One day in 2010 an 80-year-old man took a chest weighing some 40 pounds and hid it somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Inside the chest was a treasure trove of gold coins, antiques and diamonds worth an estimated $2 million. The elderly man invited all and sundry to try and find his stash – but only he knew where it was. And the sole clues as to the booty’s precise whereabouts lay in an enigmatic poem that the man wrote.
This man of mystery is Forrest B. Fenn. The son of a school principal, Fenn was brought up in Temple, Texas. His memoir, the aptly titled The Thrill of the Chase describes his family as having so little money that they only ate meat on a Sunday. We’ll hear more about Fenn’s memoir later.
Despite the reported poverty of his childhood, Fenn and his family enjoyed annual vacations in the rugged splendor of Yellowstone National Park. There, he and his brother got into various scrapes. The two of them even tried to build and launch a homemade plane once, which was a portent of things to come in Penn’s adult years.
It seems that formal education held little appeal for Fenn despite his father’s profession. He didn’t bother with college, although he did show up for some classes at Texas A&M University. But the academic authorities soon put a stop to that when they noticed that he wasn’t actually listed on the student roll.
Nevertheless Fenn showed that he was capable of concerted application when he wanted to be. After marrying his teenage love Peggy Jean Proctor he joined the U.S. Air Force where he stayed for some 20 years. And during that double decade, Fenn exhibited genuine courage on more than one occasion.
Fenn – or Major Fenn as he became – served as a fighter pilot in Vietnam, and was decorated three times. In June 1968 he was flying his F-100 jet on a mission to attack a North Vietnamese Army unit. Having dropped his bombs, Fenn continued to fly over the attack zone to distract the enemy so that wounded men could be evacuated. For this he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Then just a few weeks later in July 1965 the pilot was awarded a second Distinguished Flying Cross. This time the citation for the medal stated that Fenn had “displayed outstanding aerial competence and courageous professionalism in the aggressive pursuance and acquisition of the assigned targets. The tenacity of this officer to attain the objective against formidable defenses is in accord with the highest military objectives.”
His final honor related to an incident in December 1968 when Fenn was on a mission to attack enemy supply routes. His F-100 jet was hit multiple times by heavy hostile fire, smashing his cockpit and injuring his face. Despite this, Fenn continued flying and fighting. This time he was awarded a Silver Star.
So there’s no doubting the raw courage that Fenn repeatedly showed as a fighter pilot. But the details of how he transformed himself from a military hero into a wealthy antiques dealer are a little more murky. When he got back to the States, Fenn upped sticks to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife Peggy and their two daughters.
There, he opened his antiques and art gallery business. Since he had absolutely no professional background in either discipline quite how he managed to become so successful is difficult to explain. But successful he certainly was, and over the years Fenn’s Santa Fe Trading Company was associated with the likes of Michael Douglas, Jessica Lange and Jackie Onassis.
Just about the only clue we have as to where this talent for dealing in antiquities and art comes from is on Fenn’s Santa Fe Trading Company website. “The urge to collect started for Forrest Fenn at age nine when he found his first arrowhead,” the homepage explains. Fenn himself is quoted as saying, “It was a thrill that started me on a long journey of adventure and discovery.”
And that collecting habit might give an indication as to why he threw down his hidden-treasure gauntlet. Quite simply, this is a man who gets a kick out of adventure. And it was in his 2010 book entitled The Thrill of the Chase that Fenn announced the challenge.
Fenn included a poem in the book which he claimed contained nine clues that would lead to the location of his treasure. Since the publication of the book, he’s added two new clues. The final clue reads, “No need to dig up the old outhouses, the treasure is not associated with any structure.” Make of that what you will. The other clues are no less perplexing.
It was a bout of cancer that set Fenn on the road to creating his puzzle. Diagnosed in 1988, and with a poor prognosis, Fenn decided to create his treasure chest. His idea was that he would hide the treasure and die next to it. But his grand plan was foiled – albeit due to happy circumstances. As Fenn told the Daily Mail, “I ruined the story by getting well.”
Fenn’s declaration about his hidden treasure provoked just the reaction you’d expect. Hordes of people descended on the Rocky Mountains in search of this buried chest. And that’s when the whole project really became controversial. Some people let their enthusiasm get the better of them. Four of those people actually died while allegedly hunting for Fenn’s stash.
The last time anyone saw Randy Bilyeu was in January 2016. Accompanied by his dog Leo and equipped with a raft, Bilyeu had set out to search for Fenn’s booty on the Rio Grande. The raft and the dog were found on January 14, 2016. But it wasn’t until July that year that Bilyeu’s body was discovered by the river.
A year later, in June 2017, 53-year-old Jeff Murphy’s body was found in Yellowstone National Park. The unfortunate Murphy had plummeted some 500 feet down a sheer slope to his death. His wife later confirmed that he had been searching for the Fenn treasure.
Later that same month the body of 52-year-old Paris Wallace, a pastor from Colorado, was found a week after he had been reported missing. Searchers had discovered a rope attached to a rock by a tributary of the Rio Grande, and Wallace’s body was later discovered several miles away downstream. Fenn himself told the Santa Fe New Mexican that the death was a “terrible loss.”
Thirty-one-year-old Eric Ashby was the next person to go missing after reportedly moving to Colorado to search for the Fenn trove. He was last seen on a raft on the Arkansas River and his remains were found some four weeks later at the end of July 2017. So after four deaths, it seems that Fenn’s challenge had taken a decidedly sinister turn.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fenn came in for a lot of criticism after the fatalities. Speaking to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Pete Kassetas from the New Mexico State Police said, “I would implore that [Fenn] stop this nonsense.” Fenn’s response was somewhat withering. In an email to The New York Times he said, “Life is too short to wear both a belt and suspenders. If someone drowns in the swimming pool we shouldn’t drain the pool, we should teach people to swim.”