The Man Who Found Forrest Fenn's Treasure
The decade-long hunt captured the world's attention, but when it finally ended in June, everyone still wanted to know: Who had solved the mystery? This week, as legal proceedings threaten his anonymity, a 32-year-old medical student is ready to go on the record.
It took two months of correspondence before the man who found Forrest Fenn’s treasure told me his name.
We’d been emailing since September, and I honestly didn’t expect to ever know who he really was. I was fine with that; as a fellow treasure hunter, I completely understood his desire for anonymity.
Since 2017, I had been pursuing Fenn’s treasure, too, becoming a kinda-sorta searcher in order to tell the story of Fenn’s hunt in my upcoming book Chasing the Thrill, to be published by Knopf in June. I’d been in the trenches, read Fenn’s clue-filled poem over and over, ended up in places I probably shouldn’t have been, and gone to places where other people died trying to find it.
A decade ago, Fenn hid his treasure chest, containing gold and other valuables estimated to be worth at least a million dollars, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Not long after, he published a memoir called The Thrill of the Chase, which included a mysterious 24-line poem that, if solved, would lead searchers to the treasure. Fenn had suggested that the loot was secreted away at the place where he had envisioned lying down to die, back when he’d believed a 1988 cancer diagnosis was terminal. Since the hunt began in 2010, many thousands of searchers had gone out in pursuit—at least five of them losing their lives in the process—and the chase became an international story.
So many people had invested and sacrificed so much in pursuit of Fenn’s treasure that it was possible the finder would face threats, be they legal or physical, from people who resented them or wished them ill.
And that was exactly what was beginning to play out.
This past June, Fenn announced that the treasure had been found by a man from “back east” who wanted to remain anonymous—even, once we were in contact, to me. So despite exchanging dozens of emails with the finder, and discussing the details of the chest and what locating it meant to him, I never pressed him about who he was, and he never volunteered.
Last week, he told me the situation had changed. Fenn had been targeted by lawsuits both before and after the chest was found, by hunters claiming that the treasure was rightfully theirs. One of the lawsuits, filed immediately after Fenn announced the hunt was over, also targets the unknown finder as a defendant, claiming that he had stolen the plaintiff’s solve and used it to find the chest. That litigation had advanced to a procedural stage during which the finder expected his name would likely come out in court. So while he remained guarded about his solve and the location where he discovered the treasure, he now didn’t mind telling me who he really was.
And that’s when I learned that a 32-year-old Michigan native and medical student was the person who had finally solved Fenn’s poem. His name is Jack Stuef.
Stuef first heard about Fenn’s chase on Twitter in early 2018, and couldn’t believe it had escaped his notice for eight whole years. He was instantly hooked.
“I’ve probably thought about it for at least a couple hours a day, every day, since I learned about it,” Stuef says. “Every day.”
The treasure hunt immediately brought him back to his youth, when he was obsessed with a 2002 TV series called Push, Nevada, which allowed viewers to try and solve a real-life mystery that carried a million-dollar prize. Stuef also got caught up in a book by magician David Blaine, Mysterious Stranger, which combined autobiography with a treasure hunt and offered a $100,000 prize.
Over time, those teenage dreams of adventure receded, and Stuef went on to attend Georgetown University, where he served as editor in chief of the Georgetown Heckler, a campus humor magazine. He graduated in December 2009 and began a career as a writer, both in humor—he worked for the Onion—and in more traditional media. He became embroiled in a few controversies early in his career, both at Wonkette, which he left after he made what Poynter describes as “a tasteless joke about one of Sarah Palin’s children having Down Syndrome,” and while freelancing for Buzzfeed, which had to apologize after an article Stuef wrote incorrectly painted a popular internet cartoonist as a hard-line Republican. He left the media business soon after.
“I don’t think those were giant incidents,” Stuef says. “I regret them, but I don’t think about them very often. It was a long time ago now.”
He soon entered a postbaccalaureate program, and then enrolled in medical school. But he disliked most everything about medicine beyond treating patients, he says, and something else captured his attention: Fenn’s chase. He was soon reading the hunter blogs to learn the basics, and he bought Fenn’s memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, before diving into as much primary source material as he could find. His method was to devour every Fenn interview, doing anything he could to hear and absorb his words directly, in an effort to better understand the man’s personality and motivations.
