Commentary: He who has the gold, makes the rules

Stories of buried and lost gold have long dominated Texas lore. 

By W.F. StrongJuly 3, 2024 10:38 am,

20 years ago, an elderly woman wanted to sell me her 50-year-old home. She hinted of the prospect of gold treasure long hidden and lost within the secret crevices of the home. I suppose she hoped this would push me to close the deal.

She said her husband had died of a sudden heart attack on vacation years before and the last words he managed to speak to her were these: “there’s gold coins behind the wall in the bedroom closet.” Sure enough, there were about $30,000 worth of gold coins long hidden there, or so she claimed.

She showed me one of the Azteca coins. She implied that there might be vast sums hidden in that old house. But she said she didn’t have the energy or knowledge to look for it in any thorough way. She’d be willing to split anything found. 

I didn’t bite on that. I imagined, with a $30K incentive, she had already had professionals search the home with space-age metal detectors or even CT scans for all I knew. Strange sales pitch, but it reminded me of another similar case, even more interesting, up the country a ways. 

In the little town of San Diego, Texas – out in the vast rural country to the west of Alice – there once lived a Dr. Garcia. In 1929, he was the primary doctor in town and preferred to store his wealth in the form of gold coins.

Some like cash in a mattress – Dr. Garcia liked gold. And he hid it in a tight crawl space beneath a trap door under his kitchen. No one knew of this stored treasure except Dr. Garcia and his daughter, Gloria. He told her the coins were buried beneath the kitchen and they were hers to use for taking care of her special needs brother later in life.  

The good doctor eventually died and Gloria asked her husband, Hector, to go into the crawl space under the kitchen and find the coins.  He could not find them. He made several determined explorations into the tight crawl space, even with a metal detector, but couldn’t find them. As Dr. Garcia had suffered from dementia late in life, Gloria and Hector began thinking the gold coins had been the invention of an imaginative mind, or a mind that forgot he had moved the coins. 

12 years later, Gloria and Hector sold the house to someone there in town. Then, twenty years after that – yes, the timeline is incredible to ponder in this case – as old houses tend to do, a plumbing leak sprung up under the house. A plumber was called who went through that old trapdoor Dr. Garcia had created almost 100 years before.

While laying in a new line through the muddy soil, the plumber saw a flicker of a bright speck of something shiny. He brushed away the mud and discovered a very old gold coin. He dug deeper into the muddy slush and found a gold mine – a gold mine of coins: some 500 coins in all various sizes and denominations. 

He was elated, of course, but he didn’t alert the homeowner of his newfound wealth. He calmly asked his assistant to get him an empty coffee can.  

Next, he filled the can with the gold coins, small and large. He fixed the leak, collected the bill for his work and walked out rich – worth, some say, about $250,000 at the time. 

But, as is often the case for people with new money, they don’t handle it well. He went around paying for things with gold coins, and at face value, within the little community.

The chisme erupted immediately. Hector and Gloria soon got word of the gold coins and sued the plumber, saying that the coins belonged to Gloria and he needed to return them. The plumber said “no,” laying his defense in the ancient legal defense known in Latin as inventores custodes – Finders Keepers

Nice try. The homeowner, too, sued for ownership as he claimed that they were his coins. He said he had in fact buried them under the house.

After a long legal battle involving all three claimants, a jury there in Duval County decided that the preponderance of the evidence showed that the coins belonged to Gloria. It helped that the most recent dates on the coins were of the years Dr. Garcia was collecting them.  

Next, something even more unexpected happened. Gloria and Hector gave the coins, and really the beautiful story, to the Museum of South Texas in Edinburg, where you can see some of Dr. Garcia’s gold coins today for yourself. 

As it turned out, the gold coins were a small part of Gloria and Hector Lopez’s wealth. Gloria graduated from the University of Texas in 1947 with a degree in French. Hector also attended UT and earned his law degree from Baylor University in 1949. He specialized in oil and gas law.

Over many years, he and Gloria amassed an impressive energy portfolio worth $275 million. As they had no children themselves, they left their fortune to the children of Texas in the form of the Gloria and Hector Lopez Foundation, which provides college tuition – especially for Hispanic and first-generation students in Texas, known proudly as Lopez Scholars.

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