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Unfortunately, Greenwell adds, what has been tarnished by the possible hoax is what could be evidence for an actual unknown animal. What might be going on, he suggests, is some combination of the two possibilities: "It could be there's a real animal, and the hoaxing is just to move it along a little faster to increase tourism. People that do that -- we call it scientific vandalism -- all they're doing in terms of science is hurting, because when the hoaxing becomes apparent, it discredits the whole thing."
Every good monster tale deserves at least one sequel. And just as the great King Kong has returned many times since his 1933 debut, the Skunk Ape can't seem to stay out of the limelight. I found out about his latest comeback when I called David Shealy on the afternoon of Friday, February 6, and he answered the phone with a line straight out of Jaws 2: "Oh, man, it's started all over again!"
It seems that about four hours earlier, passengers on a van tour out of Marco Island met the creature on his old stomping ground, Turner River Road. The witnesses were local guide Mason Weeks and twelve salesmen from the BASF corporation on a morning's jaunt away from a weeklong conference at Marco's Radisson Hotel. Out of the van and strolling south along the Turner River, they saw a tall hairy figure emerge from the bushes and cross to the east side of the road, where someone -- not he, Shealy insists -- had left piles of beans. "All of a sudden, this thing walks out into the road!" Shealy says, barely controlling his excitement. "It saw them and threw its arms up in the air and took off running. And two of the guys, from what I understand, went in after it."
Later that evening Scott Smith of BASF confirms that he was one of the two who pursued the creature. Starting out several hundred yards away and still feeling the effects of a hangover, he did his best to close the distance but didn't make it. "He got out of the road pretty quick, whoever or whatever he was," he says. "To be honest it might have been real, and it might not have. But it was a sight, it was a spectacle! Just seeing something like that you're not used to -- that made it interesting for everybody."
According to Smith most of the salesmen assumed that the sighting was a Disney World-style character appearance. Tour guide Weeks had mentioned earlier that if they kept an eye out, they might see the Everglades version of Bigfoot. And they thought the thing they saw seemed too small -- not much more than six feet tall -- to be any kin to an eight-foot Sasquatch.
Weeks says he had a different reaction. "It was kind of a shock, you know," he recalls. "I was born and raised in the Everglades, and I do remember my grandfather and the old-timers talking about the Skunk Ape. People had sighted it and all of that. But so far as myself, this is the first time I've ever seen it." His earlier comments about watching for the Skunk Ape, Weeks says, were a coincidence: "I was just joking with 'em, you know, and I said, 'We have to be careful about the Skunk Ape down there.'"
Weeks' account, if accurate, contains one critical piece of information. Within ten or fifteen minutes of seeing the creature, he says, he was in the Shealy brothers' shop. David Shealy was visible out back, washing one of his snakes, and Jack Shealy was in the shop. "Ninety percent of the local people down there said, 'Well, it's just David pulling pranks, you know,' and I kind of halfway figured the same thing myself," Weeks reports. "But David didn't have time to get from where I was at to the shop, because there's no roads except that one road going back down to [U.S.] 41. So there was no way he could have got back to the shop before I did without me seeing him."
Encouraged by Weeks' testimony placing David Shealy far from the most recent sighting, Bob Carr wasted no time responding. He notified his tracking-expert partner, T.L. Riggs, that very afternoon, and by 8:30 the following morning Riggs was standing at the head of the trail near Turner River Road. Six piles of beans -- lima, pinto, and black-eyed peas, all mixed together -- sat apparently untouched on the far side of the road. No bare footprint of any size was visible on the road's surface, and as Riggs entered the trail, he saw only a few shoe prints.
Then, about 25 feet along the trail, Riggs hit pay dirt. Pressed firmly into the mud before him were five partial prints of large bare feet. Only the front third of each was visible, as if whoever or whatever had made them had been putting very little weight on its heels. The prints were smaller than those Shealy had found, but still quite a bit bigger than Riggs' size-twelves; measurements put them at 4.3 inches across the ball. Not only that, they were perfect, each with five well-defined toes. Once again, as he had with the Burns Road footprint, Riggs went to work with his plaster to make an impression.