• Tue. Sep 28th, 2021

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One chest of gold, five deaths: The search for Forrest Fenn’s treasure – CBS News

In 2010, eccentric millionaire Forrest Fenn launched a treasure hunt when he announced that he had hidden a chest worth an estimated $1 million in the Rocky Mountains. Tens of thousands of people set out to search for the treasure — some of them obsessively.

Sacha Dent was captivated by Fenn’s challenge. “I really think the greatest thing that drove me was wanting to match wits with the man himself,” she says of Fenn, who laid out his treasure hunt challenge in a 24-line poem.

The Fenn treasure
“I bought this beautiful little treasure chest … And I started filling it up with wonderful things. There’s 265 gold coins … hundreds and hundreds of gold nuggets,” Forrest Fenn said of the fortune worth at least $1 million. Forrest Fenn

“CBS This Morning” co-host Tony Dokoupil wrote an article about Fenn’s treasure in 2012 for Newsweek magazine. That article is widely credited with introducing Fenn’s modern-day treasure hunt to a national audience.

“I think a lot of people really wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves … maybe there was something missing in their lives,” journalist Dan Barbarisi tells Dokoupil. “And for others it was that they felt that people hadn’t believed in them to the extent that they should have.”

To some, Fenn was a hero, providing a way to instant wealth and adventure in the great outdoors through the treasure hunt. To others, he was reckless and cost lives. Five people ultimately lost their lives in the process.

“He didn’t like the idea that anyone would tell him to bring his hunt to an end because of a few deaths,” Barbarisi says of Fenn. “He said that if somebody was murdered because of the hunt that would probably be too much.”

A MODERN-DAY TREASURE HUNT

High atop a ridge near Dinosaur National Monument, 53-year-old Mike Sexson froze to death.

The last known photo of him was taken in March 2020 as he hiked in that remote area. Days later, Mike’s body was air lifted off the mountaintop.

Mike Sexson
In March 2020, Mike Sexson went searching for Fenn’s treasure near Dinosaur National Monument. He had searched the area nearly a dozen times before and wanted to go out one more time before the COVID-19 lockdown.  Steve Inlow

Mike became the fifth person to die while searching for Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure.

Liz Key: Mike was full of life. Mike was an adventurer and always smiling, always laughing, big deep chuckle.

Friend Liz Key struggles to reconcile Mike’s love of adventure with his terrible loss.

Liz Key: I’m glad that he took this adventure … I’m very sad that he’s gone.

Beth Van Oss: I miss Mike every day … I miss his hugs when I’m stressed. I miss his support … I miss his voice, his laughter.

Beth Van Oss today is forced to cope without her longtime boyfriend. Mike had been her rock after she suffered a brain injury.

Beth Van Oss: He was more than just my partner. He was in some ways my caretaker …

After Mike’s death, Liz felt compelled to send Forrest Fenn an anguished email.

Liz Key: “How many people have to die before your game is done?” I did receive an email back and he just gave his condolences to Beth.

Dan Barbarisi: Forrest Fenn was … a very complicated person.

Dan Barbarisi explores Fenn’s complexities in his new book: “Chasing the Thrill: Obsession, Death and Glory in America’s Most Extraordinary Treasure Hunt.”

Dan Barbarisi: … He believed in stories that were bigger than … just your run-of-the-mill, standard tales … And he dreamed big. He believed in big things.

And Fenn had lived a big life, beginning with his days in the Air Force when he was shot down twice in Vietnam, and, later, as the owner of a well-known Southwestern art gallery.

Tony Dokoupil: How did a retired fighter pilot … reinvent himself in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with not just an art gallery, but one of the most famous art galleries in America?

Dan Barbarisi: I think he would tell you … It’s about the show you can put on.

Forrest Fenn
In 2010, 80-year-old millionaire art dealer Forrest Fenn hid a treasure chest somewhere north of Santa Fe and south of Canada in the Rocky Mountains.  Gabriela Campos/eyevine/Redux

And there’s no question that Fenn put on a good show. His gallery attracted celebrities like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Steve Martin, and Ralph Lauren. But there were recurring whispers that Fenn may have built his impressive collection by plundering ancient Native American pueblos.

Dan Barbarisi: … there were certainly some questions about how he came … in possession of some of those artifacts over time …

In 2009, long after Fenn had sold his gallery, his home was raided by federal agents from the Bureau of Land Management.

