Editor’s note, July 26, 2016: On July 14, as 5280’s August 2016 issue went to press with a story about the six-month-long search for missing treasure hunter and Broomfield resident Randy Bilyeu, a body was discovered on a bank of the Rio Grande in New Mexico. Twelve days later, on July 26, dental records confirmed the remains were Bilyeu’s. Read senior staff writer Robert Sanchez’s original feature below, which was appended with an epilogue on July 29.
One night early this year, Randy Bilyeu was on the phone with his best friend. He wanted to share some good news: After more than two years of searching Colorado and New Mexico for a hiddentreasure chest filled with gold and jewels, he thought he’d finally discovered its location. It wasn’t too far from Santa Fe. Now he just needed to go get it.
Bilyeu was looking for the celebrated Fenn treasure—a 12th-century Romanesque chest hidden by an eccentric arts and antiquities collector that’s said to be packed with 42 pounds of gold coins, rubies, diamonds, sapphires, ancient jade carvings, pre-Columbian bracelets, and gold nuggets. Between 2014 and 2015, Bilyeu made nearly a dozen trips from his Broomfield apartment to Santa Fe in search of the chest. During his hunts, Bilyeu, who was 54 years old and twice divorced, had sent photos to his two adult daughters and to a dwindling number of close confidants, most of whom worried about his safety during his excursions and had become skeptical of the fortune’s existence.
Among them was Tom Martino, a longtime friend in Orlando, Florida, who talked to Bilyeu on January 4. The stash, Bilyeu said, was near the Rio Grande, in a place called Frijoles Canyon on Bandelier National Monument land between Santa Fe and Los Alamos. It would be difficult to get, though. In early January, temperatures, especially at night, would fall far below freezing. He’d been near the spot in the past month, and Bilyeu knew he would need a raft to move down the river and deliver him to a sandy patch from which he could begin his search. Further complicating matters was the fact that Bilyeu wanted to bring his traveling companion, Leo, a nine-year-old poodle-terrier mix. Bilyeu had never piloted a raft, and Leo was afraid of water. “It was the craziest thing I’d ever heard,” Martino says of Bilyeu’s plan. He told Bilyeu the search seemed risky. Bilyeu agreed: It was too cold and the weather was too dangerous to make a hasty search. Even still, he wanted to try.
In fact, he was already close. Bilyeu had driven the roughly 400 miles from Broomfield to Santa Fe with Leo, he explained to Martino. He was staying in a Motel 6 outside downtown. He’d purchased an $89 raft from a local sporting goods store, and he had waders, a wet suit, a backpack, maps, and his phone. Bilyeu sounded impatient. The Rio Grande was fewer than two dozen miles away. Bilyeu would drive there, inflate the raft, and begin his search despite his misgivings about the dangers he might face.
The next morning, a light dusting of snow covered the ground. Bilyeu backed his 2011 Nissan Murano into a space near a well field just off the Rio Grande. A thick cottonwood tree, its bare branches exposed to the elements, stood almost directly in front of him. The river was at least 50 yards wide and likely barely above freezing. Leo wore a miniature white sweater to protect him from the chill.
Bilyeu inflated his new blue-and-gray raft, then loaded the dog, two metal oars, and a manual air pump into it. His phone was turned off, perhaps to conserve battery power. Bilyeu finally lowered himself into the raft and shoved off. Within seconds, he and Leo began moving down the Rio Grande. A few minutes later, they disappeared into the canyon.
Since the beginning of recorded history, people have searched for treasure. From Egyptian grave robbers to Coronado exploring the Southwest for the seven cities of gold to modern-day crews probing ocean floors for sunken riches, the allure of the hunt has always evoked a romantic mysticism. Tales of hidden or buried valuables abound in popular literature and in movies. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a classic of American cinema. The Goonies frightened and delighted Gen Xers during their childhood years. And Steven Spielberg will soon release his fifth installment of the iconic Indiana Jones franchise.
In recent years, Bilyeu had become obsessed with the Fenn treasure, which was hidden by an 85-year-old Santa Fe resident named Forrest Fenn. The prize is reportedly valued at $1 million to $3 million today and is stashed somewhere in the Rocky Mountains between 8 and a quarter miles north of Santa Fe and the United States–Canada border. After hiding the 10-by-10-by-five-inch chest, Fenn gave clues to its location in a six-stanza poem he included in his autobiography, The Thrill of the Chase, which he self-published in 2010. He’s since followed up the poem with a series of additional clues (among them: the chest is at an elevation between 5,000 and 10,200 feet) and a map of the search area that encompasses four states. Outside Magazine has called it “America’s last great treasure.”
Since Fenn’s autobiography was released, tens of thousands of seekers have entered the wilderness to hunt for the hidden wealth. Books have been written. Several websites are dedicated to the search. At least two documentary films are planned for release this year. In its most elemental form, the Fenn stash is the everyman’s fantasy, an easily grasped extension of treasure-hunting mythology. With hiking boots, a map, and basic transportation, the chest could be one overturned log or steep hillside away.
