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Thirteen years ago, William Dranginis saw Bigfoot. Fifty grand, a van, and a camera in a log later, the quest continues.
Written by: Eric Wills on July 16, 2008
William Dranginis knows what you’re thinking, so maybe it’s best to get a few things straight right from the start. He’s not crazy, delusional, some lunatic on the fringe. For the most part, he’s your average suburban family man. Lives on a quiet street in Manassas. Has a great wife and two daughters; just became a grandfather. Has a good job designing surveillance equipment for the Windermere Group, an Annapolis-based technology firm that does contract work for the government.
He can’t help that he saw Bigfoot in the woods near Culpeper, Va., on March 11, 1995. Two witnesses were with him, both FBI agents. It’s not like he imagined the incident. In the 13 years since, he has spent more than $50,000 trying to prove Bigfoot exists. He has created sophisticated surveillance systems—wait till you hear about his new Eye Gotcha system!—and even designed a tricked-out research van with parabolic microphones and thermal and night-vision cameras. So he’s not exactly half-assing this quest.
Bigfoot, he wants you to know, are not just a bunch of pranksters running around in ape suits. Nor are Bigfoot the ghosts of some long-extinct creature, as some people claim. They’re flesh and blood, and they don’t just live in the Pacific Northwest. The creatures are here, within commuting distance of the nation’s capital. Bigfoot is the “last greatest mystery on earth,” Dranginis will tell you, so you may as well suspend your disbelief and come along for the ride.
A man in Chesterfield County claims he saw Bigfoot on his property. On a recent Saturday morning, Dranginis meets the man for the first time in a parking lot just south of Richmond. The subject is in his 20s, has close-cropped hair and the hint of a central Virginia drawl. He doesn’t want his name in print because he’s worried about losing his job as a public servant.
With his neatly trimmed beard and blue eyes, Dranginis, 49, looks a little like Chuck Norris. He solicits reports of sightings on his Web site for the Virginia Bigfoot Research Organization—he’s the president. He also places ads in Northern Virginia Cooperative Living, a magazine published by a local utility company. (Have you seen a Bigfoot or Sasquatch-type creature in Virginia? I have.) So far, he says, he has logged about 200 Bigfoot sightings in recent years, from southern Virginia to Bull Run Park just outside Fairfax, less than 35 miles from the District.
Now, Dranginis follows the man’s truck along a rural road and begins to assess how genuine this individual is. “Usually I can look into people’s eyes and tell whether they’ve had a real experience or not,” he says.
Dranginis wants to believe that the man is telling the truth. Why would he risk his reputation and job to pull some sort of prank? But he has to be skeptical—after all, hoaxers are out there. I saw Bigfoot! He’s 10 feet tall! Brown! He smells bad, like a skunk! The pranksters parrot all the descriptions they’ve read on Bigfoot Web sites. Pretty soon, though, they start contradicting themselves. Then they start looking for money. Sure, you can use my property for research. But it’s going to cost you.
Dranginis once heard from a man who claimed to have casts of Bigfoot footprints. Only when Dranginis showed up did the man want money: $20 apiece. Dranginis studied a print: The toes were square and a faint but straight line ran along the edge of the foot, as if someone had pressed a wooden block into plaster. A fake. Dranginis bought a cast anyway. Figured, what the heck, may as well keep it as a memento.
Dranginis, driving his wife’s Jeep instead of his own with the vabigft license plates, pulls into a dirt driveway behind the man’s truck. The house is a one-story, concrete-block structure. Rusted lawnmowers, orange construction cones, even an old motorcycle are overgrown with weeds in the backyard. The house has been mostly vacant since his grandparents passed away, the man says. Dranginis, wearing dark green shorts and hiking boots with white socks, turns on a hand-held video camera.
Of all the stories the man tells—things banging on the kitchen windows and crashing through the nearby woods—one stands out. About two years ago, he was working on his computer one night when he sensed something watching him. He turned and looked out the living room window and saw a creature at least 7 feet tall walk between his truck and a light post in the driveway: “I saw the silhouette real quick. It was shaped like a person,” he says. “I could see a head and body. At first I thought someone was trying to break into my truck, so I ran and got my pistol, and when I came out here it was gone. Then I got around to thinking, What’s that tall?”