Dan Barbarisi: And it ultimately turned out that Fenn was not charged with anything in that case.

The next year, Fenn self-published his memoir, “The Thrill of the Chase.” To get families into the great outdoors, Fenn put a little incentive inside his book — a distinctive 24-line poem. He claimed it contained clues that would lead one clever person to the 10-by-10-inch chest of gold he’d hidden somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.

Forrest Fenn [2015]: If you can follow … the clues in the poem to the treasure chest … you’re gonna be amazed at what you find.

Art collector Forrest Fenn, now 84, loves adv… 00:56

Fenn launched a modern-day treasure hunt. But it was slow going at first.

Dan Barbarisi: It felt like a small little treasure hunt for a few people who knew about it.

Tony Dokoupil: When did that change? And why?

Daniel Barbarisi: Well it got noticed by the larger media. … there were a few big pieces … one in Hemispheres magazine, one in Newsweek—

Tony Dokoupil: I think the name of that reporter was the same as my name [laughs].

Daniel Barbarisi: Whatever it was, it was a very hard name to pronounce. But I’m pretty sure it was Tony. That much, I’ve got [laughs].

Daniel Barbarisi: … it really started to raise the profile of it in a significant way.

It wasn’t long before tens of thousands of people were on the hunt. In 2015, months before any of the searchers died, Fenn spoke to CBS News about the likelihood of anyone finding his treasure.

Forrest Fenn [2015]: … it isn’t impossible. But like I said … you’re not gonna stumble over it … you have to deliberately go to it.

Fenn said the spot he chose was so beautiful, he could imagine it as his final resting place.

Daniel Barbarisi: An original version of the poem actually talked about his bones being there — next to the treasure chest itself.

Fenn dropped that idea. The searchers had their own reasons for going on the hunt and it became clear that many were seeking more than a box of gold.

Dan Barbarisi: I think a lotta people really wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves … maybe … there was something missing in their lives … And for others it was that they felt that people hadn’t believed in them to the extent that they should’ve …

Searchers shared their passion and began to compare so called “solves” — their interpretation of the clues in the poem. It was all online until some got the idea to meet in real life.

Dan Barbarisi: And so — of that was born Fennboree … it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a Forrest Fenn jamboree.

Each summer, Fenn’s fans flocked to Santa Fe where Forrest Fenn was their star attraction.

Dan Barbarisi: … I think I described it as — as meeting a Beatle, you know? It was that kinda thing … everybody just lined up literally to get their — their brief moment with Forrest Fenn.

Sacha Dent:  People use the word “eccentric,” but I don’t think that’s the right word for him. … he was just his own man.

Dacha Dent
Sacha Dent estimates she spent more than 10,000 hours doing research online and went out on more than 300 trips to find the treasure, often alone. She carried a pink pistol for protection.  Sacha Dent

Sacha Dent was living in Albuquerque when she took up the chase.

Sacha Dent: I probably searched for Forrest Fenn’s treasure about 300 times.

She became an insider.

Sacha Dent: Forrest was such — a major part of my life.

And Sacha saw firsthand the good that came from Fenn’s game.

Sacha Dent: … there was — account after account of families who were brought together because of Forrest Fenn’s treasure hunt … There were relationships built on the treasure hunt and marriages.

And that includes her own marriage.

Another of Fenn’s favorites was Katya Luce, a singer/songwriter who knew Fenn in the 1990s before he wrote his memoir. When she later came across Fenn’s book, gold fever struck that very night.

Katya Luce: I couldn’t sleep. All night long, I’m either Google Earthing, Googling … reading the book again. Underlining, highlighting …

Katya Luce
Katya Luce sold everything she owned and moved to New Mexico to be closer to the search area. She estimates she spent $75,000 over seven years trying to find Forrest Fenn’s gold. Bill Curry

She estimates she spent $75,000 over seven years of searching.  It was a great time, she says, even during some dangerous moments.

Katya Luce: I had a … very close encounter while I was searching for the treasure with … a cougar … And I just froze. But then I lifted up my hoodie really tall and made myself bigger.

Katya Luce: I went — marching really strong and did, like, a pseudo chant really loud [loudly chants] … “Hey, oh, yeah, yeah, hey, hey, hey” [laughs].

