On June 28, 2017, Eric Ashby went missing in the Arkansas River while reportedly searching for a $2 million treasure hidden by New Mexico author Forrest Fenn. Four weeks or so afterward, human remains were found on the river in Fremont County, and just shy of six months later, they've finally been identified as Ashby. He is now officially the third person from Colorado to perish while looking for this prize during a period of about a year and a half.
We've reached out to Fenn for comment. If and when he gets back to us, we'll share his thoughts in this space. Fenn briefly considered ending the treasure hunt after the death of Grand Junction pastor Paris Wallace two weeks before Ashby vanished, only to decide to continue. In 2016, prior to the passing of Wallace and Ashby, Broomfield's Randy Bilyeu also died in the quest.
Among those who pushed most energetically to bring Ashby's disappearance to the public's attention was Colorado Springs's Dave Gambrell, who expressed frustration with the investigation into Ashby's disappearance by the Fremont County Sheriff's Office for a July 25, 2017, post that revealed the tie to a search for Fenn's hidden riches. Moreover, Gambrell believed the four people who were thought to have been with Ashby when he vanished were guilty of "gross negligence" for not telling authorities about what happened for more than a week.
Allison Bennett, a friend of Ashby's when he was living in Tennessee, felt the same way and began energetically pushing for legislation dubbed "Eric's Law" that would require individuals to tell authorities when they witness someone in life-threatening situations. Such a proposal has been introduced in the Colorado House by Representative Jim Wilson, whose district includes Fremont County.
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."
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Over the past six years, thousands of people have headed to New Mexico to look for the treasure, described as a $2 million cache of gold and jewels, 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 e-mail 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 e-mail interview for a follow-up post, she branded the treasure a hoax. "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 told the paper, 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 e-mail 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 e-mails 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."
Enter Ashby, whom Gambrell had met earlier in 2017. A retired Army veteran, Gambrell was playing kickball at a Colorado Springs park with his kids when Ashby approached. "He gave me a compliment: He said, 'You're a good man. You've got a good family,'" Gambrell recalled. "I didn't let that go to my ego. This was a cry for help from a young man — someone looking for direction and guidance. In today's culture, there are a lot of entitlement issues. But this guy was putting his ego aside and trying to become a good man."
In the weeks and months that followed, Gambrell said he acted as a friend and mentor to Ashby. But then Ashby disappeared, and Gambrell and the hundreds of people signed up to the Find Eric Ashby Facebook group began trying to put the pieces together.
The official account from the Fremont County Sheriff's Office was released on July 12, 2017. According to the FCSO, deputies "received a report of a possible river accident in the area of Sunshine Falls near Fremont County Road 61 on the Arkansas River in Fremont County" on June 28. The caller said he'd been at a distance when he saw a raft flip and multiple people go into the water — and one of them never made it back to the shore. When deputies responded to the scene, however, no one was there, and a search until nightfall turned up nothing.
Then, on July 8, the FCSO account continues, a family member of Ashby's — Gambrell said it was his dad — called the sheriff's office to report that Eric was missing after getting into a river accident on June 28. Investigators later concluded that this incident was the same as the one cited by the aforementioned caller and launched "a missing person's case, as a body has not been recovered," the release allowed.
By the way, the Cañon City Daily Record reported that it had been contacted by a photographer on June 29 about a river accident the previous day. Gambrell didn't know this person's identity and was very curious as to whether photos of what happened exist. He also said he knows the identity of two people who were with Ashby on the 28th. We chose not to name them, since they were never charged with a crime, but their monikers have appeared in social media online.
A month after the accident, on July 28, human remains were found in the Arkansas east of Florence. Sergeant Megan Richards, a spokesperson for the Fremont County Sheriff's Office, subsequently told us that the body was "unrecognizable," so dental records and/or DNA testing would likely be deployed as part of the autopsy process. This effort was expected to take weeks, but half a year passed before Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller issued the following release:
On, July 28, 2017 the Fremont County Coroner’s Office was notified of a body found in Fremont County located east of the Holcim Cement Plant in the Arkansas River. The body was believed to be the remains of Eric Ashby, a 31 year-old male who had gone missing on June 28, 2017 and believed drowned. Numerous searches were conducted after Eric Ashby went missing. Following the autopsy in El Paso County on August 1, 2017, DNA samples from the unidentified deceased and Eric Ashby’s father were sent to the Colorado Bureau of investigation for comparison. On January 26, 2018 Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller received the DNA Report for identification of the deceased. The deceased has been positively identified as Eric Ashby. The decedent’s family have been recently contacted by the Fremont County Coroner.
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By the way, the FCSO's Richards says the procedure took so long because the Colorado Bureau of Investigation prioritizes DNA identification in criminal cases over those in which no offense is believed to have taken place — and since Eric's Law hasn't been enacted, the Ashby matter fell into the latter category.
On this Facebook page, Gambrell acknowledged the sad news about Eric and also shared a letter to members of the Colorado House judiciary committee, which is expected to consider Representative Wilson's proposed legislation, formally known as HB18-1059, during the current session. The letter reads:
Dear Committee Members,
Last summer, we tragically lost a friend in an accident on the Arkansas River. None of his 4 companions reported the accident to friends or family, until 10 days later. Eric was an avid camper, so it wasn't unusual to only see him once a month. That 10 day lapse severely hindered the case, including search efforts. While Eric's family is out of state, friends could have been searching immediately after. This could have saved the heartache this family is still experiencing as they wait for a badly decomposed body found nearly a month later to be identified.
HB18-1059 is not a mandatory rescue bill, and does not force a witness to attempt rescue services. This Bill only requires that the witness call emergency services as soon as possible. Please show your support by voting yes on HB18-1059.
Services for Eric Ashby are pending.