An Interview With David Holthouse - Believer Magazine
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An Interview With David Holthouse

Talking to a Journalist and Filmmaker at the intersection of Squatcher and Doper
by Jim Knipfel
April 2nd, 2021
David Holthouse in Hulu’s Sasquatch (Courtesy of Hulu)

In 1978, seven-year-old David Holthouse was living in Alaska when he was raped by his parents’ best friends’ son. Apart from writing about it in his journal at the time, he never told anyone. Years later Holthouse, then in his early thirties and living in Denver, learned that his rapist was also living in Denver, and began following him. He learned where he lived, where he worked, and the details of his daily schedule. He also bought himself some guns, fully intending to murder the man who’d stolen his innocence. He had the where and when and how all worked out. It was foolproof. After all, no one would ever be able to connect them.

Then his parents discovered his childhood diary and learned his secret, and Holthouse set his plans aside. In 2004, already a seasoned journalist, he wrote a story about the experience for the Westword, a Denver-Based alternative weekly. The story, Stalking the Bogeyman, has since been picked up by NPR’s This American Life, was adapted as an off-broadway play, and the play in turn is presently being adapted as a short film.

These days Holthouse is an investigative journalist who over the past three decades has written about (among countless other things) street gangs, speed freaks, gutter punks and neo nazis. He’s also a playwright and documentarian whose film and limited-run series credits include The Seven-Five (2014) about NYPD corruption in the 1980s, The Last Narc (2020), about the kidnapping and murder of DEA Agent Kiki Camarena, and most recently Night Stalker: Hunt for a Serial Killer, about the Richard Ramirez case. His latest, Sasquatch, premieres on Hulu in April. The three-part investigative series concerns a brutal triple homicide on a Northern California pot farm in the early Nineties. A triple homicide, as the title implies, allegedly perpetrated by, yes, Bigfoot.

I spoke with Holthouse about the new series, the dangers lurking around what’s known as Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, the aftermath of “Stalking the Bogeyman,” neo-nazis, his career as both a journalist and filmmaker, and, yes, Bigfoot.

—Jim Knipfel

THE BELIEVER: In the fall of 1993, you were twenty-two,  twenty-three years old and a cub reporter for The Anchorage Daily News.

DAVID HOLTHOUSE: That’s right.

BLVR: So how did you find yourself on a cannabis farm in Mendocino County?

DH: At the time I was reporting a story for The Anchorage Daily News about street gangs in Anchorage, and I’d sort of run afoul of one of them—the Tiny Raskal Gang, a Southeast Asian street gang. But I had some good sources at the Anchorage Police Department, and they said “You know, you might want to lay low for a little bit, and/or get out of town.”

I had a buddy, a good friend from college, who was working on a dope farm. I didn’t know where at the time, I just knew it was up in Northern California. He’d gotten a job there that summer and he said, “Hey man, you should come and visit if you want to check out this scene. I might even be able to get you a little bit of work.” So when the drama came down with the TRGs—the Tiny Raskal Gang—I decided to take him up on his invitation. I flew up to Northern California and went and visited Santa Cruz, where I went to college, and then paid him a visit.

BLVR: What was the atmosphere like around there at the time?

DH: On the dope farm?

BLVR: Yeah.

DH: It was not what I expected. That whole scene was not what I expected.

BLVR: I know Operation Green Sweep was still going on at that point.

DH: Yeah. Paranoia was running deep, and my friend really had to vouch for me to get me up there. It was sketchy as hell, man. I don’t know how else to describe it. There’s this stereotype, I guess, of the scene up there, the Emerald Triangle, of being a bunch of hippies living in a dope-scented utopia. Living off the land and off the grid. That existed at the time, and exists now. But that’s not the world I was in, and that’s not the world this documentary series takes place in. This is a world of booby-traps and automatic weapons.

BLVR: So tell me about that night. How long had you been there when you got the visit?

DH: It was the second night I was there. This didn’t make it in the final cut of the show, but my buddy and I had taken a pretty epic psilocybin mushroom trip that day. We really took a heroic dose. This was going down in the cabin, and I was still coming down from the mushrooms, just to add to the surrealism. I know it was either a Sunday night or a Monday night, because the owner of the farm had a satellite dish and was able to pull in these raw satellite feeds. There was an NFL football game on, and he asked if we wanted to come up to the main house to watch football. I remember we were sitting there goofing on the fact that we could hear whatever the football announcers were saying in the booth during commercial breaks—instead of commercials we’d continue to get the raw satellite feed. We were eavesdropping on these guys, which struck us as hilarious.

BLVR: Right.

DH: At a certain point the owner of the farm got a phone call, and I could tell his demeanor switched at that point. About ten, fifteen minutes later, headlights were outside the cabin. Two guys tromped up to the front entrance. They were both rain-soaked, muddy, dirty—covered with mud up to their mid-chest level. I know now—I didn’t at the time but I know now—one of them was really out of his skull on crystal meth. I hadn’t been around crystal enough at that time to recognize the signs. I subsequently lived in Phoenix for five years and became very well acquainted with tweakers, but at that time I hadn’t really encountered it, so I didn’t really know what was wrong with the guy. He was talking a mile a minute, and the owner of the farm had these guys over in the kitchen area. It was one big space, but he had them over in the kitchen. He was trying to keep the guy quiet, but the guy kept raising his voice whenever he got excited. We were able to hear snippets of what was going on. One of the snippets was, “Yes, they’re dead!” That gets your attention.