As the hunt took up more and more of his time, Stuef mostly kept the extent of his pursuit hidden from friends and family. He didn’t think they would understand.
“I think I got a little embarrassed by how obsessed I was with it,” Stuef says. “If I didn’t find it, I would look kind of like an idiot. And maybe I didn’t want to admit to myself what a hold it had on me.”
Two years later, he had achieved what so many other searchers could not, finding and claiming Fenn’s treasure. (Stuef’s status as the finder was independently verified with the Fenn family.) He retrieved the chest on Saturday, June 6, 2020, in Wyoming, and began the long drive down to Santa Fe to deliver it to Fenn that same day. That evening, news of the find was already beginning to come out, as Fenn believed it must. “‘We should let [searchers] know as soon as you have it,’” Stuef says Fenn told him.
“His thought was that, as soon as it’s out of place, we need to let people know,” Stuef says. “People have died. There could be issues.”
Stuef asked Fenn, though, that he be allowed to remain anonymous, and they both seemed to agree that the location of the find should be kept secret.
But controversy quickly swirled, as many hunters, unsatisfied with the lack of disclosure, decided this meant that something nefarious was afoot—that Fenn had never really hidden the treasure, or that he had unilaterally ended the hunt without a real finder. The backlash took Fenn by surprise, according to those around him. To address it, several weeks after the find, he released photos of the chest and of himself going through it after Stuef delivered it to Santa Fe, which provided enough confirmation for some. In July, Fenn suggested to Stuef that they also reveal the state where the treasure was found, in order to give further closure to some hunters. Stuef agreed.
Beyond that, though, he remained silent, and might have stayed that way for some time.
And then Forrest Fenn died.
On September 23, two weeks after Fenn passed away in his home at age 90, a post surfaced on Medium, a platform that allows users to self-publish essays and other writing, anonymously if they choose. Called “A Remembrance of Forrest Fenn,” it carried the byline “The Finder,” along with a bio that declared: “The author is the finder and owner of the Forrest Fenn Treasure.”
In 3,000 well-crafted words, the finder penned an ode to Fenn, who he described as his friend, even though he’d only known him briefly.
“I am the person who found Forrest’s famed treasure,” he wrote. “The moment it happened was not the triumphant Hollywood ending some surely envisioned; it just felt like I had just survived something and was fortunate to come out the other end.”
In his essay, the finder revealed a great deal about the circumstances under which he had discovered the treasure—but, crucially, he would not divulge exactly where he had located it, and said he didn’t plan to. He was also careful not to let any details about his own identity slip, indicating only that he was a millennial and had student loans to pay off. Beyond that, he was an enigma.
He explained that in 2018 he had figured out the location where the longtime Santa Fe art dealer and former fighter pilot wished to die, and then spent a combined 25 days over the next two years searching the general area until he finally located the treasure. He said that, to find the solution, he’d carefully listened to things Fenn had said in interviews, finding a few crucial crumbs.
“[Fenn] never made more than a couple of subtle slip-ups in front of all the dogged reporters who came to his house, and even those apparently haven’t been caught by anyone besides me,” the finder wrote.
He included pictures of the chest, some of them taken in the wilderness shortly after the treasure was found, others taken at what was assumed to be a lawyer’s office, showing Fenn examining the chest.
Still, there were doubters. Many searchers refused to believe that the Medium post was written by the true finder, and suggested it was fraudulent—perhaps written by Fenn’s grandson, Shiloh Old, or by his professional writer pal, Douglas Preston, or even by Fenn himself before his death, intended to be released posthumously.
But I didn’t think any of that. In fact, after finishing the essay, I was pretty certain it was all real. And although the finder wrote that he would eventually answer more questions, the journalist in me didn’t particularly want to wait, or to leave what he answered up to him alone.
So I reached out.
Medium doesn’t generally allow readers to directly contact the author of a piece, which is one reason it’s good for anonymous posting. It does allow users to post public comments, and more than 100 people quickly did that, most of them supportive, some skeptical, a few angry and aggressive. But I wasn’t going to just post my email address in the comments, where anyone could read it. Doing that left me no guarantee that the person I might end up in contact with would be the finder.
