Treasure hunters challenge FBI over dig for Civil War gold
By MICHAEL RUBINKAM
Tuesday, October 9
DENTS RUN, Pa. (AP) — Surrounded by dozens of stone-faced FBI agents on a frigid winter’s day, Dennis and Kem Parada stared down at the empty hole and knew something wasn’t right.
The father-son duo spent years combing this bit of Pennsylvania wilderness with high-end metal detectors, drills and other tools to prospect for a fabled cache of Civil War gold. They felt certain they’d discovered the hiding place of the long-lost booty, leading the FBI to the mountainous, heavily wooded area last March.
Now, at the end of the court-sanctioned excavation, the FBI escorted the treasure hunters to the snow-covered site and asked them what they saw. They gazed at the pit. Not so much as a glimmer of gold dust, let alone the tons of precious metal they said an FBI contractor’s instruments had detected.
“We were embarrassed,” Dennis Parada told The Associated Press in his first interview since the well-publicized dig last winter. “They walk us in, and they make us look like dummies. Like we messed up.”
Since that day, however, neighbors’ accounts of late-night excavation and FBI convoys have fueled suspicions that the agency isn’t telling the whole truth. The Paradas are challenging the FBI’s account of the dig, insisting that something had to have been buried in the woods near Dents Run, about 135 miles (220 kilometers) northeast of Pittsburgh.
That something, they believe, was gold.
“After my years of experience here using equipment, there was something here, something here of value, some kind of precious metal. And whatever it is, it’s gone now. And that’s what I want to get to the bottom of, is what was in that hole,” Kem Parada said.
Federal investigators insisted a few days after leaving the site that the search came up empty, adding cryptically that its work there was related to an “ongoing investigation.” The FBI declined to comment further, and a bureau spokeswoman told the AP last week that court documents related to the dig are sealed.
The dispute between the Paradas and the FBI is the latest chapter in a mystery that has persisted for more than a century and a half. As the story goes, around the time of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, the Union Army sent a shipment of gold from Wheeling, West Virginia, to Philadelphia. The wagon train took a circuitous route through the wilds of northern Pennsylvania so as to avoid Confederate troops. Along the way, the gold was either lost or stolen.
The legend has inspired generations of treasure hunters to take to the thick woods of northwestern Pennsylvania — including Dennis and Kem Parada, who spent five years digging in a cave on state land, and two more years drilling atop the cave, before going to the FBI in January with their evidence.
The Paradas showed agents how their sophisticated metal detector lit up like crazy when aimed at the spot where they believed the gold was hidden. Within a month, they said, the FBI had hired an outside firm to conduct an underground scan using a device called a gravimeter. The scan identified a large metallic mass with the density of gold, according to the Paradas and Warren Getler, an author and journalist who’s been working with them.
So it was with great anticipation that father, son and Getler arrived at the dig site March 13. But nothing went as planned.
The treasure hunters and Getler said they had an agreement with the FBI to watch the excavation. Officers instead confined them to their car — out of sight of the wooded hillside where a backhoe was digging — for six hours that first day before they were finally allowed up the hill. The digging proceeded for another hour before an agent called an abrupt halt at 3 p.m., saying the team was cold, tired and hungry and it would be getting dark soon. They were just 3 feet from the target.
“I said, ‘You’ve got three hours of daylight and we’re only 3 feet away,’” Dennis Parada recalled. He said the agent replied, “Denny, we’re going, we’re going.”
Whether the FBI actually left the woods that afternoon is itself an open question.
Cheryl Elder, who lives nearby, told AP she heard what sounded like a backhoe and jackhammer at least until 2 a.m. — the noisy machinery keeping her awake and annoying her because she had to rise early for work — and she saw that the hillside was brightly lit.
“It was just real loud all night,” the former constable recalled. “It was driving me nuts.”
The second day of the excavation was similar to the first, according to the Paradas and Getler. They said they were confined to their car for several hours, then escorted up the hill to the dig site — by then a large, empty hole. The FBI had finished the excavation out of their presence, they said.
The Paradas said they were cheated of a moment they had spent years working for.
