When I was a kid my family and I would occasionally visit my cousins up in Mendocino County, a few hours north of San Francisco. A land of twisty roads, rugged terrain, and massive redwoods, I always found something indescribably eerie about the place, where towering, thousand-year old trees distort and block out bright sunlight that lasts well past 10 pm in the summer. It wasn’t until recently that books and television shows began to bolster and explain these childish suspicions — that this was a slightly kooky, slightly lawless sort of place, hostile to outsiders and historically a magnet for outlaws and oddballs. A sort of Appalachia with turquoise jewelry, say.
Coming on the heels of Netflix’s Murder Mountain, from 2018, which was set in Humboldt, Hulu’s Sasquatch is another docuseries (this one thankfully only three episodes) exploring a murder-mystery in California’s far-north weed country (the “Emerald Triangle,” referring to the marijuana-growing region, comprises three adjoining counties, Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity). Debuting April 20th from director Josh Rofé and host David Holthouse (pictured), the twist in Sasquatch is that the murders, as you might imagine, were initially alleged to have been committed by a Sasquatch. Or… Sasquatches.
Sasquatch is surprisingly effective at convincing you that this might actually be possible, and it helps that host David Holthouse overheard the story in a legitimately terrifying moment. But whether “Bigfoot did it” is less important than the picture the show paints, of a time and place where people could believe that Bigfoot did it.
The Emerald Triangle has long been a magnet for kooky people, and when back-to-the-land hippies began to take over from loggers (descended from pioneers and gold rushers, the starry-eyed dreamers of a different age) in the sixties, they built communes. They attracted cults. Jim Jones and the People’s Temple moved into a spot near Ukiah. The Manson Family had a house in Philo. Many of those hippies turned to growing pot (both easy because of Mendocino’s fertile soil and easily disguised because of the rugged terrain, remoteness, and towering Redwoods), which attracted a certain type of person and nurtured a particular lifestyle.
In the 90s, when the “war on drugs” and operation CAMP took a hard line on pot-growing and brought military tactics and draconian sentences to marijuana growing, the locals turned conspiratorial, suddenly suspicious of one another and hostile to outsiders (Larry Livermore, who gets interviewed in Sasquatch, wrote a great memoir about this period). It’s in this environment, of paranoid pot growers, under-the-table seasonal workers, and tweekers living in remote camps in the rugged wilderness, that the rumors of a Sasquatch murder took hold. Josh Rofé’s docuseries sets out to discover not only whether it’s true, but how and why it got started. I spoke to him via Zoom this week.
Can you tell me how the project came about?
It was February, 2018, a friend of mine, Zach Cregger, he’s one of the executive producers on the show. He mentioned a podcast that he really thought I should listen to called Sasquatch Chronicles. It’s people calling up with their encounter stories. I listened to 11 episodes in four days and was immediately obsessed with it, more specifically with the visceral fear that I was sensing. I was less hung up on whether or not I believed the details, what I was so taken by was these people seemed really afraid recalling these things that they said that they saw or encountered in the woods. Cut to a week later, I’m thinking, okay, I’m going to do a Sasquatch something, I don’t know what that is specifically. And then that morphed into, “Well, what if I could find a murder mystery that is wrapped up or somehow intertwined with the Sasquatch story?” I reached out to David Holthouse who was a colleague of mine already, we at the time were working on a show called Lorena that I made. He’s been an investigative journalist for about 25 years and a Gonzo journalist, so he’s really seen and done a lot of crazy things. I reached out to David and my exact text to him was, “Hey, this is the craziest text I’m going to send you for the next five years. I would like to find a murder mystery wrapped up in a Sasquatch story, and if that exists, pursue it as the next project.” He wrote me right back and said, “I love it. I got one, I’ll call you in five”.
[Slightly incredulous] So he just happened to have that story, like even separate from you wanting to do a Sasquatch show?
Exactly! Then he tells me this story about how in 1993, when he was 23 years old, he was a young Gonzo journalist burning it at both ends, learning the hard way that not everybody gets to be Hunter S Thompson. He needed to escape his circumstances, so he went up to Northern California to visit a buddy who was working on a cannabis farm. And while he was up there, somebody came running into a cabin that he was in and said, “Three people have just been murdered at another farm, further up the mountain and all the eyewitnesses have the same account.” The story was that either a Sasquatch, or multiple Sasquatches, tore these guys to pieces. These guys said that they had seen the bodies literally torn limb from limb and strewn about amongst really a massive patch of weed worth about a quarter million back then.
The Emerald triangle seems like it’s basically the perfect storm for creating Sasquatch sightings. Can you describe why that might be?
Are you saying everybody’s high? And so they’re seeing what they think they’re seeing?
I mean… it could be a factor.
You know, what’s wild, David talks a little bit about this in the show, and then there were other things that he said that didn’t make it in, but when you’re in those woods, they’re just, the trees are so big and the forest is so dense and your phone doesn’t work and you can’t hear any traffic, and now you’ve been out there for a while and the sun is starting to go down and it just, it really does look prehistoric. It’s the kind of place that if suddenly a Brontosaurus walked by, you’d say, “Oh, that makes sense.” It’s a place that your senses seem to function differently when you’re out there. A bit of paranoia seeps in, if you’re out there long enough. Weed culture aside.
No, I mean my uncle and cousins grew up in Mendocino County and I visited once or twice when I was a kid, and I always had a sense of it as this eerie place. I don’t really know why I thought that. There’s just something about it that seems eerie. Was that part of what you wanted to explore in the project?
I mean, it was one thing to hear David tell this story to me that night on the phone, but then once we got out there, it really just smacks you in the face and becomes apparent that, “Wow, this is an incredibly cinematic landscape.” I wasn’t expecting it to have this creepy vibe, just as a baseline. And then David starts talking to certain people and you learn that, “Oh, this is a hub for the criminal underworld.” And you add that on top of the rumors of violent Sasquatch and all of a sudden you just don’t feel safe anywhere up there. I know that everybody I made this with when we were on our shoots, we really sort of had this sense of, we better not overstay our welcome. Because we’re sort of already doing that with our first foot on the ground. And so it was just sort of, everything was just sort of tension-filled and adrenalized.
You talked about it being a hub of criminal underworlds; what are the groups of people that that area is drawing and has historically drawn?
I think a good example of what happened there, which we talk about in the first couple episodes, which is, in the seventies, a lot of hippies went out there and they wanted to get out of the city and they wanted to go live off the land and start lives off the grid. So they went out there and they sort of built utopia — they were growing their own food, they were growing their own weed, the kids were all going to school together. Everybody would get together to play music and eat, and it was amazing. And then all of a sudden, the war on drugs quite literally invaded utopia and the marijuana fields, whether it was a family’s small patch or somebody who had become a bigger supplier and had a football field worth of pot, they were now being targeted by these operations that the U.S. government was putting into play.
And I mean, they were just terrorizing people. I’m talking about tanks and helicopters with guys manning machine guns and setting everybody’s weed fields on fire and arresting people left and right. It was wild. The family dog would come running out, they’d shoot the dog and then arrest the parents. And so there were a lot of these hippies who quickly realized, this is not what I came here for, and I’m leaving. I’m not built for war. And so they left and a lot of them went back to the Bay Area or wherever else that they came from. And then there were other people who knew that they were very much built for war and violence, and they didn’t just double down, they quadrupled down and went further into the woods. As somebody in the show says, who was very much of that world, some of these people, they just flat out became feral. Add ten years of living like that to that person’s experience, and you’re going to end up with a pretty dangerous human, and so there is a subculture of that sort of out there.
Did you ever research any of the cults that sort came through that area? I know there were a few, in addition to like the communes and things like that.
You know not the cults, but one of the things, I’m glad you mentioned that actually because you’re reminding me of something that once upon a time, I thought, “Oh, that’ll be an interesting little side road to go down,” but it didn’t make it in. There was a serial killer named Wayne Ford who was living up there. And, yeah, I mean just wild, terrifying characters, just living in a nice, quaint little cabin in the woods, you know what I mean?
[In 1998, Wayne Ford walked into a Sheriff’s office in Eureka, the biggest city in the Emerald Triangle, holding a woman’s severed breast in a Ziplock bag and confessed to four murders]
It being such an insular place with like no cell service and everybody’s sort of hostile to outsiders, how do you make a documentary in that sort of place? What are the challenges?
Well, first to go through the process of thinking you’re not going to be able to actually do this, and you’re going to fail miserably, and have to tell Hulu, “You know what that thing I told you we were going to do?” Once you’re past the existential crisis of realizing how difficult this world will be to penetrate, you know, David started to develop sources and very slowly, but step-by-step over time he would have these little breakthroughs and he would gain the trust and cooperation of certain individuals. And so it was just a slow one step at a time sort of never allowing the disappointments to pile up to high on your psyche type of process.
What about operational security or whatever, did you have to take any sort of steps to stay safe while you were making it?
We actually looked into security and we couldn’t find anybody who wanted to do it–
You mean just as a consultant or an actual bodyguard?
I mean, to have somebody on the ground with us. And we were basically told “what’s going to happen up there is going to happen whether we’re there or not.” And so for us, this is something that David mentioned in the show on camera, but for us there was this sort of cost and risk analysis that was very much a part of our process. Just, in real-time on the fly, “Oh, we just found out this new thing”, or, “Oh, there’s this new person,” and sure, as the filmmaker you all want to pursue that. “Well, okay. Let’s really break down what the potential fallout could be.” And so it was just it was a lot of that.
You interviewed Larry Livermore who lived up there and wrote a book about it. He also put out the first Green Day album, and I know that Tré was from up there. Did you guys ever try to interview any of those guys?
No, we did not.
Were you with David for all of the shooting or was he kind of having to go off alone some on some of these missions?
I mean, for the shooting, I was with him for more or less everything, except the hidden camera stuff — obviously, he was solo for that. But there was also so much that David did away from the camera with meeting various sources to just sort of attempt to ignite those relationships. I think in many ways those were the most dangerous endeavors that he made during his investigation, was where there’s no camera, there’s no crew, he’s going to meet people, it’s 11 o’clock at night. They’ve changed the location on him three times. And oh by the way, the place he’s showing up to it’s actually closed, but he’s now going to be with that person he was going to meet an eight other people he doesn’t know. There was definitely a lot of that.
It’s a three-episode series. How did you decide on that? Was there a conversation about whether this should be one documentary or how many episodes that you wanted to break it into?
You know, we knew pretty early on, we wanted to do three and part of the reason we wanted it to be a series, as opposed to a feature is just all of these different elements, whether it was the war on drugs, the Sasquatch world let alone the investigation. We really just, we wanted to be able to go in deep on all of those, as opposed to if it’s a feature you can’t spend as much time in some of these pockets and felt like a series really enabled us to let David go down the rabbit holes that he was going to go down and not feel like, “Oh, we have to sort of honor the three-act structure of a feature and move things along at a quicker pace.” Whereas you can live in something for longer if it’s episodic. And so that just, that seemed to lend itself to this story.