Dr. Garcia’s gold: Buried Texas treasure, a legal fight and a … – The Washington Post

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About two hours south of San Antonio lies the community of San Diego, Tex., a speck of a town with just under 4,000 residents. Its biggest claim to fame is the infamous “Plan of San Diego,” hatched in 1915 during the Mexican Revolution, which sought to reconquer from the U.S. government the portion of the Southwest that had been taken from Mexico in the Mexican-American War.

While the Plan of San Diego was never acted upon, the rebellious spirit of this town’s inhabitants resulted in one of the most fascinating tales in South Texas history — one that involves buried treasure, an empty Folgers coffee can and a plate of enchiladas.


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The tale begins around the time the notorious rebel plan was hatched. Its protagonist was a well-educated country doctor named Jose Garcia. Garcia, who got his medical education in Mexico, came from a prominent colonial family who obtained 18th-century Spanish land grants on what would become both sides of the Texas-Mexico border.

Beginning in the 1890s, Garcia began collecting gold coins, according to family archives that would become important evidence in a Texas courtroom more than a century later. He had accrued more than 500 gold coins and built a thriving medical practice when the Great Depression broke out following the 1929 stock market crash.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt suddenly saw gold hoarding as a national security. In response, in 1933, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 6102, “forbidding the hoarding of gold coin, gold bullion, and gold certificates within the continental United States.” Americans were ordered to give up their gold coins to the Federal Reserve at an exchange rate of roughly $20 per ounce.

That was unacceptable for Garcia, who would have been paid about $10,000 (more than $230,000 in today’s money) if he had given up his gold. Instead he quietly began burying the coins in a crawl space beneath his home on St. Joseph Street in San Diego.

His treasure was a well-kept secret; he shared its existence only with his daughter, Gloria, and her husband, Hector Lopez, both of whom earned degrees from the University of Texas at Austin in the 1940s — a rarity for Hispanics at the time. After serving in the military during World War II, Hector earned a law degree from Baylor Law School.

After Garcia died in 1964, his son-in-law made several forays into the crawl space but never found the gold coins. In 1976, Gloria and Hector Lopez sold the home to a distant cousin named Alejandro Lopez. For a while, at least, the gold stash was forgotten.

Twenty-six years later, the home developed plumbing issues, and Alejandro Lopez called on the town plumber, Serafin Trevino, to fix a leak. Trevino went to the house and brought his girlfriend, Connie Mosely. Trevino entered the crawl space beneath the kitchen to get to the source of the leak, while Mosely waited for him in the kitchen.

As he dug around wet earth to expose a leaking sewer line, Trevino found the gold coins. But instead of telling the home’s owner, Trevino called up to his girlfriend, who found an empty Folgers coffee can and handed it to the plumber.

Trevino filled the can with an estimated 422 gold coins, worth about $500,000 at the time. Trevino quietly left with the treasure and began a spending spree that, according to one witness, included paying for a plate of enchiladas with a $20 gold coin. What Trevino didn’t know was that the gold piece was worth about $1,100.

But nothing stays secret for long in a small town, and soon the homeowner, Alejandro Lopez, heard about Trevino’s discovery. Lopez confronted Trevino and demanded the return of the gold coins, saying they had been given to him by Lopez’s father. Trevino responded with the classic third-grade legal argument: finders keepers.

The dispute ended up in a Duval County court, and word quickly got to Gloria Garcia-Lopez, who was then living in nearby Alice, Tex. Gloria and her husband entered the legal fray as intervenors — a third party with a stake in the case.

During the ensuing trial, Dr. Garcia’s sister, Braulia de la Garza Garcia, shared a ledger that documented her brother’s accrual of the gold coins. It became a key piece of evidence and contributed to the judge’s decision to award the treasure to Gloria Garcia-Lopez and her husband.

In the end, Gloria and her husband didn’t need the money that the gold coins would have generated for them. That’s because the Garcia family had a habit of legally documenting not only its coin collection, but also extensive land holdings.

When Dr. Garcia’s daughter and her husband died, they owned tens of thousands of acres on as many as 14 different ranches in South Texas. They amassed this real estate fortune even though their family had lost the bulk of its real estate south of the border to the Mexican government following that country’s revolution and land reforms, and in an era in which unscrupulous developers routinely stole land from Mexican American landowners.

In that great Texas tradition, oil and gas were found on many of their ranches. Gloria and Hector had no children, and when they died, their wills created the Hector and Gloria Lopez Foundation, which awards scholarships to first-generation Hispanic college students in several Texas cities. That foundation is now worth more than $200 million and is one of the country’s largest scholarship funds for Hispanic students.

They found Viking coins worth millions using metal detectors — but their discovery led to prison

And as for the gold? The family executor, a nephew of Gloria and Hector, was tasked with locating a Texas museum to donate the 400 remaining gold coins. After searching throughout the state, he chose the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg, Tex., about an hour south of where the gold had been buried. He selected it because of the diversity of the museum’s board of trustees. Currently, the museum is showing an exhibit called Dr. Garcia’s Gold.

The gold coins are safely stored in a bank lockbox. In perfect condition, the value of the coins, some minted as early as 1836, could be as high as $12 million. But, alas, the coins are not in mint condition. Most of them have a mark believed to be a toothmark. Francisco Guajardo, the Museum of South Texas’s CEO, theorizes that during the brief time he was a rich man, the plumber Serafin Trevino bit into each of the coins to ensure they were real.

Carlos Sanchez, a longtime journalist, is director of public affairs for Hidalgo County, Tex.

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