MURPHYSBORO — Like so many tales of terror, this one began with lovers in a parked car. Suddenly, a ghostly howl interrupted the darkness. Randy Needham and Judy Johnson looked out the window.
There it was, lumbering straight for Needham’s vehicle: a beast of a creature, they said, about 7 feet tall, its light fur matted with thick mud from the river. According to police reports, the creature continued toward the car, its unearthly scream constantly changing pitch, the young couple’s terror growing with each passing moment.
Needham put the car into gear and sped to the Murphysboro Police Department. No human could make those shrieks, he told the skeptical officers — and no man possessed such towering height.
Out of duty, police went to the boat ramp to check it out. There, they found unknown impressions in the mud, each about a foot long and 3 inches wide. The sparse details they found that night of June 25, 1973, 40 years ago this week, since have inspired countless myths and legends of the Mud Monster, the Big Muddy Monster or maybe just an elusive guy in a Bigfoot suit. What Needham and Johnson actually saw and heard remains a mystery.
“I think those people saw something that scared the hell out of them,” said Larry Tincher, at the time a police sergeant who photographed the strange tracks that night. “I really don’t know what it could have been.”
Police officers Meryl Lindsey and Jimmie Nash returned to the boat ramp with Needham around 2 a.m. that morning. They found more prints in the mud, these ones deeper and not quite as long, all of them placed about 5 or 6 feet apart. Lindsey left to get a camera. Needham, Nash and Deputy Bob Scott of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department followed the tracks through the woods and toward the river.
They kept discovering tracks in the thick mud, all of them similar in size and shape but erratically placed. As they bent over to inspect one, a “loud shrill scream” broke the darkness, according to police records. Needham instantly claimed it was the creature from earlier. Terror gripped the three.
“They ran like hell,” Tincher said with a laugh. “Nash lost his gun and had to go back to get it.”
The creature, whatever it was, appeared to have escaped. However, its reign of terror was only beginning.
Later that day, the Southern Illinoisan printed a short article detailing the encounter of the previous evening. There, police said the tracks seemed to be from “some type of animal,” possibly a bobcat. That was that.
For a short time, normalcy returned — but later that night, so did the reported creature. Late on the evening of June 26, 3-year-old Christian Baril was playing in a sandbox in his backyard on Westwood Lane when he saw a “large ghost.” Baril, now 43, says he can’t recall a specific mental image of the creature, but he clearly remembers the panic and terror he felt as he turned to run toward the lights of his house.
“I remember being really scared,” Baril recalled. “I remember being terrified. I will never forget that. I ran as fast as I could.”
Mortified, Baril told his father about the ghost. Dave Baril didn’t think much of it, but that changed just minutes later. A few houses down, 17-year-old Randy Creath and his girlfriend, Cheryl Ray, were sitting on Ray’s back patio when they saw something moving in a patch of woods behind the house. It emerged from the trees, and the young couple got a terrifying look at the beast. They told police it was more than 7 feet tall, weighing perhaps 350 pounds, its pale white fur caked with mud. Its eyes reportedly glowed as it stared back at them.
They stood frozen for several moments. Then, the creature turned to retreat. Creath left the patio and approached it, inching cautiously to within 30 or 40 feet of the foul beast. The nauseating smell, he told police, was overpowering and “musky” in nature.
“Finally, Randy threw a rock at it, and it went away,” Baril said.
Ray’s mother called the police, who found broken-down weeds indicating that something had recently gone into the woods. Officers arrived in force to search, and Jerry Nellis of the Carbondale Police Department also came with a German shepherd trained to search and attack.
The dog, which the New York Times identified as “Reb,” quickly picked up the scent, and the officers followed him into the woods. As the group started into the darkness and down a hill, Reb kept stopping to sniff a slimy substance left sporadically on the weeds. The foul sludge caused the dog, known for his zealous tracking, to hesitate each time they encountered it. Nellis put some of the slime between his fingers, according to the police report. It left a black coloring on his skin. It smelled awful.
Reb led the party to a pond at the bottom of the hill. The dog followed the scent to a wildly overgrown patch of earth, an area far too bushy for the investigators to walk through. They searched the area with flashlights, and they looked to the dog to return them to the trail of the creature. Reb led them to an abandoned barn, but the normally fierce dog refused to go inside. Officer Nash, who had failed to find the creature the previous evening, searched the barn with another officer but again found nothing.
