Fenn treasure hunter pleads guilty for damage caused in Yellowstone Park

Stock photo of a stereotypical treasure chest overflowing with gold coins.
Enlarge / Over 350,000 people tried and failed to find the Fenn treasure before someone finally solved the puzzle last June.

A Utah man charged with causing more than $1,000 worth of damages in Yellowstone National Park has pleaded guilty to two felony charges, The New York Times reported last week. The man, 52-year-old Rodrick Dow Craythorn, had been hunting for a buried treasure chest hidden 10 years ago by an antiquities dealer named Forrest Fenn. Craythorn faces up to $270,000 in fines and 12 years in prison at his sentencing, slated for March 17.

Over 350,000 people tried and failed to find the treasure before Fenn announced that someone had finally solved his puzzle last June, although he declined at the time to name the winner or disclose the location where the chest had been found. Fenn himself died last September at the age of 90, and the finder has since come forward: 32-year-old Jack Stuef, a medical student originally from Michigan.

As we’ve reported previously, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Fenn buried a treasure chest filled with gold, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. He hid the clues to its location in a poem that is part of his 2010 self-published memoir, The Thrill of the Chase. Fenn claimed he set up the hunt to inspire people to explore nature by giving them a “good old-fashioned adventure.” It was also a way to offer hope to those deeply affected by the Great Recession that followed the collapse of the housing market in 2008.

He described the chest as an ornate, Romanesque box—carved with scenes of knights and ladies—containing gold nuggets, rare gold coins, and various kinds of gemstones. The chest weighed about 20 pounds, and its contents weighed another 20 pounds. (Apparently, it took him two trips to hide it.) The stories in his memoir hinted at the location, and a poem in the chapter “Gold and More” contained nine clues leading to the site.

Craythorn wasn’t the only treasure hunter who got carried away with the quest. Some quit their jobs and spent their life savings in the hunt for the chest. Also, “exploring nature” can be hazardous to those unaccustomed to dealing with the great outdoors. The Rocky Mountains has bears and snakes, plus it’s easy to fall down a steep slope or drown in the river. And if you get lost or badly injured, the cell phone service is pretty much nil. At least five people have perished on their quest.

As time wore on, Fenn weathered accusations of fraud by frustrated treasure hunters who became convinced there was never any buried treasure—including from the ex-wife of one of the men who died while searching. Then there are the lawsuits. One lawsuit was filed by a man in Colorado Springs late last year, although a judge dismissed the case in February on procedural grounds.

Fenn’s announcement of the discovery (rather predictably) resulted in even more lawsuits. In June, a Chicago real estate lawyer named Barbara Andersen told the Santa Fe New Mexican that she planned to file a federal injunction, claiming that she solved the puzzle but her solution was stolen by an unnamed defendant who “followed and cheated me to get the chest.” Also crying foul is an Arizona man named Brian Erskine, who also claims to have solved the puzzle and thinks Fenn’s timing with his announcement of the discovery is “suspect.”

It was the Andersen lawsuit that led Stuef to finally come forward in a December 2020 interview with journalist Daniel Barbarisi—a fellow treasure hunter—published in Outside magazine, who independently verified Stuef’s claim with the Fenn family. (Stuef also penned an anonymous 3,000-word tribute to Fenn on September 23, 2020, published on Medium, which has since been updated to include his byline.) A New Mexico federal court ruled that Andersen’s lawsuit could proceed, and he expected to be named as a co-defendant, which would have revealed his identity.

Wyoming?

Stuef told Barbarisi he had never met or even heard of Barbara Andersen, and while she claimed the treasure had been hidden in New Mexico, he discovered it in Wyoming. He still refuses to reveal the specific site, fearful that if he did so, this spot—so special to Fenn—would just become a tourist attraction for Fenn’s many fans.

“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 told Barbarisi. “He didn’t want to see it turned into a tourist attraction. 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.”

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