On the tracks of Sasquatch
by Scott Sandsberry
Footprints turn skeptics into believers
June 26, 2012 -- YAKIMA, WASH --If you want to understand how humans and some apes have evolved to walk on two feet — how the tendons and muscles flex, how the bones work together, how the weight is distributed — Meldrum is your man. A Ph.D. who teaches anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University, he has widely published on bipedal foot function throughout natural history.
Jeff Meldrum, an anthropologist and primate anatomist, has evaluated alleged Sasquatch footprints. He is also the author of “Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science.” (Rachel Anne Seymour/Tyler (Texas) Morning Telegraph
Jimmy Chilcutt is a prints guy.
For 18 years he ran the fingerprint portion of the crime lab for the Conroe (Texas) Police Department. His crime-scene investigations put people in prison or demonstrated their innocence.
Sixteen years ago, Meldrum and Chilcutt — the prof from Idaho and the CSI cop from Texas — crossed paths in an arena neither thought he would ever enter: Bigfoot tracks.
Each went in expecting to debunk a hoax.
But a hoax wasn’t what they found.
• • •
In 1996, Meldrum was asked to review a compilation of Bigfoot-related columns by the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin’s Vance Orchard.
One of Orchard’s favorite interview subjects was a man named Paul Freeman, who said he had on numerous occasions found — and cast in plaster — gigantic, human-like footprints. Freeman had either been fired from or quit his Forest Service job — reports vary, and Freeman died in 2003 — several years earlier after quite publicly declaring he’d seen a Bigfoot. He was believed by some, even within the community of Bigfoot believers, to be a hoaxer.
“I’d been given an earful by people about Paul’s reputation, and it was bad,” Meldrum says of Freeman. “I went into it very skeptical.”
He became even so when Freeman blurted, “Would you like to see some fresh tracks? I just found some this morning. First tracks of the season!”
Meldrum’s immediate thought: Right. Fresh tracks. How convenient.
Meldrum and his brother drove with Freeman into the Mill Creek area of the Blue Mountains and stopped in the middle of an open area where, Meldrum recalls, “Here was this long line of tracks, very clear in wet, silty soil.
“We got Paul’s take on it. At this point, I’m still kind of scratching my head thinking, ‘How did he do this?’ Literally. But as I knelt down I saw skin-ridge detail. Just as you have details on your fingertips and palm, the sole of your feet does that as well, as do all primates. One of the ways you could tell the difference between a bear and a gorilla print would be the texture of the skin, the ridging.”
But one thing struck Meldrum as odd. The route of the “footprints” — the legitimacy of which Meldrum still doubted — seemed to start and end at the same place, right where their truck was parked.
“I could just picture this guy jumping out of the pickup truck, running around the field with these (large fake) feet and then coming back and diving into the bed of the pickup, taking off the feet, climbing into the driver’s seat and taking off.”
So Meldrum took Freeman home and returned with the materials to cast some of the prints. “If it’s a hoax, it’s a hoax,” he recalls thinking. “And we can expose it as such.”
• • •
Upon their return to the field, Meldrum and his brother parked near where they had the first time. As they began assessing the tracks again, something different became clear: The tracks hadn’t started and ended at the same place, as Meldrum had initially thought.
They did a complete change of a direction in the middle of the dirt road — directly under where the truck had previously been parked.
Meldrum began following the tracks, far beyond where Freeman’s boot tracks ended, and found additional sets of footprints coming and going. Whatever had made the tracks had apparently come down the Mill Creek drainage, using the brush along an empty irrigation ditch as cover, possibly to raid the apple and plum orchards further below.
“At that point it was clear Paul had read the whole circumstance completely backward,” Meldrum says. “So the thought occurred to me: Well, if he’s responsible for this hoax, why would he portray it so incorrectly on the chance I would read it differently?”
Freeman had not made casts of any of the tracks at this site, Meldrum says. “His attitude was ‘I’ve seen so many footprints I don’t even bother making casts until they’re absolutely perfect,’ and he said these are such that (he) wouldn’t even bother with.”
