The 2015 Hillsborough River Skunk Ape Hoax

An enlargement of the photo provided to the Huffington Post

An enlargement of the photo provided to the Huffington Post

An article written by Lee Speigel and published in the Huffington Post in January of 2015 contained an image that purported to show a skunk ape partially submerged in a Florida swamp.  The photo was submitted by John Rodriguez, a 66-year-old retired electrician, who claimed to have stumbled across the creature while fishing on the Hillsborough River near northeast Tampa.

The full image.

The full image.

“I fish for gar in the river and I bring my camera to take pictures of the birds and what not," Rodriguez said.  "I heard a squishing sound, looked over and saw this thing walking through the water and crouch down in the duck weed. It did not look like a guy in a suit — it was definitely an animal. I took this picture and got out of there as fast as I could.”

“I’ve heard of Skunk Ape prints around Green Swamp [in Florida], but never anything like this.  My whole life, never seen anything like it.”

The uncanny clarity of the image and the strangely jagged line where the beast meets the water drew instant suspicion, and it was suspected that the picture had been digitally manipulated.

 Ben Hansen, lead investigator of the Syfy Channel’s “Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files” series, had this to say.

“It’s a relief to finally have a clear picture of the creature.  Every other photo and video we get is usually too blurry or the Bigfoot too obscured in brush to allow for any useful identification. Thanks to the clear photo, I’m excited to announce that the photographer has captured a real-life... gorilla in a Bigfoot suit!”

“To be more precise, the face of a gorilla that has been digitally added to the photo with editing software. Although I originally suspected the creature suit was actually in the water when the photo was taken, I started to notice shadows in front of the Bigfoot that appeared to be an inconsistent length and shape with the rest of the photo.”

“Additionally, there appears to be some heavy digital editing touch-up to the fur around the face and where the body meets the water. I’m now leaning more toward believing the whole creature was pasted into the image and then branches and twigs were added in the foreground. The branches also could have really been in the scene, but they were later edited as separate layers so Bigfoot looks like he’s now behind them, sitting in deep contemplation.”

“The white stripe down the middle of the head and chin is a nice touch," added Hansen.  "If it’s a Skunk Ape, why not make it look like a skunk, right? In reality, I have yet to come across a story with any merit where witnesses describe the Skunk Ape with an actual white stripe like a skunk.”

Rodriguez, of course, insisted that the photograph was genuine.

“I did not Photoshop this at all. Believe me or not,” Rodriguez said. “When I plug in my memory card, it asks to import and opens in Photoshop. I just changed the name and saved. It seems like people get publicly crucified for coming forward with this kind of stuff.”

Rodriguez continued to say that this "debunking attitude" almost caused him to not come forward at all.  There's serious room for doubt in that statement, since it seems unlikely that any photo so painstakingly altered wouldn't be released by those who took the time to make it.

The photograph may have been fabricated by three men that the Florida chapter of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BRFO) suspect hoaxed the Lettuce Lake skunk ape video released around the same time.  According to the BFRO, Matt McKamey, Justin Alan Arnold, and Andy Stern are friends and bandmates who conspired to create a handful of skunk ape hoaxes in early 2015.  These hoaxes were likely done to take advantage of the media exposure created by the television show Finding Bigfoot, which was filming in the area at the time.

A painting of a skunk ape by Justin Arnold that the website  Bigfoot Evidence  published in an article about the Hillsborough River photo. The painting bears a strong resemblance to the creature in the photograph.

A painting of a skunk ape by Justin Arnold that the website Bigfoot Evidence published in an article about the Hillsborough River photo. The painting bears a strong resemblance to the creature in the photograph.

Arnold responded to the allegations of hoaxing with a vehement denial.

“I wanted to comment on the false allegations published about me by the BFRO," Arnold said in a response to Bigfoot Evidence.  

"The lettuce lake skunk ape video is real and BFRO’s debunking is irresponsible, unfounded and misleading. Those accusing me of being part of an elaborate hoax never contacted me or got statements from any of the people slandered in the “report.” That alone should cause you to question the entire approach. All they had to do was ask and I would have answered. They didn’t even try. To the readers of this, now like a credible report, you’ll hear both sides. To address their accusations, first of all, yes, I have done faux taxidermy. If that’s enough for you to put me in a gorilla suit, read no further. In your mind my guilt has already been decided. Secondly, yes, I have painted many pictures depicting the skunk ape. When I was a child I was hiking with my grandfather in Green Swamp I saw a skunk ape. The experience was incredible and it always stuck with me. Like most artists, I use my personal experiences in my work. Does my depiction resemble the photo taken by John Rodriguez last month? Yes. If it’s a hoax did the perpetrator take influence from my art? It would appear so. Did he photograph the same or similar skunk ape that I saw as a child? Equally possible.”   

Cryptozoologists were left unconvinced by Arnold's defense, noting that in his rebuttal he admitted to having all of the necessary skills to perpetrate exactly what he was being accused of, and that no other credible reports of skunk apes depict the creature as gorilla-like, nor have any other witnesses come forward to claim the creature has a stripe similar to an actual skunk.  Furthermore, the BFRO published copies of written correspondence with Matt McKamey, which disproved Arnold's claim that no one involved was contacted.

Justin Arnold has since removed himself and his art from the web, and his social media accounts that were once used to promote his artistic pursuits appear to have been deleted.  Whatever the case, he and his friends seem to have gone to ground.  And as for John Rodriguez, he may have never existed at all, since he has never been identified beyond his initial email correspondence with the Huffington Post.  Perhaps, much like the "skunk ape" in the photo, they felt themselves sinking into a quagmire, and decided that it might be best to make their escape before becoming submerged completely.