2017-06-24 Santa Fe New Mexican

Forrest Fenn strengthens resolve as controversy over hidden treasure grows.

Seven years after Santa Fe author and artifacts dealer Forrest Fenn wrote a poem that he claims describes the location of a hidden chest with gold coins and jewelry, his eyes still light up when he reads about those who are challenging his wit to find the trove.

As his hearing begins to fade, Fenn’s connections with searchers is largely a laptop computer that opens his world to hundreds of messages a day from national reporters, searchers and now those calling on him to stop a misadventure after a second Colorado man who came to New Mexico to hunt for the gold was found dead.

Despite a plea last week from the top police commander in the state of New Mexico to call off the hunt, Fenn is indicating he will not do so.

Even if Fenn wanted to stop people from following clues published in a poem at the end of his memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, there is no way to make that happen. No one dedicated to the hunt would listen, he said, unless he retrieved the treasure himself and posted a photo of the gold on the internet, all covered in mud from the wilderness where it is hidden.

“I have no intention of getting the treasure chest,” Fenn told The New Mexican.

A former military pilot who went to survival school in the Philippines, Fenn turns 87 in August. He has doubts about his own physical ability to retrieve the chest. In addition to his hearing issues, Fenn has a bad back and tires more easily than when he stashed the money and artifacts in 2010, after a bout with cancer.

The chest itself weighs 20 pounds and its contents another 22. When he deposited the cache, Fenn said, he made two separate trips, and he went by himself.

Now, he said, “I don’t know I could physically get it. I’m not as agile as I once was. … When I walk 50 yards, I have to sit down.”

Longtime Fenn supporter Dal Neitzel, a Seattle videographer who maintains a website devoted to the search and sells Fenn books and search paraphernalia, said those who think Fenn will suspend the search don’t understand him.

“I don’t think people understand the strength of his resolve,” Neitzel said. “I do not believe he will [end the search] for this or anything else.”

Neitzel was referring to the recent death of Paris Wallace, 52, a pastor from Grand Junction, Colo., who was searching for Fenn’s treasure. Wallace apparently died along the Rio Grande near Taos. His body was found June 18 near Pilar, seven miles downstream from the Taos Junction Bridge, where his car was parked.

His death came 18 months after the death of Randy Bilyeu, 54, of Broomfield, Colo., who went missing after dropping an inflatable raft on the chilly Rio Grande in January 2016. State police and volunteer searchers spent weeks combing the banks of the river, and Fenn himself rented a helicopter to help find the man.

Bilyeu’s remains were found near the river just north of Cochiti Lake in July 2016.

Since publication of his autobiography, Fenn has said he wrote the The Thrill of the Chase as inspiration for those seeking a purpose-filled life, and that requires engaging with others and experiencing the outdoors, especially coming to the Rocky Mountain West, a region he has hiked, fished and explored since childhood.

The search for Fenn’s treasure has spawned an annual Fennboree gathering of campers at Hyde Memorial State Park, as well as two documentary films and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. The New Mexico Department of Tourism also has produced a video about the search and posted it on a state website.

There’s no doubt that Fenn’s book and its publicity has boosted tourism in New Mexico.

Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales proclaimed May 25, 2015, as Thrill of the Chase Day, in recognition of “visitors who have traveled from all over the world to Santa Fe and its surrounding areas for the purpose of searching for the treasure that Forrest Fenn has hidden … increasing the prosperity of its lodging and service-related businesses.”

New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas recognizes the benefits of Fenn’s search for New Mexico. But after Wallace’s death, he asked Fenn to stop it. Unlike other accidents in the wilderness, one person has control over whether anyone else dies while looking for the treasure — and that person is Fenn.

Kassetas called Fenn on the phone Thursday while he was being filmed by a crew from Good Morning America, which has covered the search extensively and has interviewed Fenn at his Santa Fe home.

“You had talked about giving more clues, providing more clues, to help people better find your treasure,” Kassetas said to Fenn during the show. “Again, I call for you to pull it.”

Fenn refused, but said he would again warn hunters to be safe when they go into the wilderness. “I’m not going to give a clue to help people find the treasure. I’m going to give a clue to try to keep them out of trouble — to make them safer,” he replied in the televised exchange.

Kassetas told The New Mexican on Friday that he wants to meet with Fenn to go over some safety precautions that Fenn could pass on to others. “We would talk about ways to better prepare searchers that are going out into mountains and rivers to look for this. … I think he can be more descriptive where the treasure may not be — if it does exist — so people can ignore those pitfalls.”

Fenn has said the Rio Grande is not part of the Rocky Mountains, so searchers should not be taking risks to look there. He also has said that the chest is not hidden in a dangerous place.

And Fenn has cautioned searchers against trespassing on private or tribal land and cemeteries, saying the treasure is not hidden there.

Bilyeu’s ex-wife, Linda Bilyeu, has been among Fenn’s most vocal critics and reiterated her call last week for the search to stop.

