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Media Article # 303

Sunday, February 20, 2000

Fingerprint Expert Tries To Debunk Bigfoot - Reaches Opposite Conclusion


CONROE -- Jimmy Chilcutt is not someone most people would associate with the kind of wild, unsubstantiated stories that show up in supermarket tabloids.

Chilcutt, 54, is skeptical by nature. His job as a fingerprint technician at the Conroe Police Department requires hard-nosed judgments and painstaking attention to detail.
He is highly regarded by agents of the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and state and local law enforcement agencies because of his innovative techniques and ability to find fingerprints where others fail.

But in doing what comes naturally -- being careful and thorough -- he ended up rocking his own skepticism about one of the most sensational tales that routinely show up in the tabloids.

Chilcutt's quest to squeeze more information out of fingerprints led him to develop a rare expertise in nonhuman primate prints. He tried to use his special knowledge to debunk alleged evidence of Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch.

But his examination of alleged Bigfoot footprint castings didn't lead to the conclusion he had expected. He now believes that -- while some of them are fakes -- some are the genuine prints of a reclusive animal that has yet to be documented and studied.

The path to Chilcutt's unusual investigation began with an idea he had in 1995. "If I could look at fingerprints and could tell the sex, gender and race, I'd be way ahead," he recalled. He began examining fingerprints to determine whether there were differences based on race or sex.

"But every time I thought I had it right, I'd be wrong," Chilcutt said.

It finally occurred to him that the key to understanding human fingerprints could lie in nonhuman primates.

"If Darwin was correct, if we did in fact evolve, we should be able to study primate prints," Chilcutt reasoned.

Primates are members of the order of mammals that includes humans, great apes, monkeys and lemurs. Chilcutt said he hoped to find primordial characteristics that would unlock hidden information in human fingerprints. First, he had to convince a zoo or a research center to allow him to take fingerprints. "It was hard to find somebody who would let you fingerprint their monkey," he said.

After being rebuffed about 25 times over three months, he called Ken Glander, director of the Duke University Primate Center in Durham, N.C.

"At first I wasn't sure that it wasn't one of my friends playing a joke on me," Glander said about his initial reaction. "But it didn't take long talking to him to realize that this was a legitimate request."

Impressed by Chilcutt's expertise, Glander offered prints from his collection of lemurs. But Chilcutt was primarily interested in apes, so Glander steered him to the Yerkes Regional Primate Center at Emory University in Atlanta. Kaylee Summerville, occupational health program coordinator at Yerkes, said Chilcutt's request was received with caution.

"We've never had one like it before or since," she said. "It was unusual, but in the study of primates we get unusual requests sometimes."

After checking Chilcutt's credentials, the center arranged for him to take prints of apes at the Atlanta zoo during an annual medical checkup, while the apes were anesthetized.

Since then, Chilcutt has amassed a collection of about 1,000 nonhuman primate prints.

"That is a fantastic, incredible sample size," Glander said. "I've been working with primates for 30 years. I started in 1970. I have about 350 prints." He said there are only about four or five researchers working with nonhuman fingerprints. "All are biologists," Glander said. "We don't have fingerprint expertise."

Chilcutt studied the primate prints and discovered characteristics that distinguish different species and traits within species. He said he has become an expert on primate prints through long study of his samples, although he is not yet able to decipher human fingerprints.

But an opportunity arose in December 1998 to put his rare knowledge to use. He was at his home in Montgomery reading a book one evening, barely paying attention to a TV program about Bigfoot.

His interest was piqued, however, when he heard the term "dermal ridges," a reference to fingerprints. He listened closely as Jeff Meldrum, associate professor of anatomy at Idaho State University, held a casting of a supposed Bigfoot footprint and pointed to what appeared to be the loops and whorls of prints.

Believing he could determine the authenticity of the prints, Chilcutt phoned Meldrum, a specialist in primate anatomy and locomotion.

"If there is a Sasquatch, only a handful of people in the world know the difference between a primate and a human print," Chilcutt said. Meldrum said he was delighted to find someone who could help authenticate his collection of about 100 castings of supposed Bigfoot footprints.

A skeptical Chilcutt arrived in Pocatello, Idaho, last April and began studying the collection. He first examined the casting Meldrum had shown on TV and quickly determined it to be a fake. The toeprints were actually human fingerprints.

Meldrum turned him loose on the entire collection. "What I actually found surprised even me," Chilcutt said. The print ridges on the bottoms of five castings -- which were taken at different times and locations -- flowed lengthwise along the foot, unlike human prints, which flow from side to side, he said. "No way do human footprints do that -- never, ever.

"The skeptic in me had to believe that (all of the prints were from) the same species of animal," Chilcutt said. "I believe that this is an animal in the Pacific Northwest that we have never documented."

Meldrum, for whom the study of Bigfoot prints is a sideline, believes it's a legitimate, scientific inquiry.

"A misconception is often perpetrated that this should be relegated to the tabloids," he said. "The question is, what made the tracks? They are there; that is indisputable. It's either a hoax or the track of a living animal."

"Officer Chilcutt has brought his expertise to that question. We will never know for sure until a specimen is collected. Until then, it's unscientific, in my opinion, to dismiss this evidence without giving it an airing."

Glander, who was casually acquainted with Meldrum when Meldrum taught briefly at Duke, said: "Do I believe in Bigfoot? I don't know, but I think it's one of those things that is interesting and intriguing."

Glander likened Meldrum's research to his own study of lemurs in Madagascar, where he hopes to find a species of lemur believed to be extinct. "Does that make me a crackpot? I don't think so."

BFRO Commentary:

Q&A with Dr. Meldrum about this article

Q: The article mentions a track that Chilcutt determined was fake. What is the origin of that track?

A: The "fake" element was overstated by the reporters. It was one of Freeman's casts from Elk Wallow (if memory serves me, but I will check the location name).

There was evidence of contamination by human fingerprints in the toe region. The question remains whether this was intentional or not.

There seems to be a natural inclination to touch tracks, brush away debris, or even embellish an indistinct spot. One of the toes clearly had a triple strike, in that the core pattern of a fingertip (human appearing ridge texture) was repeated down the length of the toe. This may have been done by Freeman or any of the numerous other individuals who examined the tracks prior to their casting.

What the reporter failed to mention was that along the margins of the foot there were examples of the distinct coarse textured ridges trending parallel to the margins of the foot! So it is not unreasonable to conclude that a legitimate footprint was literally "touched up" in the toe region.

Dr. Jeff Meldrum
Associate Professor of Anatomy and Anthropology
Idaho State University
Affiliate Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology
Idaho Museum of Natural History

Affiliate Curator of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization

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