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 were supposedly hidden near Esopus Creek by Schultz before he was mowed down in a New Jersey tavern in 1935.
Details are worse than hazy, 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 onto this story, they get very determined and very obsessed," said Laura Levine, a local antiques 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 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's other crime lords, uncomfortable with the idea of murdering the high-profile lawman, decided instead to get rid of Schultz.
Assassins were dispatched to the Palace Chop House in Newark, N.J., the night of Oct. 23, 1935. As his henchmen were being sprayed with gunfire at a table, Schultz was plugged in the bathroom with a rusty .45-caliber 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 $5 million of his fortune into 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 beside 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 Esopus Creek with shovels instead of fishing poles or inner tubes.
"I hate to say it, but I felt if anybody could find it, I could," said Gary Bennett, a Holyoke, Mass., resident who was inspired to search four years ago after seeing the story on "Unsolved Mysteries."
Bennett made a half-dozen treasure hunting trips to the Catskills, sometimes with his wife and two boys. He also read up on the story, looking for clues.
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.
Allan May, who writes about organized crime for AmericanMafia.com, doesn't see why Schultz would travel more than a hundred miles north to put his fortune in a hole. He gives the story no more weight than other gangster rumors, such as Bugsy Siegel's secret Swiss bank account (never found) or Al Capone's vault of treasure (Geraldo Rivera found empty liquor bottles inside on live TV in 1986).
"I don't think it makes any sense at all," May said. "He certainly had other places he could have kept it than in the ground."
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's bachelor party -- a change from strip clubs or a ballgame. He Googled a bunch of information and even got a treasure map e-mailed from Bennett.
"It's certainly more fun than buying a lottery ticket," said Polis party searcher Jorian Schutz, "with about the same odds as winning."
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 tinfoil, they uncovered an old can and a piece of rusty metal cable.
"Dutch Schultz! Where are yooouu?" Jared Polis hollered, heading deeper into the woods.
Some Schultz treasure theorists believe that 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 beside a rock outcropping called "Devil's Face," arguing that 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 Manhattan's Central Park. Searchers have tried everything from backhoes to psychics to even the odds. But even if the loot existed, it might be gone by now.
Levine has seen refrigerators floating down the Esopus during floods, and he believes it's possible a treasure box could have been carried downstream to the bottom of the Ashokan Reservoir.
Others, like Bennett, believe someone found the treasure long ago and kept quiet. Bennett contends a rival gangster got Rosenkrantz's map and Dutch's valuables. That's why he was willing to e-mail his map to Polis.
Polis and his crew hedged their bets by trying a few sites, but in the end they had no better luck than other diggers.
Matthew Polis said he still had a good bachelor party, which included paint ball the next day. There was no treasure, but he got a kick out of finding a turkey call to bring back to his Manhattan sound studio.
They departed the Catskills that night, leaving fresh holes behind.