Bilyeu made his first trip to New Mexico in 2014, from his then home near Atlanta, shortly after seeing the treasure featured on the Today Show. “It captured his imagination,” his sister, Kathy Leibold, told me this past spring. Bilyeu ordered Fenn’s book and studied the poem. He took several trips to the outback near Santa Fe, sleeping in inexpensive motels and spending much of his free time poring over maps and the poem. In 2014, he quit his job as a retail salesman and moved to Colorado because of its proximity to the search area. Alone in his apartment just northwest of Denver, Bilyeu, six feet tall with gray stubble and a high arch of receding hair, would find himself imagining his future fortune.
The day Bilyeu and Leo shoved off, and for several days after, Martino left messages on Bilyeu’s cell. “Randy always came back OK, which is stupid to assume now,” Martino says. This time, Martino began to worry almost immediately. Nine days had passed since their last conversation, and there was no sign Bilyeu had returned from his adventure. Martino sent a Facebook message to Linda Bilyeu, Randy’s first wife. He told her about Bilyeu’s latest hunt and the trip to the river. Linda called the Santa Fe Police Department the next morning and filed a missing-person report. Based on information from Martino, search and rescue crews deployed to an area called Old Buckman Road. Within a few days, they found Bilyeu’s Nissan: Inside the vehicle were a map, a bag of pretzels, and Bilyeu’s hiking boots. A search helicopter flying over the river also discovered Bilyeu’s raft on a small sandbar along the east bank, about seven miles from the launch point at Buckman. The raft was turned over and pulled toward a large shrub in a way that indicated careful consideration. Under the raft were the pump and both metal oars, one of which was snapped near its middle; the other was bent significantly. Just a few yards away stood Leo, in his now-dirty white sweater, emaciated and frightened, but alive. Snow and rising water had wiped out much of the beach, erasing whatever human traces might have existed a couple of weeks earlier. Nearby plants didn’t appear to be disturbed. The Rio Grande wasn’t particularly deep, but dive teams searched farther downriver, in deeper, muddier sections. A trail from the raft to the canyon rim led several hundred feet up a rock wall, a difficult climb for almost anyone, especially in wintry conditions.
“It’s like he just vanished,” Linda told me by phone from her home near Orlando. It was March, and about two months had passed since she reported her ex-husband missing. There still weren’t any clues to his whereabouts. Linda had spent nearly every minute ruminating on the situation and helping to coordinate a cadre of volunteer searchers. “There’s no way in hell I thought I’d be in the middle of something like this,” she said, bewilderment in her voice. “I don’t want to be in this place, but here I am.”
Linda hoped Bilyeu would show up alive, perhaps in one of the caves in the national park, which had been home to Ancestral Puebloans nearly 1,000 years earlier. Police ruled out foul play in the disappearance, and there was no indication Bilyeu was suicidal. In one of her wilder theories, Linda wondered if her ex-husband found the riches and simply made himself disappear, perhaps to live a millionaire’s life on some sunny beach in Mexico. “If we find him alive,” she sometimes joked, “I’m going to kick his ass.”
Regardless, she’d spent much of her winter marshaling more than 20 regular searchers who kept in contact with her. Some knew how to fly drones, some were experienced hikers, and some simply were familiar with the search area. Drone pilots regularly sent video to Linda for inspection, and she studied each frame. Discarded trash bags in the rough form of a body, a plastic laundry detergent bottle, and old clothes left in the wilderness had gotten her attention many times. “You start seeing shadows and think, ‘Is that him there? What about there?’ ” She posted the videos on a private Facebook page dedicated to the search and asked for help.
That the ex-wife of a man who’d gone underprepared in search of a hidden chest of riches was now helping try to find him was not lost on anyone. “It seems kind of crazy,” said Michelle Stoker, Bilyeu’s 26-year-old daughter. “But Mom’s naturally a take-charge person, so it was common sense that she’d be involved. She wants to do the right thing, and this is the right thing.” Said Linda: “Randy might have done just about the stupidest thing imaginable, but we share children and grandchildren. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
Other theories abound, almost all of them involving the Rio Grande. Bilyeu slipped and fell into the river, where he hit his head, became unconscious, and drowned; Bilyeu walked into the river, his waders became flooded, he couldn’t get back to land, and he drowned; Bilyeu unknowingly stepped into a fast-moving stretch of the river, was swept under, and drowned. The Rio Grande dumps into Cochiti Lake, inside the Cochiti Pueblo Reservation eight miles south of the raft’s location, but tribal authorities hadn’t found anything in their searches. Perhaps it was still too cold, searchers speculated. Bodies in frigid water tend to stay low, like rocks, and pop up when they warm. Several weeks passed. Newspaper stories were written about the search. Missing-person fliers were posted near the river. Spring came, and the irony was inescapable: Randy Bilyeu should have been beginning his search. Now, instead, everyone was looking for him.