Katya came away unscathed, but others were not so lucky.

Dan Barbarisi: … this is not some … Disneyfied hunt where, at the end of it … everything turns out OK. The reality is, if you don’t take this thing seriously, it will get you.

A GAME WITH DEADLY RISKS

For five years no one could find the location of Fenn’s treasure, but the searchers had become a tight community. 

Katya Luce: We were like a support group for each other.

Dan Barbarisi: You’re among people who get that it’s not just about the money. It’s about … being the one who cracked the code.

Katya Luce: I have looked, and I have looked, and I have looked.

Dan Barbarisi: And the other people, they get it.

Toby Younis: You would talk about your solve, as they called it, but you never gave the exact location.

TOBY YOUNIS | YOUTUBE SHOW: I told you we’re not going to be in Yellowstone. The distances didn’t work out really well.

Toby Younis hosted a popular YouTube show about the hunt.

Toby Younis: Everybody believed they were going to find the treasure. … There was no acceptance of the idea that someone else would find the treasure.

And divorced grandfather Randy Bilyeu was convinced he had as good a chance as anyone.

Katya Luce: I met Randy a couple times at some of the Fenn gatherings.

Kathy Leibold: Randy was always my protector.

Randy grew up on Long Island, New York, and his sister Kathy Leibold remembers he loved sports and animals. Randy learned of Fenn’s treasure in 2013 and started searching the next year. 

Kathy Leibold:  I think he was excited about the adventure of the hunt … And he thought if he found the treasure, that he would use the money … to help his family.

And if you knew Randy, you knew Leo, his long-haired Jack Russell.

Kathy Leibold: Leo was his best buddy, and he took him everywhere.

Randy Bilyeu
In January 2016, Randy Bilyeu and his dog Leo set off to search for the treasure in the Rio Grande northwest of Santa Fe. Bilyeu was gone for 10 days before he was reported missing. Randy Bilyeu/Facebook

Randy and Leo moved to Colorado to be closer to the search area, and at the beginning, Kathy says he was good about letting his family know when he was going out on the trail. But later, that changed.

Kathy Leibold: I think he thought he was getting really, really close to it and um, he just wanted to, you know, excite us all with the news that he had found it.

On January 5, 2016, Randy and Leo headed out to the Rio Grande northwest of Santa Fe with a small raft. Temperatures hovered around freezing. He was gone for 10 days before he was reported missing.

Kathy Leibold: I had a sinking feeling that something was really very wrong.

Flight nurse Erin Johnson was part of a medical helicopter crew sent out to look for Randy. On the initial search, they found nothing and headed back upriver.  

Erin Johnson: And that’s actually when we … found his raft.

They landed on a sandy bank of the river and were in for a surprise.   

Erin Johnson: There was a small dog that was there and barking at us.

Erin Johnson: He had a sweater on, which was pretty dirty … But I’m quite certain that that sweater saved his life.

Erin Johnson: There were three of us on the ground the whole time. … aside from the raft and his dog, we could find … really nothing else. No backpack, nothing.

Erin Johnson and Leo
Medical nurse Erin Johnson finally coaxes Leo towards her thanks to a treat supplied by helicopter pilot  Satoshi Mori. Satoshi Mori

Leo seemed frightened but Erin eventually coaxed him to eat a Clif bar the pilot had on board.

Erin Johnson: And at the point where we had to leave, I had a big, thick — jacket. And I just threw it over him and scooped him up and brought him on the helicopter.

Kathy saw the heartbreaking news on TV: only Leo had been rescued.

Kathy Leibold: It was probably one of the worst days of my life [crying].

Sacha Dent: The treasure hunting community got word of this and … many of these people wanted to help.

Determined to find Randy’s body, drone pilots shot hours of footage that was posted online so the treasure hunt community could go through it frame-by-frame looking for signs of Randy. Other searchers put boots on the ground.

Katya Luce: it was rugged. I mean, it was harder than any treasure searching any of us had done. It was rough.  

Sacha Dent: We searched very, very hard every day for over a month. … Forrest Fenn rode in a helicopter … to look for Randy.

Fenn also met with Kathy when she came to Santa Fe. Fenn was sympathetic but she says he told her he wasn’t willing to call off the treasure hunt.

Dan Barbarisi: I think a lotta people could argue that his priorities are perhaps not what they should be. That instead of the people or the human cost he cared a lot more potentially about his treasure hunt.

