SUSSEX COUNTY — After the sun dips behind the mountains in northwestern New Jersey, creatures begin their nightly symphony of mysterious sounds.
Foxes scream like Alfred Hitchcock vixens while bobcats snarl in attack mode. Stalking bears add percussive snaps of twigs and owls hooting haunt the treetops. Predators and prey all contribute to the chorus of caterwauls and death moans.
Locals are accustomed to the din, but on occasion, folks hear yowls and shrieks so eerie, they insist the source is supernatural. A shadowy figure with a booming voice and glowing crimson eyes sneaks around the trees, so say those who claim to have seen the creature.
Tall, dark and ghastly, he is Sussex County’s own very own Sasquatch.
His North Jersey nickname is Big Red Eye.
"I’ve spent my whole life in the woods and I’ve never heard anything like it," recalls retired ranger Tom Card, 56, of Wantage. He says he encountered the creature at High Point State Park during the 1970s.
"When I first heard it, I thought it was a siren in the distance but then I heard it again. I saw two guys running down the road. I was like, ‘This isn’t good,’ " Card says.
The Big Red Eye buzz began three-plus decades ago with an incident in Wantage that claimed the lives of several pet rabbits. Although police suspected the culprit was a bear, a local paper hyped the episode as a monster story.
Ever since, residents have boasted that a towering humanoid lurks along the Kittatinny Ridge.
Searching for Big Red Eye, the New Jersey Sasquatch
The search for North Jersey's Sasquatch, Big Red Eye, has been going on for years. Witnesses describe encounters with Big Red Eye and Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman of 'Weird NJ' also lend their expertise to this myth. They also help answer the question on who would win in a fight, Big Red Eye or The Jersey Devil. (Video by Lisa Rose/The Star-Ledger)
"People want to believe in things," says wildlife technician, Joe Garris, 57, of Newton. He fields calls for the state about critter problems like fawns in flower beds, bears on the prowl and, once in a while, Bigfoot.
Garris, who works for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, says the creepy noises link back to things with paws or beaks.
"Wildlife is mostly nocturnal. Most people don’t think the wildlife is out there because the wildlife is doing their thing when people are asleep. The flying squirrels and the owls and all the cool stuff that goes on at night. It’s part of a world that most people don’t choose to see."
Garris’ phone is ringing more frequently these days, as Sasquatch looms large in the zeitgeist. The mythical primate may be elusive in the wild, but he’s all over the internet and cable TV. Amateur researchers venture on night walks with cameras and baseball bats to knock on trees in hope of a response from the big guy.
"Maybe we don’t know everything," says Mike Aragona, 44, of Rockaway, a service manager at Panasonic who spent more than five years sifting for clues with the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization.
"We have all this technology. We put a man on the moon. We have satellites. We have all these different things, but here’s a creature that could be living right under our noses that has mastered something we have long lost: how to survive in the woods."
Thanks to all the mainstream exposure, Sasquatch sleuths feel they can be more open about their hobby.
"I’m a camera operator for NBC and everybody at work knows that I look for Bigfoot on the weekends," says Joe Biello, 46, a New York researcher who’s searched New Jersey and Pennsylvania for tracks. "I think a lot of people are fed up with not having answers. They’re not believing what the government or an authoritarian figure is going to say to them. If they see something on two legs cross the road, they know what they saw, even if the cops say it was just a bear."
Late one night in Sussex, circa 1997, then-college student Vashni De Schepper was on the phone when she heard a guttural sound outside. Standing at her window, she saw police lights swirl by and heard gunfire. She decided to conduct an investigation for a journalism class at Sussex County Community College, chronicling the history of North Jersey Bigfoot sightings.
"My professor wanted to put it on the front page of the school paper, but the editor said it doesn’t go with school curriculum," she says.
She reworked it into a firsthand account that ran in an issue of Weird NJ. Her story, which cautioned, "Big Red Eye is back in town," was showcased in the 2003 book version of the Garden State travel guide.
The modern Bigfoot phenomenon dates to a short, shaky film from 1967 that depicts a man-beast sauntering amid the California redwoods. The BFRO database has reports from every state except Hawaii.
Jersey may seem an unlikely place to find Sasquatch, but Sussex County has thousands of protected acres where he can hide. The habitat sustains all kinds of wildlife, says Garris. The area was reforested when the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area opened in 1965. Black bears, coyotes, bobcats and other out-of-towners moved in. A few years later, Big Red Eye started making a scene.
"It used to be extremely unusual to see a bear," says Garris. "I know that one situation, down the road by Culvers Lake, a gentleman said he saw Bigfoot one night when he was coming home. I can almost tell you 100 percent that it was a bear. It was coming out of Bear Swamp."
As a BFRO researcher, Aragona interviews witnesses to assess their credibility. Three out of four reports are hoaxes, he says. He recently got burned in Gladstone, visiting a house where Bigfoot was suspected of killing deer in the backyard.
"I was very excited because it was 15 minutes from where I live," Aragona says. "But there were too many inconsistencies in the story. They told me the creature was knocking on the fence, but there were no dents. It was a mother and son and the woman said to me, ‘If you get footage, do we get money for it?’"
Joe Proudman/The Star-Ledger
Joe Garris, a wildlife technician with Department of Fish and Game, is an expert on animal sounds. He constantly gets contacted to identify what people believe are odd sounds. Here he stands overlooking Stokes State Forest in Sandyston.
Debora Carlson, a seventh-grade teacher from Bergen County, is a believer. She’s been afraid of the woods since hearing unearthly screeches during a camp-out in Stokes State Forest four years ago.
"It was around 2 a.m. and one of the girls was having an asthma attack," says Carlson, 45, of Washington Township, whose husband writes a blog called the Paranomalist. "I had to go outside and run to the nurse’s station. When I finally got to the nurse’s station, there was a state trooper along with a park ranger.
"I asked about the sound, and they told me it was Bigfoot," Carlson says, with a shudder rather than a smile.
Garris says it’s not uncommon to hear strange things around the Stokes cabins. The property is located within shouting distance of Space Farms, a zoo that houses an array of exotic creatures.
"At Stokes, you can stand there in the middle of the night and you’ll hear the lions roaring or the elk bugling," says Garris. "You never know what you might hear."