Goldminers have a name for the ore that glitters promise from the luminous darkness of the mine. They call it high grade. When gold shows in the rock, when the naked eye can look past serpentine or iron to see solid flecks of gold, then a miner knows he has come upon the high grade ore that still lures the hopeful to these northern California mountains.
And when a man steals from the depths of a mine, pocketing such ore that legally belongs to the mine owner that is called high grading. It is a familiar kind of thievery in California's gold country, a crime as old as the mines and the feverish longing of the men who worked them. Lyman LeRoy Stokes, a gaunt 42-year-old miner who has had the fever almost all his life, is about to go to jail for high grading. Sometime before next spring, if the courts deny his appeal. Stoke will begin seving a six-month sentence for stealing an estimated $50,000 worth of high-grade ore from the old Oriental Mine in Alleghany, 24 mostly unpaved mountain miles from the courthouse that held the case of People vs. Stokes.
The state attorney general's office says Stokes is the first convicted high grader in the last 100 years. Donald Dickey, the Oriental's owner and a man beset by his own passion for gold, said it is time people stopped looking the other way around high graders. And Stokes, who insists he never stole any gold in the first place, says he was framed by some unreliable hoens pocus he refers to, contemptuously, as "scientific B.S."
What helped convict Stokes was an "electron microproble," an advanced form of geological analysis so new that it reportedly has never before been accepted as evidence in a trial. It was a widly incongruous finale to a case that began in a 114-year-old mine, but then from outside Sierra County the whole cast of chararcters in People vs. Stokes looks a little improbable: an international race driver turned mine owner (with his serenely beautiful Japanese wife); a rootless loser of a miner living on dreams and disability pay; and Stokes, who kept stashing his gold in an Army footlocker and waiting for the big moeny to roll in.
They still work this country the way they did in 1850. Lone miners hunch over mountain creeks with a dredge to suck up the ground and a screen to shift it away. Underground miners burrow slowly with air drills and dynamite through the deep rock that might hide a rich vein. The summer vacationers come and go, carrying nuggets home with them on lucky days, but there are whole communities in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that still live for gold and the dream of a strike so fine that, as one miner breathed in a local bar, "you could just reach in -" arms extended eyes gleaming "- and take it out with your bare hands."
And there's a stirring in the gold country now, a rusty murmur, like old machinery starting up slowly. The big mines have closed, stripped of their initial riches and then deserted as costs rose and gold prices fell. But the prices are high again, hovering around $160 an ounce, and in a county where even the ghost mine names convey enticement - El Dorado, Rainbow, Golden King - technology had begun probing the underground in ways no forty-niner ever imagined.
So you could just call People vs. Stokes some Sierra County snapshots, 1977. Stokes, bearded and angry, sitting in the office of the public defeder and squinting down at the fat manila file that outlines, in legal and scientific language, the case that will probably send him to jail. Dickey, the owner who chose to go after him, talking alternately about the Oriental's convoluted geology and about the stigma of ownership - "I represent the robber baron." And somewhere south of Alleghany, Guy Vogelsang, the older miner who told a Sierra County jury that Stokes set him up to front stolen gold.
Stokes was in his 20s, he said last week, when he first began working the California gold country. He came by way of Southern California, a working-class kid from Anatheim who discovered early on that the desert yields up a variety of mineral treasures if you work it right. Some old miners down from the north showed him his first gold, and before long he had bougth a dredge and eased into a long series of summers sifting the mountain river bottoms for gold and winters sludging through odd jobs in town, "so the summers could come on a little faster."
In November, 1973, after a few good mining years and a lot of bad ones. Stokes signed on as an underground miner at the Oriental. He spent the next 10 months helping Dickey and his small crew blast through the rock in search of high grade, and in August, about five months after Dickey discovered a rich new vein in the Oriental, Stokes quit.
Then, accordidng to testimony presented at his trial, Stokes began stealing Dickey's gold, sliding his slim body through the small opening in one of the Oriental's locked steel gates at nights to extract ore in a backpack.
