Claim jumping accusations fly in the new West

Published: Wednesday, May 23 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

Thomas Waite thumbs through stacks of paperwork he has compiled in his probe of Gold Rush Expeditions in Holladay.

Mark Wetzel, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In what sounds like a throwback to the old West, Utah authorities are investigating allegations of claim-jumping, looking into what may be fraudulent mining claims offered for sale on eBay.

At the center of the probe by the Bureau of Land Management and the Utah Attorney General's Office is Corey Shuman's Gold Rush Expeditions, once a not-for-profit mining history organization that has reorganized into a profitable venture selling mining claims in several Western states, including Utah.

Shuman, who said he has yet to be contacted by any investigator from an agency, is confident any review of his company's practices will turn up no wrongdoing.

"There's a reason there's an investigation and nothing else because once they've looked into it they will see there's nothing else going on," he said.

BLM spokesman Tom Gorey confirmed there is an active investigation focused on fraudulent mining claims being sold on eBay. But he declined to comment further.

Shuman's business, headquartered in Holladay, has sold claims ranging from $1,500 to $21,000 during the past four years to as many as 700 people, turning the allure of riches in the rocks into a multimillion-dollar business.

But it has put him at odds with some customers, a rival who said the company he works for has rights to some of the claims and government agencies looking into the company's practices.

Shuman said he or his employees have been run off at gunpoint from remote sections of land by ranchers or other property owners who say they are trespassing. He says they're not.

He's at odds with Utah's Bureau of Land Management — the federal agency that records mining claims — because of a fundamental difference of opinion about how abandoned mines should be treated.

"I've burned my bridges with the BLM; the BLM would rather backfill these mines than preserve a bit of history," Shuman said.

The BLM is not the only public lands agency Gold Rush Expeditions has tangled with. Utah's School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), an independent agency of state government created to manage lands granted to the state of Utah by the United States, has refused to do any business with the company or issue any mineral leases to third parties who may have acquired a mineral claim from Gold Rush.

In December, SITLA's attorney John Andrews sent a letter to Shuman after the school trust lands administration noticed that Gold Rush was marketing leases to school trust lands property that it had not yet acquired. The paperwork for the transaction had not yet been completed, Andrews said, yet the property in Utah's west desert was posted as available on the Internet.

"Gold Rush at that point was selling something it had no legal right to," Andrews said in an interview.

Another letter in April from Andrews to Shuman was more stern, indicating the agency had received information from the BLM and local law enforcement that Gold Rush had staked mining claims on school trust lands and sold them to third parties with no legal right. The letter included a warning that Gold Rush did not have permission to enter the agency's property to stake claims and any violation would be treated as trespassing.

Andrew's letter also asserts there was misleading information contained in the leases posted by Gold Rush.

"Our office has received input from the public about potential misrepresentations in these offerings, and from our review it appears certain of the offerings have included photographs of mines and facilities not in fact located on the subject property," Andrews wrote.

Colorado resident Michael Thiem said he purchased three mining claims from Gold Rush in specific areas near Vernon in Tooele County, only to find out later that one was located a mile away from where the company said it actually existed.

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