I had one trick up my sleeve, though. There’s a little-known way to send a direct message to the author of a Medium story: you flag a section of text, indicating that it contains an error or typo. This notifies the author that something needs to be corrected. The system doesn’t give you a lot of space, just enough to describe the problem. So I flagged a section, barely squeezed in who I was and my email address, and hoped for the best. I had no assurances that the finder would look at the message, or that he would understand exactly why he should get in touch. But it was worth a shot.
Less than a day later, an email popped into my in-box. The finder had replied. He’d heard of my book project, he said, and he might be willing to talk to me.
And so began months of back-and-forth, sometimes involving several emails a day. It didn’t really matter that I didn’t know who the finder was for most of that time. I hung on every detail, every minor revelation he offered up about the treasure that had occupied me for so long.
Last week, after a lull in our ongoing conversation, the finder emailed again, explaining that one of the court cases surrounding the find had taken an unexpected turn, and his name was likely to come out as part of the process. So he told me who he was, and gave me permission to tell the world.
The case that prompted him to step from behind the curtain was brought by a Chicago real estate attorney named Barbara Andersen, who alleges that the unknown finder of the treasure had located it by hacking her texts and emails and stealing her solve. She believed the treasure was in New Mexico.
Stuef says he never met nor heard of Andersen before the suit; he denies her charges and says the treasure was nowhere near New Mexico. That has not stopped a New Mexico federal court judge from allowing the suit to proceed. Last week, Stuef learned that, as a result of Fenn’s death, the subpoena against Fenn would be transferred to his heirs and estate, which is in possession of Stuef’s information. This should allow Andersen to refile her suit, naming Stuef as a defendant.
Stuef had expected that finding the chest would bring some level of blowback, that his possession of an item desired by so many makes him a target.
“I thought that whoever found the chest would be absolutely hated, because it ends everyone’s dream,” he says. “That’s something of a burden. I realize I put an end to something that meant so much to so many people.”
But even if he anticipated challenges to his find, being a subject of a lawsuit has been an unsettling experience.
“I always thought that, based on people suing Forrest in the past, it was something that could happen,” Stuef says.
This treasure hunt has never been easy on its participants; Fenn and his family experienced a great deal of harassment from searchers who went too far during the years the hunt was active—everything from stalking to threats to a break-in at Fenn’s home in Santa Fe. This is why Stuef hoped to remain anonymous, and why, even now, with his name known, he won’t disclose where he’s living.
Many searchers I’ve talked to appreciate his desire for anonymity, and I understand it as well. But one thing many searchers have a harder time grasping is Stuef’s decision to withhold where he found the treasure, even though the chest has since been removed.
People have died looking for the chest. Others have gone bankrupt. Many more have spent countless hours in search of it, and they want some degree of resolution. On our various excursions out West, my search partner and I both found ourselves a little too obsessed at points, and it took its toll. There are real human costs to this search, and knowing the final location could offer the desired sense of closure so many are now seeking.
Stuef says he’s sympathetic to those feelings.
“This is the most difficult question to answer, because I know there’s so many people who just want to know. They worked on this for a long time. And they just want to be handed the answer. I totally understand that. But doing that, I think, is a death sentence to this special place.”
Stuef fears that Fenn’s spot, if revealed, will become a pilgrimage site for Fenn devotees.
“It’s not an appropriate place to become a tourist destination. It has huge meaning to Forrest, and I don’t want to see it destroyed,” Stuef says. “And as much as I tried not to develop an attachment to the place, eventually I did, as well. I had whole days out there looking, and I would take a nap in the afternoon every day, as I said on Medium, under the pine trees. It was very peaceful for me.”
Stuef is trying to find a balance between the various entities, because he feels responsible to all of them. To the search community and its desire to know the whole truth; to himself and his sense of what is right; to nature and this peaceful spot, which he does not want to see ruined; and to Fenn. Ultimately, Stuef believes he’s being consistent with what Fenn wanted when he was alive, and honoring his legacy.
