Author reveals drama of Forrest Fenn treasure hunt

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Daniel Barbarisi was in shock.

After spending four years searching for a treasure chest that had allegedly been hidden in the Rocky Mountains by an enigmatic antiques dealer, he was now about to hold the storied loot in his hands.

“I took it, my fingers curling around the base, my hands closing around the raised nine-hundred year-old designs carved into the chest’s side,” writes Barbarisi in his new book, “Chasing the Thrill: Obsession, Death and Glory in America’s Most Extraordinary Treasure Hunt” (Knopf).

Sitting in a lawyer’s office in Santa Fe, NM, he combed through gold coins, some of them dating back to the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires; hunks of gold; an intricate Mayan necklace; pre-Columbian nose rings; Chinese carved jade faces; and more “sumptuous jewelry.” It was all found in the summer of 2020 by Jack Stuef, a medical student from Michigan who, fearing an onslaught of legal and other threats, initially tried to remain anonymous.

Much of the trove was still enclosed in the Ziploc bags that Forrest Fenn had used to keep the items safe from the elements when he hid his treasure in 2010, the year he was first diagnosed with terminal cancer. After beating the disease, Fenn famously challenged adventurers around the world to a modern-day search for the valuables with clues embedded in a 24-line poem in his memoir, “The Thrill of the Chase.”

Some 350,000 would-be Indiana Jones types answered the call. Five lost their lives searching for the cache, including Paris Wallace, a pastor who died in 2017 while trying to cross a tributary of the Rio Grande. The river also proved fatal for Randy Bilyeu, a 54-year-old grandfather who set out aboard a raft with his dog in January 2016; authorities discovered the raft and the dog, but didn’t locate Bilyeau’s body for six months.

Stuef, 32, first heard about Fenn’s treasure from a Twitter post in early 2018. “I’ve probably thought about it for at least a couple of hours a day, everyday, since I learned about it,” he told Barbarisi. “I think I got a little embarrassed by how obsessed I was with it.”

He revealed his search to no one, fearing that he would look “like an idiot” if he didn’t find the loot. “And maybe I didn’t want to admit to myself what a hold it had on me.”

Stuef grew up in Michigan with a passion for adventure. He was hooked on “Push Nevada,” a 2002 television series which allowed viewers to solve a mystery for a million dollar prize. He attended Georgetown University and was involved in a few lower-tier scandals while working as a journalist — resigning from the Wonkette Web site after making a tasteless joke about one of Sarah Palin’s children and publicly apologizing for mischaracterizing a popular cartoonist’s political leanings while employed by Buzzfeed.com. Stuef ended up enrolling in medical school but didn’t like studying medicine, and told Barbarisi he only looked forward to solving Fenn’s mystery.

He entered the treasure hunt several years after Fenn, an octogenarian former Vietnam War fighter pilot from Texas, was interviewed on national television about his unique challenge. A frenzied hunt ensued as thousands pored over Fenn’s writing and interviews for clues, and started blogs and YouTube channels to chronicle every moment of their searches. (Among them was John Wayne Bobbitt, whose wife Lorena had notoriously cut off his penis in 1993, alleging years of sexual abuse.)

Many hunters made the pilgrimage to Santa Fe, where Fenn had owned an antiques store frequented by his famous friends Ralph Lauren and Donald Rumsfeld. The state of New Mexico built its tourism campaign around the treasure hunt.

All were convinced they knew where the treasure was hidden. “One thing that was always very surprising to me was the level of conviction people had in their solves,” said Boston-based author Barbarisi.

But it also got weird: Some women explorers alleged that Fenn had sought sexual favors in exchange for clues. And many seekers imbued Fenn with a cult-like status, organizing annual “Fennboree” barbecues and setting up shrines that depicted him as a Captain America action figure painted gold.

One Florida realtor told The Post that he had spent four years searching for the treasure, and read Fenn’s book 23 times looking for clues. A massage therapist spent four years constructing anagrams from the words of Fenn’s poem and shelled out more than $10,000 on her travels to New Mexico, where she believed the anagrams pointed.