Meldrum, though, was dumbstruck by what he was seeing — differences between the tracks, places where the foot had slipped or the toes had dragged, the half-tracks.
“These are all the features that make it come to life in my mind and began to cause me to set aside my skepticism,” he says. “While it’s clearly from the same foot, in one instance the toes are tightly flexed and it’s gripping the soil on a slight incline … in one extended and splayed, the first three toes sunken into the soil but the fourth and fifth don’t quite leave a mark.”
In one print, he says, “It had stepped on a stone and the stone was accommodated by the soft tissue, absorbed kind of by the sole pad of the foot.” In another, “There was a protruding rock and you could see the ball of the foot up onto the rock and then the toes had clearly curled over the top of the rock.”
As Meldrum decided the tracks could not have done with a carved set of fake “Bigfeet,” he thought about the creature that must have made them. “And as that realization set in, the hair on the back of my neck sort of stood up.”
Meldrum knew going public about what he now believed to be a large, unknown biped could damage his professional reputation, turning him into that supposed scientist who believes in Bigfoot.
“I thought about the grief I would get from my peers,” he says. “Do I want to go down that road?
“But as I looked at this, how could I not?”
• • •
Some months later, Jimmy Chilcutt was channel-surfing on weekend when he found himself on the Discovery Channel watching some supposed scientist who believed in Bigfoot.
“I was just halfway watching it, waiting for a football game to come on,” recalls Chilcutt. “He was holding a footprint cast and said there were actually dermal ridges on that cast.
“And I said, yeah, I’ll bet that’s from some human. I figured it was some kind of fake.”
And Chilcutt was precisely the person to know the difference.
In addition to his CSI fingerprinting experience, Chilcutt had also begun researching hand and foot print patterns of all the different primate species, arranging with zoos and animal parks in the South to be on hand to print any apes or monkeys being anesthetized for dental or veterinary work.
His reason: While genetic print-pattern differences between human ethnicities have over time become less distinguished because of racial interbreeding, apes and monkeys do not interbreed between species — so the distinctions between their print patterns remain consistent, generation after generation.
“I wanted to get a database of the different primate species to see if they were different, and why and how,” Chilcutt says, “to see if I could relate that to humans and be more precise.”
And, he adds, “Only primates have dermal ridges.”
So Chilcutt called the scientist he’d seen on the TV — fellow named Meldrum — explained his primate print research and asked for permission to assess the mysterious casts himself. Meldrum told him to come on up, and Chilcutt flew to Idaho.
When Chilcutt arrived at Meldrum’s ISU office, Meldrum took him to the lab where the print casts were and went back to his office. “I totally let him go, without giving him any background or my opinion as to any of (the casts),” Meldrum says. “I wanted him to judge it purely on what he was seeing.”
What Chilcutt found floored him. Three of the castings he examined — out of more than 100 over that day and the next two — were clearly from the same foot. “They were definitely non-human,” he says, but “had all the characteristics of dermal ridges.”
The foot had some scarring on the bottom of the foot. “Any fingerprint expert knows,” Chilcutt says, “when the wound heals, the (dermal) ridges curl inward toward the cut.” Upon close examination of the dermal ridges on the bottom of one of the casts, he says, “No question about it: They were curling back in.”
That particular aspect, Chilcutt says, “would be very, very difficult to fake” — requiring both an extensive background in anatomy and anthropology but also the resources to pull off the hoax.
Chilcutt’s conclusion: The prints were not fakes.
Asked if it was difficult to accept what a week earlier he would have considered laughable, Chilcutt says no.
“Any forensic person, any CSI guy, they look for the facts. It is what it is,” he says. “Whether it helps the defense or the prosecution, it doesn’t matter. And when I looked at the prints, there it was.
“We’ve got some kind of primate out there. Non-human.”
• Outdoors editor Scott Sandsberry can be contacted by
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