“He didn’t want to see it turned into a tourist attraction,” Stuef says of the treasure site. “We thought it was not appropriate for that to happen. He was willing to go to great lengths, very great lengths, to avoid ever having to tell the location.”
Because of his stand, talking to Stuef can be maddening at times. For my book, I’ve interviewed him about his solve, discussed the process he used to come up with it, and chronicled the various searches he went on as he sought the exact spot, learning fascinating tidbits in the process. For example, he’s told me that one reason it took him two years to retrieve the treasure, even after figuring out the general area in 2018, was that the “blaze”—Fenn’s all-important final clue, found out in the wilderness, intended to let a searcher know they’re in the exact right spot—had been damaged. He doesn’t mind being open with all of that. And yet there are still things he holds back or talks around, in order to make sure, even now, that no one can figure out the precise location.
Still, listening to Stuef talk about it, he makes it seem so attainable, so simple: that the key was really just understanding Forrest Fenn. Stuef hunted solo, never discussed his search with others, stayed away from the blogs after his initial looks at them, and tried hard not to get caught up in any groupthink. He did his utmost just to focus on Fenn’s words and primary sources, and understand those as best he could.
“I don’t want to ruin this treasure hunt by saying it was made for an English major, but it’s based on a close read of a text,” Stuef says. “I mean, that’s what it is. It’s having the correct interpretation of a poem. I understood him by reading his words, and listening to him talk over and over and over and over again. And seeking out anything I could get my hands on that told me who he was.”
When asked if figuring out the puzzles required the use of anagrams, or GPS coordinates, or sophisticated codes of any sort, Stuef was clear in his response.
“No,” he says. “But I don’t want to say that people are stupid for thinking those things were valid, or that they were being irrational. I think Forrest designed this to be fun, and whatever people got out of it, that gave them fun, I think, to me, is rational. And they were doing it right, in that way.”
The solution, Stuef says, is tied far more to understanding Fenn’s emotions, and to a close examination of the poem itself, than to puzzle-solving skills. Fenn simply didn’t care about those kinds of things. He was more interested in adventure, legacy, history, narrative.
“There was no reason to think that those things would be something he was interested in, or had any experience in,” Stuef says. “I mean, he was coming to this not from the perspective of being a huge fan of puzzles or a puzzle master. He was not a fan of armchair treasure hunts. His point of reference was pirates! His purpose was not to create a great puzzle and show everyone how smart and slick he was. His purpose was this weird idea to entomb himself. And to create a historic legend. None of that supports armchair solutions. And he was open about that.”
So far, ownership of the chest has not made Stuef a rich man. He has not sold it yet, has not even had it appraised, but the expected windfall has allowed him to quit worrying about repaying his student loans for medical school. With that in mind, he has decided to leave the profession before becoming a practicing doctor, and may move into equities investing next.
“I was kind of in this sunk-cost-fallacy dead end with that, where I didn’t want to quit, because I didn’t know what else to do,” he says. “I didn’t know how to pay off my loans if I didn’t become a doctor. [The chest] was kind of my lifeline.”
Once the time is right, he still plans to sell the chest. When he does, he will try to honor a “final wish” of Fenn’s: to have the chest end up in a specific place where searchers can view it, though he declined to say exactly where.
“Before he died, he was going to try to help me with getting a certain party to buy it,” Stuef says. “And I think his hope was that it would be able to be displayed. … And so that’s my first step. After that, I think I would probably try and sell to the public.”
If it gets that far, he’s unsure whether it would be best to sell it as a complete package, or to break it up, allowing individual searchers to own a piece of Fenn’s treasure.
“I’d guess we kind of try and test the market in some way to see what it would sell for all together, because there’s a good chance it’s worth more all together, as the Fenn treasure,” Stuef says. “But, you know, it’s possible. There are a lot of searchers out there who would want maybe one item in there, they couldn’t afford the whole thing, but it would mean a lot to them to have one item. So it is still possible to break out.”
With the chest located, one part of the treasure hunt is finished now—the chase, the part that obsessed all of us and pushed us to places we maybe shouldn’t have been. But the story has not ended. So many people have a stake in this hunt, it means so much to so many, that the tale didn’t, and doesn’t, end with a man finding a treasure chest.
That, in so many ways, is just opening up the box.
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