“You can only dig the gold up once, and that’s a historical moment. And here we were robbed of all that,” Dennis Parada said. “I don’t understand why they played that game on us.”
After the Paradas and Getler had left, Elder said, she saw a half-dozen black SUVs at the site. One by one, she said, they backed up to the bottom of the hill and rendezvoused with one of several all-terrain utility vehicles. Elder tried using her binoculars, but couldn’t make out what investigators were transferring from the ATVs to the SUVs.
Even so, “I know they found gold,” she declared. “I know they found it, and they’re being sneaky.”
Heather Selle, who lives in nearby Weedville, said she was getting her kids ready for school on the morning of the second day when she spied a convoy of FBI vehicles driving past — including two large armored trucks.
“There was too many people involved, there was too much hush-hush, and there’s been too much seen,” said still another resident, Garrett Osche, whose garage was used as a staging ground for the FBI’s initial foray to the Dents Run area weeks before the dig. “Why do you close the road down if you’re not loading something out? If you’re not sneaking something, why do you need to do what they did?”
If Union gold was indeed recovered from the woods, the discovery of a historic and extremely valuable trove of federal property on state-owned land would almost certainly touch off a court battle over who owns it, and whether the Paradas are entitled to a cut. Bill Cluck, their lawyer, said it would be a novel case for the courts, “a law professor’s dream final exam.”
According to the legend, the lost shipment had either 26 gold bars or 52 bars, each weighing 50 pounds (23 kilograms), meaning it would be worth about $25 million or about $50 million today. The Paradas and Getler say the government contractor’s scan detected a much larger quantity of precious metal — 7 to 9 tons — an eye-popping haul that could be worth more than $250 million if every ounce of it was gold.
In May, Cluck filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents on the FBI’s investigation into the legendary gold. The agency demurred, claiming it had no files it could share. Cluck appealed to Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey for help, and, a few weeks ago, the Justice Department ordered the FBI to do a more thorough review. If the bureau determines there are documents it can turn over after all, it could still take months or years to reach that point.
“There was definitely some kind of precious metal based on the readings of the instruments at the site,” Cluck said. “The fact they wouldn’t let them be there for the dig, it’s suspicious as hell and it doesn’t have to be.”
Organic farming with gene editing: An oxymoron or a tool for sustainable agriculture?
October 10, 2018
Postdoctoral Scholar, University of California, Berkeley
The funding for Rebecca Mackelprang’s postdoctoral position comes from the Winkler Family Foundation.
University of California provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
A University of California, Berkeley professor stands at the front of the room, delivering her invited talk about the potential of genetic engineering. Her audience, full of organic farming advocates, listens uneasily. She notices a man get up from his seat and move toward the front of the room. Confused, the speaker pauses mid-sentence as she watches him bend over, reach for the power cord, and unplug the projector. The room darkens and silence falls. So much for listening to the ideas of others.
Many organic advocates claim that genetically engineered crops are harmful to human health, the environment, and the farmers who work with them. Biotechnology advocates fire back that genetically engineered crops are safe, reduce insecticide use, and allow farmers in developing countries to produce enough food to feed themselves and their families.
Now, sides are being chosen about whether the new gene editing technology, CRISPR, is really just “GMO 2.0” or a helpful new tool to speed up the plant breeding process. In July, the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled that crops made with CRISPR will be classified as genetically engineered. In the United States, meanwhile, the regulatory system is drawing distinctions between genetic engineering and specific uses of genome editing.
I am a plant molecular biologist and appreciate the awesome potential of both CRISPR and genetic engineering technologies. But I don’t believe that pits me against the goals of organic agriculture. In fact, biotechnology can help meet these goals. And while rehashing the arguments about genetic engineering seems counterproductive, genome editing may draw both sides to the table for a healthy conversation. To understand why, it’s worth digging into the differences between genome editing with CRISPR and genetic engineering.
What’s the difference between genetic engineering, CRISPR and mutation breeding?
Opponents argue that CRISPR is a sneaky way to trick the public into eating genetically engineered foods. It is tempting to toss CRISPR and genetic engineering into the same bucket. But even “genetic engineering” and “CRISPR” are too broad to convey what is happening on the genetic level, so let’s look closer.
