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Back to Bluff Creek: The Patterson-Gimlin Film
A pursuit of sources at the source of the controversy
There’s a little patch of Northern California woods near Bluff Creek where some say Bigfoot lives. Or lived – in 1967, when Roger Patterson caught something on film that no one has been able to fully explain.
If you’ve ever seen the iconic Bigfoot silhouette with head turned to look at you and the long arms floating out in front and back, you’ve seen the figure filmed by Patterson and his tracking buddy, Bob Gimlin.
I visited that patch of woods in October, 54 years to almost the day after their notorious encounter. It’s about 100 miles inland from my doorstep in Humboldt County, so how could I not go see for myself?
Into the wilds northeast of Willow Creek, I followed Rowdy Kelley to meet up with Daniel Perez, Robert Leiterman and other Bluff Creek Project pilgrims making the annual trek.
Leiterman has just published a book on the group’s quest to rediscover the site.
Driving beyond the pale of cell phone reception – 22 miles of an almost-two-lane road followed by two miles of a rocky, almost-one-lane road and then a mile-and-a-half hiking down into the creek basin – it occurred to me that the Patterson-Gimlin film is the best documentation we have that Bigfoot might exist.
If the film is authentic, Bigfoot still lives out there. If it was a hoax, 50-plus years of debating the film’s merits has been a big waste of time. Patterson and Gimlin were the perfect guys to either film a Bigfoot or orchestrate the hoax of the century.
The first account of the Patterson-Gimlin film was carried by the Times-Standard newspaper in Eureka, Calif. Around 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 20, 1967, a reporter took a call from a gasping, breathless source named Roger Patterson.
Patterson said he had been working all year on a Bigfoot movie. Approximately eight hours earlier, he and his aide Bob Gimlin had encountered one near where the Bluff and Notice creeks converge. They had the film to prove it, Patterson said, already on its way by airmail to his native Yakima, Wash. for processing.
The reporter – identity still uncertain – made the deadline for the Saturday morning paper, a write-up entitled “Mrs. Bigfoot is Filmed!” Patterson and Gimlin came around a bend in Bluff Creek where they both saw “a giant humanoid creature” some 80-90 feet away.
“My horse reared and fell, completely flattening a stirrup with my foot caught in it,” Patterson said. "My foot hurt but I couldn't think about it because I was jumping up and grabbing the reins to try to control the horse. I saw my camera in the saddle bag and grabbed it out."
Patterson said the creature stood upright the entire time, reaching a height of about six and a half to seven feet and an estimated weight of between 350 and 400 pounds.
"I moved to take the pictures and told Bob to cover me. My gun was still in the scabbard. I'd grabbed the camera instead.”
The beast had breasts, silvery brown hair and smelled like a “dog out of the rain … rolling in something dead.”
While folks around the Humboldt Bay were reading the story over breakfast, Patterson and Gimlin were extricating their truck bearing three horses from a muddy Bluff Creek basin and heading back to Washington. The next evening they showed the developed 16mm film to a small audience in the home of Patterson’s brother-in-law and financial benefactor, Al DeAtley.
Four days later, they were showing the film to an audience of anthropologists and zoologists at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
“Don Abbott, an anthropologist with the provincial museum in Victoria, said Tuesday he has some evidence to support the film,” wrote reporter Tony Eberts in Vancouver’s The Province on Oct. 25. “Plaster casts of huge footprints found in the same California region in September.”
“I went down there (it's a remote region about 100 miles northeast of Eureka) two months ago and examined many of the footprints," he said. "It's either a highly elaborate hoax, or some of these hairy humanoids exist.”
Abbott had framed the two competing narratives quite succinctly: Bigfoot exists or the film is an amazing hoax.
John Napier, a primatologist who studied the film at the Smithsonian Institution a few weeks later, articulated a third variation: Bigfoot might exist even if the film is a hoax.
