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Bigfoot and the Trolls

How a bookseller in Willow Creek caused the biggest Bigfoot forum on the web to be shut down. Or did he?

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He'd been here many times before: He knew it as well in the darkness of this balmy late-May night, with midnight just minutes away, as in the bright disclosure of day.

He could hear the low shhhhh of the river nearby. A slight breeze moved from tree to tree in the screen of oaks and maples that he knew stood between him and the deep-wooded mountains that steeply rise up. Now it stirred the chimes hanging from the back porch eave; the gentle dinging should have reminded him that civilization was as close as he wanted it to be.

He stared intently into the darkness, watching, observing, reading the signs, hoping that the tidbit he'd left there recently would pay off. He wasn't expecting an earth-shattering encounter, just a new clue, perhaps, something that might add to his understanding of the shadowy creature he'd pursued, seriously, for the past nine years.

He leaned forward, shifting his right hand...

 

The attack was sudden. Something flashed -- a barber's blade?! -- through the air and hit him with a thwack!

"So Steve-o, when are you gonna have an interview with Bob H. and post that on your Blog?" the one called "masterbarber" on the Bigfoot Forums sneered.

Steven Streufert, owner of Bigfoot Books in Willow Creek, stared at his computer screen. He had posed what he thought was a fun, discussion-provoking question -- "What Constitutes a BIGFOOT-SASQUATCH ENCOUNTER?" -- on his own blog, "Bigfoot's bLOG," and then posted it as a new thread on the Bigfoot Forums website with a link to his blog post, and signed it as always "Bigfoot Bookman." But now, at 11:56 p.m., he gets this non sequitur, this provocation about his stance -- revealed in earlier discussions here on the BFF -- on a subject completely unrelated to his new post. (Disclosure: Streufert is an occasional contributor to the Journal.)

"Bob H." was Bob Heironimus, the man who in 2004 announced he was the "Bigfoot" that Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin filmed walking up Bluff Creek, near Weitchpec, on Oct. 20, 1967. They'd had him don a modified gorilla costume, he said. Heironimus' claim sparked another round of furious debate over the authenticity of the Patterson-Gimlin film ("PGF" in Bigfooting circles). Streufert happened to fall into the camp that believes it's the real deal, and he'd written about it and even reviewed a book about it on his blog. Others, like "masterbarber," think Heironimus' claim pretty much nails it down as a fake.

The next night, Streufert fired back: "YOU MEAN ‘THE MAN IN THE SUIT'?" he taunted, fingers clattering all-caps onto the screen. Backing down the tone a notch, he added, "I'm not sure what good it would do to interview him. His inconsistencies and lies have been thoroughly exposed already by [Bigfoot researcher] Roger Knights. It would be fun to sit down with Bob H. and a good map to see if he could really point out where the film was shot. He was only off by a few dozen miles. Ha ha."

Three days later masterbarber, who'd become a forum moderator in July, snarked back, saying that if Streufert was so "after the truth about Bigfooting and all," he ought to want to interview Heironimus.

Streufert tried to stay reasonable and polite. And masterbarber apologized for derailing Streufert's original thread-starter about Bigfoot encounters. But then a guy called "parnassus" barged in and, noting Steve's reference to his blog and a recent post there about black panther sightings in Willow Creek, said: "Steven, so this thread is apparently just a billboard for your website stories/bookstore? not really a discussion thread? what are people supposed to discuss? Black Panthers, your biography, your website? how people make money off Bigfoot? Just askin..." He signed off with an icon rolling its eyes.

Streufert said, no, he was there to discuss the mystery of Bigfoot. But then others piled on, including the chief administrator, "Teresa," who said it was obvious Streufert was only on the BFF to sell books. Another one, "Redwolf," sarcastically listed his "crimes," including talking smack to the administrator. He denied and denied. Bigfooting, he said, actually lost him money because he spent so much time talking and blogging about it that he didn't attend enough to regular store business. Teresa directed him to the BFF's Marketplace and told him to clean up his attitude. He said this was getting silly.

On May 29 at 12:10 a.m. Streufert posted a cryptic warning on his blog and, as he always did, posted notice of it on the BFF: "When looking for Bigfoot, watch out for TROLLS."

Shit, meet fan. And he was temporarily suspended.

