This week's Sunday Long Read is a good old fashioned treasure hunt mystery, as a Colorado man named Randy Bilyeu was convinced he was on track to find a fortune in gold and jewels hidden in the deserts near Santa Fe, a belief that eventually led to his disappearance and death.
One night early this year, Randy Bilyeu was on the phone with his best friend. He wanted to share some good news: After more than two years of searching Colorado and New Mexico for a hidden treasure chest filled with gold and jewels, he thought he’d finally discovered its location. It wasn’t too far from Santa Fe. Now he just needed to go get it.
Bilyeu was looking for the celebrated Fenn treasure—a 12th-century Romanesque chest hidden by an eccentric arts and antiquities collector that’s said to be packed with 42 pounds of gold coins, rubies, diamonds, sapphires, ancient jade carvings, pre-Columbian bracelets, and gold nuggets. Between 2014 and 2015, Bilyeu made nearly a dozen trips from his Broomfield apartment to Santa Fe in search of the chest. During his hunts, Bilyeu, who was 54 years old and twice divorced, had sent photos to his two adult daughters and to a dwindling number of close confidants, most of whom worried about his safety during his excursions and had become skeptical of the fortune’s existence.
Among them was Tom Martino, a longtime friend in Orlando, Florida, who talked to Bilyeu on January 4. The stash, Bilyeu said, was near the Rio Grande, in a place called Frijoles Canyon on Bandelier National Monument land between Santa Fe and Los Alamos. It would be difficult to get, though. In early January, temperatures, especially at night, would fall far below freezing. He’d been near the spot in the past month, and Bilyeu knew he would need a raft to move down the river and deliver him to a sandy patch from which he could begin his search. Further complicating matters was the fact that Bilyeu wanted to bring his traveling companion, Leo, a nine-year-old poodle-terrier mix. Bilyeu had never piloted a raft, and Leo was afraid of water. “It was the craziest thing I’d ever heard,” Martino says of Bilyeu’s plan. He told Bilyeu the search seemed risky. Bilyeu agreed: It was too cold and the weather was too dangerous to make a hasty search. Even still, he wanted to try.
In fact, he was already close. Bilyeu had driven the roughly 400 miles from Broomfield to Santa Fe with Leo, he explained to Martino. He was staying in a Motel 6 outside downtown. He’d purchased an $89 raft from a local sporting goods store, and he had waders, a wet suit, a backpack, maps, and his phone. Bilyeu sounded impatient. The Rio Grande was fewer than two dozen miles away. Bilyeu would drive there, inflate the raft, and begin his search despite his misgivings about the dangers he might face.
The next morning, a light dusting of snow covered the ground. Bilyeu backed his 2011 Nissan Murano into a space near a well field just off the Rio Grande. A thick cottonwood tree, its bare branches exposed to the elements, stood almost directly in front of him. The river was at least 50 yards wide and likely barely above freezing. Leo wore a miniature white sweater to protect him from the chill.
Bilyeu inflated his new blue-and-gray raft, then loaded the dog, two metal oars, and a manual air pump into it. His phone was turned off, perhaps to conserve battery power. Bilyeu finally lowered himself into the raft and shoved off. Within seconds, he and Leo began moving down the Rio Grande. A few minutes later, they disappeared into the canyon.
Bilyeu's body was found only a few weeks ago and identified last week, but the story of what led him to the Rio Grande canyons of New Mexico is a definite page-turner, the legendary Fenn treasure, worth millions, hidden by a reclusive author. It's the stuff dreams are made of, even when those dreams become a nightmare that can claim lives.