BENEZETTE TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Decades ago, when a tale of lost Civil War gold turned Dennis Parada from a furniture salesman into a treasure hunter, he pointed a 1969 Corvette toward a steep mining road and drove up into the wild.
"That's how gung-ho he was to find this treasure," Parada's son, Kem, said Monday morning on that densely forested mountainside.
On a frigid day this past March, after days of digging, the FBI seemed to dash the Paradas' lifelong dream, saying teams of investigators found nothing at the rural Dents Run site off Route 555 in Elk County, approximately 260 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The agency stands firm on that "nothing" today, even as the Paradas question what exactly happened up there during the dig.
"FBI investigators must follow the facts," spokesperson Carrie Adamowski said in a statement Tuesday. "The fact here, as previously stated, is that nothing was found in the excavation."
But the FBI also says the Dents Run case is an "ongoing investigation," which makes Bill Cluck, the Paradas' lawyer, scratch his head.
If the site was empty, "then that's it, it's over, right, if they found nothing?" Cluck said. "Or are they investigating something I'm not sure we're allowed to talk about."
The legend dates back to the summer of 1863, when a special Union detachment was tasked with transporting 26 gold bars, each weighing 50 pounds, from West Virginia to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. That detachment, as the story goes, was ambushed, the gold lost and supposedly buried.
Dennis Parada, 66, founder of the treasure-hunting business Finders Keepers, has long told reporters he's focused on that boulder-strewn hillside thanks to a map given to him by an old man at a furniture store where he worked.
All of the Paradas' detection equipment told them gold was down there, too.
"You name the treasure-hunting equipment, we had it, and it all pointed to gold, gold, gold," Kem, 33, said at the site.
The Dents Run area is state land, however, and Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has told Finders Keepers not to dig there. DCNR has said it was never able to confirm the Civil War-era story. If the Union gold was there, and the legend true, the gold would still belong to the federal government.
Based on today's value of an ounce of gold, the lost load of 26 bars would be worth $27,381,120. Dennis, for some reason, believes there were 52 bars of gold, but once the FBI got involved and hired a contractor to scan the ground, the amount skyrocketed, he claims, the value even greater.
In late January, the Paradas and journalist Warren Getler, who has written books about gold, drove to the FBI's offices in Philadelphia. The Paradas handed over their readings, thinking it would go nowhere.
"We figured it was a wasted trip to Philly," said Kem, who works in law enforcement. "Within 24 hours, the agent was calling my dad."
The FBI moved quickly, obtaining a warrant from a federal judge in Pittsburgh that remains sealed.
Finders Keepers claims Enviroscan, a Lancaster-based firm the FBI hired to conduct the metal detection, actually found a mind-boggling seven to nine tons of gold and silver at Dents Run, which could jack the value up to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Enviroscan declined to comment.
When the FBI converged on Dents Run on the week of March 12, the Paradas and Getler were mostly kept at a distance the entire time, waiting in a car at the bottom of the old mining road for hours at a time.
"I was promised we could be on site when they started digging," Dennis said outside his home in Clearfield County on Monday afternoon.
Eventually, Dennis said, he was led up the site and asked to look into a hole the FBI had dug. It held nothing but dirt and rock.
An agent asked him what he saw in there. Dennis thinks the moment was meant to embarrass him.
"I said, 'Nothing,' and he said, 'That's it, there's nothing here, let's all go home,' " Dennis recalled. "I said, 'You're the one who told me there was nine tons here. You. Not me.' "
Cluck estimates the government spent at least six figures to fund the operation, but he has been unable to obtain any of the reports because the investigation is ongoing.
"You have 50 agents in a hotel. You've got agents flying all over the country. They rented backhoes and porta potties," he said.
Conspiracies about the dig linger.
One resident on the sparsely populated road that leads to the mine told the Associated Press of jack-hammering sounds all night up in the woods. People saw helicopters, large convoys of military vehicles.
"I know they found gold," resident Cheryl Elder told the AP. "I know they found it, and they're being sneaky."
The Paradas even mentioned that a Russian plane carrying nine tons of gold and silver bars lost some its cargo over Siberia a day after the Dents Run excavation ended.
On Monday, the Dents Run site appeared grown over with invasive grasses, with little evidence there was even a dig there. Dennis said all of his equipment, all the readings he had up there for gold for years, now come back empty.
"All the equipment I took back up there and there's nothing. There's no readings or nothing," he said.
While Dents Run remains in limbo, Finders Keepers continues its treasure hunting at various locations in Pennsylvania, including silver taken from a Spanish shipwreck, a haul Dennis believes is buried elsewhere in Elk County. The crew is also working on an island off Nova Scotia where legends of lost bounties abound.
Dennis grew up in Philipsburg, Centre County, rooting around for stones and arrowheads along the Susquehanna River. His grandmother, an antiques dealer, also fueled his interest.
"I was Huckleberry Finn," he said. "I'd build rafts, jump on them, and float down the river. We did the damnedest things back then."
Finders Keepers was expecting a finders fee if the gold belongs to the Union and more if it's Spanish silver. Dennis figures that would all be fought out in court. Either would mean millions for the father and son.
But Finders Keepers also wants something the money couldn't buy.
"Sure, we'd like some publicity, maybe television," Kem said. "We'd like some recognition for all the work we put in."