In one type of genetic engineering, a gene from an unrelated organism can be introduced into a plant’s genome. For example, much of the eggplant grown in Bangladesh incorporates a gene from a common bacterium. This gene makes a protein called Bt that is harmful to insects. By putting that gene inside the eggplant’s DNA, the plant itself becomes lethal to eggplant-eating insects and decreases the need for insecticides. Bt is safe for humans. It’s like how chocolate makes dogs sick, but doesn’t affect us.
Another type of genetic engineering can move a gene from one variety of a plant species into another variety of that same species. For example, researchers identified a gene in wild apple trees that makes them resistant to fire blight.They moved that gene into the “Gala Galaxy” apple to make it resistant to disease. However, this new apple variety has not been commercialized.
Scientists are unable to direct where in the genome a gene is inserted with traditional genetic engineering, although they use DNA sequencing to identify the location after the fact.
In contrast, CRISPR is a tool of precision.
Just like using the “find” function in a word processor to quickly jump to a word or phrase, the CRISPR molecular machinery finds a specific spot in the genome. It cuts both strands of DNA at that location. Because cut DNA is problematic for the cell, it quickly deploys a repair team to mend the break. There are two pathways for repairing the DNA. In one, which I call “CRISPR for modification,” a new gene can be inserted to link the cut ends together, like pasting a new sentence into a word processor.
In “CRISPR for mutation,” the cell’s repair team tries to glue the cut DNA strands back together again. Scientists can direct this repair team to change a few DNA units, or base pairs (A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s), at the site that was cut, creating a small DNA change called a mutation. This technique can be used to tweak the gene’s behavior inside the plant. It can also be used to silence genes inside the plant that, for example, are detrimental to plant survival, like a gene that increases susceptibility to fungal infections.
Mutation breeding, which in my opinion is also a type of biotechnology, is already used in organic food production. In mutation breeding, radiation or chemicals are used to randomly make mutations in the DNA of hundreds or thousands of seeds which are then grown in the field. Breeders scan fields for plants with a desired trait such as disease resistance or increased yield. Thousands of new crop varieties have been created and commercialized through this process, including everything from varieties of quinoa to varieties of grapefruit. Mutation breeding is considered a traditional breeding technique, and thus is not an “excluded method” for organic farming in the United States.
CRISPR for mutation is more similar to mutation breeding than it is to genetic engineering. It creates similar end products as mutation breeding, but removes the randomness. It does not introduce new DNA. It is a controlled and predictable technique for generating helpful new plant varieties capable of resisting disease or weathering adverse environmental conditions.
Opportunity lost – learning from genetic engineering
Most commercialized genetically engineered traits confer herbicide tolerance or insect resistance in corn, soybean or cotton. Yet many other engineered crops exist. While a few are grown in the field, most sit all but forgotten in dark corners of research labs because of the prohibitive expense of passing regulatory hurdles. If the regulatory climate and public perception allow it, crops with valuable traits like these could be produced by CRISPR and become common in our soils and on our tables.
For example, my adviser at UC Berkeley developed, with colleagues, a hypoallergenic variety of wheat. Seeds for this wheat are held captive in envelopes in the basement of our building, untouched for years. A tomato that uses a sweet pepper gene to defend against a bacterial disease, eliminating the need for copper-based pesticide application, has struggled to secure funding to move forward. Carrot, cassava, lettuce, potato and more have been engineered for increased nutritional value. These varieties demonstrate the creativity and expertise of researchers in bringing beneficial new traits to life. Why, then, can’t I buy bread made with hypoallergenic wheat at the grocery store?
Loosening the grip of Big Agriculture
Research and development of a new genetically engineered crop costs around US$100 million at large seed companies. Clearing the regulatory hurdles laid out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, EPA and/or FDA (depending on the engineered trait) takes between five and seven years and an additional $35 million. Regulation is important and genetically engineered products should be carefully evaluated. But, the expense allows only large corporations with extensive capital to compete in this arena. The price shuts small companies, academic researchers and NGOs out of the equation. To recoup their $135 million investment in crop commercialization, companies develop products to satisfy the biggest markets of seed buyers – growers of corn, soybean, sugar beet and cotton.
