Politics & Government

Gold from Yreka heist remains missing

Patrick Fischer had no idea last year he was helping solve the mystery of a $1.26 million gold heist that robbed a Northern California town of its treasure and historic pride.

Three hundred miles from Yreka, where thieves with crowbars hacked through a bulletproof glass display to loot one of California's most revered gold collections, Fischer greeted an anxious seller at his pawn shop in the Central Valley town of Lockeford.

Scott Wayne Bailey presented an 1898 gold Waltham pocket watch. He told Fischer he was in tough financial circumstances and needed to sell off a family heirloom to get cash to travel to Germany.

Last week, Bailey, 51, of El Sobrante pleaded guilty for his role in a brazen gold heist, in which two men slipped in through an open window at the Siskiyou County Courthouse and stole dozens of gold nuggets – including a 28-ounce specimen known as "the shoe" – from a lobby display.

Bailey, arrested in San Pablo on Aug. 1, is due to be sentenced Sept. 12. He could receive up to five years in prison for second-degree burglary of more than $200,000.

A second suspect, David Dean Johnson of El Cerrito, who surrendered April 1, has pleaded not guilty in the case. He is being held in Siskiyou County jail in lieu of $1 million bail while awaiting trial.

The heist wounded Yreka, a town of 7,700 residents just south of the Oregon border that had long reveled in – and showed off – its Gold Rush heritage.

The two men arrested in the 1 a.m. Feb. 1, 2012, courthouse burglary turned out to be unremarkable chums from Contra Costa County who had worked on construction, drainage and painting jobs.

Authorities say Bailey, who long worked as a merchant seaman according to a one-time friend, had prior arrests – but no convictions – for minor property crimes. Johnson had felony convictions, including a three-year prison sentence, for possession, sale and transportation of methamphetamine.

Neighbors interviewed on Johnson's street in El Cerrito said Bailey, who used to live a few blocks away, was a regular in the neighborhood. They say the men talked of enjoying gold panning – and last year took to riding newly acquired Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

After the shocking sight of police officers later swarming Johnson's home, neighbors debated if the two men were smart enought to pull off such an audacious theft – or just dumb enough to try.

Ultimately, it was a Waltham pocket watch taken from the glittering gold display at the courthouse that helped lead to the suspects.

The broken timepiece so unimpressed Fischer that the pawnbroker paid just $200 to buy it from Bailey.

The transaction at Fischer's Lockeford Jewelry & Loan provided a link to what authorities characterized as a less-than-sophisticated burglary. They say the suspects likely ended up reaping barely $80,000 each from sales of a fraction of the $1 million-plus in gold taken from the $3 million Yreka courthouse exhibit.

At his pawnshop, Fischer dutifully photocopied Bailey's driver's license and took a fingerprint as required for police records. That enabled authorities to track the watch.

"I get a lot of stuff. It didn't strike me as anything outstanding," said Fischer, who said he was later startled to get subpoenaed by investigators chasing leads on a major gold heist in Yreka. "But if it's an heirloom to the town, and it's important to them, obviously that means something.

"If that guy (Bailey) stupidly came in here and got busted, he deserves what he gets."

It turned out the watch was a wedding gift that a Yreka gold miner, George Nesbitt, gave to his wife, Belle Simon Nesbitt, on Dec. 22, 1898.

George Nesbitt worked in Yreka's legendary Quartz Hill mine. His son, Virgil Nesbitt, a member of the Siskiyou County Historical Society who died in recent years, had donated the watch and several considerably more valuable large gold nuggets for the town's courthouse exhibit.

The items were tributes to the gilded legacy of Yreka, a Gold Rush jewel that was once labeled "richest square mile on Earth" for its lucrative mines and creeks sparkling with golden flakes.

District Attorney J. Kirk Andrus said none of the gold taken in the heist has been recovered. He said authorities traced some unremarkable flakes to gold dealers who apparently had them melted down. There has been no word on "the shoe" or any big nuggets – some an inch in diameter – that a courthouse video showed masked burglars stuffing into backpacks.

Now even the Nesbitt family pocket watch is lost.

Fischer said he sold the item before he was contacted by authorities and doesn't know where it might be. The pawnshop keeps records on sellers bringing items in – not on those who buy them.

"I don't even remember what the thing looked like," Fischer said. "I probably scrapped it out for the gold, and it wasn't much. It was broken. Nobody works on those watches."

The news of Bailey's guilty plea brought little joy this week at the Siskiyou County Museum in Yreka, where director Michael Hendryx recounted a conversation he had with a fellow member of the historical society.

"She said, 'It's just pathetic,' " Hendryx said. "It really doesn't matter that they caught them or not. Because the gold is gone."

What also frustrates the locals is the clumsy nature of the crime – and the not-so-glamorous thieves who allegedly pulled it off.

An alarm in the gold display was apparently not functioning properly when two men with cloth hoods and socks for gloves started hacking away at the thick glass enclosure until a crow bar punched enough of a hole for them to reach inside.

Andrus said authorities believe Johnson and Bailey had cased the courthouse a day earlier, leaving open a bathroom window to slither in to get to the lobby display after the building closed.

Johnson's lawyer, Howard Williams, said his client wasn't one of the masked men looting the gold. But he said Johnson had been at the courthouse a day before the burglary to support a friend who had a court case.

Andrus said the men sneaked back in from a rear alley behind the courthouse in the wee hours the next morning. He said they entered a facilities office on the other side of the wall from the gold display case, trying to figure out how to disable an alarm.

At one point, Andrus said, Johnson picked up a bottle of vitamin water from a courthouse employee's work station and took a swig. Authorities say Johnson's DNA was found on the bottle. Johnson's attorney is challenging the credibility of the evidence.

"The irony is he (Johnson) got caught trying to disable an alarm that already wasn't working," Andrus said.

The DA said there was a malfunction in the display case security. The alarm didn't sound when the suspects broke the glass. It went off with a shriek a day later when investigators came to take account of the remaining gold in the exhibit.

Siskiyou County sheriff's Detective Yves Pike testified at a preliminary hearing for Johnson in April that authorities were besieged with leads after the burglary.

Pike said most callers offered "unsubstantiated or unreliable" leads. A woman claimed, "My baby's daddy and I are going through a tough custody battle and I think that he stole the gold." He said pawnshops called to report they had gotten some "flake gold and it might be yours."

As authorities focused on Bailey, they took note of his spending. He bought a black BMW – for $11,000 – and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and got his girlfriend a blue Ford Mustang, Pike testified.

They also noted a $20,000 Harley bought by Johnson's wife. Williams said she got it with money from a family inheritance, not a gold heist.

Andrus said authorities are investigating leads that other people may have helped Bailey and Johnson in getting rid of loot, "transforming gold into cash" after the burglary.

Arguing in April to hold Johnson for trial on $1 million bail, Andrus said the stolen gold could "cause somebody to go as far away on this earth as they wanted and stay there as long as they wanted."

The courthouse display hasn't reopened. The county has hidden away the remaining gold. And the town of Yreka now awakes to another indignity.

Due to prison overcrowding, Bailey – and Johnson, if convicted – will serve time at the Siskiyou County jail. That's less than 50 yards from the looted display.

"Part of our local heritage has been stolen," Andrus said, "and we've got to pay for our own gold thieves to be housed in our county jail."

Call The Bee's Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539. Follow him on Twitter @phecht_sacbee.