The treasure hunt was everything to Fenn even though it put his family at risk.

Sacha Dent: Forrest was harassed over the years … his family was harassed. There’s a man who’s done prison … for stalking Forrest’s granddaughter.

And Robert Miller was arrested for burglary in 2018 at Fenn’s Santa Fe home:

OFFICER [bodycam video]: So, what the hell is going on?

ROBERT MILLER: I thought the poem directed me into here, I thought it said —

OFFICER: Poem?

ROBERT MILLER: Yeah, the treasure map, the treasure hunt, you know?

OFFICER: So, you came onto the property because of a poem? Are you serious?

ROBERT MILLER: Yeah.

Tony Dokoupil: What did his family think about all this?

Dan Barbarisi: I think his family had a hard time with it, honestly.

ROBERT MILLER [bodycam video]: Isn’t there a treasure?

ZOE OLD | FORREST FENN’S DAUGHTER: I’m sorry?

ROBERT MILLER: Isn’t there a treasure?

Dan Barbarisi: At the same time … This is what Forrest Fenn did, and they were kind of along for the ride there.

OFFICER [bodycam video]: Did you break the lock?

ZOE OLD: No, the glass.

ROBERT MILLER: I broke the door.

Sacha Dent: Even with all of that, Forrest saw how much good his treasure hunt did for how many people. And he knows that the good far outweighed the bad.

The search for the treasure continued, as did the search for Randy. Six months after he went missing, his body was found on the riverbank.

Kathy Leibold: Obviously, we were devastated that he wasn’t alive. … He was a great father, grandfather and uncle to my son.

Erin Johnson and Leo
After his rescue,  Leo eventually found a new home with Erin Johnson. CBS News

With Randy gone, Leo was adopted by none other than Erin Johnson, the nurse who rescued him. In the five years with his new family, the ultimate rescue dog has even learned some new tricks. Kathy is happy he’s found a new home but thinks about her brother every day.

Kathy Leibold: I wish he’d been more careful. I wish he hadn’t gone out that day, but, you know, he was enjoying what he was doing.

Randy was the not the last to die searching for Fenn’s gold. The next year, the hunt claimed three more lives.

Paul Ashby: He had become obsessed by Fenn’s treasure, and that was the only thing that mattered to him. 

“THIS WAS A TRUE ADVENTURE”

In June 2017, a year-and-a-half after Randy Bilyeu died, three more men lost their lives in a matter of weeks. Jeff Murphy was searching in Yellowstone National Park.

Sacha Dent: Very tragically, just misstepped and ended up falling off of a cliff and passing away.

Jeff Murphy
In June 2017, Jeff Murphy was searching in Yellowstone National Park when he slipped and fell off a cliff. National Park Service

Around the same time, writer Dan Barbarisi went on his first search with his treasure hunting partner, Jay Raynor.

Tony Dokoupil: What was it like going from four months of research on a computer to being out there in the wilderness?

Jay Raynor: So, I think … the first thing that stood out to me … was how much bigger … a point on a map is in real life. Like, you know, you look on a map, you look on Google Earth and you go, “Oh this isn’t that big … I can cross this area with just my finger alone.”

Dan Barbarisi: Once you’re actually out in the wild, you see how big those distances are and how much land there actually is out there pretty quickly. … it really hits you in the face pretty fast.

Dan Barbarisi
Dan Barbarisi, who wrote a book about the hunt, seen in search of the estimated $1 million fortune. Jay Raynor

Reality wasn’t the only thing hitting Dan and Jay in the face.

Dan Barbarisi: We’re out there thinking that we’re, you know, adventurers and explorers … And all of a sudden it starts hailing … and we very quickly realize that we had absolutely no idea what we were doing.

Days later, in that same exact area, a Colorado pastor named Paris Wallace set off to search the Rio Grande near the Taos Junction Bridge.

PASTOR PARIS WALLACE’S FINAL SERMON: As you move through life, there are those points where you have to seek God to find out what he wants you to do.

Katya Luce: And he crossed the river by himself. And it was high waters then.

fenn-09.jpg
A week after Jeff Murphy’s death, Colorado pastor Paris Wallace attempted to cross the Rio Grande near the Taos Junction Bridge and drowned.  Paris Wallace/Facebook

Paris’ body was recovered four days later, a few miles downriver. His death spurred the New Mexico State Police chief to ask Forrest Fenn to call off the hunt. Fenn refused.

