As spring settled in, local landscaper Herman Moro wasn’t around to tend to the many lawns and gardens he’d been contracted to care for. Week after unmowed week, customers watched their grass grow and wondered what had become of their formerly trusty groundskeeper.

“He just disappeared on us,” shrugs Laurie Hilburg, a longtime patron of Moro’s services.

When he finally got back to work two weeks ago, Moro knew Hilburg and his other clients would be expecting a really good excuse for his absence, and, oh, did he feed them a doozy. He told each of them the exact same lawnmower-man-discovers-sunken-treasure story, a ragweed-to-riches tale that’s taller than untended bamboo and at first listen comes off as so much fertilizer.

But it’s all true.

Through luck and pluck, Moro, a Reston resident, recently located the remains of La Capitana, a Spanish galleon that sank off the coast of Ecuador in 1654 with what many treasure hunters think might be the richest cache ever lost in Western Hemisphere waters.

When it hit bottom, La Capitana was overburdened with silver freshly taken from the mines of Potosí (in what was then Peru) and taxes gleaned from Spain’s South American colonies on behalf of King Philip. Along with being stellar imperialists, the Spanish kept pretty good shipping records, and manifests indicate that La Capitana’s booty included at least 10 million pesos, containing one ounce of silver each. And that’s not counting the contraband cargo.

For several years after its sinking, the captain of La Capitana, who didn’t go down with his ship, led a salvage operation that recovered some portion of the bounty. But technological limitations severely crimped the initial recovery effort—depth finders and scuba gear, after all, were still a few hundred years away—and legend always held that plenty of wealth stayed below the surface with La Capitana’s carcass.

Moro knew all about the legend of La Capitana. Now 30, the Argentina native moved to the D.C. area with his family in 1988, when his diplomat father was transferred here. As Dad tended to matters of state, Moro tended to shrubs and weeds for pay, and by 1991 his eponymous lawn-cutting business had grown successful enough that its proprietor could start chasing a lifelong dream: He enrolled in scuba-diving classes at Sea Ventures diving school in Fairfax, and kept fantasizing about sunken treasures.

After completing his diving courses, Moro tried persuading Ron Pitts, his teacher, to back him in an ambitious hunting expedition. But since no current or former Sea Ventures student had ever brought anything more valuable than a submerged Civil War sword ashore, Pitts didn’t take Moro’s bait.

“Ron told me I was crazy,” Moro recalls.

That rejection didn’t quell Moro’s enthusiasm. He started reading up on where around the globe sunken treasures might be. Skin Diver magazine ran a story about the greatest potential find, La Capitana. Seems treasure hunters had been trying to locate the ship’s remains long before Moro ever put on a scuba mask. Even in recent years, heavily equipped expeditions, including one led by the most moneyed and renowned hunter of them all, Mel Fisher, had been thwarted. The ocean floor just off the Ecuadoran coast naturally contains so much iron that even Fisher’s state-of-the-art magnetometers registered false alarm after false alarm, leading to that voyage’s premature termination.

Moro quickly became consumed with thoughts of finding the ship. The Library of Congress offered Spanish records from the 17th century that helped him retrace the big boat’s final miles. Using that paperwork, along with his knowledge of the ocean currents off Ecuador, Moro put together what he called a “probability map” that he thought would narrow down La Capitana’s whereabouts.

Payday for his countless hours of research came last November, when Moro went down to Ecuador on what was originally planned as merely a weeklong exploratory mission to further narrow down his target area. But his lowball plans got shot to hell when Robert McClung, an experienced deep-sea diver he had brought in, “stumbled” upon a ceramic amphora in waters just 30 feet deep and less than a mile offshore.

“I think we got it!” a breathless McClung told Moro when he came back up to the dive boat. After a few more dives, McClung’s forecast and Moro’s best hopes were indeed realized: Spanish pieces of eight, dating from the 1650s, were found lying along the ocean floor near a wooden hull. On the very first treasure hunt he’d ever been on, Moro had struck pay dirt.

The discovery turned his seven-day vacation into a seven-month ordeal. Moro has been forced to accept that there’s a lot more to treasure hunting than finding the loot. At issue is ownership of the sunken spoils. Since the wreck was found within its waters, the government of Ecuador holds all the cards. Ecuadoran officials have recognized Moro as the rightful finder of the Spanish ship, but that recognition will be worthless if the feds also rule that La Capitana’s remains are part of the country’s “cultural heritage.”

Moro, though hardly

an objective party, feels

the ship should be declared abandoned. “It was a Spanish ship headed toward Peru,” he said. “The only connection it has to Ecuador is that it wrecked near there, so I don’t see how they

could say it is part of their cultural heritage.” (Ambassadors from Peru and Bolivia have also registered claims on La Capitana’s remains with Ecuador.)

If the wreckage is ruled abandoned property, Moro will get to keep 50 percent of everything that reaches the surface. To date, Moro’s crew has salvaged about $2 million of La Capitana’s riches. Nobody knows exactly how much silver is still down there, but estimates are that the total haul will hit at least $70 million.

A ruling from Ecuador is expected soon. Navy gunboats now guard the salvage site around the clock to prevent pirating. No further excavating will be done until December—summertime in South America—when the weather will again be OK for diving. So even with a favorable edict from Ecuador, Moro has plenty of time to mend whatever damage his South American layover has done to his landscaping business.

Not that there’s too much mending still to be done. Most clients, after hearing his amazing story, quickly welcomed Moro back to their back yards. Hilburg, for one.

“Yeah, I was mad at first. But there’s no way to stay mad at Herman,” says Hilburg.

“I mean, it’s not every day your landscaper discovers buried treasure.” Between catching up on the yardwork and telenegotiating with Ecuadoran officials, Moro has been too busy lately to tell everybody about his recent South American find.

Among those who’ve yet to hear from him is Pitts.

“Herman found some treasure, huh?” Pitts says upon being apprised of Moro’s discovery, and learning that the dreamy former student—the one he called “crazy” for wanting to go treasure hunting—may soon have his hands on, say, a few tons of sunken Spanish silver. “Well, I just hope he doesn’t send me one of those, ‘Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah! I told you so! You could have been a rich man!’ letters.”—Dave McKenna