Before Bilyeu’s call to Martino in early January, there was little in Bilyeu’s life to suggest he was prepared to join the ranks of Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins as a swashbuckling fortune hunter. A grandfather to two young girls, Bilyeu spent much of his life ensconced in the mundane trappings of a middle-class, middle-age existence. He enjoyed playing softball and coaching hockey. A former food-services manager—he met Linda when the two worked at Hofstra University’s campus on Long Island; they married in 1984 and moved to Florida two years later—he had recently quit a job as a salesman in Broomfield. He dated in Colorado, but not seriously. He maintained relationships with his former wives. He visited his children in Florida.
But Bilyeu was bored. His savings were dwindling. At his age, he imagined the rest of his work life would be a series of low-paying, dead-end jobs. Searching for something potentially worth millions of dollars seemed as though it could be the perfect solution to his problems.
He was not a religious man, but communing with nature had given Bilyeu a sense of peace and belonging, a higher purpose. He’d moved from Florida to Georgia to care for his aging parents, and when his father died in 2012, Bilyeu came to miss the man’s presence in his life—the phone calls, the simple conversations. “He talked a lot about Dad,” Leibold, Bilyeu’s sister, said. “He’d say to me, ‘Can you believe it’s been a year since he died? Can you believe it’s been two years? When I’m 60, Dad would have been 100.’ Randy would go into the mountains to clear his mind, and I think that helped him.” On his searches, Bilyeu sent texts to his sister and his daughters, giving rough details of his locations. He shot photos of waterfalls, of distant mesas. His only companion was Leo, whom Bilyeu brought on his adventures after the two moved to Colorado. He featured the animal in his many photographs. There’s Leo at Capulin Volcano National Monument in Northern New Mexico. There’s Leo in Bilyeu’s arms, the pair hoofing across yet another trail. In his pictures, Bilyeu—often in a blue shirt with his gray hair combed back—is almost always smiling. He had come to call himself WhiteBeard. Leo was SpongeDog, a play on SpongeBob SquarePants.
Bilyeu, like many of the other treasure hunters, revered Fenn. A former fighter pilot with a high school education who’d been shot down twice in Vietnam, Fenn had survived kidney cancer and—despite an initially limited knowledge of art—became one of the most prosperous art and artifacts dealers in the Southwest, befriending the likes of Ralph Lauren and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In books, the native Texan wrote passionately about the outdoors and his relationship with his own father, a former school principal who died by suicide in 1987 after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. To Bilyeu, Fenn exuded masculinity: brains, brawn, and most of all, the courage to believe he could shoulder his way into any situation and succeed. Fenn’s life story was intoxicating. Bilyeu read his autobiography several times. For someone so enamored with Fenn and his treasure, it’s likely he’d memorized the poem:
As I have gone alone in there/And with my treasures bold,/I can keep my secret where,/And hint of riches new and old.Advertisement
Begin it where warm waters halt/And take it in the canyon down,/not far, but too far to walk./Put in below the home of Brown.
From there it’s no place for the meek,/The end is ever drawing nigh,/There’ll be no paddle up your creek,/Just heavy loads and
If you’ve been wise and found the blaze,/Look quickly down, your quest to cease,/But tarry scant with marvel gaze,/Just take the chest and go in peace.
So why is it that I must go/And leave my trove for all to seek?/The answer I already know,/I’ve done it tired, and now I’m weak.
So hear me all and listen good/Your effort will be worth the cold./If you are brave and in the wood/I give you title to the gold.Advertisement
At some point, Bilyeu sent Fenn an email explaining his “theory as a deep-thinking/logical treasure hunter,” Bilyeu told Dal Neitzel, the curator of dalneitzel.com, a Fenn site that receives thousands of visitors daily. Bilyeu never posted publicly because he was afraid he’d accidentally give out a clue to his search area. Though Fenn never replied to Bilyeu’s email, the two met briefly at a September book signing in Santa Fe, where the pair took a photo together and Fenn gave Leo a dog biscuit.
Bilyeu spent time getting to know other hunters, too. “He told me he was a full-time searcher, that this was his life,” Neitzel said several months after Bilyeu’s disappearance. “You could tell he’d done his research. He spoke in generalities, but we talked about the Rio Grande. Randy really believed that’s where the treasure was.” Bilyeu didn’t strike Neitzel as someone who’d gotten carried away with the search. “People have gone bankrupt over this,” Neitzel said. “They’ve gotten divorced. For some people, it becomes too much. They go out of control. Randy was so nice, really mild-mannered. A smart guy. He had that cute dog. Maybe Randy was getting gold fever.”
Bilyeu sent the photo of him with Fenn to his sister. Months passed. Maybe it was old age creeping in, maybe he was getting bolder. In talks with his friend Martino, he began to pepper search stories with tales of near misses—of both the treasure and safety varieties. He’d fallen too many times to count. He’d injured his back. During a climb, he tripped and sprained his knee. Yet he also felt closer than ever to solving the poem’s riddle.