Dan Barbarisi: There was a huge amount of anger at Fenn over this. … And you can understand why. I mean, this is a treasure hunt. It doesn’t need to exist, and yet he wouldn’t stop it even after multiple people had died. That’s a pretty hard stance to take.

Fenn justified continuing the hunt by pointing out that any outdoor activity came with risks.

Forrest Fenn [2016]: In the summertime, we jump in a swimming pool. But if someone drowns in a swimming pool, should we drain the pool, or should we teach people to swim? That’s the way I feel about it.

And the treasure community rallied around Fenn in support of the hunt.

Sacha Dent: 99.9% of people who go out looking for his treasure make it home safely with tons of memories and new experiences to treasure.

And Fenn did keep warning searchers to be safe. 

Katya Luce: Be more careful. Be more mindful.

Sacha Dent: He constantly reminded everyone to not go anywhere a 79- or 80-year-old man couldn’t go.

Many searchers, Dan says, set off on the treasure trail with great excitement but sometimes were unprepared for how wild the wilderness can be.

Dan Barbarisi: … it can get you in multiple ways. It can get you emotionally. It can get you physically and, you know, mortally … I think that is actually part of what drew so many people in is the reality that this thing was real. … this treasure chest was real. The fortune was real that was there to be had. But the danger was real, too … this was a true adventure.

Searchers, like Eric Ashby, understood the risks, and were willing to take them.

Paul Ashby: Fear was not part of his game. He didn’t know how to be afraid.

Eric Ashby
Eric Ashby moved from Tennessee to Colorado to search for Fenn’s treasure.  Eric Ashby/Facebook

Paul Ashby raised his son Eric as a single father in the mountains of Tennessee. Eric grew up playing sports, riding motorcycles and was taken by the quest at the center of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Paul Ashby: Eric was a great kid. Everybody who knew him loved him.

In 2016, Eric moved to Colorado. He told his Dad he was headed west to take part in his own quest — Fenn’s “Thrill of the Chase.”

Paul Ashby: He became obsessed. “Dad, I can do this.”

Tony Dokoupil: Was he motivated by the money the treasure represented or by the recognition of solving it when no one else could –

Paul Ashby: Oh, sincerely the recognition. The money, to him, was totally irrelevant.

Eric told his father he was going out to search the Arkansas River outside Cañon City, Colorado. More than a week later, Paul got a phone call from a woman who said her name was Becca.

Paul Ashby: she told me on the phone, “Mr. Ashby, your son has drowned” … She says, “I’m sorry, Mr. Ashby, your son is dead,” and she hung up.

Becca turned out to be Rebecca Nies, who had worked with Eric. She and three men were with Eric at the river. They had drawn up a contract outlining exactly how they’d split the treasure. She later told police what happened that day:

BECCA NIES [police interview]: He said he’d swam the river 10 times before … We figured he’d be fine.

Becca said they’d bought a two-person raft, but Eric got in alone and had no life preserver.

BECCA NIES [police interview]: He just jumped out …  It looked like he made it to the rock, but then we didn’t see him anymore and that was right where the rapids would have taken him.

Becca told police two of the men went downriver to look for Eric, where they saw a photographer who told them he’d called 911. The photographer also captured this photo of Eric’s empty raft.

Eric Ashby's raft
Eric Ashby drowned in the Arkansas River outside Cañon City, Colorado. A photographer captured this photo of his empty raft.  Fremont County Sheriff’s Office

Hearing someone had called police, Becca and the others went back to their car and went home – a decision Becca tried to explain:

OFFICER: I want to know why no one stayed there to tell us this information.

BECCA NIES: We were scared. … It’s easy in hindsight to see what we should have done but in the moment. We’d never been involved with anything like that.

Paul Ashby: Eric stepped in a situation that was impossible. Nobody coulda done it. The thing that makes it worse is that nobody stopped him. … it was just a case of, “Oh well.” Eric was worth so much more to me than, “Oh well.” [crying]

After Eric’s body was recovered, Paul traveled to the river to see where his son had died.

Paul Ashby: I took the excursion train that comes down the gorge … And one of the company managers was on the train … he went into … the lounge car and come back with a beer. He says, “This is for you and your son.” And we shared our last beer right there.