From his truck he pulls out a white envelope that contains a clump of dark brown material, possible Bigfoot hair. He was cutting the bushes with a trimmer last fall when the clump stuck to the power cord. “I don’t know if it’s hair or what the heck it is,” the man says. Dranginis studies it and concludes some of the strands resemble plant material. He’ll take a look under a microscope later.
Dranginis ventures into the woods next to the house, looking for signs of Bigfoot activity: deer parts left over from a Bigfoot snack or maybe a stick structure. Bigfoot sometimes lean a bunch of long branches against a tree trunk, creating a tepee-like formation. Some Bigfoot researchers speculate it may be the creatures’ way of marking their territory. Dranginis finds nothing.
Inside the house, the man shows off a faded portrait of his great-grandparents, tobacco farmers. Awards from his civil servant job line the walls. In the kitchen, Dranginis sets up a surveillance system using a digital video camera, a motion-detection device, and a black-and-white television that shows the area being monitored: the corner of the backyard. When something triggers the motion sensor, the camera records for 30 seconds.
Dranginis doesn’t expect much from such a simple system, though it’s better than nothing. When he has more time, he’ll set up a trap to lure Bigfoot to the house. Maybe keep the kitchen lights on at night (Bigfoot are naturally curious) and conduct a stakeout. Or leave out food: deer corn in a large barrel or bacon grease in a garbage can. “Sometimes they can’t resist that,” he says. Dranginis drives off, optimistic that he’s discovered a promising new research site.
Though you probably don’t know it by name, chances are you’ve seen the Patterson/Gimlin film. On Oct. 20, 1967, in Bluff Creek, Calif., Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin encountered a female Bigfoot (or, depending on whom you ask, a man in an ape suit). Search on YouTube, and you’ll find 16mm footage of an apelike creature walking away from the camera, turning back for a second and seeming to meet your gaze before disappearing into the woods.
Interest in Bigfoot reached a frenzied pitch after the video got out. By the end of the 1970s, though, the enthusiasm had waned, in part because people increasingly faced ridicule when reporting their Bigfoot sightings.
Enter the Internet, a boon to anonymity and Bigfoot research. Also enter Jeffrey Meldrum, an associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University. In 1996, Meldrum discovered fresh tracks near Walla Walla, Wash., made by what he thought could be a Bigfoot. Intrigued in no small part because of his expertise in primate foot mechanics, he risked the scorn of fellow academics and began studying the creature.
In Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science, Meldrum argues that the circumstantial case for Bigfoot’s existence is compelling. Meldrum has casts of Bigfoot prints from various years and locations that appear to be from the same creature. The prints, with dermal ridges similar to fingerprint whorls, would be nearly impossible to hoax, he says. Given that more than 200 new primate species were discovered in the last century, Meldrum argues, it’s certainly possible that Bigfoot has managed to elude detection—even in Virginia, where Dranginis points out there’s not only a history of sightings, there’s more remote forest for the creatures to hide in than you realize.
If Meldrum is the unofficial director of Bigfoot research, Dranginis is a freelance assistant in the field, using his specific skill—surveillance—to find evidence that occasionally may interest his superior. They have exchanged a couple of e-mails and crossed paths at a few conferences. “He’s seems to be levelheaded and not prone to embellishing his stories,” Meldrum says of Dranginis.
Which brings us to the story of Dranginis’ sighting. In the mid-’90s, Dranginis had no idea that the Bigfoot movement was gaining momentum. He was simply looking for a hobby. The economy was booming, and he was finally making good money designing surveillance systems. His days of making ends meet by working a second job—in lawn maintenance and rental property management—were over. Friends had taken up metal-detecting and were finding Civil War belt buckles that they sold for $200, $300 apiece. Dranginis thought, Why not?
