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They're on the Trail of Something Big

July 02, 1991|SHANNON SANDS | 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.

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