This Amateur Metal Detectorist Is Fighting Pirates On The Beaches Of Santa Monica

With only five years of experience, Steve Smith is an amateur, but he has over 200 recoveries. (Bradley Bermont for LAist)

Would you wake up in the middle of the night if someone said there was buried treasure on the beaches of Los Angeles? Steve Smith does and he's found a lot of loot — but it's not for himself. Smith is something of a treasure-hunting do-gooder, one who doesn't officially charge for his services.

On a recent Thursday evening, Smith stood on the cliffs overlooking Santa Monica's beaches geared up with a backpack strapped taut across his chest, a metal detector in one hand and a sifter in the other. He's got a thick, gray mustache and laser focus. And he looks like he's going to war.

"Sometimes it feels that way," Smith says.

On this night, he's answering a call about a lost wedding band.

It's a tame request by Smith's standards. He's been on five-hour hunts that started after midnight. If he's in Los Angeles, he'll always respond to a call. He says it's because he's racing against the pirates AKA other metal detectorists who keep what they find.

"Those are the guys I'm trying to beat," he says.

(Bradley Bermont for LAist)

With only five years of experience, Smith is an amateur. Many of his contemporaries have been at it for decades. But he has some of them beat for recoveries, with over 200 now. Not bad for a retired welder.

While walking down to the beach, his phone rings. It's his client, David Savage, who's looking for his wedding band. Savage got his contact information from one of the lifeguards; the treasure hunter leaves his business cards with them.

Smith crosses the bike path without looking. An electric scooter screeches to a stop, less than a foot away from him. He doesn't flinch or even notice. Laser focus.

David meets him near the bike path and leads Smith down the beach, right down to the waterline where crashing waves are pushing the rising tide further and further up the beach. David's wife, Maria, is holding their spot. They'd been digging to no avail. Maria was starting to lose hope. And now she says she's feeling guilty.

This is her fault, she says, and it's the second time she's lost her husband's ring. She thinks she inadvertently moved his stuff when she grabbed her towel, dropping his ring somewhere into the sand.

They tell Smith he's looking for white gold. He puts his headphones on. "Alright, coming through," he says.

He makes a couple of sweeps.

Inside his headphones, a series of beeps in varying pitches plays out. He hears something good and drives his sifter into the ground. He pulls up a heavy basket of sand and starts shaking it out. Something metal is clanging inside. Steve reaches in.

"Eh, that was a bottlecap," he says, shoving it into a bag he keeps around his waist for all the trash he finds. He starts sweeping again, then quickly shoves the sifter into the ground a second time. He pulls it up and shakes the sand out. Something's in there.

"I think we got it," Smith says. "Oh shoot, maybe not."

"That's it! That's it!" Maria says.

"Oh, there it is," Smith says. "Here we go."

The ring falls into his palm. He hands it to David.

Now, the moment of truth: "What do I owe you?" David asks.

"Whatever it's worth to you," Smith says.

"This is what the last guy did to me," he says, laughing anxiously, asking if he's getting extorted.

"Not like that," Steve replies. "I just don't wanna not find your ring if you think that it's going to be too expensive, you know what I'm saying?"

The entire search took all of two minutes. It was a good search, Steve says. A lucky one. Some searches can take hours. Others, like this one, take minutes.

A very happy David and Maria Savage show the wedding ring Steve Smith found in the sand for them. (Bradley Bermont for LAist)

Sometimes he gets a tip, like tonight. David gave him $100. Other times, he gets nothing. But Steve doesn't care, he says, walking back to his car.

"I know I didn't save their marriage, but it still means a lot to them," Steve says. "That's the ring she gave him. And we want to make sure that the story that began with that ring, ends with that ring."

He starts packing up his trunk. He's excited for tomorrow. There's another search planned for a woman who lost an engagement ring — it's a rare instance where a search is planned out ahead of time.

And Smith doesn't know it yet, but his phone is going to ring twice while he's out hunting. And he'll go on to find two more rings for two more couples in less than 24 hours.

You can find more info about Steve Smith — and stories from all of his finds — on his blog. It's hosted by the Ring Finders, an organization dedicated to helping find your lost stuff.


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