By early fall 2015, Bilyeu’s sister and daughters were getting fewer messages regarding his whereabouts; they had no idea how many trips he now was making. They worried about what the hunt was doing to him, both physically and psychologically. “It’s all Randy could talk about,” Martino says. “It was treasure, treasure, treasure.” During one search in New Mexico, Bilyeu told his daughters, he’d experienced shortness of breath. He’d gotten dizzy and light-headed. Still, he shrugged off doubts about his health and chalked the episode up to dehydration. “It got to the point where you worried whether he’d be coming back,” his daughter Stoker said. “He felt like he needed to be out there. It seemed to be getting riskier and riskier.”
Bilyeu spent some of his savings on his trips, on gear and maps. He purchased a GPS device. He sometimes slept in his vehicle to save money, counting the hours before he could hunt again. He spent Christmas Day 2015 in New Mexico with Leo, atop a bluff in Bandelier. Below him was the Rio Grande. He scouted the area—search teams now think Bilyeu was trying to get to a waterfall near Frijoles Canyon—once he realized the river was his best access point. He called his sister and wished her a merry Christmas.
Bilyeu made notes in black marker on his Bandelier map. Each corresponded to a clue in Fenn’s poem. The area near Pajarito Mountain—northwest of the Rio Grande—burned in a wildfire years ago and was marked “Fire ‘Blaze.’??” Bilyeu wrote “Quest” above that. To the southwest of Frijoles he wrote the word “Sunsets” and drew an image that looked like the sun on New Mexico’s state flag. Farther southeast, near the east bank of the Rio Grande, he drew four X’s and a dotted line. He wrote the letter E and circled it. Next to that, he wrote the initials “H.O.B.”: Home of Brown.
One cool, sunny morning in mid-April, I met Linda and Stoker at the Santa Fe Plaza. Bilyeu had been missing for 101 days, and it seemed as though he might never be found. Linda, who is petite, with curly black hair and broad features, was on the front page of the local newspaper that day. In the story, she declared that she didn’t think Forrest Fenn’s treasure existed.
The article was her chance, she said, to drum up interest in the search while also poking Fenn, whom she indirectly blamed for this situation. Initially the two had cordial conversations via email, but those quickly devolved. Linda attacked Fenn on her personal blog for not disclosing the cache’s location—if it even existed—which she thought could help searchers. She also accused Fenn of putting the many hunters’ lives at risk.
Fenn’s supporters shot back online. They accused her of blackballing well-intentioned treasure hunters from the search for her ex-husband and of misunderstanding Fenn. Fenn’s allies thought of Linda as an attention-hungry opportunist, a person overrun with emotion who could never understand the deeper meanings of the hunt. Linda thought Fenn’s searchers were like a cult, and she cast Fenn as an aging charlatan desperate to create a legacy. “These people are disgusting,” Linda told me. “Someone’s missing out there, and all they can talk about is some stupid treasure that doesn’t exist.”
It was Linda’s first time in New Mexico, and she wanted to get a feel for the place her ex had been so connected to. She’d already seen the Motel 6 and the Big Five Sporting Goods, where Bilyeu purchased his raft the day before he went missing. They visited Leo, who was living a quiet, happy existence with an adoptive family. Linda and Stoker planned to sleep at least one night at a casino resort outside the city where Bilyeu had once stayed.
A prolific blogger even before Bilyeu’s disappearance, Linda was gathering scenes and other information for a book she planned to write and self-publish about the search for Bilyeu. It would be her second time detailing a life-altering event: Less than a year earlier, she had written about her second husband, Dave Ligler, and his seven-year battle with prostate cancer (he died in July 2015). She hadn’t had much time to grieve her husband’s death when she was thrown into another difficult situation. Like many writers, she found recording her experiences was the best way for her to make sense of her current life. She billed her visit to Santa Fe as a way to meet the searchers in person; it was also Linda and Stoker’s opportunity to look beyond maps and drone video and understand the circumstances under which Bilyeu had gone missing.
After visiting the plaza, Linda and Stoker drove to a strip-mall cafe down the street from where Bilyeu spent his last night in Santa Fe. Searchers filed in, hugged their hellos, and sat around several tables, where they offered their latest information to Linda. Because she didn’t know the searchers by appearance, Linda gave each a name tag. Linda scribbled her name in black marker with a little sun drawn just below it. Stoker added a smiley face and “#TeamRandy” to hers.
Among those who’d grown close to Linda was Peter Dickson, a British physicist and former Cambridge professor who’d come to New Mexico 20 years earlier to take his dream job running a research group at Los Alamos National Laboratory. An avid hiker and a volunteer with New Mexico Search and Rescue, he often spent weekends hiking across the mountains and the desert. Nattily dressed in a tan blazer with his gray hair pushed forward, he injected a sense of calm, helpful for a search like this.
