Forrest Fenn Dead, Takes Treasure Hunt Mystery to the Grave

Forrest Fenn died mere months after announcing that the treasure so many had spent years seeking had been found.
Forrest Fenn died mere months after announcing that the treasure so many had spent years seeking had been found. CBS via YouTube
Police in Santa Fe, New Mexico, have confirmed that ninety-year-old author Forrest Fenn died at his home there on September 7, reportedly of natural causes. His passing comes mere months after Fenn announced that the object of a treasure hunt he launched a decade ago — a chest filled with gold coins and jewels said to be worth $2 million — had been found. But while the details Fenn provided, including some photos of him looking at artifacts, excited his many fans, they failed to persuade critics who've long held that the whole thing was a hoax.

Fenn has now taken his mystery to the grave — and it won't be solved unless a flesh-and-blood finder steps forward with compelling evidence that the booty was real after all.

A June 6 item posted on Fenn's OId Santa Fe Trading Co. website triggered the last big controversy of Fenn's life:

The search is over!

"It was under a canopy of stars in the lush, forested vegetation of the Rocky Mountains and had not moved from the spot where I hid it more than 10 years ago. I do not know the person who found it, but the poem in my book led him to the precise spot. I congratulate the thousands of people who participated in the search and hope they will continue to be drawn by the promise of other discoveries. So the search is over. Look for more information and photos in the coming days." — Forrest
Most early reports in the national and international press accepted Fenn's assertion without question. But over the next week, doubts began to creep into coverage when the promised photos failed to appear.

Against this backdrop, a GoFundMe page materialized under the headline "Forrest Fenn Treasure: Claims Life of Mike Sexson." The introduction to this crowdfunding campaign to help survivors of the most recent Colorado victim begins: "On the night of Monday, March 16, 2020, Mike Sexson took off on an adventure. This adventure had kept him excitedly curious about a treasure that was hidden somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Mike loved puzzles and excitement and unknown, fun adventures. He had been working on this treasure find for over a year. He read all of the clues written by the man who hid the treasure more than ten years ago, Forrest Fenn. He investigated every aspect of this hunt. He just felt he was on the right trail. He just knew he would find the treasure and take care of his wife, Beth, kids and his friends and family. Mike was adventurous, curious, kind, full of life and lived life on the edge."

The account continues: "So on the night of Monday, March 16, 2020, Mike set off to find his riches. Unfortunately, his hunt did not turn out the way he, or any of us, thought it would, or how it had been going more than a dozen times he went out searching. He became the seventh fatality looking for this treasure. For whatever reason, Mike became lost in the wilderness. Mike died from exposure to the cold on what is believed to have been day three and was found on day five. I often wonder how coincidental it was for the treasure to be found less than three months after I contacted Mr Fenn about Mike’s death.... I begged Mr Fenn to stop this game. It isn’t fun anymore. It’s dangerous!"

Currently, $340 has been pledged toward the $500,000 goal listed on the Sexson page.

Other Coloradans who died looking for Fenn's treasure included Eric Ashby and pastor Paris Wallace. In correspondence with Westword, Fenn regularly expressed condolences for survivors of those who lost their lives but declined to call off the treasure hunt, choosing instead to emphasize safety — and to note that the hiding spot was accessible to someone of advanced years, as he had been when he put it in place.

After Fenn's June 6 announcement, Linda Bilyeu, ex-wife of Colorado's Randy Bilyeu, who died hunting for the stash in 2016, made it clear that she was far from certain that the big news was legitimate. "I believe he never hid the treasure," she told Westword. "He needed attention and this is how he got it. Fenn needed more attention, which is why he said the treasure has been found with 'no proof.'"

Photos belatedly released on the website of Dan Neitzel, Fenn's longtime chronicler, were supplemented by only a few lines from the author. At the start, Fenn claimed that "the treasure chest was found by a man I did not know and had not communicated with since 2018." This was followed by a caption on the first image: "Photo of the chest taken not long after it was discovered." The second photo's caption: "The bracelet on my arm was wet when found. The silver tarnished black."

By the way, a 2012 piece on Neitzel's blog exploring what the treasure is worth includes a photo of the bracelet looking brighter than the one in that just-shared image. "If you find this, Forrest wants it back," Neitzel divulged.

The lack of specifics accompanying the pics didn't bother Fenn loyalists, but the photos left doubters unconvinced. As a result, Fenn sprinkled a few more breadcrumbs in late July, stating that the treasure had been found in Wyoming.

Reaction to Fenn's death on Twitter has been dominated by positive thoughts. Typical is this message: "Sad to hear of the passing of Forrest Fenn. What a brilliant plan hatched out of the love of the outdoors. He was the real treasure. RIP."

But there's also this note: "Can't believe Forrest Fenn died. Timing just seems odd."

"Odd" is an appropriate word, given the strange saga of the $2 million treasure chest — which in the minds of many remains curiously unresolved even after Forrest Fenn's death.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts