Lovable trickster created a monster with Bigfoot hoax

Bigfoot is dead. Really.

"Ray L. Wallace was Bigfoot. The reality is, Bigfoot just died," said Michael Wallace about his father, who died of heart failure Nov. 26 in a Centralia nursing facility. He was 84.

The truth can finally be told, according to Mr. Wallace's family members. He orchestrated the prank that created Bigfoot in 1958.

Some experts suspected Mr. Wallace had planted the footprints that launched the term "Bigfoot." But Mr. Wallace and his family had never publicly admitted the 1958 deed until now.

"The fact is there was no Bigfoot in popular consciousness before 1958. America got its own monster, its own Abominable Snowman thanks to Ray Wallace," said Mark Chorvinsky, editor of Strange magazine and one of the leading proponents of the theory that Mr. Wallace fathered Bigfoot.

Pranks and hoaxes were just part of Mr. Wallace's nature.

"He'd been a kid all his life. He did it just for the joke and then he was afraid to tell anybody because they'd be so mad at him," said nephew Dale Lee Wallace, who said he has the alder-wood carvings of the giant humanoid feet that gave life to a worldwide phenomenon.

It was in August 1958 in Humboldt County, Calif., that Jerry Crew, a bulldozer operator for Wallace Construction, saw prints of huge naked feet circling and walking away from his rig.

The Humboldt Times in Eureka, Calif., ran a front-page story on the prints and coined the term "Bigfoot."

According to family members, Mr. Wallace smirked. He had asked a friend to carve the 16-inch-long feet. Then he and his brother Wilbur had slipped them on and created the footprints as a prank, family members said.

His joke soon swept the country, which was fascinated by rumors of Himalayan Abominable Snowmen in the 1950s, Chorvinsky said.

"The Abominable Snowman was appropriated by Ray Wallace. It got into the press, took on a life of its own and next thing you know there's a Bigfoot, one of the most popular monsters in the world," he said.

Mr. Wallace continued to milk the prank for years. He offered to sell a Bigfoot to Texas millionaire Tom Slick and then backed out when Slick made a serious bid. Mr. Wallace later put out a press release saying he wanted to buy a baby Bigfoot for $1 million, said Loren Coleman, who has written two books about Bigfoot. Mr. Wallace also cut a record of supposed Bigfoot sounds and printed posters of a Bigfoot sitting peaceably with other animals, said Chorvinsky, who received several hundred pages of correspondence from Mr. Wallace.

But Mr. Wallace's chief contributions to bigfootery were films and photos he supposedly captured of the creature in the wild.

There were depictions of Bigfeet eating elk and frogs, of a Bigfoot sitting on a log and of a Bigfoot munching on cereal.

"Ray's contribution was study into the actual behavior of Bigfoot, what it eats, how it acts," said Ray Crowe, director of the International Bigfoot Society in Hillsboro, Ore.

Chorvinsky believes the Wallace family's admission creates profound doubts about leading evidence of Bigfoot's existence: the so-called Patterson film, the grainy celluloid images of an erect apelike creature striding away from the movie camera of rodeo rider Roger Patterson in 1967. Mr. Wallace said he told Patterson where to go — near Bluff Creek, Calif. — to spot a Bigfoot, Chorvinsky said.

"Ray told me that the Patterson film was a hoax, and he knew who was in the suit," Chorvinsky said.

Michael Wallace said his father called the Patterson film "a fake" and said he had nothing to do with it. But he said his mother admitted she had been photographed in a Bigfoot suit. "He had several people he used in his movies," Michael Wallace said.

Mr. Wallace never received proper credit in the Bigfoot community, Chorvinsky said. "He got it off the ground, and he kept getting glossed over. He's been consistently marginalized or ignored by authors," Chorvinsky said.

Why? "Because it hurts the case for Bigfoot if you talk too much about Ray Wallace," he replied.

The Wallace family's revelation does not faze some Bigfoot experts, and the debate about Bigfoot's existence rages on.

"These rumors have been circulating for some time," said Jeff Meldrum, an associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University.

Meldrum said he has casts of 40 to 50 footprints that he concludes, from their anatomical features, come from authentic unknown primates.

"To suggest all these are explained by simple carved feet strapped to boots just doesn't wash," he said. Even if the Wallace family's claims are true, Meldrum added, there are historical accounts of Bigfoot-like creatures going back to the 1800s. "How do you account for that?"

It's easy, replied Chorvinsky; the historical accounts were mistakes, myths or hoaxes. "I would like to see the evidence beyond the anecdotal. Jeff Meldrum's job is show us the beef, something beyond old newspaper articles."

As for Meldrum's claim about authentic footprints, Chorvinsky said: "Jeff Meldrum is not an expert in creating hoaxes. I was a professional magician and special-effects film director; anything can be faked."

Michael Wallace said family members knew about his father's hoax but never let on.

"The family just sat back and grinned," he said. "He didn't mean to hurt anyone."

To them, it was just another one of Mr. Wallace's jokes. Like the time he dropped a powerful firecracker down the chimney of a bunkhouse while loggers played cards inside. Or the time he convinced his crew that wild cats with bushy tails were living in forest treetops.

To his family, Bigfoot was a small part of Mr. Wallace.

A rugged rogue with a big laugh and generous heart, Mr. Wallace was born in Clarksdale, Mo., and came West as a boy. He spent much of his adult life taming the country. He built part of Highway 1 in coastal California, he cut trees when they were so big that trucks carried one-log loads, and he opened a free petting zoo near Chehalis.

In 1942, he married Elna Sorensen and moved around the Pacific Northwest as his company built logging roads and cut timber. His four adopted sons spent much of their childhood in logging camps.

"Sometimes we lived in the middle of nowhere. You couldn't ask for a better life as a kid," said Michael, his oldest son, now a home builder in Castle Rock.

In 1961, he settled down in Toledo, Lewis County. Shortly after, he opened a free zoo, the Wild Animal Farm, off Interstate 5. It stayed open for about 13 years. His wife ran an adjacent hamburger stand to help support the zoo. "I didn't have normal pets," said Michael Wallace. "I had cougars, raccoons, deer and bear cubs."

Mr. Wallace would sometimes give free hamburgers and milkshakes to families that looked poor, his son said.

"He loved children and wanted to adopt every kid he saw. He was a good provider. If he wasn't playing a practical joke, he was always working."

Nephew Dale Lee Wallace added: "He always told us to believe in the good Lord and stay married. He was always preaching things like that."

His son is convinced Mr. Wallace is still relishing his biggest practical joke. "I know he's just cracking up," said Michael Wallace.

Mr. Wallace was preceded in death by son Gary, who died in a logging accident. Besides his wife and son Michael, Mr. Wallace is survived by sons, Larry, of Winlock, and Richard, of Toledo; 10 grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews.

Remembrances may be donated to Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center in Seattle.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com