A Freedom of Information Act request filed by Montana's KULR-TV has revealed that Jeff Murphy, who died from a 500 foot fall in Yellowstone National Park last June, had been searching for a $2 million treasure said to have been hidden by New Mexico author Forrest Fenn. As we've reported, three Coloradans died in this quest during the past two years, making Murphy the fourth person confirmed to have lost his life during a Fenn treasure hunt. But the ex-wife of one victim from the state believes that two additional people have perished to date for what she's dubbed a hoax, bringing the total to six.
Beginning in 2016, Fenn corresponded with Westword on numerous occasions regarding the first two Coloradans who died: Broomfield's Randy Bilyeu and Grand Junction pastor Paris Wallace. However, he has yet to respond to multiple inquiries about the death of Eric Ashby, who drowned in Fremont County in June 2017; his body was found the following month and finally identified earlier this year. We've reached out to Fenn again in regard to Murphy, as well as Ashby, and will update this post when and if he gets back to us.
On his website, as we've reported, Fenn, who's in his eighties, describes his 2011 memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, as "the remarkable true story of Forrest Fenn’s life and of a hidden treasure, secreted somewhere in the mountains north of Santa Fe." The book contains clues to the treasure’s location — specifically in a poem that reads, in part: "Begin it where warm waters halt/And take it in the canyon down/Not far, but too far to walk/Put in below the home of Brown."
Over the past seven years, thousands of people have headed to the Rocky Mountains from Santa Fe to Montana to look for the treasure, fulfilling Fenn's goal of using lucre to tempt folks into experiencing and enjoying nature. But then, in January 2016, Bilyeu disappeared after heading to New Mexico to look for Fenn's riches — and the following July, his body was positively identified. His death followed the rescue of a treasure-hunting woman from Texas who'd gotten lost three years before.
In an email Q&A with Westword after Bilyeu's remains were ID'd, Fenn wrote, "It is tragic that Randy was lost, and I am especially sorry for his two grown daughters." However, he said, the incident didn't make him regret starting the treasure hunt. In his words, "Accidents can happen anywhere. Randy may have had a heart attack or otherwise become incapacitated."
Fenn emphasized safety for treasure hunters. "Anyone who goes into the mountains should be prepared, use a GPS and always be aware of possible dangers," he noted, adding, "Many people don’t have experience hiking in the mountains, but that doesn’t mean they should stay at home. Just be careful and don’t get overextended."
Linda Bilyeu, Randy's ex-wife, wasn't reassured by these words. In an email interview for a follow-up post, she expressed doubts that the treasure is real. "Randy lost his life searching for 'nothing,'" she wrote.
Then came news that Wallace had vanished last June 14 while seeking the treasure. His car was subsequently discovered, and on June 18, the New Mexico State Police revealed that a body had been located at Rio Grande Gorge, not far from the community of Pilar — and between five and seven miles from the abandoned vehicle.
Shortly thereafter, New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas told the Santa Fe New Mexican that he felt the treasure hunt should be brought to a close.
"I would implore that he stop this nonsense," Kassetas said, adding, "I think he has an obligation to retrieve his treasure if it does exist."
Kassetas's words had an impact on Fenn, who told Westword, "I have to respect what the chief said," and admitted that he was contemplating whether the time to call off the search had come.
During a subsequent email interview, however, Fenn explained that he'd reached the opposite conclusion.
The chief's call "caused me to stop and think for a few days," he reveals. But he also noted that of 600 emails he received after Wallace disappeared, only eight unsigned messages urged that the treasure hunt end. As a result, "after a long deliberation and discussions with friends, I have decided that stopping the search would not be fair to the thousands who have searched the Rockies and gone home with wonderful memories that will last them forever. A number of family members who have been estranged for years have reunited to join in the search."
Fenn stayed mum after reports about Ashby's death surfaced, and thus far, he hasn't commented publicly on the latest tragedy to make headlines. But the documents obtained by KULR-TV about Murphy, whose body was found on June 9, 2017, show that he'd emailed Fenn in the days before he went missing at Yellowstone. Moreover, after Murphy vanished, Fenn is said to have reached out to park officials and offered to help fund a helicopter to look for him.
As for Linda Bilyeu, who penned an extraordinary open letter to Fenn in 2016, she has plenty to say. She points to a speculation that 42-year-old Mike Petersen, who died at Yellowstone the same month as Murphy, was also seeking Fenn's treasure.
Linda adds that, in her opinion, there's actually a sixth person to have died looking for the treasure, too. According to her, the parents of the victim, who died after Randy but before Paris Wallace, reached out to her personally but haven't gone public. (Jeff Schultz, who passed away while hiking in Arizona in April 2016, has been mentioned in numerous Fenn-related online chats.)
In correspondence with Westword via Facebook messenger, Linda writes: "It continues to baffle my brain how this treasure hunt continues as if no deaths have occurred due to it."
She maintains that "the death count is now up to six. Six men have lost their lives searching for a treasure that could or very possibly could not even exist. Six families are left to mourn their loved ones, yet Forrest Fenn does nothing but continue to write his memoirs. The man is callous and ruthless. Only he could end this madness. Yet, he chooses not to. He chooses to enjoy the attention through the darkness he has cast into the lives of so many."
Fenn feels very differently about the search, as he makes clear in the following excerpt from a Q&A published in June 2017 — as noted, the month Murphy and Petersen died.
Westword: During our previous email interview, you mentioned a number of safety tips for people who want to look for the treasure. What, in your view, are the most important things for individuals to keep in mind?
Forrest Fenn: It is important to have someone with you anytime you go into the mountains. Family or friends at home should know your plan in detail, and you should stick to the plan. Proper clothing, a cell phone, GPS, food and water are necessities.
A lot of people have interpreted your poem as suggesting that the treasure is located near or perhaps in water. Can you say whether these folks are on the right track? And if so, do you think that, in retrospect, these clues may encourage people to take unwise risks?
People read all sorts of things into the clues. Regardless of where you think the treasure is, you should not exceed your physical and mental capabilities. The treasure is not in a dangerous place. They should remember that I was about eighty when I hid it.
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You've also pointed out that the hiding place is accessible to someone your age. Does that mean discovering and accessing the location wouldn't be dangerous for the average person?
If someone thinks the treasure is hidden in a dangerous location, they should not search for it. There is no percentage in taking risks.
Along those lines, would you also say that there's no need to go into treacherous areas to look for the treasure, because that description doesn't apply to where you hid it?