According to official reports of the search, Nellis could offer no explanation for the dog’s sudden and uncharacteristic fear. Officers continued for a time to search the area, but they never found the mysterious beast.
Ten days later, police received one more report of an unidentified creature stalking near the river. Around 2 a.m. the morning of July 7, four employees of the Miller Carnival, which had set up at Riverside Park, reported hearing the circus’ ponies cause a commotion, attempting to pull loose from the tree to which they were tied just behind a carnival truck.
Hearing the noise, the four carnies walked around the truck. There, they found a creature they described much the same way — large, covered from head to toe in light hair and standing on two legs. It seemed interested in the ponies, they said, but made no further advance. The men rushed to tell the carnival owner, Burt Miller, but the creature was gone when they returned with him to the area. About an hour later, one of the carnies again reported having seen the beast near the ponies. Just like before, it was gone when Miller went to check.
These three appearances on June 25 and 26 and July 7, 1973, have formed the core of the Big Muddy Monster legend that has grown in the subsequent four decades. Sporadic reports of a sasquatch-like creature have come and gone in the intervening time, but never have the reports been so concrete as they were in the summer of 1973.
For months and years following the reported sightings, the Murphysboro Police Department was bombarded from letters from around the country inquiring about the creature. A seventh-grade class in Mississippi enthusiastically requested any further details police could provide. A Florida man suggested baiting the beast with bread, eggs and cheese, saying it could be “a splendid attraction if you could have it in a little hut to show people.” A California woman consulted with a psychic over the matter. These creatures, the psychic said, “are of a different evolution than human, that they observe man, but want no part of his way of living … they have the ability to appear and disappear at will.”
Randy Creath, who reported observing the creature the evening of June 26, is tired of talking about it. People often just think the story is crazy, he said, and parts of it have been greatly exaggerated over time. While Creath is done revisiting the tale, he maintains he saw something that night. “I’m tired of people misconstruing what I saw,” he said.
And what exactly did he see? Some have posited that it was a bear or some other animal brought away from the river by high flooding that year. Others, of course, have speculated it was simply a man in a suit, looking to scare a few unsuspecting teenagers. Tincher, who photographed the creature’s footprints following the first appearance, doesn’t know what it was, but he knows that people saw something. He’s not convinced it was a person.
“Anybody that would put on a costume and do this would be stupid,” said Tincher, who went on to become chief of the Murphysboro Police Department for about 12 years before retiring in 1991. “This is hunting country. It’d be a good way to get shot around here.”
Baril, who was only 3 when he reportedly saw the creature, also isn’t convinced it was a person. Whatever it was managed to evade and even frighten the search dog, he pointed out, and it appeared in thinly populated areas less than ideal for an ambitious prankster. “I really doubt it was a person playing a joke,” he said.
Were the appearances to happen today, police might be able to better determine just what so many reported seeing. Jeff Bock, current chief of the Murphysboro Police Department, said the advent of DNA testing would have given investigators ways to analyze the black slime found in the woods or the footprints found in the mud. Also, cell phones would have rendered instant pictures of the intruder.
“It would be treated quite differently today,” Bock said. “Your small evidence is looked at much more closely now.”
In the end, what happened 40 years ago this week remains an unsolved mystery. Bock keeps the dog-eared police file regarding the creature close at hand; the official reports are among the most-viewed records the department keeps. Big Muddy Brewing, a local craft brewery, now offers a beer inspired by the beast. Bigfoot hunters and sasquatch seekers come from great distances to Murphysboro, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fabled monster.
Baril, now an attorney in Carbondale, doesn’t frequently volunteer his story of the monster, but he is enthused to speak about it when asked. He shares an enviable attachment to a real-life tale of terror, and he enjoys recounting what he knows.
Like stories of UFOs or the Loch Ness Monster, Baril said the tale of the Murphysboro Mud Monster highlights how people either believe something is real, or they don’t. He, however, is comfortable with the gray area in the middle — a place many people don’t find as appealing.
“Personally, I don’t know what it was,” Baril said. “Like with UFOs, you believe in them or you don’t. There’s really no room in our society for people not to know.”
Whatever it was or wasn’t, however, one thing is for sure: Baril will never forget the terror he felt that night 40 years ago.
“It must have been something,” he said. “What it was, I really have no idea.”