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Sep 22, 2:29 PM EDT

Authorities: Death of treasure hunter remains a mystery



ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- The death of a man who moved out West to follow his dream of searching for a $2 million hidden treasure remains a mystery as medical investigators have been unable to shed more light on his final moments in the backcountry of New Mexico.

The skeletal remains of Randy Bilyeu were discovered this summer by a crew with the Army Corps of Engineers that had been working along the Rio Grande just north of Cochiti Lake.

Autopsy results obtained by The Associated Press show there wasn't enough evidence left for the Office of the Medical Investigator to determine what caused Bilyeu's death. There were no broken bones or other skeletal injuries, leaving only room for speculation.

"It is possible that Mr. Bilyeu was caught in a remote location in the winter, either because of the weather or because of an injury not involving a fracture of the bones and succumbed to hypothermia or the effects of dehydration," the investigators wrote.

They also said it's possible the 55-year-old father and grandfather could have died from a natural event, such as a heart attack. Bilyeu had high blood pressure.

"There are multiple plausible scenarios in which Mr. Bilyeu's death may have occurred, all of which cannot be disproven given the advanced state of decomposition," the report states.

Bilyeu's family said Thursday they're not ready to give up on tracking down more details about what might have happened to him after he bought a raft and set out on the Rio Grande on Jan. 5 to search for a buried treasure. Thousands of people have tried to find the alleged treasure of gold and jewelry.

Bilyeu had scouted the area - a desolate, rocky stretch of the river not far from the border of Bandelier National Monument - for two weeks. He had a GPS device, a wetsuit and waders, and brought along his little white dog, Leo.

More than a week passed before a worried friend reached out to his ex-wife in Florida, Linda Bilyeu, who filed a missing person's report Jan. 14. His raft and dog were found the next day.

Found in his car, were maps with markings that fellow treasure hunters used to narrow their search for him. He also left food, suggesting he didn't plan to be gone long.

An intense search by authorities began, but hope slipped as the days passed. Linda Bilyeu began organizing volunteers who used everything from canoe trips, high-powered cameras and drones to search the rugged canyons along the river.

Linda Bilyeu acknowledged that Randy's death remains a mystery.

"He was brave enough to face the odds in an endeavor that he felt so confident about but due to an unfortunate event, his plan cost him his life," she told The Associated Press.

Antiquities dealer and author Forrest Fenn of Santa Fe ignited the treasure hunt several years ago when he announced that he stashed a small bronze chest containing nearly $2 million in gold, jewelry and artifacts somewhere in the Rockies. He dropped clues to its whereabouts in a cryptic poem in his self-published memoir, "The Thrill of the Chase."

The hidden treasure has inspired thousands to search in vain through remote corners of New Mexico, Yellowstone National Park and elsewhere in the mountains. Treasure hunters share their experiences on blogs and brainstorm about the clues.

The search has come with risks: Some have forded swollen creeks in Yellowstone and were rescued by rangers. A Texas woman spent a worrisome night in the New Mexico woods after being caught in the dark. Others have been cited for digging on public land, and federal managers have warned treasure hunters not to damage archaeological or biological resources.

During the months spent searching for Bilyeu, his family urged Fenn to call off the treasure hunt. Fenn refused, saying that would be unfair to those who have spent their time and money looking for the 40-pound chest.

Linda Bilyeu said Randy's mishap should serve as a reminder that accidents can happen no matter how many preparations one makes.

"I believe he didn't die in vain," she said. "Answers are slowly trickling in and one day this mystery will be solved."

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Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM

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