In August 2018, Mark Lantis’ mother dropped him off at a trailhead at Yellowstone National Park to search for the buried treasure of an eccentric millionaire. But after going off trail and getting lost in the Wyoming backcountry, Lantis ended up in need of a helicopter airlift.
He ultimately did not find the treasure, but he was charged with reckless disorderly conduct. After a hearing before a magistrate judge in 2019, Lantis was convicted and sentenced to five years of unsupervised probation. He was also banned for five years from Yellowstone National Park and ordered to pay a $2,880 fine to cover the cost of the rescue.
Lantis, a former oil field worker in his 40s, appealed the verdict in U.S. District Court in Wyoming by arguing that the legal definition of recklessness did not apply to his case. When that court upheld the ruling, he appealed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Last week, the appellate court also upheld his conviction, concluding that Lantis “consciously disregarded a known risk” when he decided to search for the treasure buried by the millionaire, Forrest Fenn.
“I’m going to keep fighting, I’ll tell you that,” Lantis said in an interview Thursday. Lantis, who is unemployed and has been represented by public defenders since the start of the case, said that he was aware that to keep fighting the charge might cost him legal fees, but that he hoped another public defender would be assigned to the case.
In his 2010 memoir, “The Thrill of the Chase,” Fenn, an adventure-loving art dealer and antique collector from New Mexico, said he had hidden a bronze chest filled with gold nuggets and jewels in the Rocky Mountains at 5,000 feet above sea level. He encouraged people to find it, and thousands tried. At least two people died in the process.
Treasure hunting poses a specific risk by causing people to become myopic and less aware, said Chris Boyer, executive director of the National Association for Search and Rescue, a nonprofit organization.
“Whenever there’s a reward at the end of a journey like this, it certainly focuses people, right? And it doesn’t focus them the right way sometimes,” Boyer said. “They can conveniently ignore problems, thinking that the benefit outweighs what they’re doing.”
As stated in the decision from the appeals court, Lantis planned for a one-day excursion on the Mount Holmes Trail, a strenuous hike in Yellowstone National Park. He wore a T-shirt, jeans, a light windbreaker and tennis shoes. Lantis carried a small backpack, water, bear spray, a cellphone, a walkie-talkie and a hand-held GPS. He packed no food.
During his hike, Lantis noticed bear fur and droppings. When he got to the base of Mount Holmes, he decided to head back. He thought that going off trail would help avoid bears and be a faster route.
It wasn’t. Lantis ended up spending the night by the mountain. He maintains that he was “not lost” but that “it basically just took longer.”
At some point after leaving the trail, Lantis called his sister to say that he would not make it out of the park before nightfall. He spent the night “wet, cold, scared,” Lantis said in the appeal.
The next day, concerned about her son, Lantis’ mother contacted a Yellowstone park ranger. The ranger contacted Lantis and asked him to call 911 to get a better fix on his location and since Lantis’ cellphone battery was low. Lantis’ GPS system “wasn’t detailed” enough to help, he said.
Lantis was 8 miles from Mount Holmes in extremely rugged country seldom visited by park personnel and home to bears, mountain lions and wolves. The ranger was in contact with Lantis throughout the day, according to the appeal, and directed him where to walk so that he would eventually intersect with a marked trail. Court documents say the ranger was “encouraging him and trying to guide him out of the backcountry.”
By that evening, Lantis said in the interview, he needed help but only because the ranger sent him through rugged bear country. It was too late in the day for anyone to hike in and rescue Lantis before dark, so the ranger organized a helicopter rescue.
According to an appellate docket provided by Lantis’ lawyer, the ranger asked a private film crew in the area to rescue Lantis because helicopters normally used for rescue operations were unavailable to reach Lantis before dark. The park paid the company for the cost of the rescue.
Once Lantis reached safety, the ranger issued him a citation for disorderly conduct alleging that he “knowingly or recklessly created a risk of public alarm, nuisance, jeopardy.”
Charging for rescues is rare, although an increasing number of states have adopted laws or are exploring legislation that would allow them to reimburse the cost of rescues in cases of recklessness. In Lantis’ situation, the use of a helicopter made his rescue more expensive, said Boyer, who was not involved in the case.
The treasure hunt was less of an issue than Lantis’ apparent lack of preparedness, Boyer said.
“It’s OK to push your skill set or your knowledge set,” he said. “It’s not OK to push your luck.”
Boyer’s organization does not endorse charging for rescues because, he says, people should not have to weigh the potential cost if they need to call for help. Boyer worries that a fine as hefty as the one Lantis incurred will discourage people in similar situations from seeking rescue.
Fenn’s treasure was found by Jack Stuef, a 32-year-old medical student from Michigan, in June 2020.
Fenn died in September 2020 at age 90. His grandson revealed Stuef’s identity as the finder of the treasure three months after his grandfather’s death.
Fenn announced before his death that someone had found the bronze chest filled with gold and jewels. Writing on his website, he said that the treasure “was under a canopy of stars in the lush, forested vegetation of the Rocky Mountains and had not moved from the spot where I hid it more than 10 years ago.” He did not provide the precise location.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Isabella Grullón Paz and Claire Fahy c.2021 The New York Times Company
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