On the day his life changed, he went metal-detecting near an old gold-mining operations in the woods near Culpeper with his two friends, the FBI agents. They were walking down a logging road when one of the agents—a point man for three tours in Vietnam—spotted movement in his peripheral vision. He turned and made eye contact with something not quite human, not quite ape. “The expression on both of our faces was, Oh, shit,” Dranginis remembers his friend saying.
(The agent didn’t return phone calls. Daniel Perez, editor of The Bigfoot Times, a monthly newsletter, says he interviewed him and Dranginis separately and found their stories credible. He writes in an e-mail: “I’ve come to know Bill over the years as a dependable, honest and trustworthy individual.”)
When the creature ducked behind a tree, the two agents drew their guns. Clearly, whatever it was, it had something to hide. A few seconds passed. A head poked out, assessing the situation. Jesus Christ, something’s there, Dranginis thought.
And then the man-beast bolted, “started running from left to right, arms moving, muscles bulging,” Dranginis says. “I could see its shoulders going back and forth like a football player wearing padding. The thing was sailing through the woods.” A man in an ape suit? Not a chance, Dranginis says. Even a 7-foot-tall man in a flawless costume couldn’t imitate what he saw. The creature made a sharp right turn, bounded down a hill, and disappeared.
Dranginis returned the next day with the point man, who carried two sidearms and an AK-47. Dranginis brought plaster. He found a footprint in sand at the bottom of the hill and started to make a cast. Suddenly, leaves crunched nearby. Something started whistling. “There are two of them,” Dranginis remembers his friend saying. “I survived Vietnam with my gut, and my gut is telling me to get the hell out of here.” Something let loose a shrill scream as they retreated. “I’m never coming back, and neither should you,” his friend told him.
Dranginis probably should have listened. But he can’t help that he’s so “damn inquisitive,” and has been since childhood. When he thought about it, he realized that the perfect hobby had just fallen into his lap. Here he was a surveillance expert, and here was this elusive creature no one could capture. How could he pass up the chance to make history? Besides, how hard could it be to find a Bigfoot, look the creature in the eyes, and say, “Gotcha”?
The first challenge is convincing everyone that you aren’t dropping acid. When Dranginis returned home right after the sighting, “he had an excitement that was different from anything I had ever seen,” says his wife, Carol Dranginis. “His eyes were huge, like saucers.” Carol knew the Vietnam point man, knew him to be credible, and he confirmed the story, she says. William, whom she had known since high school, was clearly a changed man.
On a recent Thursday evening, I met Carol at their two-story, gray-shingled house before Dranginis led me into the basement, his makeshift Bigfoot lab. Enough Bigfoot paraphernalia to start a museum lines the shelves: casts of Bigfoot prints (including the fake and copies of prints from the Patterson/Gimlin sighting), Bigfoot action figures, Bigfoot newsletters, and Bigfoot books (including Roger Patterson’s Do Abominable Snowmen of America Really Exist?).
Dranginis chuckles at his initial bravado as he sits in a swivel chair, a large American flag hanging over a computer behind him. Bigfoot have managed to elude capture for a reason, he discovered: The creatures are damn smart.
When Dranginis set up motion-activated cameras near his initial sighting, strange things happened, he says. Something threw sticks and rocks into the field of view, tapped the side of the camera at 1 or 2 in the morning, breathing heavily, and even placed an elm leaf in front of the lens. “These creatures are here. They’re screwing with me, screwing with the camera system. They’ve outsmarted me,” he thought.
One day, as he watched footage of a deer that had triggered the system, he had an epiphany. The deer looked up at the camera and started twitching its ears. Of course, Dranginis thought. The video equipment emits ultrasonic sound. Bigfoot, he concluded, can hear the cameras.
Dranginis gets up and walks over to a worktable filled with electronic equipment. He pulls out an ultrasonic leak detector and moves the device’s microphone in front of a video camera. He turns the camera on, and a loud crackling noise confirms that it’s producing ultrasonic sound. So much for installing cameras in trees.
