By Alyse Lounsberry - Lifestyles Editor 1977

Salt Springs - The Rev. S. L. Whatley appears to be playing it safe.

Despite becoming the latest celebrity among the nation's Bigfoot enthusiasts, he takes the middle-of-the-road approach to whatever it was he saw out there in the Ocala National Forest on Oct. 11. It shook him up pretty bad. He'll say that much. But now, more than a month after the strange mid-day sighting, the Reverend isn't claiming that he saw Bigfoot. "It was this hairy-like ape animal standing there in the palmetto bushes," recounts Whatley. "It looked to me to be seven or maybe eight feet tall. It had a dark chocolate colored face, a face that was clear of hair, and a flat nose. The arms - I couldn't tell what kind of hands it had - the arms were down into the palmetto bushes..." It could have been a female, Whatley says.

The breasts were visible above the scruffy palmetto. But was it Bigfoot? Whatley isn't saying one way or the other. He knows he saw something out there in the forest on a clear day that let lots of sunshine pour down through the trees. He was cutting wood with a chain saw, and had most of his attention riveted to what he was doing. "I saw this animal pass by the side of the truck out of the corner of my eye and at first I though it was a deer," he remembers. He was having trouble with the chain saw.

While he was waiting for the equipment to cool down enough to handle it, he heard guttural sounds coming from the stand of trees across the road. Thinking nothing of the strange set of circumstances, he returned to cutting his wood. But then the saw broke down again, and a disqusted Whatley decided to just pack up and go home. "And then I turned around and saw it..." There it was, looming above the scrub, some three or four hundred yards from where he was parked.

Whatley confides that he was mesmerized. He couldn't take his eyes off the odd-looking creature. He went back to the truck , got in and started it up, thenshut off the motor again to get a better look. "And then I thought, what it attacks me?" And fear started to creep its way up Whatley's spine. "I went back to the truck and got out my ax, and when I came back around it had disappeared..." Whatley went stalking the creature. "All I saw was deer tracks," Whatley relates. "I walked up this sand road thinking for sure that I'd see some tracks, but there weren't any." Closer to the area where the sighting occurred, Whatley checked closely for signs of such a creature. But to his dismay, he found that the forest floor was covered over with a cushy layer of grass and leaves.

Spotting tracks with that kind of ground cover would be virtually impossible.There he stood, ax dangling from his hands, with no earthly proof that he saw what he saw. "That's what kept me from telling anybody," Whatley now insists. "That stuff - that's crazy talk." Whatley likes to tell people that he believes what he saw was some sort of gorilla.

But there is a note of disbelief in his voice. "I don't know what to think it was," he adds a little more realistically. The Baptist minister is baffled at the whole experience, but he is also somewhat enchanted at his sudden burst of importance. He's had quite a bit of notoriety surrounding this would-be Bigfoot sighting. He told some friends around Salt Springs about the strange encounter, and wouldn't you know that sooner or later somebody would tell somebody else who would eventually call the newspapers.

Whatley's story spread like wildfire across one of the press services, and over several radio stations too. "I've had calls from all over the place," Whatley chuckles. "Some from as far away as Hawaii, Pittsburg, Chicago..." And his voice trails off. The questions from inquisitive Bigfoot fans have been fairly foolish, according to the Reverend. "Somebody from Chicago asked me if it had little antenna like some sorta outer space monster," he says indignantly. "And somebody else asked me if I drank much. I said well, not for at least 45 years.

I've been preachin' for about 40 years..." "I don't know. I guess I'm amused about it. But just one fact bothers me. Some people have already said I might be lyin' about what I saw. Well, I'll tell YOU that if I was going to LIE about something I'd make it something really GOOD." Whatley says his first impulse after the sighting was to "go and find the law." But when there were no tracks, he figured his story would be dismissed as craziness and he decided to just let the matter drop.

"I figured that huntin' season was just around the corner and somebody else was bound to see the thing and I'd let them tell about it." Meantime, the story of Whatley's mysterious woods encounter just sort of escaped into the newspapers. "All I can tell you is what I saw," Whatley grins. Bigfoot or gorilla, Whatley wisely withholds an opinion and just sits back and smiles. He'll enjoy the fame while it lasts.

Source: Ron Schaffner's Creature Chronicles
© Ocala, Florida; Star-Banner; Wednesday, November 16, 1977

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