Mon, Jul 18, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Tales of treasure lure seekers to Catskills forests

PLAUSIBLE YARN For years, obsessed treasure-hunters have combed the pine forests in New York for the supposed buried loot of a 1930s gangster


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 tinfoil," 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.

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.

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, New Jersey, 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.

Usually the tales go something like this: Fearing a prison sentence during a tax evasion trial, Schultz stuffed US$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.

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