The Six Billion Dollar Gold Scam podcast review — 16 carats of intrigue, greed and epic deceit

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What was going through the mind of Filipino geologist Michael de Guzman as he boarded a helicopter to Busang in Indonesian Borneo in the spring of 1997? His destination was the site of what was said to be the largest gold discovery in history. Twenty minutes after take-off, the pilot heard a popping sound and felt a whoosh of air. When he turned around, one of the rear doors was open and de Guzman’s seat was empty.

Did he jump, was he pushed or is there another explanation? These are the questions underpinning The Six Billion Dollar Gold Scam, a podcast produced by the BBC World Service and CBC and hosted by Canadian journalist Suzanne Wilton, who has been reporting on the case on and off for 25 years.

The bare bones of the story are as follows: in the early 1990s, a Canadian mining company called Bre-X Minerals, where de Guzman was chief geologist, claimed to have found “the mother lode” in the Indonesian jungle. This prompted thousands of investors, from first-timers to millionaire financiers, to empty their wallets; share prices soared.

The site was hard to access, meaning outsiders needed the services of the indigenous Dayak people as guides. Its remoteness both added to its allure and made it susceptible to corruption; as news of the gold travelled round the world, mining companies wanted a piece of the pie, prompting them to embark on a charm offensive with Indonesia’s president, the military dictator Suharto.

Given the podcast’s title, it is no spoiler to reveal that claims of a golden jackpot in Busang were absolute nonsense, ultimately leading to the loss of livelihoods and life savings. Despite this, no one was successfully prosecuted. As for de Guzman, a hard drinker whose downtime was spent in strip clubs, many held him responsible for tampering with samples that tricked the world into believing there was $6bn worth of gold on the site.

You can see why this remarkable tale of greed, intrigue and epic deceit has been catnip for storytellers: it is already the subject of a book and inspired the 2016 Hollywood movie Gold, starring Matthew McConaughey. Wilton does a decent job of making old material feel fresh, though nine episodes feels like too many. The Six Billion Dollar Gold Scam suffers not so much from of a stretching of material as a desire to include every detail and test every piece of evidence; I can’t be the only listener to have fitfully lost track of the protracted negotiations and summits and the ever-expanding cast of men in suits.

Despite this, it is worth pressing on for the final three episodes that yield new information and a suitably mind-blowing theory about de Guzman’s final hours. If you thought the scam story was good, the murder mystery is pure gold.

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