On a bright morning last summer, Jeff Murphy disappeared through the northern gates of Yellowstone National Park. The 53-year-old had traveled from the Chicago suburbs to the Montana-Wyoming border, and his planned hike up a nearby mountain trail should have taken him about half a day. But as the hours passed and no one heard from him, his wife reported him missing.
Park workers mounted a massive search operation. Eight hiking teams, four horse teams, five dog teams and a helicopter fanned out around Turkey Pen Peak, whose 7,000-foot summit overlooks the Yellowstone River. On June 9, rescuers found Murphy’s body at the bottom of a steep, rocky slope.
For months, Yellowstone officials offered little information about Murphy’s death except to say that an investigation was underway. But on Tuesday, a local news station confirmed what some have suspected all along: Murphy died — as have at least three others in recent years — in a quest for treasure that a millionaire said he buried in 2010.
Reporters from KULR said they obtained through a public-records request a private report from park investigators that showed Murphy had set out in search of a cache of gold and jewels that antiquities dealer Forrest Fenn says he hid somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
Fenn, an eccentric man in his 80s who lives in New Mexico, claims that a small Romanesque treasure chest, supposedly filled with $2 million in riches, is stashed at an elevation above 5,000 feet between Santa Fe and the Canadian border. A poem in his 2010 memoir offers clues on how to find the elusive bounty.
This treasure might not actually exist. Perhaps it’s a big joke. Still, the challenge has drawn untold thousands of people to scour the hills and mountain ranges of the American West, as The Washington Post has reported. No one has come back rich. But some have died searching.
In early 2016, Randy Bilyeu, one of Fenn’s most enthusiastic followers, ventured into the New Mexican wilds, determined to track down the prize. Days passed and no one heard from the 54-year-old. A search was launched, then called off, The Post reported. Six months later, officials pulled his remains from the Rio Grande.
Last summer, just weeks after Murphy made his fatal trip to Yellowstone, 52-year-old Paris Wallace died during a trek into the mountains of New Mexico in search of the chest. The pastor from Colorado had disappeared in a rugged tract of the Rio Grande Gorge, The Post reported. His body, too, was pulled from a riverbank.
Also that summer, 31-year-old Eric Ashby went rafting along a turbulent stretch of the Arkansas River in Colorado. Weeks later, his remains were found several miles upstream. In January, officials confirmed he was another treasure-seeker.
According to KULR, Murphy was hiking up Turkey Pen Peak when he lost his footing and tumbled 500 feet down the mountain. The report by park investigators called his death an accident, saying “it appeared he stepped or hopped into the chute from the less steep slope above.” Officials had suggested in October that his death was somehow linked to Fenn’s treasure, but declined to offer any specifics about the investigation.
Days before he died, Murphy emailed Fenn who, in turn, alerted park officials when Murphy was reported missing, according to KULR. “The man who invited people to look for his chest of gold and jewels in the Rockies was very concerned about Murphy, and also offered to help pay for a helicopter to find the missing man,” KULR wrote. “He also wrote that he had never been to the area where Murphy fell.”
In an interview with the Albuquerque Journal this week, Erica Murphy said her husband was captivated by Fenn’s treasure after reading about it in an airline magazine. She said he bought Fenn’s memoir, “The Thrill of the Chase,” from a Santa Fe bookstore a few years ago. The treasure hunt has been a “pastime” for him ever since, she told the newspaper.
“He loved anything that caused him to use his brain,” she said, “and he loved being out in nature.”
Murphy, who worked as vice president of the International Housewares Association, was survived by his wife and two young children.
Erica Murphy said she didn’t blame Fenn for her husband’s death and that he wouldn’t have either. He understood the risks, she told the Journal, and “he wouldn’t have wanted to hinder anyone” from the same adventure.
Fenn was not immediately available for comment Tuesday night, and he declined local media’s requests to discuss Murphy’s death. He previously told the Journal that the treasure is not hidden in a dangerous place.
“As with deer hunters and fishermen, there is an inherent risk that comes with hiking the canyons and mountain trails,” Fenn said. “I have said that no one should search in a place where an 80-year-old man could not hide it.”
Fenn claims his treasure chest contains 265 gold coins, ancient Chinese jade figurines, rubies, emeralds, diamonds and hundreds of gold nuggets, some as large as chicken eggs. He estimates tens of thousands of people have gone looking for it, sharing their experiences on blogs and treasure hunting forums. One of his motives in hiding it, he told an ABC affiliate in 2015, was to “get the kids off the couch and away from the game machine.”
A mysterious 24-line poem in his memoir is supposed to hint at the location. It ends with the following lines: “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.”
In light of the deaths, Fenn has faced calls to end the hunt. He has offered condolences to victims’ families and encouraged people to stay safe during their excursions. But otherwise, he has resisted.
“Life is too short to wear both a belt and suspenders,” he told the New York Times last year. “If someone drowns in the swimming pool we shouldn’t drain the pool, we should teach people to swim.”
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