And so began what Dranginis calls an epic game of cat-and-mouse. Every time he thought he was on the verge of cornering Bigfoot, the creature somehow escaped. In 2001, Dranginis bought a 24-foot mobile veterinary unit and converted it into a Bigfoot research center. On weekends, he traveled to areas with reported sightings and used parabolic microphones, night-vision cameras, and a thermal camera that he attached to a 25-foot-tall crank-up mast to search for the creature. Countless weekends and sleepless nights later—nothing. He recently sold the van—another dead end.
He got a call a few years back from the owners of what he calls the Southern Virginia Research Location, not far from Richmond. They found possible Bigfoot hair. He gave it to a scientist at the National Museum of Natural History. “He’s a sincere, honest guy, is genuine in what he believes, in what he thinks is true,” says the scientist, who didn’t want to be named. “That’s why I helped him.” The scientist was stumped by the hair, though—was it animal? human?—and sent it to another lab for analysis. The conclusion: llama hair.
Dranginis sent the hair to an Arizona lab for mineral analysis, which indicated it came from a human who ate red deer meat, plants, and clay—no processed foods. “I’ve never seen a llama eat deer meat,” Dranginis says. He sent the hair to a lab in Copenhagen for DNA testing, and the results came back as wolf or dog. Three tests, three different results, and no closer to his goal.
Dranginis pulls out what looks like a suitcase and opens it to reveal a black tranquilizer gun with a DNA dart tip. His plan? Do a stakeout in a house at his so-called Southern Virginia Research Location. “I would be underneath a window in the crawlspace, see a leg, and pop! Hopefully he won’t reach down and grab me and pull me out,” he says. Dranginis would film the shot using a camera that he can connect to the gun, to show the dart tip snatching a sample of tissue and blood from the creature. Dranginis has practiced in his backyard shooting at a tree—he’s accurate from 75 feet—but he has yet to take a shot at Bigfoot.
In the middle of his basement sits a stack of seven cases of Bigfoot ale, a special edition released annually by Sierra Nevada. Dranginis buys a case each spring hoping that he’ll find Bigfoot during the year, that the beer will become a collector’s item. “Every year I buy it. Nothing happens. Next year I get another. Next year I get another. It’s a real quick visual indicator that the thing’s beating you,” he says.
As Dranginis’ respect for Bigfoot has grown, his patience for the upstarts joining the Bigfoot bandwagon has waned. “It does tick you off. The new guys come in, all jockeying for position, and the next thing you know everyone has sightings,” he says. Barn owl call? Bigfoot! Coyote howl? Bigfoot! Falling branches? Bigfoot!
Wild tales circulate. Dranginis attended a recent Bigfoot conference in Ohio where some attendees floated far-fetched interpretations of the Patterson/Gimlin film. The two men, the story went, massacred a bunch of Bigfoot and fired bullets at the creature in their famous film clip. Look at this newly enhanced video! You can see a pool of blood here! Look, the creature’s limping! They shot her in the leg!
Dranginis thinks such theories are ridiculous. Here he is following scientific principles, and these conspiracy theorists are giving legitimate researchers like him a bad name. Did he ever think about quitting? “Yeah, I did a couple of times. Sort of just gave up and said forget it, screw this, I’m all done.” But then damned if someone didn’t contact him with an intriguing sighting, or damned if some world-famous primatologist didn’t come along and lend her support. Enough coincidences, and Dranginis jumps back in, thinks he’s destined to find Bigfoot.
Dranginis shows me a three-ring binder with postcards and letters from Jane Goodall tucked into plastic sleeves. In 2002, she declared in an NPR interview that she’s sure Bigfoot exists. “I have talked to so many Native Americans who’ve all described the same sounds—two who have seen them,” she said.
Dranginis says he met Goodall through another Bigfoot researcher soon after her NPR interview and gave her a tour of his Bigfoot research vehicle. They kept in touch. “I’m about to talk to a man who studies snow leopards in the Himalayas who doesn’t rule out the possibility of a Yeti,” he reads from one of her postcards. (A spokesperson confirmed that Goodall has corresponded with Dranginis but denied an interview request.)
