'I love mysteries,' says man claiming hidden gold

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 30, 2013 at 9:09 pm •  Published: March 30, 2013
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But there are some intangibles Fenn has spent his life searching out.

"I love mysteries. I love adventures," he says.

As a teen, scouring Yellowstone every summer, he almost led friend Donnie Joe to an early demise when they got lost on horseback in Montana's Gallatin National Forest trying to retrace the steps of Lewis and Clark, according to his memoir.

"Donnie got in a serious swivet and wouldn't speak to me for a while, except to say that our unfortunate adventure was ill-conceived, dumb thought out, and I was over-rated like my horse," he writes.

His book moves on to the Vietnam War, describing his Air Force service, his combat missions and even his survival after being shot down.

While it's sometimes hard to know whether Fenn's zest for "embellishment" adds to his stories, military records emphatically back this chapter. They confirm that as a fighter pilot he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, silver and bronze stars, a purple heart and other medals. In one engagement, enemy fire shattered the canopy of his jet, cutting his face, and yet he continued to attack, the records show. In another, he showed "outstanding heroism," making repeated low strafing passes to draw fire until wounded forces on the ground could be rescued. He rose to the rank of major.

Fenn also describes himself as an amateur archaeologist. In the mid-1980s, he bought a ranch near Santa Fe that includes the 57-acre ancient pueblo of San Lazaro, where he has spent years digging up bones, pottery and other artifacts that he keeps in a room off his garage.

And while he says he made his fortune selling paintings, his love is clearly of antiquities. His personal study, which was designed to house a 17-by-28-foot Persian rug from the late 1800s, is filled from floor to ceiling with valuables, ranging from gilded fore-edge books to war memorabilia, a brandy bottle left in his guest house by Kennedy Onassis, and even what he says is Sitting Bull's pipe.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2006 raided his home as part of an antiquities theft probe, but Fenn was never charged.

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"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."

That's part of the poem of clues to the treasure's location, which Fenn published in his memoir three years ago. News reports have created a run on the book.

Based on the more than 9,000 emails Fenn says he has received just in the past few months, he estimates thousands of treasure hunters will descend on northern New Mexico this spring.

Dana Ortega, director of sales and marketing at Santa Fe's Inn and Spa at Loretto, said the hotel, which offers a special package starting at $300 that includes a copy of Fenn's now hard-to-find book, has seen a huge spike in interest.

"About 50 people came in on the package last year," she said. "Now our phones are ringing off the hook. ... So many people have the book so they are not all doing the package, but they call and want to stay here."

The local Chamber of Commerce should "give Forrest an award for increasing tourism," says McGarrity, his friend.

He talks of being stopped on the street by a man in a big truck with Texas plates, pulling an all-terrain vehicle and asking if he knew where Forrest Fenn lived.

"Are you hunting for treasure?" McGarrity asked.

"You betcha!" the Texan said.

But the publicity has also raised safety concerns.

A few weeks ago, a woman from Texas, drawn by a network report about the treasure, got lost searching the mountains near Los Alamos. She spent the night in the rugged terrain of Bandelier National Monument and was walking out the next day when rescuers found her. But the case prompted officials to warn searchers to be properly prepared for the outdoors. They also reminded the public it's illegal to dig, bury an item or use a metal detector on federal lands.

Also a concern: Fenn says he has had people ringing the buzzer at his gate and trying to follow him when he leaves.

For the most part, though, he says people reaching out to him are just trying to convince or trick him into giving more clues.

So far, the best anyone seems to have gotten out of him is that the treasure is more than 300 miles west of Toledo, not in Nevada, and more than 5,000 feet above sea level "in the Rocky Mountains. (Santa Fe, whose Sangre de Cristo mountains mark the start of the Rockies, is 7,260 feet above sea level.)

But he emphasizes two things: He never said the treasure was buried, and he never said it was in Santa Fe, or even New Mexico for that matter.

Nietzel says the most common place the clues about "where warm waters halt" first lead people is to Eagle Nest Lake, about 100 miles north of Santa Fe, because it has a dam that holds back warm water and is known for its brown trout.

Others are sure it must be in Yellowstone, because of Fenn's history there and his deep knowledge of the park.

Nietzel says he has made 29 searches for the treasure in six states, and he plans to resume his efforts when it gets a little warmer in the mountains.

Another friend of Fenn's, Santa Fe jeweler Marc Howard, says he has made about 20 searches, and is "still trying to match my wits against a seemingly impossible poem."

The scheme is similar to a treasure hunt launched in 1979 by the author of a British children's book, "Masquerade," which had clues to the location of an 18-carat jeweled golden hare hidden somewhere in Britain. That rabbit was found in 1982, although it was later revealed it was found with the help of the author's former live-in girlfriend.

Fenn, who lives with his wife in a gated estate near the center of town, insists he is the only person who knows where his treasure is hidden. Asked what his two daughters, Kelly and Zoe, think of him hiding part of their and their seven kids' inheritance, he replies only that "they've been saying for years that I am crazy." He doubts they have any interest in finding it, but says he wouldn't be surprised if one of two grandsons has gone looking for it.

And he is ambivalent about whether the chest is found soon, or even in his lifetime.

But "when a person finds that treasure chest, whether it's tomorrow or 10,000 years from now and opens the lid, they are going to go into shock. It is such a sight."