The Elusive Gold of Gaston Van Steck: Panama's Fascinating Treasure Tale
In July 1937 the world was on the brink of a second great war. Doom and gloom filled the headlines as people were desperate to hear something – anything- positive. Panama came to the rescue with just a story. It lifted the hopes and hearts of a troubled world. Headlines around the world stated: “Prospectors stumble on million dollar gold find.” “Conquistador gold ingots found in remote mountains of Panama.” It was a glittering story- but as the saying goes, “all that glitters …”
One day a dapper young man walked into the post office in Volcan. Neatly attired with white shirt, trousers and shoes, Gaston Van Steck appeared as anything but a grizzled old prospector. He topped off his well-groomed appearance with neatly trimmed hair and a pair of rimless glasses. Swiss born Volcan resident, Werner Senn, recalls as a young postmaster’s son meeting Belgian or French adventurer Van Steck in the rainy months of 1937. His father, Hans Senn, thought, the well-dressed young man carrying only a backpack was shifty and he didn’t trust him. Hans Senn’s character assessment was correct. Van Steck was a con artist. Before the end of July 1937-Time Magazine and newspapers from New York to London had front page articles about an incredible multimillion dollar gold mine in the mountains of Panama.
The president of Panama, Dr. Juan Demosthenes Arosemena was reportedly gleeful at hearing reports that three old prospectors had stumbled on a fortune in Conquistador gold. In today’s money worth something over $20 million dollars. The president immediately sent dozens of troops and at least six aircraft to the site to safeguard the treasure.
This spectacular treasure find caught everyone’s imagination– from the president of Panama to reporters in the world’s newspapers. It would have been a wonderful story if it was true – but sadly this was all an elaborate fraud. There were no gold bars with the Spanish royal insignia. There was no discovery of the fabled “Estrella” mine. This was highly embarrassing for the government so there was the immediate firing of the governor of Chiriqui, Oscar Teran, and Police Chief Captain Sagel. Warren Thorpe, one of the three original prospectors was out-of-pocket by $6,000 and the mysterious Gaston Van Steck? He had hidden a small calibre pistol in his clothing and less than a half hour after being escorted back into his treasure cave - he shot himself in the head. Mortally wounded he was pulled from the cave but died minutes later. The location was 500 feet from the Rio Candela river. Nearby was an old Indian petroglyph, possibly a marker for the cave. The rock was dragged over and placed on top of Van Steck’s shallow grave.
Many adventurers have gone in search of the fabled “Estrella” mine. Local legend says the Indians who had been forced to work in the mine rebelled and covered the entrance. When the Spaniards returned all traces of the mine were gone.
In 1900 some Indians went to the city of David to sell some gold bars. The bars were reportedly about 2 inches wide and 2 feet long. When questioned by the authorities about where they found the gold- the Indians refused to say. The exact location of the real “Estrella”mine, remains a mystery to this day.
Werner Senn, A Swiss born local, recalls seeing 34 American fighter planes landing on Volcan’s grassy airstrip. I showed Werner some pictures of vintage US warplanes and he immediately identified the aircraft as the stubby looking Grumman F4F “Wildcat.” Why the US had such an overwhelming presence in this story is still one of the many unanswered questions.
This story might have faded into history except for the relentless digging by YourPanama.com staff. We are still trying to verify our latest findings but it might appear that Gaston Van Steck DID find the gold and was murdered and the gold was spirited away.
A son of one of the men present at the time claims that his father told him that Van Steck did not have a gun. The police officers present obviously did. Van Steck died from a .38 bullet wound to the head. The same calibre as carried by the police.
The story is … that the gold was later removed and buried in the middle of a pig pen, in the home of a German immigrant called Wasser.
Wasser then would take small amounts of the gold to Panama City to be sold.
On one of these trips, when Wasser was in Panama City, a Costa Rican employee at Wasser’s farm dug up the gold, under the pig pen and fled.
Wasser pursued the thief into Costa Rica but never found either the gold or the thief.
In 2019, I met a man who had been searching for the elusive “Estrella” mine for nearly 20 years. He claimed he had found the buried gold. It was in the same form as described by the turn of the century Indians that being in 2 inch wide strips and 2 feet in length.
The last I heard this man was obtaining the money to buy the land where the gold was buried. Thereby having legal claim to the treasure.
He offered to give me some of the gold but I declined and said my gold would be in filming and writing about this story.
To this day I have not heard anything further from this man or had any confirmation whether this account was true or not.