By Susan Montoya Bryan
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – A body was found in New Mexico not far from where a Colorado pastor parked his vehicle before heading out to search for a supposed hidden cache of gold and jewels that has inspired thousands to hunt in vain across remote corners of the Western U.S., authorities said Monday.
Medical investigators have yet to identify the body, but all the evidence so far indicates it is that of missing pastor Paris Wallace of Grand Junction, State Police Lt. Elizabeth Armijo said.
The case has reignited calls by some to end a treasure hunt that has had deadly outcomes and forces public resources to be spent on search and rescue efforts.
Last year, a Colorado man died in the New Mexico backcountry while searching for the bounty that an antiquities dealer said he stashed somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. It’s led treasure hunters to comb secluded areas of New Mexico, Yellowstone National Park and elsewhere.
In the latest case, crews began looking for Wallace last week after his family reported him missing.
Family members told authorities that Wallace had come to New Mexico to search for the treasure of Forrest Fenn, who announced several years ago that he hid a small bronze chest containing nearly $2 million in gold, jewelry and artifacts in the Rockies.
Fenn has dropped clues to the chest’s whereabouts in a cryptic poem in his memoir, “The Thrill of the Chase.”
Treasure hunters have shared their experiences on blogs and have brainstormed about the clues.
Many renewed their support for Fenn on social media Monday despite critics raising questions about the dangers of venturing into the rugged areas where some of the clues have led.
Wallace’s vehicle was found Thursday near the Rio Grande after authorities traced the location where he last used his cellphone.
Armijo told The Daily Sentinel newspaper in Grand Junction on Friday that investigators also found a rope tied across one of the river’s tributaries that they believe Wallace had purchased and his backpack in the waters of the Rio Grande a few miles downstream.
Members of Wallace’s church shared their condolences online and asked for prayers for his family.
Linda Bilyeu, whose ex-husband Randy Bilyeu went missing while searching for the treasure along the Rio Grande in January 2016, was among those calling for an end to the treasure hunt after the latest case.
“Another family is left to grieve and carry on without their loved ones,” Bilyeu told The Associated Press in an email. “Only one man has the power to stop the madness. Yet, he continues to pretend he’s doing a good deed by getting people off the couch and into nature.”
Fenn did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
As for ending the hunt, he has previously refused, saying that would be unfair to those who have spent their time and money looking for the 40-pound chest.