The costs of research and development are far lower with CRISPR due to its precision and predictability. And early indications suggest that using CRISPR for mutation will not be subject to the same regulatory hurdles and costs in the U.S. A press release on March 28, 2018 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that “under its biotechnology regulations, USDA does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques” if they are developed with approved laboratory procedures.
If the EPA and FDA follow suit with reasonable, less costly regulations, CRISPR may escape the dominant financial grasp of large seed companies. Academics, small companies and NGO researchers may see hard work and intellectual capital yield beneficial genome-edited products that are not forever relegated to the basements of research buildings.
Common ground: CRISPR for sustainability
In the six years since the genome editing capabilities of CRISPR were unlocked, academics, startups and established corporations have announced new agricultural products in the pipeline that use this technology. Some of these focus on traits for consumer health, such as low-gluten or gluten-free wheat for people with celiac disease. Others, such as non-browning mushrooms, can decrease food waste.
The lingering California drought demonstrated the importance of crop varieties that use water efficiently. Corn with greater yield under drought stress has already been made using CRISPR, and it is only a matter of time before CRISPR is used to increase drought tolerance in other crops. Powdery mildew-resistant tomatoes could save billions of dollars and eliminate spraying of fungicides. A tomato plant that flowers and makes fruit early could be used in northern latitudes with long days and shorter growing seasons, which will become more important as climate changes.
The rules are made, but is the decision final?
In 2016 and 2017, the U.S. National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted to exclude all genome-edited crops from organic certification.
But in my view, they should reconsider.
Some organic growers I interviewed agree. “I see circumstances under which it could be useful for short-cutting a process that for traditional breeding might take many plant generations,” says Tom Willey, an organic farmer emeritus from California. The disruption of natural ecosystems is a major challenge to agriculture, Willey told me, and while the problem cannot be wholly addressed by genome editing, it could lend an opportunity to “reach back into genomes of the wild ancestors of crop species to recapture genetic material” that has been lost through millennia of breeding for high yields.
Breeders have successfully used traditional breeding to reintroduce such diversity, but “in the light of the urgency posed by climate change, we might wisely employ CRISPR to accelerate such work,” Willey concludes.
Bill Tracy, an organic corn breeder and professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says, “Many CRISPR-induced changes that could happen in nature could have benefits to all kinds of farmers.” But, the NOSB has already voted on the issue and the rules are unlikely to change without significant pressure. “It’s a question of what social activity could move the needle on that,” Tracy concludes.
People on all sides of biotechnology debates want to maximize human and environmental outcomes. Collaborative problem-solving by organic (and conventional) growers, specialists in sustainable agriculture, biotechnologists and policymakers will yield greater progress than individual groups acting alone and dismissing each other. The barriers to this may seem large, but they are of our own making. Hopefully, more people will gain the courage to plug the projector back in and let the conversation continue.
I have no issues with crispr per se, but I do have issues with what people decide to make using it, and other types of genetic engineering. Just because you, or someone like you thinks a certain modification is a good one, it doesn’t mean you’re right. Doctors thought thalidomide (yes, thalidomide again … ai! one mistake and the world will never forget!) was good was a good thing, and there have been other mistakes in the past because of the same arrogance. What happens if you dont realize that the gene change makes an additional undetected change and an aggresive crop gets loose and spreads like star thistle? What if it out competes other plants? I can think of many horrible scenarios … … Anyway, harmful or not, I have the right to know what I consume and how it was produced/created. If you want, make another category … call it mod organic or whatever (someone would undoubtedly try something like “crisp organic,” in order to mislead consumers further), but don’t try to get it past us by incorporating it into the organic category. We don’t want it … although the cynical part of me realizes we’re going to get it anyway because someone stands to make a lot of money … why is the EU so much smarter than we are?
Wow, that guy is afraid of something–looks like it might be smart women: “the speaker pauses mid-sentence as she watches him bend over, reach for the power cord, and unplug the projector”.
That is about the creepiest talk story I’ve heard in a long time. What happened after that, that’s what I want to know.