SOMEWHERE ALONG THE PEACE RIVER — The band of treasure hunters met at the boat ramp behind the Nav-A-Gator bar before 7 a.m. One of their boats wouldn't start.
Mike Gattuso examined the battery as his lit cigarette dangled over the gas tank. He couldn't coax the motor to life.
And so, everyone piled into a single bass boat made for two. Five treasure hunters, one treasure hunter's boyfriend, a photographer and a reporter in search of pirate gold. There was not a life jacket in sight, but the floor was piled high with machetes and metal detectors.
The misty Peace River was empty and glassy. The crew rounded a bend, the palm frond roof of the Nav-A-Gator's patio disappeared and then there was nothing but lush greenery and turtles popping up.
Gattuso is 48, the group's leader. In a New York accent bastardized by nearly a lifetime in Florida, he explained the itinerary:
A visit to the "marked tree," which "someone, for some reason, marked with Roman numerals." A trip to "the hole," "where someone searching for treasure used heavy equipment to dig out a huge hole — wait 'til you see it." And finally, a stop at "the camp," which the crew believes is a treasure hot spot.
They've done this every Sunday for a year, looking for the booty of 19th century pirate Jose Gaspar.
Jose Gaspar did not exist, but never mind that. The 300,000 partiers who will swarm the streets Jan. 26 in Tampa for the annual Gasparilla pirate parade won't care. The dentists and lawyers who strap on eye patches and smear their faces with ash before tossing enough plastic beads to stretch from Tampa to San Francisco won't care. The people of Tampa, who cheer for the Buccaneers and drive past a real-life pirate ship on Bayshore Boulevard every day, don't care. This Gaspar fueled mania has been going on for 115 years.
Historians say Gaspar was fake? Guess what? Amateur treasure hunter Mike Gattuso doesn't care. He believes there's something out there.
"It could be some other pirate's gold, or Spanish explorer gold, or Civil War gold."
Or maybe there was some truth to the Gaspar story, just enough truth, Gattuso said. And if not, "there was enough pirate activity around Charlotte Harbor and the Peace River that there has to be something here."
"Too many of the details of the story have checked out for there not to be anything," added Erin Melcher, steering the boat. "After a while, you throw enough s—- against the wall, it begins to stink."
He got this boat by trading a Mossberg shotgun for it. He has a Go Pro camera strapped to his chest and a large knife on his waist. He really could use a parrot on his shoulder.
• • •
The Real Treasure Hunters, who have a Facebook following of 16,000, are really just friends with regular jobs. A postal worker. A general contractor. A former firefighter. Repo men. Dabblers in mixed martial arts.
What they have in common are these trips into the swamp, and The Story.
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The Story is a Frankensteined combination of local folklore and the Jose Gaspar tale. They've culled it together from internet forums, old books and even some firsthand interviews with locals they say are descendants of Lady Boggess. According to The Story, she hid Gaspar's surviving crew from the U.S. Navy in exchange for part of the treasure.
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The treasure hunters talk of local old timers who remember seeing men gambling with gold coins in their youth. They tell tales of misplaced maps, mysterious exchanges of property, journals, wagon trails, landmarks. They talk of gold recovered in the 1950s, though there is no record or proof.
They can't say too much publicly, Gattuso said, or they'll lead someone else to the treasure. He pulled up photos on his phone of what appeared to be a 1979 contract between the General Development Corporation and a land owner in the area. A clause stating any "treasure" discovered by the developer would be split with the land owner. He doesn't let anyone look at it too long.
Couldn't this clause have been a result of a superstitious land owner hedging bets in case the legends were true? A developer who wanted that land humoring them?
"Or," said Gattuso's wife, Lauren Hennessey, "they were searching for treasure, and they all knew it was there."
Melcher turned the boat and the bow slid onto the shore. Gattuso hopped off and hacked a machete path to a giant tree, the marked tree.
"Look!" Gattuso said, pointing up with his machete. "See those three lines?"
There were three dark lines about 10 feet up the trunk. Sort of. There were a lot of lines everywhere. Those three did seem man made, though. Definitely. Definitely, maybe.
• • •
There is absolutely no treasure out there. This whole thing is ridiculous, maddening and a danger to the delicate history preserved in Florida's Native American sites and pioneer settlements.
That is what Chuck Blanchard said. For decades, he spent his days paddling a canoe to various sites around Charlotte Harbor doing archaeological research and putting up "no trespassing" signs.
"The Gaspar story is entirely bogus. There isn't anything of merit to it. It was a railroad play."
In a carefully written 1980 article in Tampa Bay History, André-Marcel d'Ans traced the pirate myth back to a pamphlet to promote the railroad near Charlotte Harbor. The pamphlet was likely based on stories told by an area fishing guide to entertain his customers, and conflated with other pirates that may or may not have been active in the Gulf waters. The fake story from the pamphlet made it into a real history book, then another book by a Tampa Morning Tribune editor, which is how the Gaspar story was perpetuated as true.
"If any Gaspar did exist, he was not a pirate. He worked in a mission out there," Blanchard said. "Gasparilla Island may or may not be named for that friar."
RELATED: Here's how to recycle your Gasparilla beads in Tampa
When the Boca Grande Historical Society reposted the article debunking Gaspar's existence online a few years ago, Blanchard added an editor's note: This is particularly sad for the embattled Native American shell mounds of Charlotte Harbor, which have sustained almost unimaginable damage at the hands of looters in search of the non-pirate's non-treasure.