Dickson pulled out a small laptop computer and placed it on a wooden table so Linda and Stoker could see it. A couple of other searchers huddled around. It was an aerial view of the initial search site. The Rio Grande meanders through a reddish-brown canyon. Dickson explained that the deeper Bilyeu ventured along the Rio, the steeper the canyon walls became. In some places, he said, the river is 1,000 feet below the rim. He pulled up a series of photos to emphasize the point.
“See?” he said. “Higher and higher.”
Linda shook her head.
“You’re met with a wall of Mother Nature,” another searcher said.
A photo taken from one of the drones included the beach where the raft had been found. Because the raft was too heavy to carry out of the steep canyon, Dickson moved it closer to the rock wall to keep it from getting swept downriver. The pump was still there. One of the searchers had inflated the raft a couple of weeks earlier to see if it still held air. It did. The oars were gone, taken by a treasure hunter from Colorado.
“That’s it, right there,” Dickson said and pointed to the raft, which appeared as a gray dot. Stoker leaned in. She managed only a small “Wow.”
Canyon and sagebrush extended to the edges of Dickson’s computer screen. He bit his lower lip. “Yeah, so….” he said, his words trailing off. He pulled away from the table and put his wrists up, in a helpless posture.
“That’s a lot of land,” Stoker said, staring at the photo.
“It’s vast,” Dickson said.
Stoker and Linda wanted to see it for themselves. The next morning, Bob Rodgers—the head of New Mexico Search and Rescue—and Alex Viechec, a private-plane pilot who’d become one of Linda’s most trusted searchers, escorted the pair to an overlook above the Rio Grande where the women could see the imposing landscape. Viechec—tall and thin with thick-rimmed black glasses and a lopsided grin—thought it would be a helpful visualization tool, especially since Linda and Stoker refused to visit the boat launch off Old Buckman Road. No one pressed them.
The river was at least 500 feet below White Rock Overlook. In the distance, to the left and across the Rio Grande, Old Buckman Road appeared like a ribbon of brown leading to the water. The temperature was below 50 degrees at the overlook, but it felt much colder. Clouds were low and gray, and the river looked like glass. Green shrubs clustered atop the Bandelier outback, wild grass and large rocks protruding from nearly every square inch. Light snow fell on the Jemez Mountains in the distance. Viechec took a few photos with his camera and then said, “When Randy left that morning, the weather would have felt a little like this.” Linda wrapped her arms around her waist. Stoker threw a red-and-blue scarf around her neck.
“Randy would have been four or five miles up from there,” Rodgers said, pointing to the place where the Rio Grande curved and disappeared to their right. From below, the canyon rim would have looked massive to him. “Pull that canyon face up to the river, and that’s what you’d be looking at,” he said. “Very steep.”
“I can’t believe he even made it that far,” Stoker said.
Linda eventually made her way to Rodgers’ search-and-rescue vehicle. Rodgers loaded a digital map of the area on his computer that showed a series of blue blobs, small lakes of cell phone service that would have been available to Bilyeu, had he made it up to the canyon’s rim. Through cell phone forensics, authorities had discovered that Bilyeu’s phone made contact with several towers during his scouting trip atop the canyon in late December. The next time, however, there were no such locators. Even if Bilyeu managed to turn on his phone, cell coverage on the river would have been virtually nonexistent. Rodgers again pointed out the canyon walls. Linda exhaled deeply, then covered her face.
Stoker took some photos near the overlook and called her husband. She spent a few minutes on her phone and then hung up. She stared at the water. Wind blew her long hair into her mouth. Viechec watched with a puzzled look.
“What do you think?” he finally asked.
“It’s overwhelming,” Stoker said. She paused for a moment. “It makes me sad he was so anxious to search this land for something that only might be there. I don’t get this treasure thing. I don’t think I’ll ever get it.”
Linda and Stoker weren’t the first from Bilyeu’s family to visit New Mexico looking for answers. In late January, Kathy Leibold arrived from Texas with her son and his fiancée. She intended to speak to Santa Fe police and to Rodgers and then retrace some of her brother’s last moments in town. She also hoped to meet Forrest Fenn.
Fenn arranged a meeting at Downtown Subscription, a cafe several blocks off the Santa Fe Plaza. Just the previous week, he’d chartered a helicopter to fly over the Rio Grande with a television crew and some treasure hunters. Leibold says she had mixed feelings: She thought Fenn’s trip might actually help find her brother, but she also worried Fenn was using her brother’s disappearance to add even more intrigue to his mythos.
The meeting lasted 90 minutes. “He started out by telling us how sorry he was that Randy was missing,” Leibold says. “He explained a little bit how he and his treasure hunters were looking for Randy and that he’d taken the helicopter flight. At that point, we knew he was there to plead his case.” Leibold expected that from Fenn, but she didn’t expect what she says happened next. After describing the rugged terrain near where the raft was discovered, Fenn said he didn’t want anyone to find Bilyeu’s body. He didn’t want to know how one of his treasure hunters died, didn’t want to know if Bilyeu suffered—if he knew his end was coming. “It was so bizarre,” Leibold said. “My mouth dropped.” Fenn, apparently unaware he’d offended the missing man’s sister, continued talking. “He said Randy’s bones probably wouldn’t be found for 100 years,” Leibold remembers.
