On this episode of Pretty Scary, Adam, Caitlin, and Kari discuss the mystery surrounding an author who may or may not have buried millions of dollars worth of treasure somewhere in the United States.
Forrest Fenn was a pilot for the United States Air Force and was awarded the Silver Star, the military’s third-highest personal decoration for valor in combat, for his service in the Vietnam War. After retiring from the Air Force, he moved to New Mexico, where he and his wife Peggy operated Fenn Galleries in Santa Fe.
The gallery, which specialized in antiques and high-end art, attracted celebrity customers and politicians including Steven Spielberg and Gerald Ford. Fenn also accumulated an impressive personal collection of historical artifacts such as Sitting Bull’s original peace pie and a mummified falcon from King Tut’s tomb. He even purchased his own Indian ruin, San Lazaro Pueblo, and has been criticized for excavating the site, which had been home to the Tano tribe and abandoned over 300 years ago.
In 1988, Fenn was diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer. He initially planned to hide over a million dollars worth of gold nuggets, gemstones and antiques and end his life next to the treasure. However, he survived the cancer, sold his gallery, and waited until 2010 to hide the treasure somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, in the roughly 1,000 miles between Santa Fe and the Canadian border. His motivations for hiding the treasure at that time were to encourage families to enjoy the outdoors as well as give people hope during the Great Recession.
According the Fenn, the treasure chest is a 10 by 10 inch bronze 12th-century Roman box and weighs 40 pounds fully loaded. Fenn made two trips, first to hide the chest, and the second to carry the contents. The contents reportedly include gold coins, pre-Columbian Incan and Mayan animal figures, a 17th-century Spanish gold-and-emerald ring, rubies, diamonds and sapphires and two hand-carved Chinese jade masks.
Fenn’s longtime friend, best-selling author Doug Preston, confirmed that he has seen the chest in Fenn’s house, and while there is no proof that Fenn has hid it, the chest is no longer in the house. A New Mexico archaeologist also confirmed to NPR that he has seen the treasure and believes Fenn is telling the truth.
In October 2010, Fenn released his his self-published autobiography The Thrill of the Chase. In it, he included a map and a poem with 9 clues leading to the treasure.
Although the book was only sold in a local bookstore and had an initial print run of about 1,000 copies, word quickly spread and eventually mainstream media began to take notice.
Fenn estimates that tens of thousands of people have searched for the treasure over the past 8 years, and although some people have claimed to find it, no one has been able to provide any evidence supporting their claims. Fenn has also confirmed that searchers have been within 200 feet of the treasure.
Dal Neitzel, a Washington State TV station manager, has been searching for the treasure since 2013. He also runs one of the most popular blogs about the treasure. Neitzel believes no one has been able to find the treasure so far because the poem is so vague.
Neitzel is quoted as saying “We have no certain knowledge what the nine clues in the poem are. Which line or word is a clue and which is not? We don’t even know for certain what the lines mean. They are interpreted by each individual differently, and we won’t know who is correct until someone finds the chest.”
The treasure hunt has taken on a life of its own. Hundreds of the most devoted hunters gather in Santa Fe each June for a gathering called Fennboree. It has also led to some scary consequences – a 47-year-old man was arrested after he became convinced that the treasure was Fenn’s granddaughter, and Fenn had to file a restraining order against another obsessed treasure hunter who showed up at his home. However, many others have expressed gratefulness to Fenn for bringing their families together, giving their lives purpose and introducing them to some of the most beautiful scenery they had ever seen.
At least four people have died while searching for Fenn’s treasure:
1. Randy Bilyeu, a 54-year-old retired mechanic, moved from Florida to Colorado to hunt for the treasure full time. On January 5, 2016, he sent out for the Rocky Mountains in northern New Mexico. His wife reported him missing a few days later, and his body was found about six months later along the Rio Grande river.
2. In June 2017, Jeff Murphy, 53 years old, fell about 500 feet to his death inside Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone officials initially did not release the details of the investigation into his death, but KULR-TV, a television station based out of Billings, Montana, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the report, which revealed that Murphy had been searching for Fenn’s treasure.
3. Paris Wallace, a 52-year-old pastor from Grand Junction, Colorado, told family members he was searching for a buried treasure. When he failed to show up for a planned family meeting on Wednesday, June 14, 2017, they reported him missing. His car was found near the Taos Junction Bridge in New Mexico, and his body was found 5 to 7 miles away.
4. Eric Ashby had moved to Colorado in 2016 to look for the treasure. His body was found in the Arkansas River on July 28, 2017 – his raft had overturned and had had drowned. Ashby was 31 years old.
Over the years, Fenn has gradually released more clues. After Ashby’s death, Fenn wrote that the treasure “is not under water, nor is it near the Rio Grande River. It is not necessary to move large rocks or climb up or down a steep precipice…Please remember that I was 80 when I made two trips from my vehicle to where I hid the treasure.” He has also since revealed that the treasure is not in a mine or other man-made structure, that is is between 5,000 feet and 10,200 feet above sea level, that it is not in Canada, Utah or Idaho, and not at the top of any mountain, although it may be close to the top of one. He has also stated that the treasure is not in Canada, Utah or Idaho, leaving Montana, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming as the possible states where the treasure is located. Fenn has also reportedly admitted that the most important clue is the line in the poem “Finding where warm waters halt,” and that this line does not refer to a dam.
Fenn also told Business Insider, “Read the clues in my poem over and over and study maps of the Rocky Mountains. Try to marry the two. The treasure is out there waiting for the person who can make all the lines cross in the right spot.”
Although Fenn has been accused of making up the treasure to sell more books, he allows a local bookstore to keep all proceeds. The bookstore in turn donates part of the proceeds to charity.
New Mexico State Police have asked Fenn to call off the treasure hunt. Police Chief Pete Kassetas said, “When you have 2 million dollars or so, as it it’s rumored to be, at stake, people make poor decisions.” Fenn has donated to search operations for those who have died hunting for the treasure, but has resisted calling off the hunt, saying in a statement, “I am not sure what that would accomplish. An average of 9 people lose their lives each year at the Grand Canyon, but there is no call to close it. I have said that my treasure is not hidden in a dangerous place, so why are people searching in dangerous places?”
Featured Photo: Luis Sanchez Saturno, Santa Fe New Mexican
- Wikipedia: Fenn Treasure
- NPR: Seeking Adventure And Gold? Crack This Poem And Head Outdoors
- The National: Inside the Epic Search for Forrest Fenn’s Gold
- CNBC: An 87-year-old millionaire buried treasure in the Rockies—and he’s offered one main clue
- The New York Times: On the Hunt, ‘Where Warm Waters Halt,’ for a $2 Million Treasure
- Newsweek: FORREST FENN WANTS YOU TO FIND HIS TREASURE—AND HIS BONES.
- Earth Magazine: On the trail of treasure in the Rocky Mountains
- Forbes: $3 Million Dollar Treasure Remains a Mystery
- BBC: Missing treasure hunter’s remains found in New Mexico
- ABC News: Police chief pleads with author who hid treasure to ‘call off the hunt’ after 2 die searching for riches