Napier narrated the first mass-media dissection of Bigfoot, a BBC documentary entitled, “Bigfoot: America's Abominable Snowman.” Airing (in Britain) nine months after the Bluff Creek encounter, the documentary featured Roger Patterson, a parade of scientists and scholars, and B-roll Patterson shot in Yakima of his posse dramatizing hot pursuit – complete with Gimlin wearing a long, black Apache wig.
Sasquatch Archives curator Todd Prescott made the BBC program available on YouTube for the first time this past October.
“Is there a Bigfoot?” Napier says in conclusion. “Personally, I’d like to think there was. From my point of view, it’s good scientific policy to keep at least part of one’s mind open. I’ve allotted about 5 percent of mine on this particular issue.”
In search of sources
In any journalist inquiry, we’re looking for credible, firsthand sources who can corroborate a particular narrative. The obvious firsthand sources for the Bluff Creek story are Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin.
Patterson stuck to his story until he died of cancer in 1972. In 1968, he submitted to a lie detector test required by National Wildlife magazine as a precondition for their coverage, “The Search for Bigfoot.”
National Wildlife Managing Editor George H. Harrison mentions Roger Patterson’s 1968 lie detector test in “On the Trail of Bigfoot,” which appeared in the October-November 1970 issue.
Gimlin, now 90, spent decades in silence before coming out in interviews and speaking engagements affirming the story he told in 1967.
Skeptics have rightfully pointed out that the pair could be incredible, engaging in a conspiracy of two in hopes of “making a million bucks,” as Patterson biographer Greg Long conjectures in The Making of Bigfoot.
So, secondhand sources are valuable as well. Could others corroborate any parts of the Patterson-Gimlin narrative? Did anyone see them in the Bluff Creek area? Did they talk to family members and friends before or after the filming, saying anything to substantiate an authentic experience or a hoax?
Al Hodgson was Patterson’s point man in Humboldt County. Hodgson operated the Willow Creek Variety Store and kept Patterson apprised of Bigfoot reports in the area. It was Hodgson’s tip about those September footprints found near Blue Creek Mountain Road that brought Patterson and Gimlin to the area in 1967.
Hodgson, who died in 2018, confirmed many times that Patterson and Gimlin drove into Willow Creek around 6:30 p.m. to give him the news about their fateful Oct. 20 encounter. They also conferred with U.S. Forest Service Fire Inspector Syl McCoy before returning to their camp and horses around midnight.
Nine days later, a taxidermist and tracker named Bob Titmus drove to the Bluff Creek site from Redding, Calif. A Bigfoot enthusiast since he documented Bluff Creek prints discovered by Jerry Crew in 1958, Titmus made plaster casts of 10 footprints and drew a map of the creature’s movements.
Patterson’s friends and family were interviewed extensively by Greg Long some 30 years after the facts. While most of his sources in the Yakima area described Patterson as unorthodox, conniving and irresponsible, no one in the family reported any secret, insider knowledge that the Bluff Creek film was a fake.
Al DeAtley, the Yakima construction mogul who married Patterson’s sister, told Long he had doubts about the film’s authenticity but never asked Patterson about it point-blank.
“Roger believed there was a Bigfoot. No doubt about it,” DeAtley said. “I don’t think he would claim it to be morally wrong to fake it, to make enough money to prove it … he didn’t take any of the money he made and increase the standard of living for him or his children. He spent it all on proving it.”
DeAtley speculated that if the film were indeed a hoax, the most likely candidate for the man wearing a monkey suit would be Bob Gimlin.
Which leads us back to another possible firsthand source: the man (if any) who wore the monkey suit.
Enter the hoaxers
If the Patterson-Gimlin film was a hoax, then a third person went to Bluff Creek in 1967 and wore the Bigfoot suit. Al DeAtley wasn’t the only person to suspect Bob Gimlin.
Ray Wallace claimed to “know exactly which Yakama Indian was in that monkey suit,” according to naturalist Robert Pyle, although he never actually said Gimlin’s name.
Wallace was Jerry Crew’s employer in 1958 and initially expressed dismay that the Bigfoot prints found on the Bluff Creek road-construction site were hurting his business by scaring workers off. He later went on to take credit for the prints and for directing Patterson to the spot along Bluff Creek where he would most likely find a Bigfoot.
