X marks the spot: Students discover Colbert’s hidden treasure

By Gwenn Barney

This past summer, four Pitt engineering students won comedian Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC…This past summer, four Pitt engineering students won comedian Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC Fun Pack Challenge. The grand prize? Stephen Colbert will visit Pitt. To win the challenge, the students created their own Super PAC and went on a adventure to recover a 101-year-old piece of treasure. This is the story of the treasure hunt.

For the Pitt treasure hunters, the journey of a lifetime began with a single moment of serendipity.

Pitt engineering graduate student Dan Stough turned on his TV and watched “The Colbert Report.”

Usually, Stough said, he doesn’t have time to watch the satirical political show, but on this particular March evening, he happened to find the time. And on this episode, Stephen Colbert happened to be introducing a contest.

Stough watched as Colbert told viewers about the Colbert Super PAC Fun Pack, a package of political-themed activities that featured a treasure hunt for an enigmatic silver turtle.

“When I saw the Super PAC Fun Pack I thought, you know this is probably something that would be a good waste of time for everybody, and so I bought it immediately, the same day,” Stough said.

Once the PAC package arrived, filled with maps, clues and directions for how to begin his very own Super PAC, Stough sent out a mass email seeking help from his fellow Pitt students in finding the treasure.

Three fellow Pitt engineering students jumped on the opportunity.

Recent Pitt graduates Daniela Aizpitarte and Ben Zaczek, along with graduate engineering student Justine Buchman, joined Stough in his quest for the silver turtle. Stough put all the maps and clues included in the Super PAC Fun Pack onto a digital dropbox so that all four team members could work on the clues simultaneously.

With a decoder ring, a direction book for how to set up a Super PAC and a map of the U.S., including pictures and colored arrows denoting routes through various states, the group set out to discover the location of their treasure.

On a pure hunch, Stough decided to look at the source code of the contest’s web page for a hidden clue. He discovered a message.

“Read everything carefully,” it advised.

“If you read through these things very carefully,” Buchman said, pointing to the map and contest’s directions, “That’s when you can find the weird stuff.”

In reading through the rule book for creating a Super PAC, the team discovered a portion where letters were strangely bolded or italicized. The bold and italicized letters spelled out the nonsensical phrase “Massachusetts Upper Right.”

Stough used the decoder ring included in the pack to discover the meaning of a set of numbers on the bottom right of the U.S. map. The number code translated to “over the land of the free.”

On the bottom left corner of the map, Zaczek noticed strange symbols written on the body of a dragon. Buchman took a picture of the symbols and, using Google Goggles, a picture-based web-search engine, learned they were Masonic symbols that translated to “something.”

The group noticed strange breaks in the border surrounding the rule book Colbert sent them. They suspected that the breaks were Braille or Morse Code. After trying to translate for both, they came up empty on that clue.

At the beginning of April, Colbert also aired a clue on his show to launch the competition. He flashed a multilayered series of horizontal and vertical lines on the screen during his broadcast. The Pitt team realized that the colors of the lines on screen matched the colors of the arrows printed on the treasure map, but they weren’t sure what to make of the connection.

“The codes we had in the kit, we had mostly figured out by the very end of April,” Stough said.

“But we didn’t know exactly what they all meant.”

Soon, the month of April came to a close, just as the team members found themselves stalled in their ability to determine any more clues. Stough headed abroad for a few weeks while his teammates began summer jobs. The treasure hunt was pushed to the back burner.

While on hiatus, the team kept an eye on their competition — the people in ownership of the 999 other Super PAC Fun Packs. The team took particular interest in a group of Penn State students also working to solve the puzzle. Stough and company said the Penn State group was putting a lot of effort into the challenge, posting on their Tumblr blog page that it had hired a lawyer to help manage and develop the Super PAC.

“What was on this kid’s Tumblr was crazy,” Aizpitarte said. “He was saying 200 people showed up to one of their meetings to figure this out and we were like ‘oh my god’ because it’s just the four of us.”

On June 9, after a month-long break, the Pitt treasure hunters found their way back on track when a new clue was sent out from “The Colbert Report” via email.

“Their plan from the start was to start giving people clues every month or so if no one found it, because they wanted someone to find it before the fall,” Stough said.

The new clue was a classic puzzle: a word search. In completing the word search, a handful of letters weren’t circled. These letters spelled out: “The answer you are seeking is written in the stars.”

