Treasure hunt may have claimed 2nd life, state police chief calls it ‘stupid’

Forrest Fenn (AP photo)
State Police Chief Pete Kassetas

SANTA FE — It appears that a second Colorado man has lost his life looking for Forrest Fenn’s treasure in New Mexico near the Rio Grande, spurring New Mexico’s State Police Chief Pete Kassetas to call the treasure hunt “stupid” and implore Fenn to finally call it off.

“I think it’s stupid,” Kassetas told the Journal on Monday. “If there is indeed a treasure out there, he should pull it. He has the moral obligation at this point to stop this insanity. He’s putting lives at risk.”

Fenn, a Santa Fe author and antiquities collector/dealer, published a poem in an autobiographical book in 2010 said to include clues on where to find the treasure. Interest in the treasure exploded when Fenn appeared on NBC’s “The Today Show” in 2013. The poem includes reference to “warm waters,” a creek and “water high.”

State Police Lt. Elizabeth Armijo said 52-year-old Paris Wallace of Grand Junction, Colo., last had contact with his family June 13 and was reported missing the next day. Wallace’s wife told officers that he went to New Mexico to look for Fenn’s treasure — a chest with over $1 million worth of gold coins, jewels and artifacts that Fenn says he hid somewhere in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe.

Paris Wallace, from his Facebook page.

Wallace’s car was found Thursday around 2:30 p.m. near the Taos Junction Bridge on N.M. 570 near Pilar, Armijo said. Sunday, State Police recovered a body in the Rio Grande about seven miles downstream. Authorities were still trying to positively identify the body Monday. But Armijo said “all evidence thus far indicates the deceased is Paris Wallace.”

Randy Bilyeu

In January 2016, another Colorado man, 54-year-old Randy Bilyeu of Broomfield, disappeared while searching for the treasure along the Rio Grande west of Santa Fe. His raft was found soon after, but the body wasn’t recovered until about six months later, in the river just north of Cochiti Lake.

State search and rescue crews, made up of about 1,000 volunteers, were involved in the searches in both cases. Kassetas voiced frustration Monday with having to take volunteers away from their day jobs to look for people who’ve gone on a treasure hunt that he said Fenn should put an end to. “Every time this happens, we send people out into the wilderness, taking valuable time and effort to find these individuals,” the chief said. “Those resources are better used elsewhere.” Kassetas said he plans on contacting Fenn personally to ask him to call off the hunt.

Fenn on Monday declined to answer emailed questions from the Journal about whether he should call off the treasure hunt, how many people should die or be injured before he calls it off or whether he plans on releasing more clues on the treasure’s whereabouts. “I don’t care to answer your questions, sir,” Fenn wrote.

Last year, he told the Journal, “As with deer hunters and fishermen, there is an inherent risk that comes with hiking the canyons and mountain trails. The treasure is not hidden in a dangerous spot, and I have said that no one should search in a place where an 80-year-old man could not hide it.”

Fenn did tell Westword, a Denver weekly, on Monday that his “heart is heavy” with the news of Wallace’s death. “I pray for his family, his friends and his congregation,” he said. He added, “Yes, there is always some risk in whatever you do, but millions of people successfully hike in the mountains each year.”

Sacha Johnston, a Fenn treasure enthusiast from Albuquerque who helped coordinate a volunteer search for Bilyeu last year, said Monday that Fenn should “absolutely not” call off the hunt. “People die driving to work everyday,” she said. “Should people stop driving? I think it’s a matter of care and proper planning. You should never go anywhere hiking alone. My deepest condolences to (Wallace’s) family. I hope they’re able to find peace.”

Linda Bilyeu, Randy Bilyeu’s ex-wife, has said that she believes the treasure is a hoax and reiterated Monday that the hunt should end. “I’ll be critical until this madness ends,” Bilyeu said. “Another family is left behind to grieve. This treasure hunt will forever haunt my daughters and grandchildren.”

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