Wallace’s wife, Elna, claimed to wear a Bigfoot suit for some of Ray’s hoaxes, but the family never admitted to hoaxing Patterson at Bluff Creek.
“At this time, it is unknown if Wallace was involved in a hoax with Patterson or hoaxed Patterson,” wrote Strange Magazine Editor Mark Chorvinsky in 1997. “If there was a hoax, Patterson was either hoaxer or was hoaxed.”
A year after Chorvinsky’s article, Fox TV offered a source for a different monkey suit candidate. In the opening segment of “World’s Greatest Hoaxes: Secrets Finally Revealed,” a retired executive of American National Enterprises (ANE) claimed that Patterson was on the company payroll in 1967 with instructions to hoax a Bigfoot sighting for what would become Bigfoot: Man or Beast?
“They would put the Bigfoot film together with another film, such as Cougar Country,” said Clyde Reinke on national television. “The Bigfoot film itself would increase the attendance tremendously.”
Reinke said Jerry Romney, a close friend of former ANE Chairman Frank Olson, told him many times that he wore the monkey suit for Patterson. Romney also appears on “World’s Greatest Hoaxes” to deny any involvement.
Within weeks of the broadcast, local attorney Barry Woodard told the Yakima Herald-Republic he had a client who claims he donned the monkey suit for Patterson. The unnamed client wanted help negotiating a deal for rights to his story as well as advice on if he might be in legal trouble for the hoax, Woodard said.
The client – later identified by Greg Long as Patterson posse member Bob Heironimus – also passed a polygraph test. “He was asked three specific questions on his involvement in this and the suit, and he passed each one of those," Woodard said.
Heironimus, who claims Gimlin offered him $1,000 to travel separately to Bluff Creek, rendezvous in secret and wear the suit, passed a second polygraph test on a 2005 episode of Lie Detector. Heironimus said he kept his role secret for more than 30 years because of a promise – and hope he would eventually get paid.
Long’s The Making of Bigfoot not only paints a sinister portrait of Patterson but extols the Heironimus hoax claims above the others. The final chapter features Virginia-based costumer Philip Morris claiming to be the one who made the suit Heironimus wore.
“I was watching TV and this film is being shown, and I see my gorilla suit,” Morris told Long. “I was the only one who was making a gorilla suit like that at that time.”
Morris said he talked to Patterson several times on the phone and sold him a $335 suit made of synthetic dynel fur attached to a zippered, one-piece costume of knitted cloth. A headpiece, gloves and feet completed the look.
The claims flew in the face of Chorvinsky’s previous reporting that John Chambers– legendary costumer for Planet of the Apes – had made Patterson’s monkey suit. They also countered Heironimus’ own description of a three-piece (legs, torso, head) suit Patterson made out of horsehide.
Back to Bluff Creek
Those who believe Roger Patterson filmed a previously unverified hominoid on Oct. 20, 1967 want hoax-claimers to bring forward definitive proof, e.g. the suit someone wore in Bluff Creek that day.
Skeptics are suspicious that Patterson is the only one in history to go down to Bluff Creek with a camera and bring back footage of the elusive creature.
“The only legitimate way to prove the film is of a real Sasquatch,” writes anthropologist David Dangling in Bigfoot Exposed, “is to demonstrate beyond any doubt that what Patterson filmed was beyond the ability of human fabrication.”
So the debate goes on close to 60 years after the film was taken. My biggest insight from visiting the Bluff Creek film site this fall was seeing how remote the area is and how difficult it would be for Patterson and Gimlin to film a Bigfoot at 1:30 p.m., load more film and make plaster casts, drive into Eureka to mail the film, and get back to Willow Creek by 6:30 to share the good news with Al Hodgson.
Not beyond human ability, but difficult. In Bob Heironimus’ version, he drives to Eureka to mail the film. Much more plausible, but not even Al DeAtley can explain how 16mm Kodachrome film got developed in time to screen it by Sunday evening.
If Bob Gimlin is harboring some secret truth, he has only a few years left to come clean.
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