"They were looking for Forrest Fenn's treasure," says Dave Gambrell, one of the driving forces behind the Find Eric Ashby Facebook group. "Eric told his friends who flew in from Florida, 'I know where the treasure is,' and then he went into the river in a Walmart inflatable raft. You can't go through Class 5 rapids in that kind of raft."
Gambrell expresses frustration with the investigation into Ashby's disappearance by the Fremont County Sheriff's Office, which has not responded to an interview request from Westword at this writing. (Neither has Fenn, who briefly considered ending the treasure hunt after the death of Grand Junction pastor Paris Wallace last month — the second Colorado searcher to die in the quest, following Broomfield's Randy Bilyeu in 2016 — before deciding to continue.) Moreover, Gambrell believes the four people who are thought to have been with Ashby when he vanished are guilty of "gross negligence" for not telling authorities about what happened for more than a week.
The just-confirmed death of fifteen-year-old Trent Nims after an accident at Cherry Creek Reservoir brings the number of fatalities at Colorado water attractions to at least fourteen so far this year. Wallace died in New Mexico, where most, but not all, of the searches for Fenn's treasure have taken place.
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 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.
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 month while seeking out 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 feels 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.
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 such, "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, who Gambrell met earlier this year. 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 recalls. "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 says he acted as a friend and mentor to Ashby, who had wound up in Colorado after spending time in Tennessee and Florida. But then Ashby went missing, and Gambrell and the more than 300 people signed up to the aforementioned Facebook group have been trying to put together the pieces ever since.
The official account from the Fremont County Sheriff's Office was released on July 12. 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 says 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 allows.
By the way, the Cañon City Daily Record reports that it was contacted by a photographer on June 29 about a river accident the previous day. Gambrell doesn't know this person's identity and is very curious as to whether photos of what happened exist. He also says he knows the identity of two people who were with Ashby on the 28th. We're not naming them, since they haven't been charged with a crime, but their monikers have appeared in social media online. In addition, message boards related to The Thrill of the Chase have mentioned the alleged connection between Ashby's search for Fenn's treasure and his disappearance.
Although Gambrell doesn't explicitly say he thinks foul play could have been involved in Ashby's case, he doesn't dismiss the possibility, either — and he says he's received a threatening phone call about his efforts on Ashby's behalf. Not that he's planning to back off anytime soon. "I don't scare easily," he says.
Regarding the Fenn treasure, Gambrell isn't exactly a true believer: "I'm a smartass, and I know what he's doing," he maintains. But, he adds, "we believe Eric's body is worth more than a $2 million box. He's a young man who moved to Colorado Springs, one of the most beautiful places in the world, a military town, to live his dream. But then he went down to the Arkansas River with four other adults, and he never came back."
After a pause, he says, "Maybe it was an accident. Maybe they didn't know it was a stupid idea to take a Walmart raft down there. But why would they take so long to contact authorities? Nobody can wrap their head around that."
Ashby wasn't wearing a life vest or helmet when he went into the water. Anyone with more information about the case is encouraged to contact the Fremont County Sheriff's Office at 719-276-5556 or Fremont County Crimestoppers at 719-275-STOP (7867).