by CJ Ciaramella
“Americans are overreaching; overreaching is the most admirable and most American of the many American excesses.” — George F. Will
“Why don’t you forward it over to CJ?” my editor said to the senior reporter. “He likes weird stories.”
Which was how, on a pretty fall afternoon a couple years ago, I had ended up in this driveway in Fallbrook, California — a rural town nestled away in the San Diego County backcountry. The house in front of me was a well-kept one-story affair sitting on a quiet residential street. I was a cub reporter at the San Diego Union-Tribune. And I did indeed like weird stories. Anything to get away from city councils and planning commissions. A guy named Bill Warren had sent the newsroom an email claiming that he’d bought an exotic animal pelt at a garage sale that could be worth $70,000. The paper’s senior reporter passed on it. I pounced.
I knew the story would be weird — or at least, I hoped it would be. What I did not yet know is that it would end up involving the Lost Treasure of King Charles, an island of bird crap, the now-extinct Tasmanian tiger, Frank Sinatra and Osama bin Laden’s corpse.
When I pulled into Warren’s driveway that afternoon, the garage door was up and I could see it’d been converted into a sort of makeshift office. Warren was seated at a computer. As I walked up, he stood and came forward to introduce himself. He was a middle-aged guy, white with a ruddy face, still sporting a good mane of hair, but with a slight paunch about the waist. He was wearing a polo shirt and khakis, looking like he should have a putter in his hands.
A strange animal skin lay across a chair near his desk. “So, this is it?” I asked. It was clearly a real animal hide, but the markings were unlike anything I had seen — tan with deep, black stripes across the back.
Warren said he’d found the pelt at a garage sale in Fallbrook. The elderly woman who owned it had no idea what it was. She herself had bought it at a garage sale some 30 years before, in Boston. She and Warren settled on $5 and a hand-written receipt of sale.
It took about two weeks of Internet hunting before Warren convinced himself it was the pelt of a Tasmanian tiger, a marsupial carnivore thought to have been driven extinct by hunting and loss of habitat. Although the Tasmanian tiger looked somewhat like a dog, it was not related in any way to canines or tigers. It represented an evolutionary dead-end. The last known member of the species died in captivity in 1936.
Most of the known skins were held by museums, making them extremely valuable to private collectors. The last Tasmanian tiger pelt sold at auction had gone for $68,000. As Warren led me into the garage, he explained he was going to use the money from the sale to fund his real interest: hunting for sunken treasure.
There are moments, as a reporter, when interview subjects offer such a non sequitur that you pause and steel yourself before committing to the follow-up question.
“Sunken treasure, eh?”
This was the first hint I had of how things were going to go with Warren — tug one loose thread and there’s always a little more to it. Ask about an animal pelt, and before long the subject is sunken treasure.
It turned out Warren was an experienced diver and had appeared in several shows about treasure hunting, he told me. He said he was in negotiations for another show with The History Channel, and he had a bead on possible locations for several shipwrecks. All he needed was the funding.
And he needed the funding badly. He told me he was so broke he had moved back home, into the house of his elderly parents. (When I had first called him to set up our appointment, his mother had answered the phone, and I remembered Warren shouting, “I got it, Ma!” as he picked up.)
One wall of his makeshift office was covered in mementos and printout pictures of sexy, young European women. I was looking at the wall when Warren drew my attention to a framed letter. It was from Buckingham Palace, thanking Warren for his assistance in trying to locate the lost treasure of King Charles.
In 1663, a royal ferry sank during a storm while carrying Charles I’s possessions across the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, Scotland. Among the cargo was a 280-piece silver dining service commissioned by King Henry VIII. In total, the recovered treasure would be worth about 500 million British pounds.
A Scottish expedition claimed to have found the location of the shipwreck in 1999. However, Warren, who had also been leading an expedition, claimed the Scots had found the wrong shipwreck. He believed he had found the real location with the help of a psychic. (I was not the first reporter he’d told this.)
As I stared at the letter, I noticed an old album tacked to the wall next to it. The cover was a close-up of a young man — a young man who looked an awful lot like Bill Warren.
“Is that you?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, I’m a singer,” he said. “I knew Sinatra. He promoted me.”
Warren said he had, in total, put out four albums, two books and two TV shows. When I got back to the office later, I looked up Warren’s YouTube account, which includes this video of him crooning in front of a superimposed star field.
It was when he was in Alaska for a singing gig, sitting in a local library to kill time, that he came across a book on sunken treasure. That’s when he “caught the treasure-hunting bug,” Warren said.
One story branched into another, which then branched into another. I stood in the middle of the garage, scribbling as quick as I could into my notepad. I had not brought my recorder, figuring this would be a quick interview, but now my pages were filling up with stories of lounge singing and Sinatra and treasure.
But I was along for the ride at that point, a sucker as always for a weird story, even though I was wary of Warren. Or at least as wary as my dim, cub reporter insight allowed.
