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Santa Fe author’s treasure hunt claims a fourth victim

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A man who died after falling 500 feet in Yellowstone National Park last year was searching for Santa Fe author and antiquities dealer Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure.

Jeff Murphy, 53, of Batavia, Ill., is the fourth man in the past two years to die while reportedly looking for an antique chest containing gold, coins, jewelry and other rare artifacts that Fenn says he hid somewhere in the Rocky Mountain region in 2010.

Jeff Murphy

Murphy was found June 9, 2017, a day after he was reported missing. His widow confirmed to the Journal a report by a Billings, Mont., television station that Murphy died while in search of the treasure, estimated to be worth $2 million or more.

“It was his pastime,” Erica Murphy said in a phone interview Monday. “He loved anything that caused him to use his brain, and he loved being out in nature.”

Phone calls from the Journal to Yellowstone’s public affairs office and chief park ranger were not returned on Monday.

Fenn did not respond to a Journal email and hung up on a reporter after saying he was hard of hearing and couldn’t understand what was being said. KULR-TV of Billings reported that when it contacted Fenn by email about the Yellowstone death, he declined to comment.

Fenn has rejected calls to end the treasure hunt after prior fatalities among people looking for the hidden loot. State Police Chief Pete Kassetas is among those who have called for Fenn to stop the hunt because of the fatalities.

Forrest Fenn

“As with deer hunters and fishermen, there is an inherent risk that comes with hiking the canyons and mountain trails,” Fenn has said. “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.”

Erica Murphy said Monday she didn’t blame Fenn for her husband’s death and that Jeff wouldn’t have either. She said her husband knew the risks of the treasure hunt and that “he wouldn’t have wanted to hinder anyone” from embarking on the same quest.

The Montana TV station said it recently obtained an investigative report from Yellowstone through a Freedom of Information Act request. The report concludes that Murphy died as a result of an accident while he was on the Rescue Creek Trail near Turkey Pen Peak.

“It appeared he stepped or hopped into the chute from the less steep slope above,” the incident report says, according to the TV station.

The station also reported, and his widow confirmed to the Journal, that Murphy had communicated with Fenn through email in the days before he went missing. KULR’s report, citing the National Park Service documents it obtained, also says that Fenn was in contact with Yellowstone officials during the search for Murphy and had offered to help pay for a helicopter to assist in the search.

Fenn told the Park Service he’d never been to the area where Murphy fell, according to KULR.

Erica Murphy said her husband, who was vice president of the International Housewares Association, first learned of the treasure from an article in an airline magazine.

She said he bought Fenn’s “The Thrill of the Chase” memoir, which contains a poem that Fenn says contains clues about the treasure’s whereabouts, in a Santa Fe bookstore when they were on vacation about five years ago.

The poem advises, “Begin it (the hunt) where warm waters halt,” which some Fenn enthusiasts interpret to be Madison Junction within the boundaries of Yellowstone and south of Mammoth Hot Springs, where the Firehole and Gibbon rivers come together to form the Madison River.

Last June, the body of Paris Wallace, a 52-year-old pastor from Grand Junction, Colo., was found several miles downstream from where his car was parked at the Taos Junction Bridge over the Rio Grande near Pilar.

About a month later, 31-year-old Eric Ashby died after his raft capsized while traveling through the Royal Gorge on the Arkansas River. A friend said Ashby had moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., specifically to search for the treasure, and his sister has confirmed that he was “intrigued” by the search. But Fenn denied assertions that he had been in contact with Ashby.

In 2016, 54-year-old Randy Bilyeu of Broomfield, Colo., went missing while searching for the treasure on the Rio Grande near Santa Fe. His body was found months later nine miles downstream near Cochiti Lake. Fenn chartered a helicopter to help with the search after Bilyeu disappeared.