Adventurer Who Discovered Treasure Hidden by Antique Dealer Is Unmasked

(The Washington Post) -
treasure chest rockies
Antiques dealer Forrest Fenn in his home in Santa Fe, N.M., in 2013.  (AP Photo/Jeri Clausing)

The mysterious treasure hunter who singlehandedly unearthed a bronze chest hidden deep in the Rocky Mountains and valued at more than $1 million has finally revealed himself.

The man who found the chest, which was buried in 2010 by eccentric antiques dealer Forrest Fenn, is a former Washington D.C. journalist turned medical student turned professional treasure hunter.

Jack Stuef announced in a Medium post that he is the person who claimed the 42-pound bronze chest – brimming with gold, precious jewels, diamonds and other artifacts. He found it in June after tracking the treasure’s whereabouts for two years as he studied clues in a poem in Fenn’s memoir.

Fenn, who died in September, hid the chest hoping to draw brave souls with a lust for adventure to the great outdoors. And it did.

The hunt – which has repeatedly been called a hoax by skeptics – galvanized roughly 350,000 voyagers to seek the treasure. Many people left behind their jobs and spent their life savings on the quest, and at least four people died along the treacherous traverse through the Rocky Mountains.

Stuef said he wanted to remain anonymous when he found the bounty, and Fenn respected his wishes. The only detail Fenn shared at the time was that the finder was from “back East,” perhaps a reference to his time in Washington at Georgetown University. But three months later, Fenn died. He was 90.

Shortly after Fenn’s death, the Medium post “A Remembrance of Forrest Fenn” was published by an anonymous author claiming to be the adventurer who beat out all the others for the treasure. The article showcases a cover photo of Fenn reunited with his treasure, after the supposed victor brought it to him. Images of a chest and its contents are embedded throughout the essay.

In the post, the author details the agony of his years-long search for the treasure.

“There were a few times when I, exhausted, covered in scratches and bites and sweat and pine pitch, and nearing the end of my day’s water supply, sat down on a downed tree and just cried alone in the woods in sheer frustration,” he wrote. “I spent about 25 full days of failure looking for the treasure at that location before getting it.”

And, like everything else associated with the famed hunt, there is ensuing drama.

On Dec. 7, the byline of the article – which was originally displayed as “The Finder” – suddenly switched to “Jack Stuef.”

Jonathan “Jack” Stuef, a 32-year-old medical school student from Michigan, declared himself the author of the post and thus the victor of the hunt. He said he spent two years searching for the bronze-encased bounty.

Shiloh Forrest Old, Fenn’s grandson, confirmed Stuef as the rightful finder of the treasure in a post on a website dedicated to the treasure hunt.

“Jack found the treasure chest as a result of years of careful searching, without any help from my grandfather, myself or any other member of our family,” Old wrote.

He went on to explain the rationale behind the unexpected unveiling of Stuef’s identity: “As a result of a Federal Court order, we will be required by law to provide Jack’s name and contact information, to the extent that we have it. Given these circumstances, we wanted to let those in the search community hear it from us directly, before we are compelled to disclose it.” He called the lawsuit “frivolous.”

The federal lawsuit against the Fenn family is indeed what prompted Stuef to come forward, he affirmed when he disclosed his identity.

“For the past six months, I have remained anonymous, not because I have anything to hide, but because Forrest and his family endured stalkers, death threats, home invasions, frivolous lawsuits, and a potential kidnapping – all at the hands of people with delusions related to his treasure,” he wrote. “I don’t want those things to happen to me and my family.”

Stuef did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post, though he talked to Outside Magazine’s (a magazine focused on the outdoors) Daniel Barbirisi, who was writing an upcoming book about the hunt, and who also spent time looking for the treasure. The legal case in question was instigated by a fellow treasure hunter and Chicago real-estate attorney who contends that Stuef hacked her texts and emails to steal her search plan.

Though he would not reveal the specifics of where he found the treasure (aside from that it was situated somewhere in Wyoming), Stuef denied the allegations against him.

Stuef’s motivation for keeping the hiding spot a secret is his belief that revealing the precise location would ruin the “natural wonder” of a place Fenn held dear, and would ultimately be “destroyed by people seeking treasure they hope I dropped on my way out or Forrest on his way in,” he wrote in the statement.

Stuef added that the treasure is currently in a vault in New Mexico, where it will stay until he eventually sells it.

In his post, Stuef also sought to dispel doubt about the controversial quest: “I am not and was never employed by Forrest, nor did he ‘pick’ me in any way to ‘retrieve’ the treasure. I was a stranger to him and found the treasure as he designed it to be found,” he wrote.

Before Stuef became a full-time treasure hunter, he had a brief stint as a Washington journalist.

As a student in D.C. at Georgetown University, Stuef was the editor in chief of a satirical magazine called the Georgetown Heckler. After graduating in 2009, according to Outside Magazine, he contributed to the Onion, BuzzFeed, and other publications. During his time as a journalist, he repeatedly found himself at the center of controversies.

Details remain relatively scant on how Stuef intends to spend his newfound fortune, though he did say he will pay off his medical student loans and possibly pivot to a career in finance.

“I thought that whoever found the chest would be absolutely hated, because it ends everyone’s dream,” he told Outside Magazine. “That’s something of a burden. I realize I put an end to something that meant so much to so many people.”