Eric Ashby, 31, moved to Colorado four months ago specifically to search for the treasure, according to Dave Gambrell, who says he became a friend and mentor to Ashby shortly after his arrival.
Two other Colorado men have previously died, both along the Rio Grande in New Mexico, since 2016 looking for the antique chest that Fenn says contains gold coins and other precious items.
Fenn says the treasure is hidden somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. He set off a national sensation by publishing a book in 2010 with a poem said to include clues to the chest’s whereabouts.
According to a Fremont County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page, human remains were found Friday afternoon in the Arkansas River east of Florence, but they have not been identified. Office spokeswoman Megan Richards did not respond to calls for comment.
A news release about the office’s search and rescue mission shared Thursday stated that Ashby was rafting in the Royal Gorge June 28 – accounts differ over whether it was with three or four others – when the raft flipped.
While the others made it to safety, Ashby did not.
But nobody with Ashby reported the emergency. A bystander who witnessed the incident called police.
Gambrell said a small search at that time reached a dead end.
Ashby’s family called police July 8 to report him missing. Ashby’s sister did not respond to a Facebook message from the Journal as of press time.
Gambrell says the people in the raft with Ashby “let him drown” because they did not call for help, and it is still unclear why they did not.
“Even the one eyewitness is still scratching his head,” said Gambrell, who is independently investigating the incident along with six to seven other friends. He said he doesn’t believe the police are doing an adequate job.
Gambrell has created a Facebook page, “Find Eric Ashby,” that now has more than 500 members.
Ashby, who Gambrell described as a “happy go lucky” and “adventurous” treasure hunter, was aware of the deaths of Fenn treasure hunters Paris Wallace and Randy Bilyeu.
“Eric thought he was very close to the treasure,” Gambrell said, saying the treasure was his “heart.”
Gambrell maintains that Fenn and Ashby were in recent communication via email. Fenn, however, said in an email Friday that he has no record of conversations with the 31-year-old.
New Mexico’s State Police Chief Pete Kassetas told the Journal in June that Fenn’s treasure hunt was “stupid” and needed to be called off.
But Fenn has remained adamant that he will not call off the hunt and that the treasure said to be worth millions is real. He said after Wallace’s death south of Taos earlier this summer that he would try to outline safety precautions for searchers.
In the Friday email, Fenn told the Journal that he always stresses safety for anyone who goes into the mountains.
Though he didn’t respond directly to a question about whether he will now call off the treasure hunt, he said this of the hiding spot: “It is not in a dangerous place, and I did nothing that I thought was risky” when he placed it.
Gambrell said Fenn needs to take ownership for the lost lives, adding that he is in contact with family members of Wallace and Bilyeu, the other treasure hunters who have died, to begin a campaign against the author.
“There is no treasure in this world that is worth a human life,” said Gambrell.