Gold from revered collection missing

phecht@sacbee.comSeptember 6, 2013 

— 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.

This month, 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 Thursday. 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 onetime 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 enough 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 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."

Merced Sun-Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service