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Media Article # 6

Sunday, August 6, 2000

On the trail with Bigfoot believers

By Peter Hartlaub
San Francisco Examiner

CAVE JUNCTION, Ore. -- Assume, for a moment, that the truth is out there.

If Bigfoot exists, it's likely getting as far as possible from the strange mix of humans clambering up this trail in Oregon Caves National Monument.

Leading the way is Matthew Johnson, a psychologist who made headlines in July when he reported seeing an 8-foot sasquatch in these woods.

Following are several Bigfoot enthusiasts carrying small, beat-up cameras. Johnson's eager friends are carrying bigger cameras. A few reporters and photographers round out the party, lugging the largest equipment.

With the exception of Johnson and a couple of other wilderness-savvy hikers, the procession tracks through the area with all the stealth of trick-or-treaters.

"I wanted to make sure you got one of my cards," a hiker tells a reporter in a booming voice, forgetting that he handed out his "Bigfoot Hotline" business card an hour earlier.

With no bigfeet appearing on this warm Sunday morning in mid-July, there's nothing left to do but take pictures of each other.


Half a mile down the trail, John Freitas is a little frustrated.

The researcher from Crescent City believes Johnson's account, but it's quickly becoming clear that any evidence has been trampled by the horde of hopefuls and other park visitors.

"I'm concerned with the amount of traffic in the area, that the evidentiary value is dwindling rapidly," Freitas says.

Unlike many Bigfoot enthusiasts, Freitas wears no T-shirts, necklaces or key chains bearing images of the furry creature. The only clue to his identity is his black baseball cap, with BFRO in white block letters.


Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization.

In a hobby filled with strange characters, the BFRO stands out: Members investigate sightings in a thorough, scientific manner, distancing themselves from hoaxes and profiteers.

Freitas, a former cop, works as a welfare fraud investigator for Del Norte County. Typical of the group, he looks like he would be more comfortable in a Rotary Club meeting than a "Star Trek" convention.

The BFRO claims hundreds of professional volunteers like Freitas, including park rangers, scientists, professors and sound and video technicians.

Other Bigfoot believers sell T-shirts on the Internet, book ideas to publishers and artifacts on eBay.

Freitas says he has never tried to make a penny on Bigfoot. Instead, he pays for a rented room, filled with video and audio equipment to help his research, refusing to say how much it costs.

"I think if my wife read about it," he deadpans, "she'd probably divorce me."


Up the trail, Johnson climbs toward where the creature was spotted July 1, then recalls his encounter.

First there was the smell -- described as a vile combination of vomit and dying fish.

Second was the sound. It was distant at first, sounding like a deep, guttural "whoa" repeated slowly two or three or four times in a row. Johnson thought it was his heart pumping blood through his head, until his wife and two kids started to hear it, too.

Finally, there was the sighting.

"(The Bigfoot) was over on the left side of that tree, watching my kids," Johnson says, crouching and holding on to a sapling as he points downhill toward the trail. "I was watching it watch my family."


There's nothing the BFRO hates more than a hoax.

With that in mind, the volunteers look closely at every piece of evidence.

Take a recent report on the skunk ape, a Bigfoot cousin that has been seen repeatedly in the Southeast.

A skeptical BFRO researcher went so far as to check with local costume shops, investigating a lead that someone connected to the sighting had rented a gorilla suit.

Bigfoot sightings have been recorded in the United States for nearly 200 years. Native Americans have passed on stories about the creature that date back even further.

Film of a Bigfoot taken in 1967 in Northern California, considered a hoax by many, started the modern-day debate about its existence.

Now, with the Internet, researchers can catalog and analyze sightings as never before.

Freitas says gets more than 10 reports a day.

"You can pretty much tell when somebody is feeding you a line," Freitas says. "It'll be something like, "Yeah, I was down with my girlfriend, and we were doing the wild thing, and here comes Bigfoot. Pretty soon he joined in.'."

Most reports to BFRO are considered credible, but Johnson's brought investigators running.

For starters, it was recent. A majority of BFRO reports are years or decades old.

Also, Johnson says he read almost nothing about Bigfoot, yet the sights, smells and sounds he encountered were consistent with other "legitimate" reports.

Finally, a local ranger reported that the psychologist was in tears, sweating and in a panic when he came off the trail, a condition that would be difficult to fake.

Johnson sent his letter to the BFRO on the night of July 1.

Freitas read it the next day while another BFRO investigator, Scott Herriot, read it from his Tiburon home.

By that Monday morning, Freitas and Herriot were at Oregon Caves.

"On a scale of 1 to 10," Freitas told the Del Norte County Triplicate after he returned from Oregon Caves, "the credibility of this story is an 11."


Johnson towers over the rest of the hikers on the trail.

He's closer to 7 feet tall than 6, and it's no surprise that he played college basketball in Anchorage.

He hiked a lot in Alaska, once encountering a grizzly bear. What he saw on the trail last month, he insists, was no bear.

Johnson says he rushed his family down the trail, but didn't tell them what he saw until the bottom. When he reached the ranger's station, he was in tears.

He drove to his home in Grants Pass, Ore., put the kids to bed, then went to his computer.

"I was just on this adrenaline rush," Johnson said. "I submitted my letter to every (Web) site I could."


The BFRO, set up in 1995 as an Internet Web site, claims about 3,000 members.

It acts as sort of a Reform Party for the Bigfoot nation -- maintaining almost no allegiances to the two main parties but still wanting the public's vote. The natural foes are skeptics, who argue Bigfoot is almost a scientific impossibility.

"I think the media is going to make much more hay about a psychologist who saw something than a 19-year-old kid who works at the Kwik-E-Mart," says Benjamin Radford, managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine. "Either one can be fooled under the right circumstances."

