Deep in the forests of northern California, where the canopy of redwoods and Douglas fir blot out the sky, growers found the perfect environment for cultivating some of the world’s most coveted marijuana. Many of the patches that began to proliferate in a tri-county region known as The Emerald Triangle, started off as small-scale operations supporting the lifestyle of a 1960s-era, back-to-the-land movement. By the mid-1990s, operations grew considerably, attracting less scrupulous criminal elements.
The Emerald Triangle is known today as the nation’s largest cannabis-producing region, but it’s also known for a creature of legend, one whose existence has never been proven but whose believers are convinced is out there somewhere: Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch.
In the mid-1990s, a 23-year-old journalist by the name of David Holthouse journeyed to the region, seeking temporary work on the pot farm of an acquaintance. At first, he thought the stories of Bigfoot told around the camp were simply to frighten the new guy. But then, two drugged-out men came to the cabin spinning a wild tale of murder. Three people on a nearby farm had been torn limb from limb, and the men believed a Sasquatch was responsible. Holthouse didn’t pursue it at the time, but something alarmed these men enough that it made an indelible impression on the young journalist.
Holthouse, now a New Mexico-based writer and documentary producer, recounts the incident in Sasquatch, a Hulu original documentary series from director Joshua Rofé.
The former gonzo journalist, who was accustomed to infiltrating hate groups, and hanging out with gutter punks and outlaw bikers, revisits the story of that fateful night in the fall of 1993, determined to find out the truth about those terrible murders. Was it Bigfoot? Was it the result of gang violence? Before Holthouse, now 50, could answer these questions, he had to find out whether the murders even took place.
Series co-producer Holthouse spoke with Pasatiempo about the impetus for making Sasquatch, what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera, and the enduring belief of so-called “squatchers” in the uncrowned king of urban legends.
Pasatiempo: I know the story you hear about the supposed Bigfoot murders haunted you for years. But what made you want to look into it after all this time?
David Holthouse: At the time it happened, I had just gotten my first journalism assignment. I was barely out of college. … Frankly, I would have had no idea how to go about reporting a story like that without getting myself killed. It didn’t occur to me to pursue it at the time. Obviously, it stuck with me for years. We’re talking a quarter-century. But the genesis of the Hulu series was the director, Joshua Rofé, becoming a fan of a podcast called Sasquatch Chronicles. He sent me an offhand text one night. It was like, “Dude, it would be great if we could find some sort of legit true crime mystery that has a Sasquatch element to it.” I immediately was like, “I heard this story one time …” The next move was to start making those calls that you see documented in the series, where I’m trying to find out, “Is there anybody else that’s heard this story?” We’re operating on the hypothesis that a story like that is going to spread beyond just that one cabin. It’s going to become part of the rumor mill and the information ecosystem up there. And, as we found out, that story did make the rounds.
Pasa: You start by searching for reports of missing persons in the area at the time. It occurred to me that if these are Mexican nationals working on the pot farms, which is what some of the subjects you encountered believe, they might be here illegally, which is why there’s no case information on them.
D.H.: I think it’s fair to say that most of the homicides that occur in that part of the world, northern Mendocino County, go unreported. And a significant number of the victims in those unreported homicides are Mexican nationals working in the black market there. In a lot of cases, their families in their home country don’t know where they are, and they don’t know where they are. They’ve been taken pretty far back in the woods, given supplies and food to survive for as long as nine months, tending to a crop. They’re pretty helpless and dependent upon the people who have put them in that position. Unfortunately, they’re also deemed expendable. There have been documented cases where very unethical growers will just murder their employees rather than pay them at the end of the season. They’re not just going to cut them loose because they know where the patch is. So they never come out of those woods. That’s a tragic set of circumstances, but that’s the reality up there.
Pasa: You have to consider the times, too. In the 1990s, marijuana use wasn’t a part of the national conversation like it is now. Back then, it was even more of a black market enterprise.
D.H.: It was hardcore. I remember it clearly when I was up there. This was the era of something the DEA called Operation Green Sweep, which was, like, full-on paramilitary squads in the forests looking for patches, arresting growers, and armored personnel carriers were parading down Main Street in Ukiah, California. The prices that California weed was fetching on the East Coast were astronomically high by today’s standards. That kind of money draws a darker, more purely profit-driven element to what had originally been this sort of “back to the land,” “let’s grow weed to sustain an off-the-grid life” kind of thing. By 1993, when the story is set, the high prices had drawn some pretty hardcore criminal elements, including criminal elements from Mexico. I don’t want to sugarcoat it and say that all of the Mexican nationals who were operating in that area were just trying to make money to send back home. Some of them were cartel-affiliated, and, frankly, they saw the hippie growers in that area as soft targets.
