LINCOLN — Before July, Saunders County Sheriff Kevin Stukenholtz had never fielded a call about Bigfoot over a lifetime in law enforcement.
Now he has a big mystery on his hands.
Stukenholtz, along with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, investigated a reported sighting of an unidentified “hairy” creature in late July on a country road that parallels the Platte River. A hair sample found at the site was still being analyzed.
A 15-year-old reported seeing the creature, which he said stood about 7 feet tall on two legs as it ran in front of the vehicle the youth was driving about 5:30 a.m. The creature then disappeared into the trees along the river.
Stukenholtz, who became county sheriff six years ago after a long career with the Nebraska State Patrol, said he has no reason to believe the report was a hoax. His office is awaiting a report about hair gathered from the scene, between Morse Bluff and Linwood, about 60 miles west of Omaha.
The sheriff said that even though he thinks it's highly unlikely that Sasquatch has shown up in Saunders County, his office has an obligation to check out credible reports.
“We aren't sure what it was, but we're looking into it,” Stukenholtz said.
The sighting comes as Sasquatch is enjoying a run in the media spotlight.
“Finding Bigfoot,” a reality show on the Animal Planet cable channel, follows a group of investigators trying to confirm the existence of the 7-foot-tall reclusive giant creatures.
There's a Sasquatch Music Festival in central Washington, a Sasquatch Brewing Co. in Portland that features Hairy Knuckles Stout, and a string of hilarious TV commercials for a beef jerky company based on the gag “Messin' with Sasquatch.”
But Bigfoot sightings are no joking matter for some.
Jeff Meldrum, an anthropology and anatomy professor at Idaho State University who has extensively studied Bigfoot sightings, said he's skeptical of any reports from Nebraska because the state doesn't have the expansive wilderness necessary for a large primate.
But Meldrum, author of the 2009 book “Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science,” said that despite some Bigfoot hoaxes, people shouldn't discount that such creatures might exist.
“There's ample evidence to indicate there has to be something out there,” Meldrum said in a telephone interview. “What it is exactly is yet to be determined.”
The report wouldn't be the first for Nebraska, according to the Montana-based Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, which lists reported Sasquatch sightings on its website.
The group lists 14 reported sightings in the state going back to 1957. The most recent sighting listed was in October 2006 at Chadron State Park in northwest Nebraska, where three hikers reported seeing an “unusually tall” two-legged animal covered from head to toe in black fur.
There were also “various sightings” listed from August 2005 “near the Missouri River” close to Omaha.
The website does not list who saw the creatures. The organization has four Nebraska-based investigators, but an official with the group said they have not probed the Platte River sighting because it was not reported to them.
Meldrum, the Bigfoot author, said he's skeptical about the Nebraska sighting because it could not be corroborated by another person.
But Meldrum said he's convinced that in the Pacific Northwest and other heavily wooded U.S. areas with proper rainfall there might be a “relic population of a rare primate.”
Meanwhile, rumors are flying in the Linwood-Morse Bluff area that tracks were found and that people have heard unexplained screams.
No tracks were found, according to Conservation Officer Mark Luben of Game and Parks, who investigated the Bigfoot report.
The officer said he turned over the matter to the Sheriff's Office once he determined the report did not involve a game or nongame animal under the agency's jurisdiction.
Luben said he has fielded two previous reports of Bigfoot sightings in his nearly 24 years with Game and Parks. One, he said, turned out to be a rabbit that had left big tracks in the snow. The tracks were misidentified by a Dwight-area resident who had recently moved to the area from Chicago.
Luben and Stukenholtz both said the teen who reported the creature sighting does not want to be identified or interviewed.
“When anyone ever says the term (Bigfoot), it's immediately followed up by a joke,” Stukenholtz said. “They're certainly not looking for any public ridicule.”