David Holthouse, right, and Darren 'Harpdaddy' Smith attending opening of Stalking The Bogeyman at UAA Theatre
Investigative journalist and documentarian David Holthouse has made a career redefining the term ‘gonzo journalist.’ He’s immersed himself in rival gang wars, infiltrated neo-Nazis and has bravely told his personal story of childhood sexual abuse.
I’ve had the blessing of knowing David as a friend, brother, editor, and dipnetting partner for over 25 years. I’ve marvelled at his ability to navigate down the paths that we are warned not to go down, narrowly slipping out of harm's reach and then translating for us the dark, underbelly of criminal culture, all the while providing a voice to those that are consistently not being heard.
I was intrigued to hear of David’s newest Hulu documentary project, ‘Sasquatch’, an exposé into a murderous sasquatch and the cannabis industry. It intrigues me even more when I hear that it was the craziest story he has ever heard.
“That story always stuck with me,” David tells me. “The night that I was in a dope grower’s cabin and two guys come by talking about how they just seen bodies that had been torn apart by a Bigfoot.”
That story took place in the fall of 1993. David was just getting his feet wet exploring and exposing the dark criminal mind.
“One of my first big stories was ‘A Question of Gangs…’ for the Anchorage Daily News. I had written a story on a gang war between the Hamo tribe and the Tiny Rascal Gang. I had gotten crosswise with the TRG. I think I was asking the wrong question to the wrong person.” The APD gang unit informed Holthouse that he ‘might wanna lay low for a minute or two.’ “So I decided it would be a good time to get out of Dodge," Holthouse said.
Holthouse recalled a college buddy telling him that if he ever needed a place to really get away, he could come hide out on a cannabis grow in Northern California. Harvesting out a weed crop with a society of peaceful, back-to-nature hippies in remote mountains sounded like the idyllic ‘out of Dodge’ retreat.
David quickly found this was not the case.
“It was just a very paranoid atmosphere, not at all what I was expecting for my first foray into the Emerald Triangle,” he said.
High up in the rugged mountains of Northern California, is a remote area known as the Emerald Triangle, consisting of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity Counties. The Emerald Triangle became a prime cannabis farming community following the Summer of Love in 1967. The Triangle provides the ideal conditions for growing high-grade cannabis and is estimated to provide over 60% of the nation's cannabis supply and over 80% of the black market supply.
The Emerald Triangle is also home to thousands of documented Sasquatch stories, foot castings and blurry photos; including the holy grail of all Sasquatch evidence — the Patterson-Gimlin film shot in 1967.
“It’s sort of Bigfoot central for the U.S.,” he said. “Growers will tell you that Bigfoot is looking for the same kind of natural environment that grows the best weed." Both parties are looking for a pure water source, partial shade and full sun, not to mention a place where regular folks do not generally wander about. In finding a suitable place for a guerilla grow, it turns out that you’re looking for the same terrain where a sasquatch might live.
Illustration by RobRoy Menzies - Bigfoot Art Gallery - Palmer
“Among the ‘trimmigrants’ there were rumors flying around about a particularly aggressive sasquatch, or clan of sasquatch,” Holthouse recalls. “The common wisdom was that because of the federal pursuit, growers were pushed deeper into the woods and higher into the mountains, so much so that growers felt that they were starting to infringe on sasquatch turf. That was the vibe.”
A dark side of The Emerald Triangle is that the region is annually at the top of the missing and murdered statistics, of which the majority of cases go unreported to the authorities. Many of the missing are ‘trimmigrants’ — those who flock to the grows during harvest in pursuit of quick cash, not realizing the imminent dangers involved.
Holthouse describes the atmosphere around Mendocino County at the time. “When I got there, there was this federal anti-marijuana campaign called Operation Green Sweep that was in full swing,” he said. “It was like a militarized zone.”
One of the goals of the U.S. drug war, initiated by Nixon and passed along to Reagan was the eradication of cannabis.
“When the price of high-grade cannabis spiked to thousands of dollars a pound through the late 80’s and 90’s, so much money got involved that it drew really hard-core criminals,” Holthouse said. Though weed is bulkier, skunkier, and more logistically challenging to get to market than more lucrative drugs, Holthouse says, “Weed profit margin started to move into cocaine territory, drawing in the professional drug traffickers… That’s a different breed of law-breaker than the grower that's got his garden, home-schooling his kids and growing weed to support his off the grid way of life. There is this darker criminal element that really moved into that area in the late 80’s and this rumored triple-homicide that I was investigating for this show was an outgrowth of that world. It’s a fucking dangerous place up there if you don’t tread carefully.”
”It's an especially charged atmosphere up there every year around harvest season; the energy changes,” Holthouse said. “Everybody’s more paranoid. Everybody’s got more money in their pocket. Farmers are frantically trying to bring in their plants to harvest. In the woods you’ve got the feds and you also have rip-off crews. There’s a lot of ingredients for violence.”
“I can’t overstate how rampant the paranoia was and how strange the cast of characters I was meeting. The whole three days I spent up there was one big bundle of gonzo bizarre terror in my memory. It occured at a real pivotal stage as I was starting to pivot into professional gonzo journalism, but I wasn't there yet. I was still pretty fuckin' naive and I hadn’t yet been around criminals in the same way as I went on to be around them a lot. It was really my first full immersion into the underworld. The first time I put myself into a really dangerous criminal atmosphere and I would go on to live that way.”
Holthouse adds, “most people’s vision of what’s going on in Humboldt and Mendocino counties is that back-to-the-land peace-loving hippies that are growing dope. That still exists up there and it always has. They’re still there. That is not the world that this show is set in and that's not the world that I was exposed to and operating in while investigating the rumors of this triple-homicide. There is a very dark dope growing world here that is driven by greed and purely criminal-hearted in nature.”