“Another family is left to grieve and carry on without their loved ones,” Bilyeu told The Associated Press in an email. “Only one man has the power to stop the madness. Yet, he continues to pretend he’s doing a good deed by getting people off the couch and into nature.”

Wallace’s wife, Mitzi Wallace, has taken a different stance. She told The Associated Press that the family had searched for the treasure together, and that it would be a mistake for the hunt to end. “Our treasure is that time we spend together,” she said last week.

Kassetas said it’s not just the safety of the treasure hunters that concerns him, but also that of professional law enforcement officers who conduct search-and-rescue missions.

“The family of this last man made a call for help, and I can’t turn my back and say it was related to something risky so we can’t respond,” he said. “We have to respond, and I have to keep in mind the safety of the first responders. I would feel terrible if I have to make a phone call to a family of a search-and-rescue member if that death could have been avoided.”

But there are numerous rescue missions in the New Mexico wilderness each year that are unrelated to the treasure, and many outdoor activities pose risks.

News of Wallace’s death came a few days after a 16-year-old boy was killed by a black bear during a trail run near Anchorage, Alaska; a 10-year-old Fort Worth, Texas, girl died after being thrown from a horse; and a father and son died in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in Southern New Mexico while hiking in 100-degree weather.

Using those arguments and others, Fenn supporters have urged him to stay the course.

“My kids love going out and exploring nature and looking for the treasure. We sit around the poem, with maps and compasses and do our best to figure out where it is and then we go exploring,” a Las Vegas, Nev., attorney wrote to Fenn.

“While I understand there have been some tragedies, these things happen (with or without treasure). At the end of the day, this isn’t about death, it is about giving people the spirit of adventure and being in touch with nature and its surroundings, in other words, this hunt is about living.”

“You, sir, are not responsible for the bad decision making properties of others,” adds a third searcher. “To suggest you are culpable in any way is, again in my opinion, a summary of what is wrong with our society in general.”

The New Mexican, in an editorial, urged cessation of the search. “The treasure hunt should be ended so that no more lives are put in danger — and that includes the public safety responders who have to search for lost men and women,” the newspaper said.

A letter writer was more direct. “Could the creator of this quest for an elusive, possible mythical treasure be prosecuted for manslaughter?” Adele Zimmerman wrote in a letter to the editor that was published in The New Mexican last week.

But The Daily Sentinel, a newspaper in Grand Junction, Colo., Paris Wallace’s hometown, expressed support for Fenn’s hunt. Under the headline, “Calls to End Treasure Hunt Follow Bad Logic,” the newspaper wrote that “Fenn’s treasure has inspired some people to engage the natural world and discover the thrill of adventure, possibly for the first time in their lives.”

Benjamin Radford, deputy editor at Skeptical Inquirer, which explores the unexplained, and author of Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment, said the treasure hunt is ideal for those seeking camaraderie or a hobby.

But people who take it more seriously, spending a lot of time and money on the search, should be aware that historical evidence suggests finding any hidden treasure is a long shot.

“Some people have spent decades of their life looking for these things,” he said.

The best way to ensure that no more lives are lost in the search for Fenn’s treasure is for Fenn to announce that he has retrieved the chest and that the search is over, Radford said.

Rather than turn hunters away, he said, the deaths renew interest in the treasure.

Publicity about the hunt continues to boost sales of Fenn’s autobiography. The book is still selling well, said Dorothy Massey, owner of the Collected Works Bookstore. A poster of The Thrill of the Chase greets incoming shoppers at the downtown store.

“We sell a great many copies of Forrest’s books … even to many who have no interest in going on a treasure hunt,” she said.

Fenn said Thrill has sold 22,000 copies. Those who say he is continuing the search to increase his profits from the book are mistaken, he said.

“People think the whole thing’s a hoax to sell books,” Fenn said. “… I get nothing out of it.”

Most of the proceeds go to Collected Works. Fenn turned the book over to the store after printing the first 1,000 copies. Collected Works, which now has to cover the cost of the book’s production, gives 10 percent of the profits from book sales to a fund supporting cancer patients and keeps the rest.

“So far, we have given away about $70,000,” Fenn said of the cancer fund.

Another book about his life, friendships and the search, Too Far to Walk, is a gift to to his four grandchildren, who must keep up with its printing and distribution in exchange for keeping any profits. “They have to do all the work,” Fenn said during an interview at his kitchen table, as one of his granddaughters arrived at his home after dropping 100 copies of the book at Collected Works.

Fenn spoke of helping his grandchildren learn business skills and pay for college. He also helps care for Peggy, his wife of 64 years. He still finds time to do several media interviews a week, answer some 200 emails and keep up with searchers and their stories through blogs and websites. He enjoys learning about their adventures.

“So many people don’t realize the wonders of nature and the smell of the forest and pine needles,” Fenn said. “Part of the problem is we sit at home and read too much. We watch the news too much.”

Contact Bruce Krasnow at brucek@sfnewmexican.com.


Saturday, June 24, 2017