Blanchard is 75 now, and still serves as an archaeological consultant. In the 1980s, he said, "one guy brought in a bulldozer, and before I took any notice of him, he put a big trench in one of the more complicated mounds."
One thing is for sure. This whole amateur treasure hunting thing really ticks Blanchard off.
"If you're on shell, you're in a native site, and if you're digging, you could be up to your shovel in grave robbing. People have been put in prison for potting in those mounds," he said. "This stupid legend just keeps cropping back up every five years or so."
The Real Treasure Hunters were exploring east of the Interstate 75 bridge, where Charlotte Harbor gives way to the Peace River. It's not the nearby coastal shell mounds. There are a few historic settlement sites there, too, though there is much less documented research, said Jeff Moates, regional director of the Florida Public Archaeology Network.
He is more measured about treasure hunting.
"They could be impacting some historic landing sites or something like that," he said. "But the whole shoreline isn't a historic landing site. It just depends where they are."
In the past, he said, the state granted treasure hunters legitimate exploration and salvage contracts, but they've since been abandoned.
"Nobody ever found anything that I'm aware of, but at least there is a legal mechanism for getting permission from the state. Anyone who's out there should be pursuing that," he said. "What I'm curious about is what folks are finding to make them think there's treasure at all."
• • •
Back in the boat, the friends settled into a familiar routine. Gattuso called out directions and everyone else cracked jokes, mostly about Gattuso — his shortness, his fondness for hair mousse, his boots, fancy and expensive and not waterproof.
"I'm related to Julius Caesar you know," Gattuso said, sticking his chin up.
"I think it's more likely you're related to Napoleon," Melcher said.
Gattuso endured the jokes, then wanted to clarify.
"I don't want people to think we're a bunch of goofballs. We're serious about this, and we're going to find it."
The boat pulled up to "the hole."
It was not a giant hole in the ground, but a large spot where the river jutted into the land, like a small bay covered in lily pads. It was definitely, maybe, man made.
"Look!" Gattuso said. "Do you know what it would have cost to do that? You don't do that unless you're looking for something valuable."
Back on the boat, crew member Stacie Hunt reminisced about when they'd first started these expeditions in kayaks and jon boats.
"Remember that day we were all singing? I wish we'd go back to that, when it wasn't so serious."
The crew arrived at the last stop. The mud at "the camp" was so deep, each step threatened to slurp the boot off your foot. They scanned with metal detectors under a giant cypress. Gattuso's kept beeping. Hunt dug, then sifted through the mud with her bare hands. Nothing.
At another spot a few yards away, the detectors picked up an old, bleached out Budweiser can.
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The crew moved to a promising spot on higher, drier ground, and Gattuso's detector beeped again, more urgently than before. The LCD screen flashed "GOLD."
Hunt started to dig furiously, and Gattuso called out for a pinpointer. Stiger handed him a device like a giant pen, and as he poked in the loose dirt, it began to beep.
"There's something here!"
• • •
There is absolutely treasure near Charlotte Harbor.
That is what Rick Vaughan said. The retired commercial salvor and treasure hunter, now 74, tried to get to it for over a decade.
Vaughan was a diver with Mel Fisher, the famed treasure hunter who found the 1622 wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, and the 40 tons of Spanish gold and silver that went down with her. Vaughan pulled up the very first gold bar from the Atocha and wound up with a fat share of the loot.
He struck out on his own and eventually wound up at Charlotte Harbor. He had three boats, tens of thousands of dollars in electronics and infrared technology. His proton magnetometer told the tale. Shipwrecks, he claimed, one of them full of silver, "plain as day."
But he never came up with any of it. He eventually spent everything he had, his whole share of the Atocha haul plus some money from investors.
Amateurs, he said, have no idea what they're getting into. First off, treasure hunting is a science.
"I had plenty of old timers tell me, 'Oh, this is what my grandfather told me.' You can't verify any of it."
And it's expensive.
"I dropped a million bucks out of my own pocket in that place. ... Gold, silver and emeralds." He lost a treasure trying to find another one. There were employees to pay, and all sorts of specialized pumps and equipment needed to dig or dive. "Treasure hunting is a rich man's game."
Then there's the bureaucratic nightmare. He'd get one permit, he said, just to be told he needed another. By the time he got that one, the first was expired. Eventually he had to move on.
Today he lives in Augusta, Ga. on his modest military disability pension. He was injured in Vietnam. He said he often thinks about all the money he blew, and what could have been.
• • •
At "the camp" the pinpointer pinpointed something small and beeped frantically. Finally, Hunt plucked it from the dirt.
Everyone gathered around her to look. It was a gnarled, rusty nail.
"That thing is old," Melcher said. "Look at the head on that. That's not machine made."
Hunt tried to bend it, and the biggest find of the day snapped in two.
"Hey, that was a nail from Jose Gaspar's pirate ship," Gattuso said, pretending to be upset.
Back at the boat ramp, they pondered why they do this every Sunday. Adventure. Time away from hectic households with kids.
"You know, as time goes on, people get busier and friends don't see each other as much," Gattuso said. "For as long as we do this, it's a way to make sure we're all together, at least once a week.
"But don't get me wrong, we're going to find that treasure."
He offered to buy everyone lunch, and they headed into Nav-A-Gators, under colorful signs that read " "shrimp," "clams," "adventure" and "pirates."
All Eyes: Treasure hunters search for Jose Gaspar's lost riches
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