But then, when he came back, he was attacked again. This time, Brian Brown, who founded the BFF in 2002 but had been absent from it for years, heard about the mess, stepped back in and, on Aug. 16, shut the forum down. Maybe there'd be a resurrection, maybe not, he wrote to members of the BFF.

Gone, eight years of wide-ranging Bigfoot discussion. More than half a million archived posts, vanished. Twelve thousand-plus members, stranded. "The Web's most popular one-stop shop for Sasquatch talk," as the BFF's logo proclaimed, was dead.

Word spread. Here in Humboldt-town, where we consider Bigfoot our very own megamystery homeboy, we wondered: What the hairy-eight-foot-wildman-animal had just happened?

 

Streufert extracted a plug of loose tobacco from the pouch he was holding and dabbed it onto a square of white paper. Rolled it, licked it, and stood up from the seat in front of his computer inside Bigfoot Books and walked through the open back door. He leaned against a post, lit the cigarette, inhaled, then lay it in an ashtray on the porch railing and stuffed his hands into his pockets. A breeze rippled through the chimes hanging from the eave and ruffled the maples on the edge of a small lawn behind him. Their leaves scattered the early afternoon sunshine filtering through, multiplying its brightness.

"I haven't had a sighting that I can prove," he said. "But I think the anecdotal evidence is tremendous. I can point in all directions here to places where Bigfoot has been seen, right from this store [by others]. Including across the river right there" -- he pointed through the store toward the open front door, beyond which lay the highway and the Trinity River -- "and including behind these cabins out here. Last year, there was a sighting up on Friday Ridge Road, and by the forest lookout."

With regularity, as if they're just reporting yet another black bear crossing the road or raiding someone's garden, people come into his store to tell him they or someone they know just saw Bigfoot.

"This store's like Bigfoot bait," Streufert, who's 45, said. "And when I opened it in 2005, that's what I was thinking: I could put Bigfoot in the name and have Bigfoot in the front window, and people would eventually start coming in here."

Bigfoot books and memorabilia do flood the store. Even so, there are far more books on non-Bigfoot topics, from religion to romance. Streufert has a master's in literature and a master's in teaching writing, both from Humboldt State. He loves learning about everything, he said.

But his Bigfoot fixation -- an agnostic interest in the mystery, he calls it -- is no sudden thing. In 1999, he and his "Armchair Anarchists" friends founded "The Church of Bigfoot Scientist" and went "Bigfoot hunting," but it was mostly about drinking beer, making a funny website and pulling pranks. His interest deepened, especially after he moved to Willow Creek in 2001 and started talking to the locals, including Native Americans, and walking more in the woods. After he opened his store, he gained a reputation -- just like Willow Creek old-timer Al Hodgson did in the 1970s -- of being the go-to guy for all things Bigfoot.

Which is why he was flummoxed by the BFF broadside.

"Here I've been studying this since 2000 or so, and they're saying I'm not a real researcher, I'm not interested in Bigfoot, I don't care about anything but hawking my wares and peddling my books," he said. "And I took some offense at that. ... And I realized all these people were insiders. They were completely allowed to break the rules that they were supposed to be enforcing. And they were ganging up on me for no reason other than they didn't have me under their own control. I had my own blog."

It was something he wrote on his own blog that got him banned from the BFF. A woman had written a nonfiction book called "Enoch," about a guy in Florida who purportedly habituated himself with a Bigfoot -- really got to know the creature. Debate raged over this book. Streufert wrote on his blog that he'd met the author, Autumn Williams, and that he found her credible. He also told his readers to go check out the "insane furor" the book had stirred up on the BFF.

Well, they thought he was calling them crazy. Banned him.

He counterattacked. On June 30 on his blog -- under the stacked headline "Petty Dictators Rule the BFF! BIGFOOT'S BLOG Manages to Annoy the Hell out of the Bigfoot Forums and We Get Banned! BIGFOOT'S BLOG NEWS FLASH! Ha ha ha! Bigfoot Forums, We Don't Need You!" -- Streufert inserted the BFF's slogan banner, to which he'd added swastikas, and another with the hammer and sickle. He put up Big Brother posters and wrote a long entry about what had happened to him on the BFF.