She composed herself. “We thought he needed to call off the search and just tell people where the treasure is and be done with it,” she told me. “But I know people had invested a lot of time and energy.” Leibold said Fenn seemed uninterested in confiding the location of his treasure to anyone. In fact, his wife didn’t even know. The hunt, he said, would continue long after his own death—possibly for decades, or even centuries. How he reached that number, Leibold didn’t care. She was beyond annoyed. “I told him we needed to bring Randy home,” she recalls. “I told him that Randy is our treasure hunt. He’s our treasure, and we want him home.”
By then, Fenn seemed to be done with the conversation. He told the three they should head home because there was nothing they could do to help in Santa Fe. He gave each of them a hug. “We left that coffeeshop feeling even worse than when we walked in,” Leibold says. On the drive back to Texas, she began writing notes from the meeting. She was trying to make sense of the conversation she’d just had. Leibold read her words, line by line, over and over again. “The more I read, the weirder it sounded,” she says. “I was like, Who does this guy think he is?”
Forrest Fenn was waiting at his front door when I pulled up the driveway to his compound off the Old Santa Fe Trail. He was slightly hunched at the shoulders but otherwise looked trim and healthy. He had long, hawklike features, and his eyes appeared to be in a permanent squint, as if he were staring into an eternal sunset. His thinning white hair was swept from left to right and covered the back part of his ears. He wore a blue checkered button-down shirt tucked into baggy blue jeans held up with a belt secured with a turquoise buckle. On his feet were off-white leather slippers.
His house was low-slung with lots of right angles, in the way of most everything else in Santa Fe. The brown adobe looked like freshly dried mud in the morning light. Fenn introduced himself and directed me to his office off the foyer.
The room was large but intimate, with a kiva fireplace and hewn logs that ran across the ceiling. Artifacts took up virtually every inch of the office. Ten headdresses hung over a couch. Hopi kachina dolls filled a table. On a far wall were three peace pipes, a leather belt, moccasins, necklaces, and hatchets. Several knives were stored in elaborately beaded sheaths. On Fenn’s desk was a model of the Air Force F-100 jet he flew in Vietnam. Near that was a small treasure chest filled with 800 $1 coins.
The Bureau of Land Management raided Fenn’s home in 2009 as part of a broad federal sting meant to track down illegally obtained Native American artifacts. After the raid, a U.S. attorney agreed to drop the case if Fenn returned a basket, a kachina dance mask, and a sun-dance skull. Fenn agreed not to sue the federal government for falsifying a warrant. (One rumor, which Fenn denies, is that he set up his treasure hunt as revenge to get people to dig up federal land.)
Despite all this, Fenn remains a local celebrity, an active member of the community who is known around town for his generosity and peculiarities. He has cast 30 bronze bells and hidden eight of them in the mountains and desert around Santa Fe. On one of them, he printed the legend, “If you should ever think of me, a thousand years from now, please ring my bell so I will know.” His former gallery—he sold it in the late 1980s—maintains an almost mythic place in the lore of modern Santa Fe. Once a destination for the wealthy and well educated, Fenn’s former shop included rare black African parrots and two alligators, which lived in a pool out back. After publishing The Thrill of the Chase, he gave all the copies to a local bookstore to sell and doesn’t collect money on the proceeds.
Fenn has always been something of an agitator, a plays-by-his-own-rules rebel who says and does curious things. After being shot down in 1968 during a mission in Vietnam, Fenn briefly considered living off the land; instead, he alerted the Air Force and was rescued. Today, he brings underprivileged children to the many ancient Native American sites he owns, where he and archaeologists teach them to dig for artifacts. Dozens of pots and hundreds of shards and other spoils fill a small room off his garage.
It was this outlaw spirit that moved him, after his cancer diagnosis in 1988, to plan his great challenge. The idea, at first, was for then 58-year-old Fenn to march out into the Rockies somewhere, hide the treasure, and in true Old West fashion, die next to it. He bought the 12th-century chest for $25,000 and began to fill it. A prewritten poem would give hints to the site, where searchers also would find, presumably, Fenn’s bleached bones.
Of course, he lived. Shortly after surgery to remove his affected right kidney, Fenn was declared cancer-free in 1993, and the idea of the treasure floated to the back of his mind. More than a decade passed before he revived the plan as a way, he says, to get people off their couches and into the wilderness with their families. He was 80 years old by then and would live to see the search—or at least its beginnings. He finished writing his poem. (He says he looked up each noun in the dictionary to make sure there wouldn’t be confusion about the words’ meanings.) He invited a friend to photograph the chest, filled with its booty, and then went off to hide it.
