Are People Dying to Find Fenn's Treasure?

Map of Yellowstone
Old map of Yellowstone National Park, where many searchers believe the treasure of Forrest Fenn is located. Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG/Getty Images


At least four people have died searching for a bronze chest full of gold and gemstones hidden in the Rocky Mountains between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Canadian border by a reclusive millionaire adventurer named Forrest Fenn. The treasure hunt began when Fenn published a poem containing clues to the chest's location in 2010.

The first four hunters on this list are most often cited as the "official" victims of the search, though some accounts include the last two names on the list as well.

  • Jeff Murphy, lost in summer 2017, Yellowstone National Park
  • Paris Wallace, lost in summer 2017 in New Mexico
  • Eric Ashby, lost in summer 2017 on the Arkansas River in Colorado
  • Randy Bilyeu, lost in early 2016 outside Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • Mike Petersen, summer 2017, Yellowstone National Park
  • Jeff Schultz, April 2016, Arizona

Jeff Murphy, 53, of Batavia, Illinois, is the most recent official victim of the quest. Murphy had been hunting for the treasure for a few years and had been in contact with Fenn before his search. He was reported missing when he didn't check in with his wife, and his remains were found on June 9, 2017. The death was ruled accidental — Murphy is believed to have lost his footing in the mountains, resulting in a 500-foot (152-meter) fall.

The Man Who Started It All

Forrest Fenn, the man who started the hunt, is 86 and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War and later amassed his wealth as a dealer in art and antiquities.

The treasure hunt is a modified version of an earlier idea. Fenn was diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer in 1988 and had planned to die peacefully in the woods with his treasure. But when his cancer went into remission, he put his plans on hiatus, eventually writing the poem that described his ideal resting place, which is where his treasure now lies. The poem appeared in a self-published memoir called "The Thrill of the Chase." Fenn told Business Insider that the chest won't be found by accident; only a treasure hunter who correctly interprets the clues will find it.

After Murphy went missing, Fenn offered to help pay for a helicopter to aid in the search. Fenn told the Washington Post that he has never been in the part of the park where the accident occurred, and repeatedly has said that the treasure is not in a dangerous place. He told HowStuffWorks that he believes most searchers are being responsible.

"Most people do not disregard their safety when they search, and I get emails every day that say that," says Fenn, via email. "Even those who were lost didn't think they were overextending themselves at the time. Two of them had successfully visited the same location several times. We have emphasized safety all along the way and I think it has had a positive effect."

Of course, only Fenn knows whether the treasure is actually in a national park. A good part of the Rocky Mountains consist of park land, but not all of it. Many hunters' searches are concentrated in Yellowstone and other parks because of experiences shared in his memoir. One of the often-cited reminders on treasure hunting forums and discussion boards is that it is illegal to remove anything from a national park, which would cause complications in legally claiming the treasure if it were to be found there. According to Kathy Kupper, a public affairs specialist for the National Park Service, if the treasure is found on park land, only Fenn can claim it.

"Federal property management regulations and policies, issued by OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and GSA [General Services Administration], govern how the National Park Service handles abandoned, lost, and unclaimed property," says Kupper via email. "In this case, the most appropriate regulation would be the one related to property under 36 CFR 2.22. It states that leaving something in the park for longer than 24 hours is considered abandoned property and is prohibited. If found, it should be turned over to the superintendent who will hold onto it for a limited period of time until claimed by the owner. If no owner comes forward, it is disposed of according to our policies and regulations."

Kupper also noted that the park service policies are designed to protect wildlife and the environment.

"Since we do not have any information about the exact location of the treasure, or how it is stored, we do not know if it is causing any impacts to park resources," says Kupper. "For example, a treasure which includes antique coins could harm wildlife if swallowed."

In short, lost or abandoned property found on National Park Service land can only be claimed by its owner, and federal regulations do not allow the property to be given to the finder. These regulations lead some hunters to believe that the treasure is not, in fact, hidden in a national park.

Despite repeated calls from victims' families and friends, Fenn has declined to call off the treasure hunt, although he usually offers condolences to the lost hunters' loved ones. For now, the hunt for Fenn's treasure races on.