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Bigfoot believers gather in Jeannette

Faithful come together to discuss the legend at 5th annual convention

Sunday, October 05, 2003

By Rebekah Scott, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

They're huge and hairy and stink of sulfur, and some say several lurk in the wild places of Westmoreland County.

No one has ever captured Bigfoot, the mythical proto-human whose legend appears as far back as 5,000-year-old American Indian petroglyphs. But in the past 30 years, an inordinate number of people say they've spotted, smelled or tracked the 8-foot-tall animal within the county.

So it is only fitting that the Fifth Annual East Coast Bigfoot Conference/Expo was held last month in Jeannette. Almost 200 Bigfoot believers gathered in a dusky dance hall to hear speakers, examine hair samples and plaster footprint casts and trade stories and theories.

"I'd say half the people here are researchers and members of our group," said event organizer Terry Altman, president of the Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society. "The others are curiosity-seekers or just interested. Bigfoot isn't so taboo to talk about any more, not since "The X-Files" and Science Fiction Channel has brought mainstream legitimacy to all the possibilities out there."

Altman said he's been checking out local Bigfoot claims for five years. His report of Westmoreland investigations for 2003 includes:

In January in Derry Township, investigators followed the tracks of two huge hominids for more than two miles along a remote logging road, in foot-deep snow. The larger track measured 18 inches long, 9 inches wide -- a big foot, indeed.

In June, a woman in Derry Township saw a huge, apelike creature watching her as she gathered lettuce in her garden.

In July and August, in two places outside Greensburg, something large crashed through the woods near witnesses' homes. Dogs and horses panicked. Large, not-quite-human footprints were spotted along a nearby creek. In one case, strange screams and cries were heard in the night.

None of the witnesses was named, nor exact locations provided -- presumably to protect the traumatized from ridicule, and the Hairy Man from harassment by untrained, do-it-yourself "investigators."

Paul G. Johnson, a Duquesne University chemistry professor, shared Bigfoot research he collated from the early- to mid-1990s, including a county-by-county breakdown of "creature events." Allegheny County had 31, including "an 8-foot-tall black creature seen drinking from an above-ground pool in Allison Park." Washington County had 23; Armstrong, 18, and Westmoreland 155.

"I don't think there are more Bigfeet living in Westmoreland County than anywhere else," the professor said. "There are just more Bigfoot investigators here looking for him. This is not just a Pennsylvania phenomenon."

Indeed, other convention speakers outlined sightings and research from Canada, Maine, Virginia, Indiana, Florida and Washington state -- even Russia and China.

Johnson said he's spent scores of days and nights in a remote valley along the Chestnut Ridge of the Alleghenies where Bigfoot are said to roam. He's never seen anything extraordinary.

"Other people do, repeatedly," he said. "Why not me? I don't know."

There were plenty at the gathering who said yes, they'd seen something out there. Bob France, of Vandergrift, said he once saw an entire family of the creatures quietly grazing at a blueberry patch. Vince Bruno, of Kittanning, said he saw a pair of horrifying, glowing eyes one night in the deep woods of Mc Kean County.

"I don't know what it was, but there was something there," he said. "You can't understand it till you see or hear something that you just can't explain. It makes a believer out of you."

The typical Bigfoot believer, judging from the convention crowd, is a middle-aged, working-class white male in camouflage pants and a T-shirt bearing a Bigfoot portrait.

Bigfoot is not pretty, but framed "fine art" prints, paintings and drawings of him were hot items at a fund-raiser auction. Buyers snapped up dozens of DVDs, CDs, videos and books with titles like "Mothman: The Fact Behind the Legend," or "My Quest for the Yeti," or "Bigfoot Songs for the Road."

Other media have warmed to the trend, and the crowd buzzed with news of "The New Roswell: Kecksburg Exposed," a new SciFi TV cable documentary scheduled for October broadcast. It was filmed this summer in Westmoreland County.

See, the county isn't noted only for elusive apelike creatures. Everyone at the gathering knew about the acorn-shaped UFO that plummeted from the sky above tiny Kecksburg in 1965, and the spate of UFOs seen hovering around Greengate Mall 10 years later.

"The government roped off the whole place, and of course now they deny the whole thing," said Bob King, a retiree from Export. "But I was a teenager then, living in Norvelt, and me and some friends went up to Kecksburg to check it out. Something happened up there, definitely.

"And the Greengate UFOs? I took my wife and kids up there to see it the next day. We didn't see anything. But I know there's all kinds of things going on all around us. Things we cannot understand. You've got to keep an open mind in this world."


Rebekah Scott can be reached at rscott@post-gazette.com or 724-836-2655.

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