On Aug. 17, he took it one step further. He outted the BFF moderators and administrator who he said had ganged up on him by posting several lists of names. He'd obtained the lists, created by anonymous others, from other sites, including the caustic thereisnobigfoot.com blog and Bigfoot researcher Melissa Hovey's more sincere Search For Bigfoot blog. They named people by their screen name and sometimes by their real name and drew connections between them -- many had been on other forums together, had some falling out with the rest of the group, and had left and joined other sites. One list introduced the derogatory term "Jimites," after a guy named Jim who allegedly was the group's lemming-leader.

Streufert's post made it onto Cryptomundo, the biggest internet gathering place for folks to talk about cryptids (suspected but not yet discovered creatures), where Loren Coleman warned: "...many people involved in the Bigfoot field, at least, should be made aware that a collection of people are circulating about, waiting to invade your forum or group, to take control of it, for their own evil ego reasons."

The battle spread onto other forums. The BFFers who'd clashed with Streufert found purchase on sites like the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), a site for skeptical inquiry, and the Bigfoot Discussions (BFD) forum.

Wrote Redwolf, on Aug. 22, on the BFD: "Funny thing is that I really had no idea I was an official Jimite! I never got a secret decoder ring and nobody taught me the secret handshake. Do we have meetings? I can bring cookies and punch. ..."

On Aug. 23, in reponse to something former BFFer "GuyinIndiana" said in the Cryptomundo comments section -- that Streufert had merely been sucked into the web of those who had grudges against some other Bigfooters -- masterbarber wrote on the BFD: "...I couldn't disagree with you more about BipolarBookBoy there Guy. He didn't get sucked into anything, he spearheaded this nonsense..."

Streufert found refuge at the Search For Bigfoot site, where he heard stories from others who said they'd been dogpiled, too, by these BFF honchos.

"I realized that there was this war that had been raging beneath the surface for a long time," said Streufert, now back inside and wrapping a book to mail off to a customer.

The Journal tried to get in touch with several of the BFF moderators and administrators accused either of bad behavior or of allowing it to happen. Of the three who responded, two agreed to be interviewed then backed out. One said the Journal had a conflict of interest because Streufert is a contributor. The other, Redwolf, offered this statement: "Considering the juvenile behavior and the irrational rantings of those who have written nasty things about me....I am not troubled to be on their bad side."

So, why things degenerated to the point of shutdown, at least from the accused's perspective, will remain unexplored. But others have plenty of theories.

Maybe it was jealousy.

"If you get attention, they attack you," said Search For Bigfoot founder Melissa Hovey, 41, by phone from Ohio last week. "I mean, I came out of nowhere. I was no one in 2005, and by 2006 I was filming for a television program -- I was in the Monster Quest episode with the all-female expedition in the Cascades," she said. "And these people, who'd been in this field for years, it's not my fault they don't put themselves out there to get attention."

She said she was dogpiled -- ganged up on -- by some BFF moderators, who she claims were reading private messages on the forums and leaking them, including personal information she'd shared with one of them. She said she saw them tear up a 14-year-old witness who came on the forum to say he'd seen Bigfoot, leaving him shaking, according to his angry dad, who got online later to scold them.

"The general public, who think we're crazy for believing in Bigfoot, treat us better than our own people," Hovey said.

Streufert calls the Bigfoot community a nerdy cult subculture, where everyone's trying to establish what's hip and cool. But because no Bigfoot has actually been found dead, or caught alive, and most "evidence" turns out not to be reliable, it's hard to agree on what's "cool." There's also ample room for turf battles, like the lawsuit between two organizations over the rights to a Bigfoot video purportedly showing a Kentucky Bigfoot eating syrupy pancakes in a woman's backyard. There are endless debates -- is the Patterson-Gimlin film fake? Or, if not, did the PGF filmmakers murder the Bigfoot in it? Are those real dermal ridges, or not, on those footprint casts? Was the "Skookum butt print" found in a muddy road in a Washington State meadow where a Bigfoot had reclined to eat some fruit left as bait, or had an elk lain there? Was Bigfoot human or animal or something else?

"And for a lot of people it is like their religion, and they've got a set idea," said Streufert.

Some of the BFF's leaders also had fallen for some of Bigfooting's greatest recent hoaxes. One was the Michigan Recording Project, in which researchers had set up on a Michigan farm to investigate Bigfoot reports; among other missteps, a guy was caught broadcasting Bigfoot vocalizations from a boombox near unsuspecting Bigfooters listening for the real thing, denting the project's veracity.

