SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s top law enforcement officer is urging the author and antiquities dealer who inspired thousands to search remote corners of the American West for a hidden chest of gold and jewels to end the treasure hunt.
The plea from State Police Chief Pete Kassetas follows what authorities believe is the latest death related to the effort to uncover Forrest Fenn’s treasure.
Colorado pastor Paris Wallace disappeared last week while searching for the bounty in a rugged area along the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico. His family reported him missing, triggering an extensive search.
State Police believe a body recovered Sunday is Wallace’s. Medical investigators were working Tuesday to make a positive identification.
Kassetas told reporters that Fenn should retrieve the treasure from wherever he hid it and stop what he called nonsense and insanity.
“He’s putting lives at risk,” the chief said, noting that he planned to contact Fenn personally to ask him to call off the hunt.
Fenn did not respond to emails from The Associated Press asking about Wallace’s disappearance and the calls to end the search for the cache of gold coins, jewels and other artifacts he claims to have hidden somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
Fenn has dropped clues to its whereabouts in a cryptic poem in his memoir, “The Thrill of the Chase.”
He told the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper Monday that he has been considering how to make the search safer or cancel it altogether but has not made any decisions. He called Wallace’s disappearance tragic.
The 52-year-old pastor traveled to the Espanola area last week. His wife reported him missing Wednesday after he didn’t return home and hotel staff informed her that his belongings were still in his room.
Police and wildlife officials searched forest and county roads and popular hiking trails.
After looking at Wallace’s laptop, authorities learned of other locations where he might have gone. They eventually found his vehicle along the Rio Grande.
At the edge of the water, officers saw two red ropes tied together and to a large rock. Receipts in Wallace’s vehicle indicated the ropes belonged to him.
Rescuers spent two days searching the river until rafters spotted a body downstream — about 7 miles from where Wallace was last believed to have been.
Authorities say the search effort required extensive resources, including air support, the state police dive team, numerous officers, canine teams and volunteers.
Mitzi Wallace, Wallace’s fellow treasure hunter and wife of 30 years, said it would be a mistake for Fenn to end the hunt, and she would continue to search for the treasure with her 19-year-old son, including in the area where authorities believe her husband died.
“Our treasure is that time we spend together,” she told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
She added without elaborating that her husband put himself in a dangerous situation that cost him his life. But “I know without a shadow of a doubt that it was God’s way of taking him.”
Efforts to find wayward treasure hunters have put the lives of law enforcement officers and search and rescue volunteers at risk while straining state resources, Kassetas said.
New Mexico’s search and rescue team launched a survey Tuesday on whether Fenn should call off the search.
“Over the years, as people have searched for this treasure, some have ended up getting into trouble and needing help from search and rescue. At least two have lost their lives looking for the treasure chest,” the survey says.
Last year, searchers spent weeks looking for Randy Bilyeu, another Colorado man who disappeared in the New Mexico backcountry while looking for the loot.
Volunteers led by Bilyeu’s ex-wife eventually picked up where the official search left off, and Bilyeu’s remains were found several months later.
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