As he sat on his office couch on that morning, his elderly, overweight dachshund at his side, Fenn admitted the hunt always worried him. “I’ve wondered about the worst-case scenario,” he said. “People are going to get lost, I know that.” He says he never considered someone might die.
Since Bilyeu’s disappearance earlier this year, Fenn has been bombarded with media requests to talk about the treasure. In the press, at least, he avoided discussing the nastier details of his fallout with Linda, though it was clear he was keenly aware of what she’d written about him. “Linda said on her blog that the family is devastated, but when Randy disappeared, she said he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed,” Fenn said, recalling a statement Linda once made. “Now, all of a sudden, she’s heartbroken? There’s a lot going on here that I don’t understand. If I’m to blame because Randy was searching for the treasure and got lost, then who’s to blame when a hunter gets lost in the woods?” he said, repeating an example he’d previously used with his supporters. “If someone drowns in a swimming pool, should we drain the pool? There’s been a lot of PR about Randy missing, but I’m not even sure he’s missing. You know, he’s not missing if he knows where he is.” Fenn laughed.
At the very least, Fenn seemed perturbed at the thought of Bilyeu and his dog going onto the Rio Grande in a sporting-goods-store raft with no training and in the dead of winter. “I’ve said that people should not search in the winter,” Fenn said. In the past, he also said the treasure isn’t in a dangerous place. He said he made two trips from his vehicle in one afternoon—the first to carry the chest, the second to deliver the contents. “I don’t want anybody searching where an 80-year-old man couldn’t have made two trips,” he said. “Randy’s raft was very far from his car. Randy was going to go down the river, somehow get back, and he was going to do that twice? The chest is 42 pounds. What was his exit plan?”
That, he said, is just the beginning of his disappointment with Bilyeu’s strategy. “The treasure is in the Rocky Mountains, at least eight and a quarter miles north of the north city limits of Santa Fe,” Fenn said. “Frijoles Canyon is not in the Rocky Mountains. Why was he looking in a place that wasn’t in the designated search area?” To Fenn, Bilyeu’s poorly organized plan, and the area he decided to search, “point to the fact that maybe he didn’t care. Maybe he wanted to disappear.”
Fenn continued: “In the back of my mind I tell myself that, two years from now, Randy’s going to say, ‘I’m not lost. What’s the big deal? I decided I wanted to go to Cuernavaca with a girlfriend and sip tequila.’ And what’s wrong with that? I spent nine hours in a helicopter flying up and down where Randy theoretically put a boat in the Rio Grande. The water is pretty much shallow. You can walk across it nearly any place. There are two snags—logs and such—in there that would have caught him. We searched those. If Randy was in the water, we would have found him. The canyon where he thought the treasure was, we searched that at great length too.”
There is, however, one clue Fenn can’t solve: Leo. “The dog is the only mystery,” Fenn said. Even the most outrageous theories on Bilyeu’s disappearance cannot fathom why he’d leave his beloved dog to die in the wild. Fenn remembered Leo from the September book signing and sensed how much the animal meant to Bilyeu.
After Leo was found along the river in mid-January, he was taken to the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society. Fenn heard about it and went over to see the dog. At the shelter’s office, Fenn and Leo were reintroduced. “He must have lost 25 percent of his body weight,” Fenn said. Fenn bent over to get a better look at the animal, perhaps the only creature to know Bilyeu’s fate. He reached out a hand to scratch the dog. Leo snapped at him. “He wanted to kill me,” Fenn says. “That dog wanted no part of me.”
In late April, a few days after she returned home to Florida, Linda received an anonymous email with an attachment. It was a photo taken at Bandelier National Monument. On the far right was a waterfall that spilled on the rocks below. The photo was taken from a distance to show off the hillside that rose from right to left, at roughly a 45-degree angle. Within the gray rocks, there was a blue backpack. Linda immediately called Bob Rodgers.
A group of Bandelier National Monument rangers organized at the site—a stretch of dangerous backcountry off-limits to hikers that had previously gone unsearched. The backpack was retrieved (Santa Fe Police did not return several calls asking for comment), and whatever was inside sparked a daylong search. Over the course of several hours, nothing else was discovered.
Even as the new search was ongoing, Linda had become skeptical of the photograph. It was common knowledge by now that Bilyeu probably carried a backpack on his trip; the rest of the stuff—like maps and whatever else might have been inside it—could have easily been replicated to make it look like it belonged to her ex-husband. It wasn’t just her, either. Other searchers—including treasure hunters—had come to believe the backpack was planted as a macabre joke. “He’s not over there. I just know it,” Linda said, referring to the waterfall photo. She still hadn’t given up that her ex-husband might be alive, but she acknowledged the chance was remote.
She wrote an editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican that was published on May 28. It was a week before Fennboree III, a gathering of Fenn treasure hunters who celebrate Fenn’s life and those who go in search of his riches. “Will Randy be respected by his peers?” Linda wrote. “Or will his name be pushed aside? Surely Forrest Fenn didn’t forget about Randy being missing, and his family and volunteer searchers are still looking for him five months later.” Linda hoped the other treasure hunters would remember one of their own.