Via all those slivers of wisdom accumulated over the years, Dranginis has developed what he thinks is the ideal system to capture Bigfoot. He pulls out a black plastic box slightly thicker than a briefcase: the Eye Gotcha. Inside is a small digital video recorder with a video card and space for enough batteries to keep the system running for at least a year. An armored steel cable runs from the box to a camera lens that Dranginis has concealed in a tree branch. A small motion-detection device works wirelessly.
Here’s how he plans to nab Bigfoot: Bury the box, muffling any ultrasonic sound. Dig the armored wire into the ground and then plant the fake branch and camera lens in a pile of wood, up to 50 feet away. Install the motion detection device in a tree. With no ultrasonic sound or video equipment nearby, Bigfoot will be oblivious to the fact that he has walked into a camera trap.
Dranginis intends to sell the system—about $900 fully loaded—at the upcoming East Coast Bigfoot Conference in Pennsylvania. But he also thinks he can generate interest in Eye Gotcha outside Bigfoot circles, from researchers hoping to get footage of other rare animals to park rangers worried about poaching. Many surveillance cameras are mounted visibly on trees and are often stolen. His will be safely hidden.
Before I go, Dranginis wants to show me one more gadget, his $15,000 thermal camera. It’s 11 p.m., three hours after he first invited me into his basement, and we head outside. I hold the device—not much larger than a television remote—as Dranginis walks across his lawn, pretending to be Bigfoot. He appears on the small screen as a radiant blur of reds and yellows.
Dranginis ducks behind a pine tree and moves his arms and legs around in a makeshift Bigfoot dance. See, he calls out, the device is sensitive enough to detect a creature behind a tree. Sure enough, red splotches appear on the screen. I feel like a kid breaking curfew, playing with Dranginis’ high-tech gadgets after the adults on the block have gone to sleep.
As I drive home, I remember the two images Dranginis showed me on his computer in the basement. In the first, a dark outline of a creature with a cone-shaped head that Dranginis estimates stood about 9 feet tall appears on the right edge of the frame. In the second photo, the thing—whatever it is—appears less distinct, more of a blur than anything else.
Dranginis captured the images at the Southern Virginia Research Location. When the creature triggered the motion sensor, an LED light blinked. (Dranginis thought he had turned it off.) He thinks the creature saw it, turned sideways, and then bolted.
Dranginis admits the pictures prove nothing. People may conclude it’s an alien, or enhance the photos and make ridiculous claims: “Bigfoot had a knife! Or Bigfoot had a gun! Or There’s a bat morphing out of its head!” Fair enough, but I must admit that in the quiet of Dranginis’ basement, after hearing his various stories, I felt a slight shiver staring at the ghostly images on his screen.
There was something standing, something huge standing in the middle of the road, just big enough that I could figure out it wasn’t a human being,” the man tells me. “I can’t tell you exactly what it was. I can tell you it had very dark features from the head down. I don’t know too many men that are 8 or 9 feet tall dressing up in black clothes and standing in the middle of the woods at 5:30 or 6 in the morning.”
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I’m visiting the Southern Virginia Research Location with Dranginis. The man who owns the property doesn’t want his name in print or his address revealed. Word leaked a few years back that Bigfoot lived here and intruders started visiting at night, poking around. The last thing he wants is some gun-toting adventurer sneaking around trying to bag a Bigfoot.
At first, the man didn’t believe what his wife and other visitors were telling him, that there were large, apelike creatures roaming around his property. His wife saw something black standing in the yard. Must be a bear on its hind legs, he thought. His dog came running out of the woods one day with some sort of mucus on its face, as if something had sneezed on it. “Hmm, that’s strange,” he said. Then he saw the beast standing on the road that morning as he was driving to work. “That kind of made a believer out of me.”
Living so close to Bigfoot over the years, the husband and wife have learned a few things about the creature. “You call him, he calls you back. It sounds like three people talking three different languages at the same time with the same voice,” the man says. Bigfoot likes singing, tends to come around when the wife’s belting out church songs. He also likes peanut butter. They leave jars for him on branches of pine trees, and he’s been known to lick the insides clean and replace the lids—only if the wife sets them out, though. A jar Dranginis left on a branch remains untouched, his initials and the date written on the plastic bottom in Magic Marker: wmd 9/4/04.