“The second night that I was there, the owner of the farm I was staying on invited my buddy and I to watch an NFL football game at the main house on the compound. While we were there these two guys came in.” David describes the men as being rain-soaked, muddy, dirty, and acting frantically. One of them was talking a mile a minute. The owner was trying to keep the guy quiet, but the guy kept raising his voice as Holthouse overhears, “Yes, they’re dead!” David glued himself to the football game so as not to be noticed eavesdropping. “I remember him talking about how it couldn’t have been a rip-off, because the weed was still there. It was harvest season. The point he was making was that whatever happened, it wasn’t a rip-off, because the weed plants had been torn down, but they were just lying around. No one had stolen the product." Then his voice got really high, and he said, “I’m telling you, a bigfoot killed those guys!”
“I could tell they were fucked up but wasn't sure on what,” Holthouse concludes. “Now, I can say beyond a doubt that they were on crystal meth.”
Perhaps the experience was particularly surreal to David because he and his buddy had taken a rather heroic dose of psilocybin earlier in the day and were coming down as the tweaker told his tale.
Fast-forward to about four years ago and David’s friend and collaborator Joshua Rofé, who is the director of this Hulu documentary, had become a fan of the podcast Sasquatch Chronicles. “He and I were still working on the Lorena Bobbitt series at the time. He texted me out of the blue that it would be great, for our next project, if we could find some sort of a murder mystery that is wrapped up in a sasquatch story. I immediately texted him back, ‘dude I might have one.’ I hadn't really thought of that night in the cabin for years, but as soon as he texted it triggered me and it took me right back there.”
“I still don’t know for sure whether or not three guys were murdered on a dope farm by a bigfoot or otherwise in 1993. I don't know whether these murders actually occurred, but what I do know for sure is that those guys that showed up in that cabin that night. They were convinced that they had just seen bodies that were torn apart by a Bigfoot... They were tweaking for sure and obviously a ‘river of meth’ is flowing through this whole story.”
I asked Holthouse whether he believes Sasquatch exists.
“I really wanted to believe in all that shit. I still want to believe. Phones and cameras are just too ubiquitous for me to believe in them anymore, wholeheartedly, like I did when I was a kid. As a kid, I wanted to believe so hard that I actually believed. I grew up fishing on the Kenai Peninsula. I would always hike off looking for Bigfoot or the little elves that many people throughout Alaska believe in — the little tricksters. I’d build little houses for them, leave little messages and I’d take them food. Alaska is a place where it is easier to believe in stuff like that because the land is so big, so awesome. It's also kind of scary, especially once you get off the road system at all. Northern California is similar. Unless you've been to the Emerald Triangle you just wouldn't know. Those trees are fuckin big. It’s big wild country and I say that as an Alaskan. You can disappear quickly. You make one wrong move. I'm not just talking about the people that you may run across up there. You make one wrong move while adventuring on the land and it can kill you the same way that it does in Alaska. Bigfoot makes a lot more sense when you are amongst those really old-growth redwoods in Northern California. It has this really ancient eerie feeling about it.”
“The tendency is to want to ascribe evil — that is human in origin; to try to ascribe that evil to supernatural forces, when really it is humans that are bringing that evil into the world,” Holthouse adds. “I think that is definitely the case in Humboldt and Mendocino counties and the dope world up there. People just vanish all the time; it's not Bigfoot that is getting them.”
Holthouse hopes his friends and family in Alaska don’t get the wrong idea from 'Sasquatch'.
“I have a little bit of trepidation about people in Alaska seeing this, especially my parents, my wife’s parents and a lot of friends up there,” he said. “There’s only so many times I can put myself into these kind of situations; only so many times before I can push my luck like this before I catch a bullet, or worse.”
As David is telling me this I am reminded of a time in 2011 when he came to me asking if I happened to have any firearms he could borrow. I asked him what was going on and he informed me that due to infiltrating the neo-Nazis, and then writing about it for the Southern Poverty Law Center, he was in need of some protection. David had exposed the National Vanguard and their ‘Northwest Imperative.’
“They held a trial and convicted me of being a Jew-loving race traitor,” Holthouse said. The Vanguard purportedly sent out a hit squad on David and eventually we holed him up in our art/music studio for a few days in an industrial area in South Anchorage, along with my nephew, an Iraq War veteran and his AR. Soon after, David resigned from the SPLC and the death threats subsided.
“I kind of semi-retired…” Holthouse continues. “So then I came out of retirement to make this show. I had to put myself into dangerous situations. I had to be on backwoods illegal grows. I can’t say for sure that this will be the last time, because I've said that before. Because there’s something in me that really drives on this shit and I clearly haven't fully left it behind.”
To pull off this level of investigation you’ve got to be able to adeptly manipulate your way through dangerous situations. One can tend to get addicted to the thrill of chasing the story. Eyes widen as your heart beats through your chest... Your senses are in overdrive.
You must also be able make the criminal element feel comfortable around you — enough to meet with you, take you off to a secret location, spill the beans, snitch on others - or to potentially just lead you down another rabbit hole...
David sums it up brilliantly on the final episode of ‘Sasquatch’ when he says, “I read to them as crooked as they are.”
As I continue watching and processing that info I hear him telling about his childhood trauma and relating that many survivors "come out of that experience with a diminished self-worth that enabled me to take risks without a lot of fear."
Perhaps these are the key attributes needed to totally go gonzo and to do it properly.
Sasquatch premiers on Hulu on April 20.
Be sure to keep an eye out in the Press next week as I try to dispel a well-known rumor of a murderous sasquatch that terrorized a village right here in Alaska.