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The Ring Finders: Sonoma County metal detector hobbyists reunite people with their lost items for free

When I tell Woodrow Engle I’ve secured access to search for treasure at two old wineries in Sonoma County, it feels like we’re embarking on a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” sequel.

“I’ll see if I can find some old maps of the area and do a little research,” he texts.

By the time we meet up on a Friday morning, as the sun rises over the Mayacmas behind Alexander Valley Vineyards, we’ve exchanged over 50 texts about metal detecting, including a few about rumors of Spanish gold hidden in Chileno Valley. That’s in addition to an hourlong phone conversation.

To say Engle is obsessed is an understatement. A video game artist by trade, he once moonlighted as a semipro poker player and competed on the “Magic: The Gathering” pro tour.

“Anything with a puzzle or a strategy or anything you can dive into really deeply and spend a lot of time maximizing your performance, I love all that stuff,” he says.

He’s not alone. Engle and fellow Sonoma County metal detectorists Kevin Tobin of Sebastopol and Demian Garcia of Penngrove are all devoted members of The Ring Finders Directory, a global network of on-call metal detectorists who will literally find your ring (or car keys or cellphone) if you lose it, which happens more than you might imagine.

“When it starts getting a little warmer and people start getting outside again, I’ll start getting calls,” says Tobin, who estimates he goes out on more than a dozen queries a year, many along the Russian River. His recovery rate is around 80%.

A former Marine and Graton Fire Department volunteer when he was only 16, Tobin has been in the hunt the longest, having bought a cheap detector at Wal-Mart around 30 years ago.

Garcia has been at it for 12 years. He was hooked immediately after he found a diamond ring on a beach in San Diego.

Engle took up the chase just before the pandemic and already has been featured in several news stories — one for finding a 1927 class ring in Petaluma and tracking down the owner, another for connecting a woman who lost her $10,000 Tiffany wedding ring with a metal detectorist who posted her ring on Craigslist asking if anyone had lost it — the same ring Engle spent hours searching for up and down Stinson Beach in Marin County.

So much for the weird guy in the floppy hat and sunglasses combing the beach with an electric divining rod. Metal detecting is surging in popularity during the pandemic thanks to devoted YouTube channels, a cheeky British TV series called “The Detectorists” and advances in technology that make finding lost treasure a very real possibility.

The biggest reward

Ring Finders founder and CEO Chris Turner, a retired soccer player who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, regularly updates the website (theringfinders.com) with tantalizing tales of gold and silver discoveries, big paydays and the time he rescued actor Jon Cryer’s lost wedding ring near a Vancouver seawall.

Sonoma County Ring Finders typically charge only gas money and maybe a little compensation for their time. But when they magically pull a miracle from the dirt, clients often feel indebted to pay more. They’ve received everything from a dozen fresh eggs to more than $1,000 in cash.

“The biggest reward is the satisfaction of seeing the smile on someone’s face after you find what they thought they’d lost forever,” Tobin says. “If you ever really want to see the most genuine part of a person, find something that they’ve lost that really means something to them.”

“If you ever really want to see the most genuine part of a person, find something that they’ve lost that really means something to them.” Kevin Tobin

He’ll never forget the client in Sonoma who dropped to his knees in tears after Tobin found his wedding ring — a coupled set made from his mother’s and father’s wedding rings — that was lost during a volleyball game. He insisted Tobin “couldn’t take anything less than $1,000.”

Garcia estimates he’s racked up somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 in rewards over the past decade. “For me, it’s a hobby, not a source of income,” says Garcia, who specializes in underwater recoveries. “But it’s nice to have a hobby that pays for itself.”

The biggest reward Garcia was offered was $2,500 for a $100 ring with a lot of sentimental value.

“Yes, it turns out you can metal detect a dog,” Demian Garcia

“I wish I would have found it, because I could have used the money at the time,” he says.

The owner had him search her dog, because she thought it might have eaten the ring.

“Yes, it turns out you can metal detect a dog,” Garcia says. He often feels like a detective working a case, asking questions like, “Did you put lotion on at the beach?” and “When you were gardening, did you put on gloves?”