Warren had been the one to pitch his story about the animal pelt to the newsroom, and that itself spoke volumes. As I stood with him, he was completely in his element talking to a reporter, not nervous at all, his patter and smile both well practiced. (In fact, it was pretty much the exact kind of smile you would expect from the 1981 Viking Cruise Lines entertainer of the year, which, according to Warren’t website, he was.)
Perhaps anticipating skepticism, Warren had old papers and mementos conveniently at hand to back up his claims: musket balls and coins pulled from shipwrecks, maps of possible treasure sites, a picture of young Warren in a fancy suit and slicked-back hair, when he said his crooner friends had briefly tried to reinvent him as “Bobby Valentino.”
One of these news articles described a lawsuit Warren had brought against the United States of America.
You see, Warren sued the federal government in 1997 over ownership of the Caribbean island of Navassa — one of the 16 territories of the United States. It’s a two-mile strip of raised coral and bird shit just off the coast of Haiti.
Warren’s plan was to start strip-mining the island for bird guano, a potent fertilizer and the island’s one and only natural resource. His claim to the island rested on the Guano Islands Act of 1856 and a quitclaim deed to the entire island he said had been given to him by the grandson of the former owner of Navassa in exchange for $2.5 million of the future guano profits.
“I just want to be President, and one of the quickest ways to do that is through guano mining,” Warren told the Austin American-Statesman in 2000.
Meanwhile, a flurry of American activity on Navassa reignited a longstanding territorial dispute between the U.S. and Haiti, which had occasionally asserted claims to the island since the 19th century.
Warren also had his eye on the desolate islands of Serranilla Keys and Baja Nueva, ownership of which was dually claimed by the U.S. and Colombia.
“I’ve been told that if I proceed to claim these islands I’ll involve America in an international dispute,” Warren said in an extensive 2001 Baltimore City Paper feature (headline: “Poop Dreams”). “And my reaction is, ‘Why should I care?’”
The U.S. District Appeals Court of D.C. dismissed Warren’s suit, which sought $50 million in lost revenue. The ruling found he “had failed to demonstrate a legally cognizable interest in Navassa Island and its guano, because Warren’s predecessors in interest possessed merely a revocable license to mine guano that the United States terminated as early as 1916.”
Another branching in the story: The Navassa dispute tangentially led Warren to run for Congress against Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), who happened to be his neighbor when he lived in Alpine, California.
Warren said he decided to run after having an argument with Hunter over the phone. Two years before the court rejected his claim to Navassa, Warren was repeatedly calling Hunter’s house, trying to enlist his help in the lawsuit, when the representative finally picked up and told him to buzz off. Rebuffed, Warren announced his candidacy over the phone to Hunter, who laughed and told him to go for it. Running as a Republican write-in candidate against Hunter, Warren collected four votes in the 1998 election for California’s 52nd Congressional District.
Also on the wall of Warren’s garage was a certificate of some sort, but I couldn’t read the Cyrillic script. Warren explained it was a letter of appreciation from a Ukrainian university.
Warren had recently returned from a stay in Ukraine, where he was teaching English at a local university. In his spare time, he continued to treasure hunt and sing. He would rent out a 1,200-seat concert hall and sell tickets for a “night with Frank Sinatra” tribute show. With a 60-piece orchestra from the university behind him, Warren brought Sinatra to Ukraine.
“Some people say they can’t tell the difference between me and Frank when I sing ‘New York, New York,’” he told me.
While there, he found a Greek shipwreck and a Ukrainian woman, but the woman left and took the shipwreck money with her. Warren soon returned stateside.
After about an hour of standing in Warren’s garage, I excused myself and drove off with my notebook full of weirdness, wondering how I was going to fit any of this into the 15 inches of column space allotted for my story.
The story ran, and even managed to fit in its allotted space. The kicker quote I gave Warren: “I’m an entrepreneur if there ever was one.”
After that, I kept in touch with Warren and tracked his progress. Sometimes he’d call me at work, mostly to complain about the government. He was trying to sell the pelt, but he was caught in a nasty catch-22 with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. For some reason, the Tasmanian tiger was still listed on the endangered species list, even though there hadn’t been a confirmed sighting of the animal in more than 30 years.
“It’s like putting a Brontosaurus on the endangered species list,” Warren said. “It’s driving me nuts.”
This endangered species listing meant Warren couldn’t ship the pelt across state lines without a special permit, but the agency wouldn’t issue him the permit because he couldn’t prove the pelt was a Tasmanian tiger in the first place. Only expensive genetic testing could authenticate the pelt. An auction house in Australia was offering to do it for free, but of course that would require shipping the pelt, which Warren couldn’t do without the permit.
It was the story of his life, to hear him tell it. Always one step shy of striking it big — one funding source, one government permit, one sure-fire scheme.