Paul says he never heard from Forrest Fenn.

Tony Dokoupil: If you had been able to reach Forrest Fenn … what would you say to him?

Paul Ashby: I’d say, “Mr. Fenn … Is this something one day you’re gonna have to go to whoever our maker is and say, ‘Yes, these people were drowning or dying,’ falling off cliffs, whatever, ‘And I coulda stopped it, and I chose not to.'”

Dan Barbarisi: I was honestly surprised that it didn’t end in that summer of 2017.

But the hunt did not end. And in March 2020, a fifth man died.

THE SURVIVOR

Beth Van Oss: Mike was the kind of guy that walked into a room smiling and made everybody feel better just by coming around

Beth Van Oss says her longtime boyfriend Mike Sexson knew about Randy, Jeff, Paris and Eric, the others who had died while searching for Fenn’s treasure.

Beth Van Oss: I think Mike knew of the danger. … he just maybe ignored a little bit of it or thought he could get around it.

It had been nearly three years since any searchers had died.

Dan Barbarisi: I think people thought that maybe they had gotten past that point. Where … people aren’t gonna die anymore— looking for this.

Mike Sexson
One of the challenge’s many adventurers, Mike Sexson and his friend Steven Inlow got stuck in a snowstorm with little food and water while thinking they were close to finding the treasure. GoFundMe

Mike was convinced he knew where the treasure was – along the Colorado-Utah border in Dinosaur National Monument. He made nearly a dozen trips there, but he needed someone with a 4-wheel drive truck to help. That’s how his poker buddy, Steven Inlow got involved with the hunt.

Steven Inlow: I was very excited to be with Mike on these trips. … I just enjoyed traveling with him.

This is the first time Steven has spoken publicly about their ordeal that began in late February 2020. The men rented snowmobiles in Denver and set off for Mike’s spot.

Steven Inlow: The snowmobiles proved to be too heavy for the depth of snow that we had.

Mike and Steven got stuck but managed to call 911:

911 OPERATOR: Is anybody injured?

STEVEN INLOW: No. No, we’re not injured. Just stuck.

911 OPERATOR: It looks like I’ve got a pretty good location on you. I’m going to get you some help headed your way, OK?

They were rescued, but the close call didn’t deter the pair from going back out just weeks later, on March 17, 2020, days into the COVID pandemic.

Beth Van Oss: Mike was adamant that he wanted to make another trip before the quarantine started.

Mike and Steven drove to Salt Lake City, where they rented snowmobiles they thought would be better on the terrain. On the second day out in the wilderness they left their truck 5 miles from the main road and headed off for a day trip on the snowmobiles.

Steven Inlow: We left a lot of our provisions back at the truck thinking we were just going to be gone three or four hours. … we take off on the snowmobiles and we’re on the south side of the mountain this time. And we ran out of snow. It became dry.

They left even more supplies on the snowmobiles and set off on foot with a sled to carry home the treasure, which Mike believed was close.

Steven Inlow: We had some … candy bars, a couple of energy bars and maybe a gallon-and-a-half of water between the two of us. …  It didn’t look that far away … but it proved to be ridge over ridge over ridge that took a lot longer than I thought it was going to take.

Beth Van Oss: By 6:00 on Wednesday, I was kind of nervous I hadn’t heard from him.

When the men hadn’t returned the snowmobiles Wednesday night, the rental company called the police, who called Beth and Steven’s wife.

Beth Van Oss: Not knowing was just the worst. Just the most awful thing.

Mike tried to hike to higher ground to get a cell signal, but hours later he returned unsuccessful. At that point, both men were so exhausted. All they could do was lay where they were. The next day it began to snow. They had no more water.

Steven Inlow: And I remember on my hands and knees eating the snow crystals and blood was dripping from my mouth, staining the snow. … I cried for help. I asked God. I asked Jesus. … just anyone, call 911. We need help.

Desperate for hydration, Steven began drinking his own urine and felt warmth spread throughout his body.

Steven Inlow: And I could just feel that was a moment that I’m going to live. And I told Mike he’s got to quit eating the snow when he was shivering and told him what he needed to do, and he said he’d rather die.

