RURAL HAMILTON COUNTY — When Indiana State troopers took off on a hunt for a buried treasure — equipped with an original hand-scrawled map and shovels — they were hoping to give closure to a family whose safe-deposit boxes were stolen almost 10 years ago.

Except someone got to the loot before they did.

Police had been told by an imprisoned burglar, who police want to keep anonymous due to an ongoing investigation, that the safe-deposit boxes were stuffed into pillow cases and then into garbage bags, and buried near White River in Hamilton County.

“Well, we found part of our treasure — an 8-year-old pillowcase!” said Indiana State Police Detective Keith O’Donnell.

The troopers found a piece of a black bag and a torn and rust-stained pillowcase — but no treasure. The stolen goods had been stolen again.

Wednesday morning, five troopers stationed at the Pendleton post headed in search for loot stolen and buried in the summer of 1997.

They followed a map, roughly drawn out on yellow notepad paper by an inmate at the Pendleton Correctional Facility.

The prisoner was convicted in 1998 in Madison County for 10 burglaries and received 80 years in prison. He was also convicted in Hamilton County for several other burglaries.

“But he says that there are 369 unsolved burglaries that he’s done,” said ISP Detective Bob May. Twenty-four of those unsolved cases took place in Madison County; the rest span seven other Indiana counties.

The inmate wrote a letter to the Indiana State Police saying he would like to make a deal with them — confess to the burglaries and give them information on them. In return, he wanted his sentence reduced.

He turned his life around in prison and found God, May said.

“He wants out,” May said. “He wants (his sentence) dropped from 80 to 40. That’s why he’s talking to us.”

Police told him that they couldn’t promise anything, plus, ultimately, sentence changes are left up to prosecutors and judges.

The 5-year statute of limitations for burglaries is up, so the man can’t be convicted of them now, O’Donnell said.

To prove that he wasn’t bluffing about the hundreds of burglaries, the inmate gave police a detailed description and map of where he had buried some of the stolen goods.

“He told us to take 206 Street, cross a bridge, make a hard right onto Riverwood,” May said, riding in a van with two other troopers on their way to the site. “Find a telephone pole with guide wires, go up a hill and walk eight feet back on the flat spot.

“He said he put two boxes in pillowcases and stuffed them into garbage bags, to keep them dry,” he said. “He said ‘They are above the waterline — I know because I lived around there.’”

May pointed out that the inmate gave such a detailed explanation that they believed him.

Police prefer taking suspects to the alleged scene so they can take them right to the spot. In this case though, since the confessor was already imprisoned, they would have had to have gotten a court order.

“This little treasure hunt is his way of telling us he is telling the truth,” May said. “He said ‘I can’t get to it — I’m locked up. The person might as well have their stuff back.’”

Items believed to have been in the boxes were things the burglar needed IDs for, including stock certificates, savings bonds, titles and deeds. The man thinks he took the safeboxes from a home in Marion County.

“His favorite was cash, guns, gold and drugs,” O’Donnell said. “When he took the box it had some cash. Once he took that out, he had to get rid of the other items.”

The man stole, sometimes burglarizing four or five homes in one day, in order to finance his $300 a day crack cocaine habit, May said.

“That shows you that the drug problem should be the No. 1 fight in law enforcement because it contributes to everything else,” said ISP Trooper Will Etter.

“He worked in Pendleton. At lunchtime he would leave work, drive on I-69, get off and do it (burglarize homes),” May said. “It was like a spider web coming off Pendleton.

“He started stealing when he was in diapers,” May said. “His grandpa told him ‘If you want that candy, stick it in your diapers.’

“He is a very, very smart guy,” he said. “He is a professional burglar. But it all caught up with him because he doesn’t like prison.”

The group of troopers, as well as a representative from the Pendleton Correctional Facility, followed the directions and pulled over on Riverwood Drive, near a phone pole with yellow tubing on its guide wires.

They climbed up a hill to a flat area, and pulled out a metal detector. Troopers took turns running the detector over the limb- and leaf-littered ground. When the detector would beep, three other troopers would dig into the cold ground using shovels and a pickax.

After three or four beeps and holes — and no shovels hitting metal — the troopers were frustrated and began digging in different spots.

Forty-five minutes into the search, Etter, who had sauntered off in a different direction, made a discovery.

“I think I found our pillowcase,” Etter yelled, holding up a dirty, torn, beetle-covered piece of cloth.

Sure enough, the pillowcase was stained with rust in the shape of a box, clearly visible on both sides.

“There’s our clue,” said ISP Detective Mike Minnicus, following the rest of the troopers toward Etter.

Next to Etter’s feet was part of a black trash bag. But, nowhere in sight were the safety-deposit boxes that should have been inside.

“Somebody already stole our treasure — and we had the only map too!” O’Donnell exclaimed, incredulously.

“I don’t think he buried it,” Etter said. “He just threw it up there and some kid walking around found it.”

O’Donnell called the prison to speak to the inmate, who said he had actually not buried the boxes very well. He had placed them in an indentation on the ground then covered them with branches and brush. He assured police he told no one else about the hidden treasure and that someone must have come across it.

“We wanted to recover the property, return it to people, bring closure to people,” O’Donnell said.

The inmate also told police that he dropped a third safety-deposit box into the White River in Hamilton County. ISP troopers plan on going for a dive and searching for it within the next couple of months.

O’Donnell said the man will have to speak up more about the other hundreds of burglaries before he can think of getting out of prison earlier.

“He’s not getting a sentence reduction for a pillowcase!”

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