Inside one woman’s dogged hunt to find Forrest Fenn’s buried treasure

Miriam de Fronzo was simply too late.

She heard the news that a bronze chest full of gold and jewels had been found somewhere in the Rocky Mountains while she was on the last leg of a three-day road trip to New Mexico in her own pursuit of the riches last weekend.

“I was completely distraught,” said de Fronzo, 50, who has spent much of her time and a good part of her savings over the last three and half years deciphering cryptic clues left by an enigmatic Santa Fe art and antiques dealer who says he hid the $2 million treasure in 2010.

Forrest Fenn, 89, created the treasure hunt that saw some 350,000 people from around the world race into mountain wilderness to follow strange clues he buried in a 24-line poem and his self-published autobiography, “The Thrill of the Chase.”

In pursuit of the bounty over the last 10 years, some quit their jobs, others blew through their savings and marriages, and five men died.

On June 6, Fenn suddenly announced in a blog post that the treasure — a 42-pound chest loaded with pre-Columbian gold artifacts, ancient Chinese jade carvings and antique coins — had been found.

“It was under a canopy of stars in the lush, forested vegetation of the Rocky Mountains and had not moved from the spot where I hid it more than 10 years ago,” said Fenn, who said that he made two trips in his car to hide the precious cache.

But Fenn refused to say exactly where it was found, nor will he reveal the identity of the finder-keeper.

“The guy who found it does not want his name mentioned,” Fenn told the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, adding that the hunter sent him a photo as proof of the find. “He’s from back East.”

Fenn, who has readily admitted that he sold forged art at his gallery in the past, has said little else, and has not made the image of the “found” treasure chest public. He did not return phone or email messages from The Post.

So far, his announcement, which effectively ended the treasure hunt, has resulted in a great deal of bitterness and even a lawsuit.

“This is all really heartbreaking. When I heard the news last week I just freaked out,” said Barbara Andersen, a Chicago lawyer who claims she spent tens of thousands of dollars on 20 trips to New Mexico and had communicated her findings in dozens of emails to Fenn over the years.

She alleges her computer was hacked and her “solve stolen” by a man she doesn’t know who had been threatening her with texts over the last few months. She filed suit against Fenn and the “unknown defendant” in Chicago federal court on Monday, two days after Fenn’s announcement.

The unidentified hunter “found the precise location of the Forrest Fenn treasure not because he solved the puzzle, but because he intentionally hacked Andersen’s computer and e-mails … and stalked Andersen physically at the location site,” the lawsuit charges.

Andersen, 47, who refuses to give up the search, spoke to The Post from a campsite in New Mexico. She said that she was first drawn to the state after Fenn offered a clue in a blog post where he showed a picture of a beat-up hat with a large hole in it.

“If you look closely the hole is in the shape of the state of New Mexico,” said Andersen, who has made the trips to search for the treasure accompanied by her dog, Cupcake.

Thousands of others are also furious at Fenn, a transplanted Texan and former Air Force pilot who flew in hundreds of combat missions during the Vietnam war, and has long run the Old Santa Fe Trading Company where he has a vast collection of arrowheads and native American art.

“Why aren’t you showing us the picture?” demanded Terry Kasberg, a Florida realtor who has spent the last four years searching for the treasure, and belongs to a Facebook group of more than 4,000 ardent treasure seekers — “Treasures Galore” — devoted to sharing information about the search for Fenn’s cache. He said he has read Fenn’s book 23 times searching for clues.

“Everyone is really concerned because there is a real lack of transparency,” he told The Post. “It has left everyone in a depressed state of mind.”

De Fronzo, a massage therapist and mother of two from St. Petersburg, Fla., is also depressed. But after nearly four years of poring over Fenn’s poem and reading and re-reading his autobiography in search of clues, she is convinced that Fenn is telling the truth.

Last week when she finally solved Fenn’s puzzle, she bundled her family into a rented Chevy Blazer for the journey to New Mexico — her fourth expedition into the Rocky Mountains in pursuit of Fenn’s El Dorado. De Fronzo had solved parts of the puzzle in the past, but had missed small clues when she headed into the mountains, she said. Now she was “absolutely certain” she knew where to look.

Many hunters before her thought the same. Five of them never came back, including Michael Sexson, 53, who was found dead in March of this year after he and a companion got stuck in snow near the Utah/Colorado border after they rented snowmobiles, armed with a few bottles of water and chocolate bars to face extremely cold temperatures, rescuers said. His unnamed companion, a 63-year-old man, survived.

In the summer of 2017, Jeff Murphy, 53, plunged to his death in Yellowstone National Park; Eric Ashby, 31, died in a raft on the Arkansas River, and 52-year-old Colorado pastor Paris Wallace’s remains were found floating in the Rio Grande. Randy Bilyeu, 54, went missing in January 2016; his skeletal remains were discovered seven months later, also along the Rio Grande, in New Mexico.

Although Fenn called the deaths “tragic,” he never called off the hunt.

“If someone drowns in the swimming pool we shouldn’t drain the pool,” Fenn told the New York Times in 2017. “We should teach people to swim.”

After Sexson’s death earlier this year, he warned people not to head to the mountains in winter, and repeated that the treasure was not hidden in a place that was dangerous to travel to. A year earlier he told the newspaper that he invented the hunt to give families a reason to “get off their couches” and experience nature.

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