They did. On June 4, more than 100 treasure hunters met at Hyde Memorial State Park, 15 miles outside downtown Santa Fe. They gathered under a log shelter and laid cakes and cookies and chips on picnic tables. Someone lit a charcoal grill.
The group was older and split equally between men and women. There was the disabled former Army lieutenant from Kentucky who said Fenn’s hunt got him active again. There was the woman from Albuquerque who called Fenn the day she was laid off from her job and declared she was now dedicating her life to the search. There was the retired farmer from Missouri who had everything but sold it all so he could move to New Mexico. “I’ve never been happier,” he said. He produced a box of photos, a collection of the places he’d been since he’d taken up the search, and passed them around.
Sacha Johnston, a real estate agent and treasure hunter from Albuquerque, set up at a picnic table in front of a weathered brick fireplace along one edge of the shelter. As one of the coordinators of Fennboree III, she’d brought prizes: four special-edition maps of the four-state search area, coffee cups with the Fenn map, Fenn Frisbees, and small backpacks emblazoned with “Fennboree 2016.” To win, hunters would have to correctly answer questions about Fenn’s life, such as the name of his high school Spanish teacher (Mrs. Ford) or how many gold coins are in the chest (256).
The picnic table quickly turned into a Fenn shrine. Someone built a mini treasure chest adorned with figures that included a leprechaun, Snoopy, and a green plastic Army man. There were photos from Fenn’s September book signing, a necklace made of bottle caps, and a birth announcement from an absent hunter declaring she’d named her newborn son Forrest.
Next to the announcement was a framed photograph of Bilyeu, glasses atop his head, smiling widely for the camera. Leo was tucked under one of his arms. People came by to look at the photo or drop a dollar into an adjacent box for donations to the Santa Fe animal shelter. Someone set a rock atop it that looked like a horseshoe.
“Randy’s brought us all closer,” said Neitzel, the website curator who’d met Bilyeu at the book signing. “His disappearance has gotten more people to think about safety and how they need a plan if things start to go wrong. He made everyone take a step back.”
Fenn arrived an hour into the festivities. He chatted with the long line of people who came to shake his hand or to offer him a gift or to share an idea on where his valuables might be hidden. He smiled and patted a few of them on the back.
After the food was served, Johnston stood in front of the picnic table and asked for everyone’s attention. The people here knew about Randy Bilyeu’s disappearance, she began. He had been one of them, and they were a family. They should always remember him. The people stood by quietly; some nodded. Johnston asked for a moment, a reflection, a prayer, a positive thought thrown into the universe.
Fenn stood off to the side. His white cowboy hat atop his head, he placed his hands in his pockets. He bowed and stared at his shoes. Then, finally, he closed his eyes.
Six weeks after Fennboree III, in mid-July, a body was discovered along the banks of the Rio Grande, just south of where Bilyeu launched his raft with Leo. Linda’s searchers had been in the area—a place noteworthy for its steep incline and heavy vegetation—several times before, but it was a work crew from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who came across the decomposing remains hidden amid a tangle of branches and leaves. Waders were on the body’s feet. The crew also found keys to a Nissan Murano and a cell phone matching Bilyeu’s nearby.
The New Mexico State Police were called, and the body was removed the next day and delivered to the state’s Office of the Medical Investigator. Linda was notified and kept vigil as she waited for confirmation. Friends began posting encouraging messages on the Search For Randy Bilyeu Facebook page: You’re in our thoughts, they told Linda. Stay strong. “This is harder than I thought it would be,” she told me on July 21. “I’m trying to hold it together.” Her voice cracked.
Forrest Fenn emailed me shortly after the body was discovered. “They are analyzing the bones to see if it’s Randy,” he wrote. “Hope not.” Bilyeu’s dental records finally arrived from Georgia. Kathy received the family’s first call on July 26. She phoned Linda.
Linda had been expecting the call for nearly two weeks, but she still had to catch herself. Her daughters were nearby and saw the pained look on their mother’s face. Linda thanked her former sister-in-law and hung up. She reached for her daughters and granddaughters, and the five of them hugged. Then they prayed. They agreed they would move on with their lives, that they would support one another. Linda and the family went out for dinner, and Linda toasted her ex with a Budweiser.
She called Bob Rodgers, from search and rescue, and delivered the news. Then she emailed me, and I reached out to Fenn one final time. “I am deeply saddened that Randy did not make it out of the Rio Grande canyon,” he wrote in an email. “My prayers are with his family and friends.”
Befitting the past six months of strangeness, Linda and her children had spent the afternoon of July 26, the day the call came, scattering her second husband’s cremated remains. As she was finally letting go of one man, another had come back into her life. And Bilyeu will hang on for a while longer. Santa Fe Police consider the investigation into Bilyeu’s death open and are awaiting results from the medical investigator’s office on the cause. A police spokesman said in late July that there’s no timetable on when the case might be closed.