12/12/2006

Speaking of George W. Bush, Gloria Steinem said, "The world is divided into two kinds of people. People who divide the world into two kinds of people, and people who don't, and that's his problem."

Dr. Strangelove

Frontyard Treasure? Just the Shaft
Montclair man thought he'd find gold under his lawn, but the city shut down his mining operation.
By Ashley Powers, Times Staff Writer
June 15, 2006

Enrique Mora was convinced that his neatly trimmed lawn in a Montclair cul-de-sac topped a modern-day mother lode — so two weeks ago, he started digging for gold.

And digging and digging and digging, until the 60-foot shaft so alarmed neighbors that someone alerted the city Fire Department, which shut him down this week.

ADVERTISEMENT

"Just when you think you've seen everything, the Montclair gold rush?" said Scott Sherwood, the Fire Department code enforcement officer who put an end to Mora's quest.

Mora's flirtation with residential treasure began about a month ago, when he celebrated his retirement from a company that retrains injured workers by dropping nearly $600 on a metal detector.

As a test, Mora, 63, swept his frontyard. The detector went bonkers, he said. This was a conundrum: ignore the beeping or tear up the lawn?

Any newfound riches would allow him to realize his dream: to direct his own motion picture, likely about the Vietnam War, about which he wrote a book called "The Redcatcher Express."

It was an easy call.

So Mora hired three workers to carve a 3- to 4-foot-wide hole next to a stone pathway. This being Montclair, a 35,000-person town in western San Bernardino County, neighbors figured he was planting a palm tree — until a dirt mound grew as tall as Mora's one-story home.

"The workers told my husband that they were looking for water to fill a swimming pool, and my husband said, 'What do you think, I'm dumb?' " said Josefina Preciado, 50, who lives across from Mora on Granada Street.

Despite the stares and questions from neighbors, Mora kept his mission hush-hush, even after he discovered what he thought was gold dust.

"They were going to think I'm crazy," said Mora, a trombone player in a 23-piece salsa band. "But had I come up with the gold, no one would have thought I'm crazy."

Still, word got out. A neighbor called the Fire Department on Tuesday afternoon, complaining that Mora's gold-mining pit was deep enough to swallow a child.

When firefighters pulled up at the home, workers were dumping paint cans brimming with dirt scraped from the bottom of the hole with a shovel and a pick ax. To pull the dirt out, Mora had devised a rope-and-pulley contraption with a plastic wheel and a metal rod.

The worker at the bottom of the crater had shimmied down, a rope tethered to a belt, and was sucking on a garden hose for oxygen, neighbors told the emergency responders.

"It was like the next shovel would reveal gold and [Mora] got carried away," said Deputy Fire Chief Troy Ament.

Mora had failed to apply for the required permits for that type of project.

Residents paraded past Mora's home Wednesday morning, after the mine was closed and fenced off, gaping at the dirt mound flanked by rattan chairs, cushions and a patio umbrella.

"If he finds gold, I'm trying too," deadpanned Preciado, the neighbor.

Mora, a squat man with dark hair graying at the temples, handed out business cards promoting his 23-piece salsa and Latin jazz orchestra.

A private soil engineer, Mohan B. Upasani of Global Geo-Engineering Inc. in Tustin, said he was surprised the tunnel didn't collapse. City officials had instructed Mora to hire an engineer to plug the pit.

While he promised to do so, Mora hinted that he'd keep hunting for the treasure waiting beneath his sneakers.

How? "That's between me and the gold," he said.

Neko