On June 6, 2020, Fenn announced that the treasure had been located — but refused to reveal any details about the location or the finder, who he only described as a man from “back east.” He swore he would never again speak of the adventure.

This lack of detail infuriated many treasure hunters who questioned whether Fenn was even telling the truth. Some began to wonder if there had been a treasure at all. Many “immediately felt cheated,” writes Barbarisi.

Barbarisi’s hunting partner, Jay “Beep” Raynor, who had accompanied him on searches in the Rockies, was among those let down by the end of the story. “I think I went through minor stages of grief, where at first I was like, ‘Ah, nice for the finder,’ and then after a few days I kind of felt like there’s a little piece of my life that was missing,” he says in the book.

Fenn died of a heart attack in September 2020, at the age of 90. Admitting he was the champion, Stuef published the anonymous essay “A Remembrance of Forrest Fenn” on Medium.com. In it, he refused to identify where he had found the treasure; the only identity clues he gave were that he was a millennial and saddled with student debt.

Barbarisi reached out to the anonymous writer through the Web site, figuring it would go nowhere. Minutes later, he was surprised when Stuef replied — and revealed that he was about to be outed in a lawsuit brought by one of the embittered Fenn treasure seekers. Apparently figuring he had nothing to lose anymore, Stuef agreed to speak to Barbarisi.

(The author eventually revealed Stuef’s identity in a story he wrote for Outside magazine in October.)

Stuef opened up about how he came to discover the prize. Unlike many searchers, who tried to read between every line of Fenn’s poem, he focused on learning as much as possible about the man himself.

“[He] came to the conclusion that the key to the hunt was in truly understanding Fenn, and his motivations for hiding the chest,” writes Barbarisi. “There was no need to use anagrams or break codes or find GPS coordinates hidden in the words, as so many searchers were trying to do. One needed only to understand what the poem’s author wanted to convey.”

In an interview, Fenn had said that he’d hidden the goods in a place where, after being diagnosed with cancer, he’d envisioned “lying down to die.” 

So Stuef used that as his guiding light, searching for clues to that place in Fenn’s interviews and memoir. It eventually led him to Wyoming. He made three trips before he found the treasure, hidden in a nook — “a depression in uneven ground in the middle of a Wyoming forest.”

“It was very dirty, very dirty,” Stuef told Barbarisi about his first glimpse of the box buried under pine needles and dirt. “There were spiderwebs around the perimeter and inside, a bunch of coin-shaped objects that I could tell were gold colored….”

Shocked at what he had discovered, Stuef took photos of the chest and emailed Fenn to ask his permission to move the loot. “My immediate feeling at that point went from skepticism to paranoia,” said Stuef, adding that he knew the find would not sit well with searchers who had spent years and, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars in their hunt. (Stuef refuses to elaborate any more on the exact location, fearing the area would be swarmed with frustrated treasure seekers and Fenn fans.)

An emotional Fenn called Stuef within minutes of receiving his email.

Once he got the go-ahead from Fenn, Stuef placed the dirt-caked 42-pound bronze chest in a blue Ikea bag and stuffed it in his backpack for the short trek back to his car. Stuef, who had spent two years searching for the chest, said he broke down from the emotional relief. He took the chest back to his hotel room where he used all the towels to carefully clean every item before his meeting with Fenn in Santa Fe.

As expected, the Fenn blogosphere erupted in rage and disbelief after the announcement.

“There were charges that he hadn’t really found it in Wyoming, but in another state, that [Stuef] was in cahoots with the family to deceive the searchers in some fashion; even that Stuef wasn’t somehow the real finder, or that he didn’t really have the treasure,” writes Barbarisi.

In order to prove them wrong, Stuef agreed to show Barbarisi the artifacts if he promised not to identify the lawyers who are keeping the treasure safe for him. Barbarisi also had to promise he would not divulge the contents of Fenn’s autobiography — different from his memoir — which was encased in a glass vial in the chest.

And now that he has held the much-desired treasure in his own hands, Barbarisi wants to assure his fellow seekers that the trove is very much real:

“Despite whatever else he’d done, Fenn had been telling the truth about this box and what was in it; that he had hidden it somewhere out there, and the finder really and truly had obtained it.”

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