"They were embarrassed," Streufert said. "So now they're embittered, now they're so hard-core in their acceptance of evidence, and they're so disillusioned by all the hoaxes and by how every sighting and report ends up being frustratingly inconclusive, that anybody who reports anything gets their head bitten off."

Brian Brown, the founder of the BFF, blames the current batch of adult humans' inability to adapt to the Internet quickly enough. "My son, who's 11, will laugh at all of this some day."

Brown, who makes websites for a living, started the Bigfoot Forums in 2002 on a little server in his basement in Minnesota. There were a few prominent Bigfoot groups online -- the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization and the Texas Bigfoot Research Center (now "Conservancy"), along with a couple of others (themselves having arisen from the nacent online world where the first Bigfoot discussions had taken place on mailing lists run by the Internet Virtual Bigfoot Conference). They were research organizations, primarily. "And they were typically run heavyhandedly," he said. "You had to toe their line. And I didn't feel I had a strong point of view. I just wanted to discuss it."

At first the site was fun. About a hundred posts a day, with 50 regular posters. But as Bigfooting took off, and more people got online, the site ballooned and Brown burned out. "Plus I was meeting actual people by then, and going on expeditions," he said.

He turned administration of the BFF over to someone else, and later it was passed on again. He retained ownership of the domain, however, and the site was still connected to one of his servers. When he heard about how the site had degenerated into such incivility this summer -- and it wasn't just the Streufert affair that concerned him, he said -- he was disgusted. It seemed that everybody -- moderators and admins and members alike -- was bitching about each other on the BFF and on other Bigfoot internet sites.

"These things just became an echo chamber," he said. "And people like Melissa and Steven -- and I like Melissa and Steven -- want to discuss the metadata around Bigfoot ... but they're talking about people, not Bigfoot. And that's part of what's wrong with the Bigfoot community."

Sure, Bigfooters have always had their battles. "It's the 1970s and you have Peter Byrne, famous Bigfoot hunter, and John Green, famous researcher -- and they hate each other," said Brown. "But that's between them. Today, they'd have blogs, they'd have a pack of wolves following them. And just the speed of it -- people instantly jump on things. But the thing about the field of Bigfooting is, nothing happens for a really long time. So, people just end up rehashing things. And when they have too much time on their hands, they act like assholes."

He said the Internet has allowed people to create mini communities with their own celebrities -- only these "celebrities" don't seem equipped to deal with aspersions. Some of them imagine conspiracies against them. And they go from being "godlike, benevolent dictators to partisan dictators."

"There's a really interesting story here about how the Internet creates these subsystems of bullshit," Brown said. "Steven's posting swastikas over the forum -- which I recognized as being campy, but also as inflammatory. Melissa will chew away at you like a beaver on a pine. ... The moderators let their personal relationships get in their way -- and bad moderation is like pornography: You know it when you see it."

Ironically, the BFF had become a lot like those early, toe-the-line, our-way-or-the-highway online Bigfoot groups that Brown had started the BFF to get away from in the first place.

 

Wacky, and painful, battles continue on some Bigfoot sites. But the new BFF -- yes, it rose from the dead in late August -- remains fairly decorous. It's now under the watchful eye of the UK-based Centre for Fortean Zoology; Brown is in the process of transfering ownership to the new hosts. Everyone has to re-sign up, and several old BFFers have. There are some preliminary rules -- act like a grown-up; leave your grudges at the door -- with more formal guidelines to come. Moderators are assigned to specific discussion groups and rotated out on a regular basis to prevent burnout. And everyone is rated on a "reputation" system, wherein fellow members can rate the quality and usefulness of your posts.

Like the old site, on the new BFF there are groups for discussing everything from recordings and film to field research to sightings. Under General Bigfoot Discussion, several topics were underway when we checked earlier this week: "What Draws a Skeptic to BF?"; "Sasquatch and Native Americans"; "Stick Structures"; "Where Are The Pictures?"; "What Do Friends/Family Think About You and Bf?"; "BF Intelligence" and "Bigfoot Behavior And Actions."

Let's add one more: "Are Bigfoot's Tears Ones Of Dismay Or Joy?"

Carry on, people.

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