Steven Inlow
Desperate for hydration, Steven Inlow began drinking his own urine. He says he told his friend Mike Sexson to do the same, but Sexson refused. Two days later Sexson died of hypothermia. CBS News

Steven Inlow: On Friday, we could hear helicopters on the other side of the mountainside. … And we knew they were out searching for us so that gave us hope. But we never saw the helicopter. That night, I woke up about two o’clock in the morning and Mike was about six feet away from me … He was on his hands and knees with his arms cupped around his head, his head flat on the ground, and he had no shirt on. And, so, I knew … he had died … And I knew why – hypothermia.

People suffering from extreme cold can feel hot in the moments just before they die.

Steven Inlow: I remember telling myself, oh, no, Mike.

Later that Saturday, Steven heard the helicopters again, louder this time, and saw them down in the canyon below. With all the strength he could muster, he grabbed the orange sled and he waved it toward the helicopter.

Steven Inlow: And then, just like in the movies, the helicopter rose up above. … And I knew I was saved, and I passed out. Next thing I knew, two guys were picking me up, asking me if I could walk. I couldn’t even stand. …And I just remember whispering, “goodbye, Mike.”

Mike was later taken off the mountain in a body bag. Beth got the devastating news that afternoon.

Beth Van Oss: I mean, you can say I love you, but until somebody is really gone and you can’t say it anymore, you just don’t realize you have more than that to say.

Mike Sexson
The last photo taken of Mike Sexson before his death while on the hunt for the Fenn treasure. Steven Inlow

A year later, Beth and Mike’s friend Liz Key find solace in that last photo.

Beth Van Oss: His grin.

Liz Key: That big smile. … That look in his eye of … This is where I want to be.

Liz Key: I’m very sad that he’s gone. But I’m glad that he did what he loved to do.

Mike was the fifth person to die seeking Fenn’s treasure; he was also the last. Because only three months later, Forrest Fenn made a stunning announcement.

“THE TREASURE HAS BEEN FOUND”

It was late spring 2020, just as thousands of treasure hunters were about to begin looking yet again for Forrest Fenn’s chest of gold, that they got a piece of news that left them reeling.   

Dan Barbarisi: My heart stopped, honestly. I was like, “Oh my God. I cannot believe this has actually happened.”

Katya Luce: Did somebody really find it? … and if so, who?

The news broke on June 6, 2020 when Forrest Fenn made the stunning announcement in a brief post he sent to a blog used by the searcher community:

TONY DOKOUPIL [reading aloud:] “The treasure has been found … and had not moved from the spot where I hid it more than 10 years ago. I do not know the person who found it, but the poem in my book led him to the precise spot.”

Overnight the gold rush that had sustained the searchers was over, and many were left feeling a bit cheated.

Toby Younis: We didn’t have a name. We didn’t have where it had been found. We didn’t have … any other information, other than it had been found where he had left it.

Katya Luce: … is it really, really, really true that they found it? I wanna see. You know, so the guy did send pictures.

For the first time, searchers could see Fenn poring over the contents of his famous treasure chest.  

Katya Luce: …. it looked pretty authentic to me. You know, very authentic.

But like everyone else, Katya yearned to know the finder’s solve. How had he deciphered those clues in the poem? The finder would not say, but a month later, Fenn revealed the treasure had been found in Wyoming.

Forrest Fenn
To some, Forrest Fenn was a hero, providing a way to instant wealth and adventure in the great outdoors through the treasure hunt. To others, he was reckless and cost lives. Nick Cote/The New York Times/Red

Then, two months later, on September 7, 2020, Forrest Fenn died at his home. He had just turned 90 years old.

Sacha Dent: I find myself thinking of Forrest often … I miss our conversations very much.

The finder may have remained anonymous forever except for a lawsuit that required the Fenn family to reveal his name. The finder knew it was only a matter of time, so he came out to Dan Barbarisi who wrote an article for Outside Magazine

Tony Dokoupil: Who did find the treasure?

Dan Barbarisi: A man named Jack Stuef found the treasure. And he was … a medical student who had gotten obsessed with this chase — around 2018. … He, you know, was very, very committed to his solve.

 In his online message to other searchers, Jack Stuef had shared his approach to cracking Fenn’s poem. 

JACK STUEF : … our challenge is to try not to make guesses… It is simple and clear and straightforward … You need simplicity in your solve.