For example, he once thought he’d found a long-rumored-to-exist shipwreck just off the coast near Oceanside, Calif. He described his 10-year-long quest to find the ship to the Los Angeles Times as “an obsession.”
The only problem was it was buried under many feet of sand, and the government wouldn’t approve his plan to excavate it. This may have been because his plan involved a rather injudicious use of high explosives. Put simply, Warren wanted to blow the top half of the ship to pieces so he could get at the cargo hold.
Disappointment struck again a few months after our first meeting. A San Diego State University biologist had taken enough interest with the pelt to examine it and concluded it was a Zebra Duiker, a kind of small African antelope. Still exotic, but not worth enough to fund a treasure-hunting expedition.
I thought that might be the end of my dealings with Warren, but I had underestimated him. As the L.A. Times reporter, perhaps more prescient than he realized, wrote in 1987: “Obsession and eternal optimism are two of the hallmarks of modern-day treasure hunters.”
My last week at the Union-Tribune, before I left to take a job in D.C., Warren called to say he’d sold the pelt for $2,500 to some Swedish business mogul living in the Midwest. Warren and two of the Swede’s associates exchanged goods at a casino in Temecula, about an hour and a half north of San Diego.
Warren gave me the number of the guy, and when he picked up the phone, he had a Swedish accent.
“Oh, ja, I know Bill,” the Swede said. But he denied buying the pelt. “Bill tried to sell it to me, but I wasn’t interested.”
“So you never paid him for it?”
“He would say that, the rat bastard,” Warren fumed when I called him back. This man, Warren said, had a long history of screwing him over, promising funding for expeditions, then never following through.
“Sorry, Bill, I don’t know what to tell you.” My editor, whose patience for weird stories ran much shorter than mine, had already spiked the story in disgust.
“Well, hey, I’ve got this other project I’m working on you might be interested in,” Warren said.
“Yeah, what is it?”
“I’m putting together an expedition to find Osama bin Laden’s body.”
“… You’re what?”
Warren explained he had a friend who used to be high up in the Pentagon who had given him some inside information. The expedition was still in the early planning stages, but he had a Hollywood agent and was gathering funders. If the body was wrapped in canvas, as it was commonly believed to have been, it could still possibly be in decent shape.
“A Hollywood agent, huh?”
“Yeah, I’ll give you his name. Look him up.”
Warren always gave me names and numbers, like he was daring me to call his bluff. At our first encounter, he said he knew Barbara Streisand’s producer and gave me his number. But I never caught him bluffing.
“Bill Warren told me he’s searching for Osama bin Laden’s body, and that you’re his agent,” I said to the very real Hollywood agent who answered the phone.
“Bill told you that?”
I made Warren and the agent promise to keep me in the loop, let me know when they were going to go public so I could have a story ready. Before I hung up, he tried to sell me a used truck on behalf of some girl he had just met.
I moved to Washington, D.C. shortly thereafter and got busy settling into a new job. About three weeks later, I called Warren up.
“How’s the expedition going?”
“Great,” Warren said. “Lots of media coverage so far.”
“Oh yeah, about 80 interviews so far.”
I punched his name into a Google news search and scrolled through pages of stories about his Osama bin Laden expedition: ABC, CBS, CNN, on and on and on.
“The Obama administration should have released the photo, like we did with Billy the Kid, or [John] Dillinger, or even Saddam Hussein,” Warren told the New York Post. “I have a Russian girlfriend, and she tells me that over there, in intelligence circles, they don’t believe bin Laden’s really dead.”
I cursed, slammed the phone down and stormed out of the office to smoke a cigarette.
Like the island he once claimed to own, Bill was full of shit. He was a serial blowhard, a self-promoter of the lurid sort, given to puffery and hucksterism so ridiculous you wanted to believe him despite yourself. He had his bad qualities, too.
Warren never found Osama bin Laden’s corpse, but he made the news one more time after that — an item in the local North County Times newspaper. He was appearing on the “Dr. Phil Show” with his mother for a segment on men who married mail-order brides. According to the article, Warren had dropped $50,000 on trips to Ukraine to woo possible brides, but all had spurned him. No worries, he said, he had a couple other prospects that were “perfect.” The article also revealed Warren was the host of a 1981 Christian-music cable show called “We Win,” as well as another mid-1980s show, “Palm Springs Gold,” which he hosted under the name “Billy Gold.”
I didn’t think about him for a long time after that. I was busy writing about federal agencies and calling spokespeople who never said anything interesting or unexpected, and even their lies were boring. And then one night, I was on a date, and my companion asked me, “Who’s the most interesting person you ever interviewed?”
I paused for a second, then laughed. “Let me tell you story. I swear to God it’s true.”
CJ Ciaramella is a reporter for the Washington Free Beacon living in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter, if you’re into that sort of thing: cjciaramella.