A real-life treasure hunt has turned deadly in northern New Mexico, leading police to call an end to the search for a chest of gold and gems hidden in the Rocky Mountains by Forrest Fenn, an art and antiques dealer described by various sources as an eccentric millionaire and an amateur archaeologist. Age 86, the former Vietnam fighter pilot was inspired to hide the historic loot in the wake of the 2008 recession as a way to cheer people up and get them outside and exploring.
“This is putting lives at risk. I would implore that he stop this nonsense,” New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas told the Associated Press, stressing that the hunt has become a public safety concern. “Certainly, we want people to get outdoors and enjoy New Mexico but you have to do it safely. I think he has an obligation to retrieve his treasure if it does exist.”
Police recently recovered what has been identified as the body of Paris Wallace, a Colorado pastor who disappeared after telling family he was going to track down Fenn’s buried treasure. In 2016, 54-year-old Randy Bilyeu, another would-be treasure hunter, was found dead by Santa Fe police.
After secreting the treasure in 2010, Fenn self-published his memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, which features a poem providing nine clues to its location. According to Dal Neitzel, who has a blog dedicated to unraveling Fenn’s mystery, upward of 100,000 treasure seekers have since joined the hunt—there’s even an annual Fennboree gathering in New Mexico for aficionados.
Fenn told ABC News in 2015 that the hoard contains “mostly American eagles and double eagles, hundreds of gold nuggets, some as large as chicken eggs, ancient Chinese carved jade figures, pre-Columbian gold animal artifacts, lots of rubies, emeralds, sapphires and diamonds and other things.”
The entire lot allegedly weighs 42 pounds and is stored in a Romanesque bronze chest that itself costs $25,000. The treasure is worth an estimated $1–2 million.
“I have said that my treasure is not hidden in a dangerous place, so why are people searching in dangerous places?” Fenn asked ABC News. He was 80 when he hid the treasure, and insists he could still safely retrieve it today.
“I am thinking about several options, including stopping the search,” Fenn admitted to the Wall Street Journal, calling Wallace’s death “terrible tragedy.”
Wallace’s wife, Mitzi Wallace, told ABC that she did not regret the time her family had spent on the treasure hunt and that she and her sons would likely continue looking. “Searching for the treasure, and having the time we had together, it was wonderful,” she said, adding that Fenn is not to blame for Wallace’s death.
In contrast, Bilyeu’s ex-wife, Linda Bilyeu, wrote an open letter to Fenn decrying the hunt, asking “Do you care that treasure hunters risk their lives to search your hoax?”
Fenn maintains that his treasure is real. “No one knows where that treasure chest is but me,” he told NPR in 2016. “If I die tomorrow, the knowledge of that location goes in the coffin with me.”
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