One evening in the fall of 1974, as Stokes and his girlfriend sat drinking coffee by a creek they had been panning, anolder man came over from a campsite just up the way. They offered him some coffee, and he introduced himself as Guy Vogelsang. He was a miner, he said, kept a little dredge in the creek, lived on that and what he called a little disability pay, had sold gold around that country for years.
Stokes allowed as how he had some gold. Found in a rusty old can, he said - probably some 19th century high grader's cache. Plus more odds and ends Stockes had mined himself, course. But he wasn't to experienced at selling. For a small commission, would Vogelsang lend a hand?
And that was how stokes and Vogelsang ended up carrying an old Army footlocker, 3 feet by 4 feet by 18 inches, into a nearby gold dealer's shop and causing such a stir, as teh dealer testified later, that "everybody who was in the shop had to look in that locker."
The footlocker held a stunning collection of gold, the dealer testified: "it filled it up completely." (Stokes called this a wild exaggeration, saying the gold was simply laid out in one layer.) They wanted to sell the whole lot, no piecemeal. The dealer estimated the value at $50,000, and said he couldn't afford it.
The gold was not selling anywhere, in fact and around Sierra County the rumors had begun. Stokes and his golden footlocker. Ore from the Oriental turning up all over the county. Warnings came to owner Dickey on the telephone, and one day someone stopped him in town: Mr. Dickey, you're being ripped off.
Dickey waited. He was not a popular man in Sierra County, and he knew it: the man on the other end of the payroll - and worse, perhaps often thought of as arrogant and independently eatlthy, with his nose in the air. The Oriental had been his mother's purchase, a post-Depression investment after the death of Dickey's father, and although Dickey had spent the better part of the last 35 years working the Oriental, he was still in some sense in Alleghany outsider.
He had driven race cars. He had traveled in Africa. His wife was Japanese, shy about her English. He never went drinking with the other miners. He had studied mechanical engineering and mining in college and he liked to speak of the Oriental as a pineshrouded vault whose combination lay somewhere in the mysteries of geology and chemistry.
And his life was the Oriental's gold. "It's a feeling," Dickey mused last week. "If you've ever seen anything as beautiful as gold in its natural form . . .," he shrugged. "There's a lot more money to be made in cement, or sand, or rock, or gravel."
In January, 1975, Dickey got a phone call from the police. Guy Vogelsang was in their office, they said, and wanted to talk to him. Vogelsang told Dickey what he had told the police and would repeat in testimony later - that he had stood in the darkness outside Stokes trailer and listened to Stokes' girlfriend shouting that everybody at the mine knew that everybody Stokes had been stealing gold.
"I was pretty mad," Vogelsang told the grand jury. "Here I was trying to sell the gold, and I thought it was legal. I though they had really found it."
Dickey hired a private investigator, who went back to Stokes old creek campsite and found, half buried in campfire ashes, two pieces of high had flung aside after an argument was taken for testing to the University of California's Davis Campus, where scientists used an "electron microproble" to bombard each piece with electrons, drawing out enough radiation to allow a measurement of the exact chemical content of each piece. That content was then compared to the makeup of Alleghany's various gold mines.
The gold, declared the scientists, came from the oriental. It came, in fact, from "50 to 70 feet below the surface of the mine," according to testimony by a participating geologist. They had pinpointed the ore's origin that precisely.
Like fingerprints, someone said later. Geologic fingerprints.
Stokers was indicted in August, 1976, for grand theft, and last month, after deliberating for six hours, a jury in the county courthouse jfound him guilty. Although he told police when he was arrested that Vogelsang was a liar - that the gold really had been found in a can, and that Vogelsang was the one who had first suggested stealing - Stokes, for reasons he would not explain, never took the stand in his own defense.
And although Stokes' appeal questions both the reliability of the geologic testing and the assumption that the ore found at the campsite necessarily belongs to him, a juror said after the trial that "we figured one of them had to be lying." And he added, referring to the conflicting testimony of the two seasoned miners, "We just prayed that we took the right one."