Dan says Jack had been searching for at least two years. Then, one day, in a Wyoming forest, Jack says he uncovered the chest. It had almost been covered by leaves and debris, but Jack said the lid was still visible.  

Dan Barbarisi: He became very paranoid that somebody was gonna stumble upon him in that moment.

Jack says he hightailed it to Santa Fe where photos of Jack and Fenn with the treasure chest were taken. They seem to back up Jack’s story, but Fenn watcher Toby Younis was skeptical.

Toby Younis: Here is my theory … The hunt was moving forward. Forrest was aging … Forrest’s family … was frustrated with the state of the search … Their houses had been broken into, their children had been threatened with kidnapping. They were never lovers of the Forrest Fenn treasure hunt.

Toby has no evidence, but believes Fenn, knowing he had only months to live, looked around for someone who was close to finding the treasure. Toby believes Fenn reached out to Jack.

Toby Younis: I imagine this is how it went …”I want you to know that I’m dying. I want you to know that I don’t wanna leave this treasure hunt to my family. And I’m going to ask you for a favor.”

Toby Younis: Forrest had a saying he used often.

Forrest Fenn [2015]: There’s an old saying. Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead.

Jack refused “48 Hours”‘ request for an interview, but denied he had any help from Fenn. As he wrote online:

TONY DOKOUPLI [reading aloud]: “I am not and was never employed by Forrest, nor did he ‘pick’ me in any way to ‘retrieve’ the treasure. I was a stranger to him and found the treasure as he designed it to be found.” 

Dan Barbarisi: I do not believe it is part of a conspiracy engineered by Fenn to give Jack the treasure or anything of that sort.

Dan is in a unique position because he’s the only journalist who has interviewed Jack.  Jack even allowed Dan to examine the treasure. The photos have rarely been seen.

The Fenn treasure found
“I have seen and touched and felt and gone through the chest … it was kind of an incredible moment, honestly,” Dan Barbarisi says of the found treasure. Dan Barbarisi

Tony Dokoupil: You were able to actually hold the treasure, to touch it, to see it in person.

Dan Barbarisi: Yes … I have seen and touched and felt and gone through the chest … it was kind of an incredible moment, honestly … 

Jack told Dan he will not reveal the exact spot where he found the chest because he fears it would become a tourist attraction that would ruin the area’s serenity and natural beauty.

Sacha Dent: I think we will never find out truly where it was found.

And there could be another reason: Fenn’s original intent to lay down and die at the very spot where he hid his treasure.

Forrest Fenn [2015]: I don’t wanna be buried. If I had my way, I’d lay down under the tree … just like a big, ‘ole buffalo lays down and dies. Go back to nature … become part of the Earth again.

Jack says he’s offered to put Fenn’s ashes in that special spot but will not say if the family accepted his offer. 

Dan says he doesn’t know what Jack intends to do with the treasure — whether he will sell it piecemeal or as one or perhaps lease it for display.

Tony Dokoupil: What is, in the end, the legacy of Forrest Fenn?

Dan Barbarisi: I think the legacy of Forrest Fenn is extremely complicated. … I think there were a lot of good things that happened because of it, there were also some really bad things that happened because of it.

Fenn treasure hunters
The hunt for Fenn’s treasure claimed at least five lives: Clockwise from top left: Jeff Murphy, Eric Ashby, Randy Bilyeu, Paris Wallace and Mike Sexson. CBS News

But if you’re Paul Ashby, who lost his only son Eric to the hunt—one of the five men to die chasing the thrill—Fenn’s legacy is not complicated at all.

Paul Ashby: He was reckless. He was willing to ignore the fact that people were dying because all these other people worshiped him.

A lot of people still do look up to Forrest Fenn and maybe that’s not so surprising. 

 Katya Luce: … when you feel a dream … live your dream out …  Follow your heart. And, OK, so I didn’t find the treasure. But I found many treasures.

Katya Luce: So many magical, wonderful things I could never replace without that treasure hunt. … I’m so grateful for Forrest … thank you, thank you Forrest.

To this day, searchers continue to look for the spot where Jack Stuef found the treasure — still hoping to solve the clues in Fenn’s poem.


Produced by Paul La Rosa and Dena Goldstein. Kayla Laine is the associate producer. Greg Kaplan, Ken Blum, Mike Baluzy, Jason Schmidt and Greg McLaughlin are the editors. Peter Schweitzer is the senior producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer.