Thousands of people have braved daunting temperatures and the treacherous and rugged terrain of northern New Mexico’s mountains in search of a $2 million treasure buried in a publicity stunt that has claimed at least one life.
Now, officials are asking adventurous tourists to rethink their pursuit of the windfall – which may not even exist.
The treasure chest – buried by author Forrest Fenn, a self-described risk-taker – is reportedly deep in the mountains and filled with gold and precious gems.
Fenn dared people to find it.
A Colorado man who took the challenge died last year searching for Fenn’s treasure. This month, the stunt may have claimed another victim, prompting authorities to ask Fenn to end the hunt.
Fenn says he’s considering it.
“That is an option, but I have not made a decision yet," Fenn told Fox News on Tuesday. “Today I have received over 200 emails urging me to not call off the hunt, and two that think I should.”
Colorado pastor Paris Wallace, 52, has been missing for more than a week and on Monday police said a body had been found near the Rio Grande River not far from where Wallace’s vehicle was. The body has yet to be identified. Wallace, of Grand Junction, Colo., told his family he wanted to find the hidden treasure.
“Whether the treasure exists or not and regardless of what Mr. Fenn's motivation was for announcing this treasure hunt,” said Lt. Elizabeth Armijo, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico State Police, “the pursuit of the treasure is not worth risking one’s life or the lives of dedicated [search-and-rescue] and law enforcement personnel.”
Wallace, who was a lead pastor, was last seen June 12 north of Santa Fe. After missing a meeting last Wednesday, police were notified. Investigators found his 2001 Chevrolet Tahoe in the small hamlet of Pilar, in Taos County. Nearby, they found what is believed to be his backpackand personal belongings on Saturday.
The next day, a man’s body was found in the Rio Grande Gorge, some 7 miles from where the vehicle was found. Police had not definitively confirmed the identity of the body, but evidence seems to suggest that it belongs to Wallace.
Fenn expressed his sorrow and regret at the possibility that Wallace died searching for his treasure. But his death would not be the first one attributed to the treasure hunt.
In January 2016, Randy Bilyeu, 54, disappeared along the Rio Grande River in northern New Mexico also in search of the elusive and miniscule bronze treasure chest that is said to measure only 10 inches by 10 inches and weighs 40 pounds. It allegedly contains 265 gold coins, gems, rubies and hundreds of gold nuggets, two of which are the size of eggs.
Bilyeu, like the more than 60,000 estimated treasure hunters who have scoured the wilds of New Mexico and even Yellowstone Park, was unsuccessful. But he paid for the venture with his life. On July 14, his remains were located outside of Santa Fe.
At the time, Bilyeu’s ex-wife expressed her anger at Fenn.
“I think that Fenn should man up and provide some concrete evidence that the chest is real,” Linda Bilyeu told Fox News then.
The New Mexico Tourism Department has even exploited the craze as a tool to attract tourists.
The New Mexico Tourism Department released a video promoting the search. Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Latham has said the excitement generated by the chance of unearthing $2 million worth of gold and gems is a “gift that keeps on giving.”
In the wake of one and likely two deaths associated with the search, Fox News reached out to the New Mexico Tourism Department for a comment. The agency said no officials were available. New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas told the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper that Fenn should call off the search and, "stop this nonsense."
The odyssey began nearly seven years ago when Fenn self-published a swashbuckling daring-do memoir called “The Thrill of the Chase.” Fenn himself is a self-described adventurer. As a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, he was shot down twice and safely rescued both times. In his self-published memoir, Fenn essentially dares readers to look for the treasure by giving them nine clues.
“There must be a few Indiana Jones types out there, like me, ready to throw a bedroll in a pickup and start searching with a reasonable chance of discovering a treasure chest containing more than 20 troy pounds of gold,” he wrote. “I knew exactly where to hide the chest so it would be difficult to find, but not impossible. It’s in the mountains somewhere north of Santa Fe.”
Fenn continued to harken the romanticism of the southwest in his sequel, “Too Far to Walk,” which may have a tinge of irony attached given recent tragedies. That book was published in 2013 and contains one clue and a rough rendition of a treasure map.
The treasure hunt has even become an obsession on social media.
Some contend the treasure hunt is a marketing ploy to encourage people to purchase Fenn’s extremely costly books.
Bilyeu’s ex-wife believes it’s all a hoax.
“There’s no treasure,” she told the Albuquerque Journal after her ex-husband’s remains were found. “It’s not real. He lost his life for a hoax.”
But Wallace’s wife of 30 years, Mitzi Wallace, believes there is a treasure and said she would continue searching for it with her 19-year-old son – including the area where police believe her husband died. She said it would be a mistake for Fenn to end the hunt.
She told the Associated Press that her husband sometimes risked his life for wild adventures.
“I know without a shadow of a doubt,” she told the AP, “that it was God's way of taking him."
Joseph J. Kolb is a regular contributor to Fox News.