They're on the Trail of Something Big

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To some, Bigfoot is the stuff of childhood tales, low-budget movies and supermarket tabloids. To Peter Guttilla, Bigfoot is alive and well in Southern California.

Guttilla says his first experience with the giant, furry creature was on a snowy night in Pippin, Wis., when he was 2 years old. He and his mother heard strange noises and the next day found even stranger prints.

More than 40 years, thousands of dollars, countless miles and only one sighting later, he is still looking for the legendary creature known as Sasquatch, Yeti, Skunk Ape, Abominable Snowman, Creep Devil, Bush Man and Ridge Runner.

"I would like to be standing right there and look up at it," said Guttilla, who lives in Corona. "I'd love to prove it exists if only to make a point. I have no dreams of having it named after me, like 'Guttillikasraunchy' or something like that. I'm not Captain Ahab after the white whale, and I'm not a Don Quixote going after windmills either. I really think it merits attention."

Guttilla, 45, and his research partner, 40-year-old Terry Albright of La Verne, have spent countless hours trekking through the woods, listening for Bigfoot's high-pitched scream and--if they are lucky--making plaster casts of prints. They subscribe to clipping services and talk for hours on the telephone and in person with those who say they've seen Bigfoot. Sightings have been reported around the world, leading people to believe there may be more than one Bigfoot--most often described as a large, furry animal or man with big feet and a shy nature.

With other researchers, Guttilla and Albright recently formed a nationwide network to exchange information and investigate sighting reports. Many of these come in on hot lines the group operates with (800), (900) and (714) area codes.

Many of the reports make their way into a newsletter called the Bigfoot Coop, edited by Constance Cameron, curator of the anthropology museum at Cal State Fullerton and a longtime follower of strange phenomena.

For Cameron, who has never seen a Sasquatch, the newsletter means spending a few nights a month typing reports, photocopying and getting the publication ready for mailing. For Albright and Guttilla, Bigfoot is a time-consuming passion.

"The time I spend on this varies, but in general, it's every spare moment," Guttilla said. "If I get a good sighting report, I will lose sleep. I run my own cleaning business, and I have a supervisor who conducts the actual day-to-day activity of the business so I can pretty much do what I want within reason."

His search has led him to Canada and Mexico, and each summer he and Albright travel to tiny Willow Creek, a Northern California town known as "Bigfoot capital of the world" because of the number of sightings.

"Somehow ordinary vacations lose their luster," Guttilla said. "I just don't find it fulfilling to go to Bermuda when I know I could go somewhere else and possibly have the experience of a lifetime."

Scientists and others, however, scoff at Sasquatch. Groups including the Buffalo, N.Y.-based Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal have considered photographs, hair samples and footprints and remain unconvinced.

"I think at the moment Bigfoot is an interesting, exciting kind of space fiction character, but there's no proof that such a being exists," said Paul Kurtz, group chairman and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

"The best efforts of scientists to discover such a creature have ended up with zero results," Kurtz said. "If such a species existed, there'd be hard evidence--but there's not. It seems to be largely speculation and fantasy."

Such skepticism has given Guttilla a thick skin.

"I've got nothing to protect," he said. "My reputation was shot down in the clumps long ago. It doesn't matter . . . I'm not running for public office. I don't care if there are people out there who think I'm crazy. I've lived with that all my life, and I'll probably live and die with that stigma. But I believe in what I'm doing."

Tabloid newspapers with stories on Bigfoot alongside those about people being shrunk to the size of martini olives have also done little for the subject's credibility.

Said Guttilla: "These tabloids know that when they don't find a legitimate report--and those of us who are legitimate researchers know how hard that is--they make them up." He said they have looked into tabloid claims and none have ever panned out. But he continues his search.

Guttilla and Albright begin a sighting investigation by considering the credibility of the witness, questioning him or her, examining any evidence recovered and then going to the spot to take measurements of the location and to look for trail evidence. If they find a print, they make a plaster mold.

Guttilla and Albright, who works in the film industry, said their families are understanding about their passion. They routinely pile their wives and kids into four-wheel-drive vehicles and traverse bumpy dirt roads to remote locations, where they gather around campfires to tell Bigfoot stories.

Albright's 5-year-old daughters, Kimberly and Kara, are budding Bigfoot fans. They enjoy hunting for Sasquatch and have a little song they sing about "Harry" while hiking through the wilderness. If they ever meet him, they said, they would ask him if he has a girlfriend or is married.

For others, family life and Bigfoot research have not been as compatible. Rich Grumley, 56, a Palmdale traffic violator instructor who works with Albright and Guttilla, said that although his ex-wife initially encouraged him to become active and pursue some interest, he thinks his frequent absences led to their divorce.

Despite their years of searching, the trio's firsthand experience with Bigfoot has been limited to brief encounters. Guttilla said he sighted a creature from afar in the Mojave Desert in 1974. Albright claims he saw one leap across a road southeast of Palmdale in 1975. Grumley said he saw two in Kern County about the same time Albright sighted his.

The men say they have interviewed many people they believe have sighted Bigfoot.

Guttilla was one of the first in the Bigfoot camp to suggest a possible connection between Bigfoot and UFOs. He points to American Indian legends in which the creature was linked to "shiny silver moons."

But there's not enough evidence to determine whether the creature is a visitor from another planet, a throwback to primitive man or a member of an obscure Indian tribe that somehow remained aloof from the rest of the human species, "Nobody really knows," Guttilla said. "It's anybody's guess."

The three researchers say they would like an extended encounter with a Sasquatch, a chance to photograph it and possibly tag it with a radio transmitter. Through the 900 number and other sources, they are trying to raise enough funding for air support, night vision equipment and cameras they could set up at a remote location for an extended period. With such equipment they could produce scientific evidence of the creatures, who Guttilla believes may possess great intelligence.

"From my research, I'm convinced they are able to process information," he said. "They make judgments, they have family units, they transmit information from one generation to the next."

Although Bigfoot information is just as scarce now as it was 40 years ago--the researchers rely primarily on hair samples and footprints--the men say their work is important.

"We're not doing it because we like ghost stories or we want to frivolously waste our time tracking down gremlins or hobgoblins," Guttilla said. "We're doing this because we think it will have an impact on mankind, that it's important for human beings to know that their universe is filled with life, life beyond that which they're being told about in school from the conventional Establishment."

Bigfoot Basics (Orange County Edition, E10)

According to watchers, Bigfoot's vital statistics are as follows:

* Height ranges from about 5 feet to more than 15 feet tall.

* Eyes are large, usually almond-shaped. Sometimes they glow.

* Color varies from white to jet black, with chestnut being the most common.

* Bullet-shaped head with no neck.

* Long arms, generally to the knees or below.

* Long strides with quick, fluid movements.

* Smells bad (skunky or like rotting garbage most common)

* Known for making high-pitched sounds resembling screams or whistles, not the growls depicted in movies.

* Attracted sometimes by radio noise, high-pitched whistles, campfires and the smell of hot dogs, particularly smoke-flavored Farmer John wieners.

Hot line numbers: (800) 800-1950; (900) 535-9700, Ext. 646; (714) 272-6019 or (714) 596-4866.

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