Education is golden: true stories of the Nevada mud

I was hoodwinked. Conned. Bamboozled.

Taken in. Duped. Deceived.

I was sucked in as completely and effortlessly as a robin swallowing a worm. What amazed me was that I was never asked to testify, or why the college's governing board ignored the story. It's time I wrote about it - after all, it was the biggest gold heist in Nevada state history.

Elko, Nev., like Reno and Las Vegas, thrives on gambling and tourism. When gold was discovered in the late 1960s on a commercially profitable scale in Lander and Eureka counties, it added another layer of prosperity to the regional economy.

I had moved my family into Elko County in August 1970 from Michigan. I was 35, and an educator. Knowing nothing about cattle, sheep, brothels or gold mining thieves, my wife and I had decided to move to Elko for the simple reason that it was 2,000 miles closer to Seattle, our ultimate goal.

So my cowboy country education began slowly and gained momentum.

On a beautiful fall day in 1973, I was approached by a respected miner from the Newmont Gold Mining Company in Carlin, Nev. The open-pit mine was the largest such operation in the world. Visitors constantly were hosted by their public relations department.

I recognized the man at a glance. I'd seen him on several occasions at the gold-mining plant. He and I shook hands - his grip callused by years of heavy labor, mine much smoother. "Good morning, Mr. Sadowski," he said with a slight lift to his voice. "How are you today?"

I answered in the affirmative and motioned for him to take a stool. We ordered coffees and I asked the waitress to serve us in a quiet corner of the room where we might talk in comfort.

The popular Commercial Hotel served the town as an excellent meeting place for almost every kind of group. Even though it was basically a gambling facility on the main floor, a full-sized restaurant served a full menu: steak-and-lobster dinners on Friday, priced at $4.95. The "locals," a.k.a. the name assigned to any resident, never thought of casinos as places of poor taste to conduct business - they were simply considered nice places to dine, to meet friends or to host a party.

Why, even the town's ministers used their facilities for committee meetings. It was and still is an exciting location.

The miner proposed, using his table napkin to sketch the plan, that I teach a group of interested mining employees two months' worth of chemistry. "The men are clearly interested," he said. "I have a list of 12 really excited guys who will register if you agree to teach. Most of them you have met over the past years, during your frequent visits to the mine. Of course, we know you are a very busy man at the college, but truly, there isn't anyone else we'd like to have teach us."

He continued to explain. "The company's policy encourages in-house promotions; however, one must successfully complete college credit courses. The more we have the more we can earn. And a group of us currently require work-appropriate classes on our promotion sheets for this year. If we can document community college, division-level credits, then, not only will that assist us with promotions, but it also would benefit us with an immediate hourly pay raise."

Serving in the dual role as dean of instruction and instructor, I had line authority to offer classes for credit or noncredit any time and any place within the 33,000 square mile community college's northeast region of the state. The mission of the community college division was to serve the needs of community residents by offering courses of study so no student would have to travel more than an hour to the site of instruction.

In order to satisfy the goals, I had been designing and implementing off-campus teaching sites in Carlin, Owyhee, Battle Mountain, Winnemucca, Wells and Ely for the past three years. What I heard from the miners was no different from other groups of adults in the region who were thirsty for classes in higher education. I foresaw no impediments to the worker's proposal. The whole deal looked good on paper.

"OK, it's a plan," I agreed. "I'll do it for you and the men. However, I will have to determine the time and day since I have a published schedule for this semester and I must maintain it. I assume that is OK with you?"

"It's a deal. No problem with us. We'll work around your timeline. When can we start?" he concluded.

Northern Nevada Community College's science room was uniquely familiar to me, since I personally designed the room in cooperation with Hewitt Wells, the building's architect. I was intimate with every test tube and electrical outlet in the laboratory. The new campus was only one year old. Few students had used the new lab equipment since only three science courses had even occupied the classroom.

The smell was like new furniture rather than acrid smelling chemicals. I was anxious to use the modern white board and overhead projection system I had requested and had installed. I was as excited about teaching the class as the employees were about learning.

If you stood on a chair in one corner of the building you could see across the entire building to the opposite corner. And, yes, that meant sounds and odors traveled about freely.

The student-gold miners asked if they could be taught a few extra special lessons specific to the geology and geochemistry of Nevada. It was perfectly natural to inquire about chemical aspects of gold and how the gold atom behaved in chemical reactions. After all, the men were employees in a gold mine.

The questions presented during the following weeks reflected an increasing level of sophistication. My syllabus was adjusted as I answered the tough geological gold-extraction questions during class as well as after hours.

The men were increasingly pressing me for more and yet more understanding about heavy metal reactions, slurries, precipitation reactions and advanced chemistry - subjects not typically found in freshman-level courses.

My evening lectures morphed into a seminar-like class. I erroneously interpreted their excitement and thought my students were actually becoming interested in the field of chemistry. I was being snookered.

Man, was I ever!

Several months after the class ended, the Nevada news media initiated a spate of reports about the greatest gold theft in history from the local Carlin mine. Each successive news report added an additional piece of interesting information.

By the end of July 1974, residents of Elko, Eureka and Lander counties were gossiping about the seven men who were caught stealing gold slurry from the Newmont Gold Mine Company's operation north of Carlin, Nev.

A gold theft in the heart of cowboy country - what a story! It caused a sensation like a magnitude 10.0 earthquake.

My jaw was agape when I read the published names of the co-conspirators. Three of the arrested members had recently completed my specially designed chemistry course for Newmont Gold Mine employees. How weird was that? "What an unusual coincidence," I commented to my wife, Rita, as I continued to read.

But a knowing grin was starting to form on my face. I didn't put much faith in coincidences.

I instantly realized the true reason why the miners wanted me to teach them a basic chemistry class - they had been stealing the gold slurry from the mine and they needed to learn how to separate the gold from the mud. And unwittingly I had taught them how!

Shortly after the scandal broke, I happened to be enjoying a sumptuous Nevada dinner house Basque meal with my family. I looked about the room, as everyone does after being seated, to see who might be known. Sitting at the bar, sipping a Pecan Punch cocktail, was "the agent" I'd met with to organize the course last fall.

I excused myself from the family and walked over to chat with the indicted gold thief. He was red-faced with embarrassment but shook my hand and apologized for his behaviors.

I said I was sorry he was involved and we parted after only a few minutes so as not to draw further attention to our meeting. He was out on bail, pending his hearing.


Two weeks later, the agent was killed in a violent automobile crash. He was on his way home from a hearing in Reno with the district judge about his case. A fellow conspirator was seriously injured in the wreck. All others served jail sentences. I was never asked a single question from anyone.

And that was how I was bamboozled into being an unsuspecting participant in Nevada's great gold theft.

Bernard Sadowski is a freelance writer living in Magnolia.[[In-content Ad]]