“The day after is when I had, like an epiphany that it had to do with stars and the flag,” Stough said.

This realization kicked the team’s problem solving into hyper gear. The group quickly discovered that each star on the American flag corresponds to a different state. By following patterns indicated in the clues they previously discovered, the stars on the flag revealed a series of numbers — GPS codes.

“That epiphany really set us off,” Buchman said. “We had it all figured out by Sunday.”

But the gang couldn’t leave immediately because of work commitments, and Buchman couldn’t go at all because she was out of sick days. So after going to work on Monday, and worried they might be beaten to the punch, Stough, Zaczek and Aizpitarte jumped in the car at 8 p.m. and headed for La Moille, Ill.

Following a ten-hour drive from Pittsburgh, they arrived at the source of their GPS coordinates — a farmer’s field in La Moille, Ill.

This was the moment. After months of solving clues, they were going to find the silver turtle. But there were no markings in the field. No signpost saying ‘Treasure Here.’ Not even a scarecrow. The owner of the field didn’t know anything about a treasure hunt, either.

“He told us if we were looking for a silver turtle, his kids had found some turtles. They could paint them silver and give them to us,” Zaczek said.

Zaczek and Stough traipsed out into the field searching for some hint of where their treasure might be, but after searching for some time and coming up empty, the team had to face the facts — they arrived at the wrong location.

In their frustration, but not quite ready to give up yet, the team found a football field in the middle of rural Illinois and laid down on it. Zaczek and Stough pored over all the clues again, while Aizpitarte laid on her back, thinking. After some time in these positions, Aizpitarte bolted up in revelation.

“What if it’s in the wrong format?” she asked.

Stough explained later that the problem with using GPS is there are different formats — a decimal number, degree-minutes-seconds or degree-minutes — which can describe different locations.

They ran the coordinates in a new degrees-minutes-seconds-based format instead of the decimal format they previously used and found that the new coordinates led them to a state park about an hour away in Dixon, Ill.

“[While] driving, we figured out it was on the Ronald Reagan Trail,” Zaczek said.

“That was a tip-off,” Stough said. “That he would hide it in some conservative place.”

Colbert’s character on his television show parodies conservative commentators, most notably Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, and Colbert makes frequent references to his devotion to former President Reagan.

Once in the park, though, the team couldn’t find the treasure. They weren’t sure of the exact point in the 50-acre park where the treasure was hidden.

They spent two hours inspecting a telephone pole in the middle of the park, thinking the treasure must be hidden inside. Eventually, they moved on to a bathhouse where Reagan worked as a young man. Outside the bathhouse was a memorial to Reagan. Aizpitarte — despite a mortal fear of spiders — pulled stones off the side of the monument, believing the turtle could be inside.

“That was our Indiana Jones moment,” Stough added.

But the turtle wasn’t in the monument. The gang continued to search.

“We get to the edge of this trail, and we start kind of fanning out, and after only a minute I see this strange-looking log on the trail. It was really clean,” Stough said.

“And it had cut edges, too,” Aizpitarte said. “I don’t think anything else in that forest had cut edges.”

Stough kicked the log. It landed right-side up and he noticed it had a strange sectioned bottom.

“I looked at Zaczek and said, ‘What is this?’”

Zaczek picked up the strange log, and, not realizing his own strength, ripped the back part off. Only then did they notice a marking that said ‘Don’t break me open…” with a warning lost to the elements.

The other side of the log said, “If you want to win the prize, Kingmaker, take heed.”

“We were excited at that point, but we couldn’t even celebrate, we were just staring at each other in shock,” Stough said.

Inside they found a small turtle, a scroll congratulating them and an email address to let “The Colbert Report” know they’d found the prize.

Zaczek and Stough went back to the car to tell Aizpitarte, who was napping, about their discovery, and they would call Buchman later.

“We knocked on the car door and said ‘Aizpitarte, we have a really important clue,’” Stough said. Too exhausted to solve any more clues for the day, Aizpitarte told her friends to go away.

The guys eventually got Aizpitarte out of the car, and, in one hand, Zaczek held the treasure before his fellow hunter. Aizpitarte looked at the box with wide eyes.

“No way,” she said.

Looking back on the trip, Stough isn’t sure what to make of the adventure.

“It’s kind of funny because a lot of the stuff we had to figure out by accident or by Providence, whatever way you want to interpret it,” Stough said.