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Forrest Fenn as seen in a CBS report about his treasure hunt.
Forrest Fenn as seen in a CBS report about his treasure hunt.
CBS via YouTube

Forrest Fenn Treasure Photos Leave Hoax Claims Open

Late on June 16, as the debate over whether he's been perpetrating a hoax reached a fever pitch, eccentric New Mexico author Forrest Fenn shared three photos of the treasure that he claims was found on June 6, after a years-long search that's cost four Coloradans and at least three others their lives. But while the post on DalNeitzel.com, the blog of Fenn's official chronicler, has persuaded some true believers that the chest of gold and other goodies allegedly valued at $2 million has actually been found, doubters remain thoroughly unconvinced.

Fenn has not responded to inquiries from Westword  — and based on the blog post's final words, he may have closed the book on the subject once and for all. "The finder wants me to remain silent and I always said the finder gets to make those two calls. Who and where," Fenn writes.

A June 6 item posted on Fenn's OId Santa Fe Trading Co. website started the current controversy:

YES! FORREST HAS CONFIRMED THAT THE TREASURE HAS BEEN FOUND!

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.

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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 then 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!"

So far, $315 has been pledged toward the $500,000 goal listed on the Sexson page.

Meanwhile, Linda Bilyeu, ex-wife of Colorado's Randy Bilyeu,  who died hunting for Fenn's riches in 2016, has made it clear that she is far from convinced that the mystery has been solved.  "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.'"

The photos released on June 16 are supplemented by only a few lines from Fenn. At the outset, he claims that "the treasure chest was found by a man I did not know and had not communicated with since 2018." That's followed by a caption on the first image: "Photo of the chest taken not long after it was discovered." The second photo's caption adds: "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 the just-shared image. "If you find this, Forrest wants it back," Neitzel divulged.

"Removing objects from the chest," the third caption explains, adding, "It is darker than it was ten years ago when I left it on the ground and walked away."

Late last night, Finding Fenn's Gold, described as "a subreddit devoted to finding the hidden treasure of Forrest Fenn," published one of the photos and the comments began flooding in. The first reads: "Well, this is it. The treasure is 100 percent real. Now the real question is: Who found it and why is Forrest pouring over the contents?"

In subsequent posts, many commenters agree that the photo has persuaded them of Fenn's veracity, with one taunting, "Where’s all you hoax people at?"

"I have never been one of the 'hoax people,' but without a location this cannot be considered finished," one participant replies. "This photo is just of Fenn with some treasure, nothing else."

"How do you know this photo is recent?" another asks. "How do you know that Forrest didn’t go get the treasure and take a photo of him going through it?"

An additional theory: "Maybe he did go get it or have a family member or friend get it. I’m on board with that possibility, just not that it was all a hoax from the start."

"No amount of pics are going to make the hoaxers happy and I told them as much," suggests one person. "Even if the finder had video proof of him walking up to the treasure, they can just say it was all planned out. They will always cry 'foul' no matter what."

And Linda Bilyeu? We sent her a link to the Dal Neitzel post, and corresponding via Facebook Messenger, she encapsulates her views in four words: "There is no chest."

Or at least not one that has made an unknown person rich.

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