Podcast digs up new dirt on Bre-X: ‘Hunting for the truth for more than 25 years’

Did discredited geologist really die in a helicopter crash?

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When the BBC approached Suzanne Wilton about revisiting the Bre-X scandal as the basis for a podcast, she assumed it would mostly be a rehash of the work she had already done at the Calgary Herald.

After all, years have passed since Bre-X had been in the headlines. So the story behind the BBC and CBC-produced nine-episode podcast, The Six Billion Dollar Gold Scam, will be new for many.

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Nearly 20 years ago, Wilton revisited what is considered the greatest gold-mining fraud in history, a crime for which no one was ever successfully prosecuted even though it ruined the lives and finances of many. The mysterious death of Michael de Guzman, the Filipino chief geologist for Calgary-based Bre-X Minerals, was the intriguing centre of the story. He was believed responsible for salting the samples that tricked investors into believing a motherlode of gold — $6 billion worth, in fact — had been found in the remote Indonesian jungle. In 1997, he reportedly died after falling — or jumping — from a helicopter.

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Ten years later, the Herald launched the sort of expensive and risky investigative piece that newspapers rarely embark on now. Revisiting “the ghosts of Bre-X” would eventually take Wilton and a photographer, the late Ted Rhodes, beyond the newsroom and into Jakarta and Manila to seek new sources. It also involved deep treks into small villages and remote areas of the Indonesian jungle.

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Despite having very little assurance that anyone would talk to them once they got there, they took the costly trip and eventually travelled in a wobbly dug-out canoe to the site where geologists first claimed to have found massive gold deposits. It became the basis for the 2007 investigative series Bre-X: 10 years, 10 Lives, produced by a team led by current Postmedia business columnist Chris Varcoe.

The series didn’t answer every question, but Wilton wasn’t sure if there would be much more to uncover when she was approached by the BBC a few years ago to revisit the tale. It had also been the subject of a 1998 book, Fever: The Dark Mystery of the Bre-X Gold Rush by journalist Jennifer Wells, who is interviewed for the podcast. It was even the loose basis for a 2017 film Gold with Matthew McConaughey. Three of the main characters of the story — de Guzman, Bre-X Minerals founder and CEO David Walsh and Bre-X chief geologist John Felderhof — are dead or considered dead. Walsh died of a brain aneurysm in 1998 and Felderhof, who was acquitted on insider trading charges in 2007, died of natural causes in 2019.

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“I thought it would just be a retelling, and what an exciting opportunity to go revisit some of the characters in the story,” Wilton says. “But then as we started doing the interviews — we went to Jakarta and we went to Manila — and were interviewing people who had never spoken publicly about the case. We were starting to uncover new details and new information.”

Bre-X’s Busang II site lifted, then crushed investors’ hopes with fantastic tales of a gold discovery. Herald files SunMedia

While the 2007 Herald series did leave some loose ends about de Guzman — including the central question of how he ended up falling from a helicopter above the Indonesian jungle — Wilton had at least concluded he was indeed dead despite conspiracy theories suggesting otherwise. But now, after spending more than two years revisiting the story — including a visit to a Manila cemetery in which de Guzman’s remains are reportedly entombed — she is no longer convinced.

Like many good storytellers of non-fiction, Wilton has been obsessed with this tale since she first began covering the scandal as a young crime reporter in the 1990s at the Calgary Sun. So to unearth new information that challenged her long-held beliefs was huge. She now works in communications, but for the past two years, she spent most nights, weekends and vacation time working with a team from the BBC and CBC on the Six Billion Dollar Gold Scam.

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“By the end, I completely started to believe something different than what I went in with,” she says. “So even 30 years later almost, there are new details coming to light and new information that sheds light on it is incredible. I don’t know if that’s because people are willing to talk — the three main people are dead, or ostensibly, one of them maybe not. Getting closer to the truth is something that I always wanted to do. I’ve been hunting for the truth for more than 25 years and always seemingly haunted by the Bre-X ghosts.”

How Wilton’s views on de Guzman’s fate changed is something listeners will discover over the nine episodes of The Six Billion Dollar Gold Scam, which launched last month and continues to stream on www.bbc.co.uk and CBC.ca. But it involves information brought to light by a new cast of colourful characters. That includes a former CIA agent hired by a security firm to follow de Guzman from Toronto, where he was attending a conference with Walsh and Felderhof, back to Busang after it was discovered that the gold results de Guzman was claiming could not be replicated. He was on his way back to the site, ostensibly to explain these discrepancies, when he reportedly died.

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“That was the fateful trip where he fell out of the helicopter, ostensibly,” Wilton says. “But this former CIA agent we found in Manila was hired to follow Michael de Guzman back to Busang. They heard conversations on the airplane between Michael and his cohorts — his group of Filipino geologists — that were quite interesting and raised questions about whether Michael de Guzman got on that helicopter at all or whether it was some elaborate exit strategy. Before this, there was a lot of speculation and rumours that he did just escape with the millions he made off of Bre-X.”

Jerome Alto, site manager; John Felderhof, senior vice-president; Michael de Guzman, exploration manager; Cesar Puspos, senior geologist. Bre-X Minerals Ltd. geologist Mike de Guzman is presumed dead after he fell from a helicopter. Herald files Copy Photo from Northern Miner.

Genie de Guzman, one of the geologist’s four wives, was also interviewed and gave credence to this theory that he didn’t die.

“At the end, do we have definitive proof one way or the other?” Wilson asks. “No, and that’s what makes the story so enduring as a mystery. We get closer to the truth but we still don’t really know.”

It took eight months for Wilton to get a visa to return to Indonesia for the podcast and only granted it under the condition she not return to the jungle near Busang, which is still a “no-go zone” for foreigners. Interviews began in earnest in May 2022. Wilton and the team started in St. Paul, the small Alberta town where a local banker first shared Bre-X as a hot stock tip to the community. They went to Toronto to interview Bay Street officials and Montreal to interview a former Bre-X executive and finally received authorization later in the year to visit Jakarta. It took another year to put the pieces together for the podcast. In the end, it is not a retelling of the story Wilton and others have already told. It’s new and there may very well be more to uncover.

“We’re really hoping that this does generate some additional interest and tips about Michael de Guzman because there is always the potential for a second season with the search for Michael,” Wilton says.

The Six Billion Dollar Gold Scam podcast can be heard on BBC Sounds and CBC Listen


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