Pasa: In a case like this, where it seems like there are no definitive answers, people can let their imaginations get the best of them. But the truth can end up being a lot less dramatic than the legends.
D.H.: Especially when Bigfoot’s involved.
Pasa: Some of the people you met during your investigation — these squatchers or Bigfoot hunters, and other people claiming they’ve seen Bigfoot — seem so convinced by what they’ve experienced. Watching them almost makes me want to believe it, too. Were there times when you were really swayed by their testimonies?
D.H.: Absolutely. First of all, I’m a skeptic. I would love to believe in Bigfoot, but it would take seeing one for me to believe it, or seeing a convincing photograph. The whole origin of this is, like, I’m in this cabin in the fall of 1993. These two guys come by the cabin. They’re out of their heads on crystal meth, but they’re claiming, very believably, to have just seen bodies torn apart by a Sasquatch. I don’t know if a triple homicide even occurred, but I do know that those guys were absolutely convinced that they’ve just seen what they claimed to have seen. In the same way, the believers in Bigfoot that we interviewed for this series are absolutely convinced that they saw a Bigfoot. I harbor a lot of doubt about whether Sasquatches actually exist, but I have no doubt that a lot of people who believe they had a Sasquatch encounter are not just completely full of it. There’s various theories about what you could attribute that to, [such as] an actual cryptozoological creature. But they’re very convincing. At this stage of my career, my gauge for when people are having me on is pretty well dialed in.
Pasa: I was thinking about Bob Gimlin, who made the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film, purportedly showing an actual Bigfoot encounter. He seems convinced by what he’s seen, too. But let’s say the film was a hoax. A lot of people believe the Sasquatch in that film was a guy in a suit. Is it possible that Gimlin kept the hoax going for so long that he’s come to believe it himself, or is just so invested in it that he has to keep the lie going?
D.H.: I think you just nailed it there. I don’t know for sure one way or the other, but if I had to bet the house on it, I’d bet that film was a hoax. The reason is that we talked to the guy who said he was in the suit. The sort of telling details that he had about how much they paid him and what it felt like to be in the suit is very convincing. I think it’s entirely possible that Bob Gimlin has just told that story to himself and to others so many times through the decades that he’s got himself mostly convinced that it actually happened.
Pasa: Some of the people you talked to were reluctant to talk about their Sasquatch sightings and are still freaked out by these encounters. But other people seemed so eager to talk to you that they’re practically mugging for the camera.
D.H.: I’ve learned to not be surprised by how people respond to the question, ‘Hey, will you tell me this on camera?’ Some people you would think would be a definite no are the first ones to be really stoked by the idea of being on TV or telling their story for posterity or whatever their motivation is. I stopped trying to predict who’s going to say yes and who’s going to hang back. Obviously, in this show, I had people telling me crucial pieces of information. There was no way in hell they were going to do it on camera. But it was still enough to move the story forward in crucial ways.
Pasa: As a documentarian, what was it like being the central figure of Sasquatch? It’s really focused on your investigation. Did it give you a different feel for your subjects’ experience?
D.H.: I think every documentary filmmaker should experience what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera in the same way that I think that every print journalist should experience what it’s like to be on the other side of an interview. It definitely boosts your empathy for your subjects. The tricky part with Sasquatch was figuring out what parts of the investigative process and the reporting process needed to be on camera and where we wanted to back off and allow me to do my thing without the cameras in tow. Once you introduce a camera, it fundamentally changes the dynamic of the forces you’re interacting with.
Pasa: Sasquatch tells a suspenseful story about the search for the truth surrounding a specific incident, one that’s shrouded in rumor and mystery. The Bigfoot legend gets all wrapped up in that. It’s like this whole other layer that you can’t just ignore because there’s so much conviction around it.
DH: I don’t mind saying this, but at the end of the series, I don’t think anybody’s left with an absolute sense of what the truth is. To me, it just makes it all the more fascinating. I have my own theories, but I think that, for anybody who watches it, there’s going to be a wide array of responses in terms of what they think actually did or did not happen. ◀