wilds of northern Pennsylvania so as to avoid Confederate troops. Along the way, the gold was either lost or stolen.