Skeptics argue that a large mammal that has survived for generations would almost certainly leave more evidence lying around.

"You would find a body, a bone, evidence of hunting or gathering," says Robert Carroll, a Sacramento City College professor who runs "The Skeptic's Dictionary" Web site.

BFRO President Matt Moneymaker recently posted his own arguments on Carroll's site, explaining that many mammals leave almost no trail.

Moneymaker says the average new member is skeptical. But pretty soon, most become believers.

"The more you explore it, the more you talk to witnesses, the more it becomes pretty obvious what is going on," he says.

The BFRO's most bitter rivals seem to be among the pro-Bigfoot crowd, some of whom focus on offbeat paranormal theories and selling merchandise.

A warning on the BFRO site makes the group's philosophy clear:

"If you want this report to be taken seriously by legitimate Bigfoot researchers and scientists, then DO NOT send in your report to any other Web site but this one."

Moneymaker, a 34-year-old lawyer and e-commerce developer from Orange County, says about 50 members keep in contact weekly. More than a dozen "curators" maintain the Web site and serve as a board of directors.

Freitas and Moneymaker say their employers know about their hobby, but even Freitas' law enforcement colleagues never get vicious when they start teasing.

"The ones who are the most skeptical are always asking for an update," Freitas says.

Like most members of the BFRO, Moneymaker and Freitas do not claim to have seen Bigfoot. Moneymaker got interested after buying a few Bigfoot books when he was about 18.

Originally skeptical, he agreed to follow a few witnesses into an area where they said they had seen evidence of a sasquatch. On his first trip out, he found tracks.

"It was pretty powerful," Moneymaker says. "I can remember falling to my knees and saying, "My God, they're real.'."


At first, the sound is faint.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!"

A few minutes later it's clear. There's something in the woods of Oregon Caves National Park.

Johnson and the hikers bend a bit into a crouch, stopping every few hundred feet to listen.

"If we run into anything," Johnson whispers, "don't split off."

Those with binoculars and telephoto lenses scan the trees. There's talk of breaking into groups 50 feet apart and heading down the mountain, to flank whatever is making the noise.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!"

Moving much more quietly than before, the group sticks to the zigging and zagging trail, following the noise up, then back down the mountain.


At home in Tiburon, Herriot is playing Agent Scully to Freitas' Agent Mulder.

Despite Johnson's literate manner and straightforward emotions, Herriot is only half-sure Johnson saw a Bigfoot.

Herriot points out that Johnson saw the creature only for a few seconds, and had Bigfoot on his mind. Herriot also is considering a local ranger's theory that the sound Johnson heard may have been a blue grouse, a native bird.

"I think he's earnest, but I wouldn't put it up there with one of the great sightings of all time," Herriot says. "Overall I'd give it a 50-50."

It may seem surprising that Herriot, 41, is the skeptic. A former stand-up comedian who works as a host for San Francisco-based ZDTV's "Internet Tonight" show, he is one of the few who claims to have had a close encounter.

It was eight years ago, when he was following up a sighting by a few kids at the mouth of the Klamath River. Herriot says he saw a 6-foot creature in the woods, 30 or 40 feet away.

He found what he thinks was a nest and a few Bigfoot hairs.

"Can I say for absolutely sure (I saw a Bigfoot)?" Herriot says. "No."


The "Whoa, whoa!" can still be heard more than an hour after it started, but everyone has stopped sneaking around.

Johnson, who has appeared on "CBS's Early Show" with Bryant Gumbel and the popular Coast to Coast AM radio show, says he came forward to help others who have seen the creature and been labeled crazy.

"People are going to be afraid to report," Johnson says, his voice back at a normal volume. "If they see people in the media treating people like me with respect, there will be a change."

The cameras click as he continues, lecturing about social taboos and associated stigmas.

He also reveals plans to write a book related to his encounter.

Asked about the possible financial gain, Johnson points out the financial and professional risk he took by going public with his sighting.

"I didn't make this up," he insists.

Nearby, a contractor named Ward Reed, wearing a "Bigfoot Stepped on Me" T-shirt, pulls out a few photos and a baggie filled with a dry grayish-brown matter.

The photos include a mysterious 17-inch footprint in sand, and several shots from different angles of a pile of feces on a rock.

The baggie contains samples of the find.

Reed says he had the fecal matter tested at a lab, and was told it could have been made by an otter or raccoon that had repeatedly defecated in the same area.

"They told us that this might be a latrine situation," Ward says. "This wasn't anything like that. This was a splatter."

It's getting late, and most of the group heads back to the Oregon Caves parking lot. With the "Whoa!" sound still in the distance, the departing hikers shake the doctor's hand and say goodbye.

Johnson, a few of his friends and the "Bigfoot Hotline" guy have no plans to turn their backs on the mystery.

They head farther up the mountain.

Soon they are deep in the woods, a blurry image in the distance.


Herriot and Freitas strapped a motion-detecting camera to a tree in Oregon Caves, but they plan to take it down soon.

There are other, better areas -- such as one near the Klamath River in California -- where several cameras are set up for the long run.

Herriot plans to borrow Freitas' giant audio system (visualize the "incoming wounded" P.A. speakers from M--A--S--H) and blast Bigfoot sounds into the wilderness.

Freitas' other gadgets include night vision goggles. A bulging backpack leans against the wall in his rented space, ready for action.

"I could leave right now if I got a call," he says.

Johnson's future involvement with the BFRO remains to be seen. He's been plugging the organization on his radio appearances, but recently set up a Web site to gather his own reports.

Whatever Johnson saw up on that mountain early last month, BFRO investigators are pretty sure of one thing: The psychologist is hooked.

And Herriot says he knows exactly how he feels.

"It's a great mystery, it's really cool," Herriot says. "(And) it can become a very obsessive thing."

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