In the summer of 2020, the decade-long Forrest Fenn treasure hunt ended in a tangled mess of conspiracy theories, wild accusations, and protracted legal proceedings. Fenn wouldn’t say who found the treasure. Worse than that, he wouldn’t say where it had been hidden. For a treasure hunt that was supposed to be real-life Indiana Jones, the finale left everyone jonesing for more information.
Cue the frivolous lawsuits. One accused Fenn of ending the hunt on purpose and lying when he announced the treasure was found in Wyoming. A different one accused the chest’s then anonymous finder of hacking a plaintiff’s emails and texts to steal the solution. A third implied that Fenn was lying when he said he never told anyone where the treasure was, because pop star Taylor Swift referenced that she knew the location of the treasure in her lyrics and music videos. I wish I were making that up.
But now the most recent Fenn lawsuit has shown that Fenn did actually tell someone exactly where the treasure was, very soon after it was found. He told Yellowstone National Park’s chief ranger, Sarah Davis.
The Fenn treasure hunt began in 2010, when the wealthy art dealer hid a chest filled with gold and jewels from his personal collection “somewhere in the Rocky mountains,” then published a 24-line poem containing clues to its location.
Jack Stuef, a 32-year-old medical student at the time, found the treasure in 2020. He revealed his identity to Outside in December of that year, just before being added as a defendant to one of the lawsuits—“my texts and emails were hacked”—which forced his hand.
Five searchers died in the course of the hunt. Fenn collapsed and died at home in Santa Fe in September of 2020. Over the past two years, all but one of the lawsuits have been dismissed. Which brings us to Jamie McCracken, the Florida man now hunting for treasure in a New Mexico courtroom.
McCracken accuses Fenn of moving the treasure four times—whenever McCracken was getting close to it, he says. He also claims that Fenn purchased property near his search spot to keep tabs on him, and that Fenn was lying every time he said that the chest was still in the same place he’d originally left it. McCracken, who is representing himself in court, indicated he would show evidence that Fenn was still alive after his death was announced. He says Fenn misled the entire community on the hunt.
Karl Sommer, the lawyer for Fenn’s estate, put it differently.
“I mean, this is bizarre shit,” he said.
Whatever it is, McCracken is pretty good at submitting legal paperwork. He declined to comment until his case is resolved, and it’s set to begin proceedings in June. In preparation, Sommer subpoenaed Stuef for a deposition. He needs Stuef to say that he solved the clues in the poem fair and square, and that the treasure was exactly where Fenn originally left it. If Sommer questions Stuef, however, McCracken also gets a turn. Stuef would be under oath and could be compelled to reveal the exact location of the treasure.
And it turns out, officials at Yellowstone really want to avoid that scenario.
In April, assistant U.S. attorney Kimberley Bell filed a motion to intervene in McCracken’s case, arguing that publicizing the exact location of Fenn’s treasure would result in a surge of visitors and damage to the park. In support of that motion, the park’s chief ranger, Davis, signed an affidavit stating that in August 2020, two months after the treasure was found, she had a Zoom meeting with Fenn and Stuef, during which they told her where the treasure had been stashed. Davis surveyed the area the following week and concluded that the spot was not set up to handle the increased foot traffic that revealing the location might bring. (The affidavit doesn’t specifically state that the treasure was in the park, just that the location is owned by the U.S. government and managed by the Department of the Interior. But c’mon.)
For years, searchers have theorized that the treasure was found in Yellowstone, which is why Stuef wouldn’t share any specifics: found property in a national park is supposed to be turned in to the park supervisor. In a sense, by putting the chest in Yellowstone, Fenn booby-trapped his hiding spot. Whoever found the treasure would have to maneuver very carefully if they wanted to keep it.
But Stuef passed the test. And now we know how.
The McCracken lawsuit made public photos of the chest in situ, still embedded in the ground, as well as some private emails between Stuef and Fenn that occurred immediately after the treasure was found. And Stuef’s first email reads like it was written by a committee of lawyers.
“I’m aware that over the years you have intimated that you may like to give these items to the person who found it,” Stuef wrote. “If that is the case with me, I would be happy to receive them, but I think it would be prudent that I first return your treasure to you so you can fully verify that it belongs to you. At that time, you can make your decision on whether to keep it all, give it to me, subtract or add items, or whatever else you may decide.”
Stuef emailed Fenn on June 5, apparently leaving the chest in place overnight. He says he retrieved it June 6, which raises some questions. Did Stuef figure out all that precise language on his own that day? Were there instructions in the chest about how to proceed? The latter seems more likely. Fenn said he spent $5,000 on a lawyer figuring out the potential finder’s legal situation before he placed the chest. And he always said that there was a kind of fail-safe inside. That he’d know when it was found.
But then, it also seems like Stuef knew he was going to find the treasure long before he did. Maybe he had time to prepare. According to a document that recently turned up on a treasure-hunting forum, Stuef applied for tax status and apparently moved to Puerto Rico—where there is almost no capital gains tax—in September 2019, nine months before he found the treasure.
I put all this to tax attorney Larry Brant, who I consulted with back when the treasure was first found.
“It looks like someone is really thinking this through,” he said.
On May 4, judge Francis J. Mathew denied the government’s motion to intervene in the case, saying that doing so would cause undue delay, and that the government has other avenues—like an injunction in federal court—if it wants to keep the location of the treasure a secret. His view seemed to be that the location of the treasure became public information when Fenn published his poem.
So for now, the deposition will proceed, and Fenn’s hiding spot could soon be revealed. The end of the treasure hunt may finally be drawing to a close.
When I interviewed him in 2014, Fenn said he wanted to make the contents of his treasure chest look like a pirate movie, so he filled it with the most visually stunning items he could find: diamonds, rubies, and gold.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of gold nuggets,” he said. “Two of them are larger than a hen’s egg.”
Gold nuggets. Yellow stones. It was right there this whole time.
Peter Frick-Wright is a contributing editor and the host of an Apple Original podcast about the Fenn treasure, coming later this year.