Caught up in the chase: Many claim they’ve solved Fenn riddle

Forrest Fenn at his Santa Fe home in May 2015. Luis Sánchez Saturno/New Mexican file photo

The New Mexico State Police chief says Santa Fe author Forrest Fenn should get his chest of gold, jewels and other artifacts from wherever he hid it in the wild and put an end to a treasure hunt that led to a man’s death near Taos earlier this month.

“I would implore that he stop this nonsense,” Chief Pete Kassetas said after crews retrieved a body from the Río Grande over the weekend that investigators suspect is that of Colorado pastor Paris Wallace.

Wallace’s disappearance while searching for Fenn’s treasure is just the latest alarming episode in the hunt for a bounty that Fenn said in a 2010 memoir he stashed somewhere in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe. Another searcher died on the Río Grande last year looking for the chest, others have gotten lost and one man stalked Fenn’s granddaughter suspecting the treasure was really a metaphor for her. Each such incident has raised the question of whether the quest to solve Fenn’s riddle has gone too far.

Describing Wallace’s disappearance as tragic, Fenn said Monday he has been thinking in recent days about how to make the search safer or whether to cancel it altogether, but had not decided either way.

“The several hundred emails I have received today are overwhelming against stopping the search … ,” he wrote in an email to The New Mexican. “My mind is open to finding a solution, but no decision has been made.”

Many in what has grown into a community of people searching for Fenn’s treasure chest argue he never intended it to be a dangerous physical challenge.

Dal Neitzel, a Washington state resident who has a website devoted to the treasure hunt, said “the grand majority of people are in it for the fun.”

“We’ve seen people who have met their spouses while out searching for the treasure, brothers who haven’t spoken to one another in 30 years reunited, single moms who take their kids out and bond with them in ways they never had,” he said.

In that sense, Neitzel argues, Fenn has succeeded in what he has said is his real goal: getting people into the outdoors to discover the natural jewels of the America West.

Searchers who have fallen into harm’s way looking for Fenn’s treasure have not followed Fenn’s own clues, said David Rice, a co-founder of an annual “Fennboree” gathering of searchers.

But the tragedies have hit Fenn, 86, and the community of treasure seekers hard. Rice said the death of a treasure hunter last year struck Fenn “like a physical blow.”

Fenn on Monday described the apparent death of Wallace as “a terrible loss.”

“Words cannot adequately express the depth of my feelings,” he wrote.

Fenn has urged caution, discouraging searchers from venturing into dangerous areas or going out to look for the treasure by themselves.

“Regardless of where you think the treasure is you should not exceed your physical and mental capabilities,” Fenn told Denver newspaper Westword on Monday. “The treasure is not in a dangerous place. They should remember that I was about 80 when I hid it.”

The search for a bronze chest filled with valuables, which Fenn described in his 2010 book The Thrill of the Chase, has become a legacy for the Santa Fe character, decorated Vietnam War fighter pilot, art dealer and amateur archaeologist.

National television news programs featured Fenn’s treasure hunt and a community sprouted up in online forums and on blogs to pick apart each clue.

Fenn has reveled in the stories of adventure and shear outdoors.

The treasure is not necessarily in New Mexico. Many believe it could be in Colorado, Wyoming or Montana. But the Land of Enchantment has drawn plenty of searchers. Even the state tourism department has touted the treasure hunt, producing a video in 2015 that features sweeping shots of the New Mexico landscape and Fenn discussing his storied life as well as the treasure.

“Certainly, we want people to get outdoors and enjoy New Mexico,” Kassetas said, “but you have to do it safely.”

The state police chief said the treasure hunt had not only led to the deaths of two men in New Mexico. Missions to find wayward treasure hunters have put the lives of law enforcement officers as well as search and rescue volunteers at risk while straining state resources, he said.

“I think [Fenn] has an obligation to retrieve his treasure if it does exist,” Kassetas said.

Even if Fenn and other searchers urge caution, Kassetas said it was inevitable that some would put themselves in danger for the payoff of more than $1 million in treasure.

One searcher, Randy Bilyeu of Colorado, died after trying to navigate the frigid Rio Grande in a small, inflatable raft. He disappeared in January 2016, and his remains were discovered in July. His wife said she did not believe Fenn had hidden a treasure and called on him to put a stop to the hunt.

Fenn has landed in danger, too.

A Nevada man claimed the treasure was really a metaphor for Fenn’s granddaughter and stalked her.

Earlier this year, Fenn sought a restraining order against a Texas man who had visited his home uninvited, took photos and said he would return.

It was unclear if the man was seeking Fenn’s treasure. But in requesting the restraining order, Fenn wrote: “I fear harm to myself and my family. We fear kidnapping or worse.”

News of Wallace’s disappearance came only a few days after this year’s Fennboree, which organizers say brought more than 100 treasure hunters to the Santa Fe National Forest to meet Fenn, trade stories and advice, and brag.

Organizers said they do not believe Wallace, 52, attended the event.

The lead pastor at Connection Church in Grand Junction, Colo., since 2005, Wallace appears to have disappeared near Taos. State police say his truck was found near the Taos Junction Bridge and that officers found a recent receipt inside for rope as well as other equipment.

Authorities retrieved a body downstream in the Rio Grande near Pílar over the weekend but state police have not confirmed whether it is Wallace.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.

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