And, like a detective, he often learns a lot about his clients as they describe how they lost their rings. Several calls for help came after couples got in heated arguments and tossed their rings in anger — one out the window of a moving car on Farmer’s Lane in Santa Rosa (that took a few hours to find) and another from a second story balcony into a neighbor’s backyard in Novato (that took nearly a full day to find).

Rush of the hunt

Beyond the gold and treasure, detectorists are really story collectors. Random chroniclers of subterranean history, they find it hard to go anywhere without strangers approaching and asking, “What’s your biggest find?” (often in tandem with the recurring joke: “If you find a gold ring, it’s mine. I just lost one.”)

Tobin discovered an early 1820s button from a Mexican army jacket on his property in Sebastopol and a 1920s haybale tag a few miles away. Garcia found an 1850s commemorative coin under a tree root in a Petaluma park. Engle unearthed a U.S. infantry jacket button from the Mexican-American War era that he gave to the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum.

For Engle, the historical research is as much of a rush as the hunt.

When he found a 1914 license plate, he was able to track the registration number back to a 1914 Chevrolet Royal Mail Roadster. The 1927 class ring he dug up in a Petaluma park was from a Trinity University with the initials “JFG” engraved inside the band. After several months of research and scrolling through digitized yearbooks from Connecticut to Texas, he finally located the son of the original owner, who had died. It turned out the ring had been stolen a decade ago.

Since public parks and beaches are often heavily picked over, Engle turns to old maps to find landmarks that might have been heavily trafficked more than a century ago, places like a Chileno Valley schoolhouse or a Petaluma church. Then he asks for permission from the landowners to hunt on private land.

“What I always tell people is, ‘I’ll show you everything I find, and you have absolute authority to take anything you want,’” he says. “I assume if I found a horde of gold, we’d want to have a conversation about that. I’m not going make them sign a contract that we’re going to split it 50/50. If I found a horde of gold, I would assume that they would keep it and I’d be happy with whatever they gave me.”

His generosity may be the reason Engle once received a dozen eggs as compensation. Back at Alexander Valley Vineyards, Engle dons his trademark red suspenders, a pair of wireless headphones and a small shovel he rests on his shoulder like a hunter with a rifle and sets out to comb the giant lawn in front of the house Cyrus Alexander built in 1863. Behind it is the old adobe Alexander built in 1844.

“It’s definitely a game of patience.” Woodrow Engle

Wandering around, led by a medley of beeps and whirs that sound like an ’80s video game, Engle finds a bolt, a Roosevelt dime, a door hinge, a pull tab and a 2006 quarter. But as the morning wears on, he digs up a half-flattened musket ball, a tarnished silver spoon, a hard-to-read bale seal and finally a well-preserved silver skeleton key that looks like it would fit a creaky door in a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

“Who knows, it might be the key that people used to get in the front door of this house many years ago,” he says.

Later that day, Engle scans the charred remnants of Soda Rock Winery, which burned in the 2019 Kincade fire. The same property once housed the Alexander Valley general store and local post office. He finds a few modern coins and metal fragments from light fixtures. With permission, he even searches the garden behind the former Jimtown store, but no luck.

“It’s definitely a game of patience,” Engle says.

It also takes a little humility. At 38, he’s reached an age where “you kind of don’t care if you’re the weird guy on the beach with the metal detector anymore. You’re not really self-conscious anymore.”

As for the buried treasure in Chileno Valley, patience will come in handy. I send him a clipping from a 1974 Petaluma Argus Courier story about a visit from Gilbert Carlos Bojorques, touted as “one of the last Spanish dons.” It describes him meeting with a local historian about a rumor of hidden treasure and how Chileno Valley is “the one spot where they both agree the buried gold could be.”

Engle mentions he’s heard the tale from a few others as well.

“The problem is depth. Who knows how deep they buried it?” he says. “If they dug down 6 feet or so to protect it from rain, you could swing a coil right over the top of it and possibly not hear anything.”

Then again, maybe they didn’t bury it 6 feet below or maybe the terrain has changed over the centuries.

“You never know until you try,” he says.

John Beck is a Bay Area journalist and filmmaker. You can reach him at john-beck.com.

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