Forrest Fenn’s promised secret bronze treasure chest — filled with $2 million in gold and jewels — has been luring wide-eyed adventure seekers to the Rocky Mountains since 2010, when the millionaire antiquities dealer penned a mysterious, clue-filled poem he claimed would lead its witty decoder to the elusive riches.
The goal, Fenn has said, was to get people off the couch and into the wilderness, and tens of thousands have followed suit, writing the man with tales of their harrowing attempts and regretful failures.
Then last summer, the challenge Fenn hoped would grant him immortality claimed the life of one of his most enthusiastic followers, a 54-year-old grandfather who ventured into the New Mexican terrain and was found dead six months later in the Rio Grande.
Now, authorities say, Fenn’s treasure hunt seems to have turned deadly again.
On Sunday, officials recovered the body of a man believed to be Paris Wallace, a pastor who went missing last week after his family said he had come to a rugged, mountainous area of New Mexico searching for Fenn’s bronze chest, reported the Daily Sentinel.
New Mexico State Police Lt. Elizabeth Armijo told the newspaper that authorities found the body seven miles downstream from the area where Wallace was believed to have been before he disappeared. His backpack was nearby.
“We are still awaiting positive identification on the identity,” Armijo told the Daily Sentinel in an email. “However, we believe, and all evidence thus far indicates, the deceased is Paris Wallace.”
Wallace, the lead pastor at Connection Church in Grand Junction, Colo., was last heard from a week ago, reported the Daily Sentinel. His wife reported him missing after he missed a meeting last Wednesday, and his belongings were later found at a hotel in Espanola, N.M.
Using GPS technology through his cellphone, authorities located the Chevrolet Tahoe Wallace near a bridge that crosses the Rio Grande about 50 miles north of Santa Fe, reported the Daily Sentinel.
Inside the vehicle, Armijo said that officials found a receipt from a local store for rope and other equipment. Near the Rio Pueblo de Taos — a tributary of the Rio Grande — search and rescuers discovered a rock on the riverbank with a rope lashed around it, reported the Daily Sentinel. The rope led across the water.
“Please continue to pray for the Wallace family and praise and thank our Lord for the blessings He provided us through our time with Paris,” said a message posted to the church’s Facebook page.
News of the second death in a year tied to Fenn’s famed treasure hunt reignited old calls for him to shut the search down.
“My heart and my prayers go out to his family and his church,” Fenn said in a statement to “CBS This Morning” on Sunday. “It is such a tragedy.”
In a post on mysteriouswritings.com last week, Fenn warned apprehensive hunters of the dangers.
“Please don’t ever overextend yourself,” Fenn wrote. “I was 80 or about when I hid the treasure and it was not a difficult task. I will soon be 87 and I could go back and get it if I were so inclined, I think.”
It has been nearly a year since the body of Randy Bilyeu, the 54-year-old grandfather, was finally recovered from the Rio Grande. Bilyeu, also from Colorado, had traveled to New Mexico with his dog, Leo, a raft, a wet suit, a GPS and maps of the area, as The Washington Post reported.
Bilyeu’s ex-wife filed a missing person’s report in mid-January 2016, about 10 days after he set off on his adventure. The next day, the man’s raft and his dog, which was alive, were found. Search crews, including fellow treasure hunters and Fenn, looked for Bilyeu for weeks.
His body wasn’t recovered until the following July.
At the time, the man’s ex-wife, Linda Bilyeu, had harsh words for Fenn.
“There’s no treasure — it’s not real. He lost his life for a hoax,” she told the Albuquerque Journal last summer. “We’re disappointed that he lost his life because of a treasure hunt.”
News of another death sparked another wave of criticism from Bilyeu.
“Another family is left to grieve and carry on without their loved ones,” Bilyeu told the Associated Press in an email. “Only one man has the power to stop the madness. Yet, he continues to pretend he’s doing a good deed by getting people off the couch and into nature.”
The 24-line poem that has inspired treasure hunters for seven years now was published in Fenn’s memoir, “The Thrill of the Chase.” He often offers adventurers additional clues in his writings.
This is the full poem:
As I have gone alone in there
And with my treasures bold,
I can keep my secret where,
And hint of riches new and old.
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.
From there it’s no place for the meek,
The end is ever drawing nigh;
There’ll be no paddle up your creek,
Just heavy loads and water high.
If you’ve been wise and found the blaze,
Look quickly down, your quest to cease,
But tarry scant with marvel gaze,
Just take the chest and go in peace.
So why is it that I must go
And leave my trove for all to seek?
The answers I already know,
I’ve done it tired, and now I’m weak.
So hear me all and listen good,
Your effort will be worth the cold.
If you are brave and in the wood
I give you title to the gold.
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