Come to think of it, Bigfoot’s got a crush on the wife. “He’s drawn to me,” she says. “That’s why I don’t go over there too much,” she says, pointing to the edge of their property. “What if he takes me into the woods?” She laughs. Bigfoot, the husband is quick to point out, has never shown the slightest inclination to hurt anyone.
Outside, Dranginis and the man lead me through rows of pine trees on the edge of the property and into a remote section of woods. “People think they migrate. I don’t think they do. I think once they find an area with a good food source, water, shelter, they just stay put. Look at this place—this place is perfect. You’ve got a lake down here, feeder streams, got some farms locally, peanut butter on trees. It’s Big Rock Candy Mountain,” Dranginis says.
After listening to the stories, I’m primed for Bigfoot to appear. He doesn’t, of course, but Dranginis thinks all hell is about to break loose. Developers have plans to build housing nearby, which will disturb Bigfoot’s habitat and lead to Lord knows what (certainly an increase in sightings).
As Dranginis installs a surveillance system in a trailer on the property, the man excuses himself. “He’s more interested in this than I am,” he says, as Dranginis carries equipment to the trailer. The man finds Bigfoot fascinating, but he’s never been tempted to do any research of his own: “My focus is elsewhere.”
After 13 years of research and more than $50,000, Dranginis has some grainy video footage and photos, tracks he’s discovered, eyewitness accounts—and still no hard evidence. He’s posted this motto on a sheet of paper in his basement: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Jane Goodall, in her NPR interview, acknowledged that the lack of a body, of bones, remains problematic. But she also said something that captures the spirit of the chase: “I’m a romantic, so I’ve always wanted [Bigfoot] to exist.”
As Dranginis drives home from the Southern Virginia Research Location, he acknowledges how difficult the journey has been. “My life is back and forth every weekend, trying to make something happen. Things just don’t happen. You sort of look at it as a waste of a day out of your life,” he says. “It’s a roller coaster, up and down, and eventually you get what’s called Bigfoot burnout.”
Once, when he was flying out of BWI, he noticed imperfections in the mud at a construction site near his terminal. “I started looking at it like there were going to be Bigfoot prints right there in the middle of the airport.” Time to take a break, he thought.
Lots of guys either quit or spend so many weekends in the woods they end up divorced, he says. His wife, Carol, admits she had a few moments where she resented his hobby, but he always immediately pulled back and spent more time with his family, she says. A few years ago, they bought a cabin in West Virginia near reported Bigfoot sightings. Not only can they enjoy a weekend away together, he can also get in a few hours of research.
“I seem to keep coming back for more. I guess I’m just punch-drunk or something,” says Dranginis. “But I think it’s exciting, the cat-and-mouse thing. It’s got me in its claws. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Carol says that since his sighting, a “different dimension” of her husband has emerged. “He’s more motivated,” she says, “more excited about everything in life.” Not only has Dranginis invented a surveillance system, he also says he’s developed newfound respect for nature after spending so much time in the woods. He came to realize how much we’re polluting the planet. Dranginis once tried to rally support for legislation to have Bigfoot’s habitat preserved. Of course, that requires proving the creature exists.
If Dranginis does find Bigfoot, the woods will be filled with hunters trying to take one down. So maybe it’s not such a bad thing that the mystery persists. It will give a new generation of Bigfoot researchers a chance to make their mark.
We stop at a McDonald’s, and a local strikes up a conversation with Dranginis as he waits for his burger and fries. Back in the car, Dranginis says he’ll sometimes ask strangers in rural Virginia if they’ve ever seen a cougar, long thought to be extinct on the East Coast. It’s a softball question before he asks what he really wants to know: Ever seen Bigfoot? Most times folks will chuckle and say no.
But sometimes they’ll pull him aside and tell him about a sighting. Maybe one day, a farmer will tell him he found a body and has it in his barn. And the mystery of Bigfoot will be solved, not by fancy surveillance systems or DNA dart guns but by simple dumb luck.