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.
A rock hound hobbyist who has mined three claims in Colorado for several years, Thiem questions whether Gold Rush properly staked the claims it sold him.
Staking a claim is a surprisingly easy and a loose process, which is one of the reasons mining history is replete with notorious shootouts over claim disputes.
If a person is determined enough and knows a little bit about how to scout for precious metals like silver or gold, he can just take a few stakes out on federal land, record the coordinates, put a stake in the center of the 20-acre plot and top it off with a tin can bearing their personal information. From there, the hopeful miner has a 90-day deadline to record the information with the BLM and must then pay an annual maintenance fee of $140 or ownership of the claim lapses.
If someone jumps your claim — stakes over you — you fight it out in court.
"If there's a dispute, it's up to the courts to settle it," said Opie Abeyta, a land law examiner with the BLM's mining law program. "We don't really have a role in that because we don't respond to what happens out on the ground."
Thiem said he feels like he paid $10,000 to Gold Rush for nothing, and has not had his money refunded.
He and Shuman have exchanged hostile emails and Thiem says now of Gold Rush, "They need to be stopped."
Shuman contends his disgruntled customer doesn't understand the paperwork he has in his own hands that documents legal rights to mining claims. He said he is being fed misinformation by a Tooele County man who wants the claims for himself.
Shuman blames any dust-up on Thomas Waite of Stansbury Park, who he asserts is working for a mining company trying to gobble up claims for itself. Waite confirmed that he is a consultant for a mining company, but he alleges that it's Gold Rush jumping claims.
Rights or wrong
Shuman said he's considering legal action against Waite.
"Tom has an agenda. We've never had a conversation; he jumped us. He's been a persistent thorn in our side," Shuman said.
Waite said he's been working mining claims since he was a teenager and knows what he's doing. He said companies like Gold Rush are taking advantage of people.
"Some of the buyers, they don't even have a right to a single square foot of ground on these claims," he said, pointing a finger at the seller, Gold Rush.
Nonsense, counters Shuman, stressing he's never sold a claim on eBay that he didn't have the rights to, and he said he doesn't claim jump.
SITLA's complaint with him, he said, is a simple misinterpretation of the law by the agency's attorneys.
"They're totally inaccurate, and if they had a mining lawyer, they would know this."
For now it remains an investigation and a dispute, with customers like Thiem sorting out the details.
"It makes you understand why things went on the way they did in the old West when it comes to claim-jumping," Waite said.