During the spring of 2017, a 53-year-old man fell to his death in Yellowstone National Park. Tragic but not unheard of, what is unusual is that this is the fourth death in two years connected to the hunt for treasure, reportedly hid in the Rocky Mountain region, by author and antiquities dealer Forrest Fenn in 2010.
In 2010, Forrest Fenn hid away a chest containing jewelry, coins and rare artifacts somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. It's estimated that it's worth $2 million.
What could be more alluring than a treasure, and not just a faint hope of one that once upon time was hidden by pirates or bandits? This one was secreted away only in 2010, and to add to the hook there was a map in the form of a poem. But like many tales of easy fortunes, there's a down side, and it appeared that Fenn's Treasure didn't want to be found.
Some would call it superstition, and others bad luck, but those who measure the odds consider it a curse when Jeff Murphy, 53 from Batavia, Illinois was found dead from a fall while hiking on Turkey Pen Peak in Yellowstone National Park near the North Entrance of the park. His wife had reported him missing the day before on June 8, 2017.
The curse story grew because he was the fourth man in two years to die while reportedly looking for Fenn's Treasure.
State Police Chief Pete Kassetas was reported as one of many who asked Fenn to end the treasure hunt because of the fatalities before Murphy died.
Fenn's reply was, "As with deer hunters and fishermen, there is an inherent risk that comes with hiking the canyons and mountain trails. The treasure is not hidden in a dangerous spot and I have said that no one should search in a place where an 80-year-old man could not hide it.”
Murphy's death was reported only as a hiker who had fallen, but park officials did not make any reference to the fact that he was a treasure hunter. It wasn't until Montana TV station KTMF obtained information via a FOIA that the exact purpose of Murphy's trek come to light.
“It appeared he stepped or hopped into the chute from the less steep slope above,” the incident report says, according to the TV station. He fell 500 feet.
Mrs. Murphy said her husband had bought The Thrill of the Chase a memoir authored by Fenn, which contained a poem with a clue of how to find the treasure. He came across it in a Santa Fe bookstore five years before he died. The passage in the book, "Begin it (the hunt) where war waters halt" which is interpreted to be Madison Junction, south of Mammoth Hot Springs, where the gibbon and Firehole Rivers meet to form the Madison River.
Fenn regularly released new clues on where the treasure was hidden.
In June 2017, Paris Wallace, 52, went hunting for Fenn's Treasure, and he disappeared in the area of Espanola, New Mexico. The landscape is full of arroyos and steep mountains, but he had gone alone and kept the reason to himself. His wife reported him missing.
Wallace had a friend named Wendell Smith, who himself had gone on 19 trips to find Fenn's Treasure. By then Wallace had been missing for 40 hours. On a hunch that Wallace was out seeking the treasure he posted a message on a 2,500 member chat group where participants discuss Fenn's clues. A woman with the username "lifesablaze" went to scout an area she was familiar with, that matched some of the clues Fenn wrote about.
Within two hours she found Wallace's vehicle just north of Pilar. Until then law enforcement was using cellphone technology but she was the one that actually found his car near the Taos Junction Bridge just north of Pilar. His belongings were found at a Rodeway Inn in Espanola, and his backpack in the waters of the Rio Grande a few miles downstream. His body was found in the Rio Grande gorge 5 to 7 miles from where his car was left parked.
Wallace had drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande.
A month later Eric Ashby,31, went missing. He too was searching for Fenn's Treasure. His raft capsized on the Arkansas River, and he was last seen clinging to a rock. In an ironic twist he moved to Colorado 4 months before specifically to search for the treasure, little did he imagine he was hunting for his own death.
His friends didn't report his disappearance until 10 days later.
Eric, told his father Paul that he was going to the Arkansas River to search for the treasure.
A week later, a woman called Paul Ashby on the phone and said, "Mr. Ashby, your son has drowned. I'm sorry, Mr. Ashby, your son is dead." Then she hung up.
The caller was Rebecca "Becca" Nies who worked with Eric. She along with Eric and three men met at the river, all with the same intent of finding the treasure. They'd even drawn up a contract detailing how they'd split the find.
She explained to authorities that Eric told them he'd swam the river 10 times before, and they thought he would be okay, even though he was in a two-person raft with no life preserver.
According to her two men went back to find him, and they saw a photographer who told them he'd called 911. She said they returned to their car and went home. She said they'd left because they were scared because they'd never been involved in anything like that.
Eric's body was not positively identified until the end of January, 2018. The body had been discovered in July, but his father's DNA samples were taken and compared to a sample from an August autopsy. When the body was found the sheriff's department described it as "unidentifiable".
In September 2017, Forrest Fenn, released his third memoir titled Once Upon a While. He'd written another book in 2013, titled Too Far to Walk.
In January, 2016, 54-year-old Randy Bilyeu of Broomfield, Colorado, went missing while searching for the treasure on the Rio Grande near Santa Fe. Only skeletal remains were found on the riverbank, in the summer by a crew with the Army Corps of Engineer along the Rio Grande just north of Cochiti Lake. Autopsy reports said there wasn't enough evidence left to determine what caused his death. There were no broken bones or other skeletal injuries.
Leo was eventually adopted by flight nurse Erin Johnson who was part of a medical helicopter crew sent out to look for Randy.
2020 Fenn's Treasure Claims Another Life
Mike Sexson was convinced the treasure was along the Colorado-Utah border in Dinosaur National Monument. He'd made a dozen trips there, but his poker buddy Steven Inlow became involved because he needed a 4-wheel drive truck to further his explorations.
In February 2020, both men rented snowmobiles in Denver. The snowmobiles got stuck because they were too heavy for the snow depth. They were rescued, and they were out there the following month.
They rented snowmobiles out of Utah. The truck was left 5 miles from the main road, and they left part of their provisions there. They were exploring the south side of the mountain, and this time they ran out of snow. They left more supplies on the snowmobiles, and set off on foot with a sled to carry hopefully the treasure back, which Mike was convinced was close. They only had energy bars, and a gallon-and-a-half of water for the two of them.
When the men failed to return the snowmobile rental company called the police who in turn called Mike's girlfriend and Steven's wife..
Both men were in an area with no cell signal. The next day it started to snow, and they had no water left.
They tried eating snow, but Steve Inlow finally drank his own urine and it warmed his body. He told Mike to do the same, but he refused, saying he'd rather die.
Two days later Mike died of hypothermia. The next day Steven was rescued.
This was the last and final death tied to Fenn's Treasure.
Three months later an announcement was made that the treasure was found.
Forrest Fenn died in September, 2020.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer