An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Rocky Mountains Treasure Hunt Turns Fatal


A second person has now died in the wilds of New Mexico, apparently, while searching for an elusive treasure chest hidden by an eccentric millionaire. It's known as the Forrest Fenn treasure, a chest filled with gold nuggets and precious gems possibly worth $2 million. Tens of thousands of people have searched the Rocky Mountains for the fortune. And as NPR's John Burnett reports, more and more are risking their lives.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Whitewater rafters spotted the body floating in the Rio Grande between Espanola and Taos two weeks ago. New Mexico State Police believe it is that of 52-year-old Paris Wallace, an evangelical pastor from Colorado and an avid Fenn treasure hunter. His silver Tahoe was found parked on a rural road near a trailhead about 7 miles upstream.

He's the second outdoorsman believed to have perished in the quest for the famed Fenn treasure. In January 2016, a retired mechanic named Randy Bilyeu, also from Colorado, hiked into the rugged forest north of Santa Fe and never returned. After the second fatality, the chief of the New Mexico State Police had had enough. This is putting lives at risk, Pete Kassetas told the AP. I would implore that he stop this nonsense. He is Forest Fenn.


FORREST FENN: No one knows where that treasure chest is but me. They can go get it. But I'm not going to tell them where it is. If I die tomorrow, the knowledge of that location goes in the coffin with me.

BURNETT: That was from a story we aired on this program last year. Fenn is 86 years old, a former Santa Fe art dealer and prolific collector of Native American artifacts. On the occasion of the Colorado pastor's death, Fenn wrote this in an email to NPR. I would advise them - the searchers - to stop taking risks. The treasure is not hidden in a dangerous place. I hid it when I was about 80 years old. Some longtime Fenn treasure hunters agree with him.

DAL NEITZEL: I think folks watch a little bit too much reality TV. And they think they have to be Indiana Jones to go out and look for this thing.

BURNETT: Dal Neitzel writes a blog that is a chronicle and bulletin board for Fenn treasure seekers.

NEITZEL: What Forrest intended was to get kids off the couch and away from their video games and families out doing things together in the mountains.

BURNETT: The chest is 10-by-10 inches and weighs about 40 pounds. Fenn says he hid it in the vast and rugged Rocky Mountains somewhere between Santa Fe and the Canadian border at an elevation above 5,000 feet. Clues are found in a poem in his self-published book, "The Thrill Of The Chase."

Since Fenn hid the ornate box seven years ago, he estimates at least 100,000 people have gone looking for it. Neitzel says his blog gets 600 to 800 visits an hour. After the story I wrote about Forrest Fenn aired in March 2016, I'm still getting emails from people obsessed with locating the fortune or exposing it as a hoax.

Cynthia Meachum, a retired high-tech worker in Albuquerque, claims she's taken more than a hundred hikes in the Carson National Forest of northern New Mexico exploring for the chest. For now, the state police is not advising searchers to stop looking for the treasure - only to be more careful. Meachum says, yeah, the great outdoors can be dangerous, including the mighty Rio Grande.

CYNTHIA MEACHUM: I mean this is every year. People die in the river, and none of them are searching for Forrest Fenn's treasure. I think it's ludicrous that the police chief thinks it's fair that he can dictate what adventures we can and can't do.

BURNETT: Hoping to head off another tragedy, Fenn posted a note on Dal Neitzel's blog on Friday. His clues are hungrily read by searchers eager to find the cache of booty. The treasure chest is not underwater, nor is it near the Rio Grande, Forrest Fenn writes. It's not necessary to move large rocks or climb up or down a steep precipice. He concludes, the search is supposed to be fun. John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.