Missing pastor’s ‘search’ stuns friend

Paris Wallace

Wendell Smith had no idea he shared a common interest with his friend, Paris Wallace.

He’s known Wallace for three years. They had coffee a few times, Smith heard Wallace’s sermons on a few occasions when he attended Connection Church, but he never knew they were both what Smith calls “searchers.”

Then Wallace went missing last week in an area near Espanola, New Mexico.

Though Smith knew Wallace, a pastor, had ministered to Indian reservations in the area in the past and was known to go there for charitable purposes, he kept wondering why he would be wandering around the rugged hills in the remote desert.

Initial reports were that Wallace had gone hiking, and that his wife, Mitzi, reported him missing after he didn’t meet up with someone on Wednesday night.

But the more Smith thought about it, he got a hunch that Wallace was on a mission for something else.

Smith is part of a group of people who actively search for a hidden chest full of jewels and gold rumored to be hidden in the Rocky Mountains, and the area Wallace went missing in is the southernmost edge of the treasure map. They’re chasing treasure claimed to be hidden by Forrest Fenn, a Santa Fe author and art dealer who hid the clues to its location in his cryptic writings and regularly releases new hints to seekers.

Smith wondered if his friend was looking for the same treasure he’s taken 19 trips in search of, though Smith has never looked in New Mexico. He got hooked on the chase after reading Fenn’s writings less than two years ago, has his poem of clues memorized and keeps an eye out for new hints.

After Wallace had been missing for more than 40 hours, Smith acted on his hunch and posted an inquiry in an online site called Chase Chat where participants discuss Fenn’s clues and share speculation about where the treasure might be located. The forums have attracted more than 2,500 members. One of those members, a woman with the screenname “lifesablaze” decided to scout out an area she was familiar with that matched some of the clues in Fenn’s writings.

Within two hours, she found Wallace’s vehicle just north of a small town called Pilar and alerted Smith. Though law enforcement used cellphone technology and assistance from the U.S. Air Force to pinpoint the search, it was Smith’s post and the woman in the online forum’s search that resulted in the car being found quickly.

New Mexico State Police confirmed Wallace’s family members told them he was searching for Fenn’s treasure, though Smith didn’t know that when he asked the treasure-seeking forum for help.

Search and rescue officials had searched 200 acres near the vehicle as of Saturday, according to New Mexico State Police spokesman Carl Christiansen. They found a backpack in the Rio Grande River downstream from a tributary, the Rio Pueblo, where a rope was found tied to a rock on the riverbank. Officials found a receipt for items including a rope in Wallace’s vehicle, and believe the rope belonged to him.

A dive team was searching the Rio Grande but had to suspend its search on Saturday due to dangerous high waters, Christiansen said. Teams have attempted to access the bank of the Rio Pueblo where the rope is tied, but “so far they have been unable to access the other side of the river where the rope was located due to the raging waters,” he said.

Officials hope to access that bank to search for any sign Wallace exited the river via the rope.

Other Chase Chat members have been helpful with their knowledge of the geography as well as sharing possible routes Wallace may have taken, Smith said.

“They’re competitive, but they’re great people. Their priorities are right. And they’re just good, a loosely-knit group that can really figure things out,” Smith said. “Their hearts are in the right place.”

If Wallace found treasure, he’s the type of guy who would give it all away, Smith said. He thinks it was more about the thrill of the chase than obtaining riches for Wallace, anyway, but since they never knew they shared the mutual interest, he doesn’t know what got Wallace started searching.

“I never did talk about it with him,” Smith said. “I never told him. I don’t talk about it casually, I only talk about it when I have to,” he said. “He never said anything to me about it. Hopefully I’ll get to talk to him soon about it.”


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