Med Student Finds Actual Buried Treasure Worth Millions

Laura Arenschield

December 10, 2020

Nearly 10 years ago, an eccentric art and antiquities dealer named Forrest Fenn hid a chest of gold, precious jewels, and other treasures somewhere in the mountain forests of the western United States. It sparked a pursuit that has attracted the interest of millions of people around the world, several of whom died seeking it. Now, the hunt is over. The treasure chest's finder: a Pennsylvania medical school student.

The student, Jonathan "Jack" Stuef, 32, understandably wanted to remain anonymous after finding the treasure hidden in the Wyoming wilds last June. However, a judge ruled that a federal lawsuit filed by another treasure hunter necessitated the disclosure of his name. Stuef agreed to allow his name to be published in an article Monday in Outside. He simultaneously published an essay on the website Medium, identifying himself. Stuef did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Daniel Barbarisi, the author of the Outside article and of a forthcoming book about the treasure hunt titled Chasing the Thrill, said that some of those who hunted for the treasure have threatened Stuef, legally and physically. Stuef says he has even moved to a higher-security home for protection.

In a twist that will be understandable to most medical professionals, Stuef told Barbarisi that he does not plan to keep the treasure. "The treasure is now in a secure location in New Mexico, but Stuef plans to sell it," Barbarisi wrote. "He says he has medical school loans to pay off."

How the Quest Began

In 2010, Fenn hid a chest of unknown riches. The Santa Fe art collector never had the contents assessed, but the treasure has been estimated to be worth millions. After hiding it, Fenn wrote a poem containing nine clues to its location. Although he occasionally spoke or corresponded with hunters — and wrote a number of books of his own — he never divulged the coordinates.

"Forrest's whole concern was that people spend too much time inside, and he had such a good time in the mountains, fishing and hiking and riding his bike, that he wanted to share that," Dal Neitzel, a documentary filmmaker, told Medscape Medical News. "And so, he hid this treasure in the woods somewhere, hoping that kids would get off the couch and go look for it, that families would make it part of their vacations." Neitzel himself has been a treasure hunter, searching for sunken ships and making films about them. Neitzel ran Fenn's blog and was the one Fenn asked to tell the world, through the website, that the treasure had been found in June.

By most accounts, the idea was a success. The Albuquerque Journal estimated that 350,000 people had gone looking for the treasure over the past 10 years. In February 2020, a researcher from the University of North Dakota wrote an article that was published in the journal Human Arenas in which he analyzed the ways Fenn's treasure hunt mimicked the kind of individual pursuit of goals that can consume human beings. That study estimated that as many as two million American adults were involved in Fenn's hunt at some level, with about 433,000 searching competitively.

At least five people lost their lives looking for the treasure. Neitzel said he knew of one woman who went bankrupt flying from her home in the Midwest to the Rocky Mountains each weekend to search. Stuef found the treasure somewhere in Wyoming, pulled it out of the woods, and brought it to Fenn's home. The current location has not been disclosed, and it won't be. Neitzel said he and Fenn agreed that the location should remain a secret to protect it.

Stuef not only ended a game, he ended an obsession. "We have people who've been working on this puzzle for 8, 9 years, and now the puzzle has been solved, and they don't know the solution," Neitzel said. "That was terrible for a lot of people."

A Med Student Finds Gold, Inspires Lawsuits

Netizel says that when Stuef found the treasure, he left the chest in the woods and called Fenn, both to let him know and to ask his permission to remove it. Stuef wrote in his essay that he had known the approximate location since 2018. He found it after 25 straight days of searching. Once he had, he walked back to his car, put his hands on the steering wheel, and cried.

"The moment it happened was not the triumphant Hollywood ending some surely envisioned; it just felt like I had just survived something and was fortunate to come out the other end," Stuef wrote.

Neitzel said he has exchanged emails with Stuef and expressed surprise that he left the chest in the woods for another night before driving it to Fenn's home in New Mexico. "He said he felt that there was something about the whole way the treasure hunt had been set up that he felt it was important that he get Forrest's permission to move it from its secret spot," Neitzel said.

Shortly after Stuef found the treasure, a woman in Chicago filed a lawsuit against Fenn and the then-anonymous finder, alleging that emails she'd sent Fenn had been hacked and that the finder used her information to locate the treasure. She claims the treasure was found in New Mexico; both Fenn and Stuef say it was in Wyoming.

Fenn died in September at the age of 90, but the lawsuit continued. Barbarisi had been corresponding with Stuef for several months without knowing his name. Last week, Stuef emailed Barbarisi to say that the suit had taken a turn and that his name was likely to be made public as part of those legal proceedings. Stuef told Barbarisi his name and gave the go-ahead to reveal it.

Because it is unclear how the lawsuit will unfold, Stuef has indicated that he does not intend to return to medical school. If he does use the proceeds to pay off his educational debts, it wouldn't be the first time Fenn's funds were linked to medical training. At one point, Fenn had agreed to pay for medical school for one of his grandchildren, Neitzel said, provided that the grandchild practice for 5 years in an underserved area of the country. The grandchild did not end up pursuing a career in medicine.

Even if none of Fenn's riches go toward a medical career, Neitzel says he would not be upset. "Who am I to be disappointed about anything Jack does?" he asked. "I think a lot of the treasure hunters felt disappointed about that decision, that he would not return to medical school, when it would have meant so much to Forrest for him to do that. But of course, there are many, many other people who it doesn't make any difference to. It's Jack's life."

Laura Arenschield is a Columbus, Ohio–based, award-winning reporter for MDedge who has been writing about science and health for more than a decade.

For more news, follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.