Even before the word “Bigfoot” came up, I was thinking “I really don’t want to be here right now.” I was sinking as far down in the couch as I could, making it clear to anyone who happened to look over by me that I was paying such close attention to the football game that there was no possible way I could be eavesdropping on what was going on. That’s the demeanor I wanted to present. I remember him talking about how it couldn’t have been a rip-off, because the weed was still there. It was harvest season. The point he was making was that whatever happened, it wasn’t a rip-off, because the weed plants had been torn down, but they were just lying around. No one had stolen the product. Then his voice got really high, and he said, “I’m telling you, Bigfoot killed those guys.”

BLVR: At that point, that’s pretty much all you need to hear, right?

DH: The guy who owned the farm went and got some pills, I imagine they were Valium or something, to try and calm the guy down, and hustled him out of there. Then he just sat down and said, “Well that was pretty fuckin’ weird.” And we just laughed it off. It was just a huge relief to have those guys gone.

BLVR: So these two guys saw three bodies in a cabin, all torn apart. Do you know if anyone else did? Did anyone go and check on their story?

DH: No. I don’t know.

BLVR: Now, as you know, I’m pretty well-versed in my Bigfoot lore, and apart from hurling the occasional rock at a cabin or howling from the shadows, they tend to be pretty reticent creatures who just want to be left alone. Movies aside, violent triple homicides generally aren’t in their playbook.

DH: Based on personal experience as well as subsequent reporting, I can say definitively that in the fall of 1993, wild rumors circulated among cannabis farmers and their temporary, harvest-season employees—so-called “trimmigrants”—concerning a particularly aggressive and hostile Sasquatch, or in some versions a tribe or pack of Sasquatches, bluff charging, and throwing large rocks at farm workers tending isolated weed patches way back in the hills. The prevailing sentiment was that so called guerrilla growers had pushed so far back into the hills to avoid Operation Green Sweep and CAMP that they were impinging upon Sasquatch home turf and the Sasquatch were responding with threats.

Now, I should make clear that my reporting also turned up evidence of a longstanding tradition among dope farmers in northern Mendocino County of using Sasquatch stories to keep trimmigrants from foreign countries in line. If you’re a dope farmer, you don’t want your seasonal employees getting cabin fever and leaving the mountain to go into town over and over. The more traffic back and forth to your patch, the higher your threat profile for getting busted. What you want is for them to stay put and process harvested weed. And one way you do that is you scare these European or South American backpacker kids into believing that a) Sasquatch is real and b) Sasquatch is dangerous and c) Sasquatch is nearby, so it’s not safe for them to leave the property on foot and hitchhike to town to get a few beers. More than one grower I talked to even went to the lengths of creating fake Bigfoot footprints using stilts to punch the footprints deep into the forest floor, as if made by a creature weighing five hundred-plus pounds, and then “stumbling across” those footprints when showing their seasonal employees the property.

Point being that even before the fall of ’93, there was a history in this regional underworld of deliberately using Sasquatch stories and planted “evidence” of Sasquatches to engender fear in outsiders from foreign countries, so that it wasn’t that big of a step—no pun intended—for the old time growers to take these kinds of hoaxes to a higher and murderous level, especially once you introduce a river of crystal meth into the equation.

BLVR: How long after that night did you decide to head back to Anchorage?

DH: The next day. Yeah, I was pretty much ready to pull the rip cord the next day.

BLVR: I think that’s understandable.

DH: But I want to clarify it wasn’t just that. The whole atmosphere, the whole environment—it felt like a dangerous place to be.

BLVR: Did you write about any of that at the time?

DH: Nope. No. You know what’s interesting is that now that we’ve singled out those two guys coming by the cabin that night, and this fantastic tale that they related, now that I’ve isolated that in memory and helped make a documentary series about tracking down the origins of that story—which had spread beyond just those two guys, right? It takes on a special significance. But in my memory at the time, it was just one of a string of pretty crazy fuckin’ things that happened to me up in the Emerald Triangle during that two or three day period. That was just one element of the sketchiness.

II.

BLVR: When did you end up in Denver?

DH: I first moved to Denver in 2000.

BLVR: Is that when you first started doing more immersive, first-person journalism?

DH: No, I got a job with the New Times in Phoenix, so moved to Phoenix from Alaska in the summer of 1995. That’s when I set about doing the long-form gonzo stuff, made the switch from daily news reporting to long-form gonzo.

BLVR: I’ve read a bunch of things you were doing around that time, and it’s very, very good. Now, speaking of subcultures and underworlds, in 2001 you were in the documentary Cockfight, about the cockfighting underground. Was that based on something you’d written?

DH: Yeah. I wrote a story for the Phoenix New Times. One of my last stories for them. At the time cockfighting was still legal in Phoenix. I didn’t actually start fighting birds myself, but I immersed myself in the world of cockfighting. At the time there was white guy cockfighting, Asian cockfighting, and Mexican cockfighting. Every once in awhile all three of those worlds would get together in a United Nations of cockfighting. I spent time in each of the worlds and learned about the different styles, the different kind of blades they put on the birds.

BLVR: Just as a quick personal side note, you said it was one of the last things you wrote for New Times. One of the first features I did when I started at the NYPress was about what they were calling the Super Bowl of Cockfighting up in the Bronx. That was around ’92 or ’93.

DH: And it was illegal, right?

BLVR: Oh, absolutely. They got busted, but they were back at it again a week later—just moved the operation to Jersey.

DH: At the time in Arizona, it was about to be voted illegal. There was a ballot initiative to criminalize it, and it was clear that’s where it was going. It was the last days of legal cockfighting.

BLVR: Now, in 2004, when you were writing for Westword, you published “Stalking the Bogeyman,” about planning to kill the man who raped you when you were seven, but in the end confronting him instead. It’s since taken on a life of its own.

DH: Yeah, yeah.

BLVR: I was always curious: how did you find out he was living in Denver?

DH: My mom told me. My parents and his parents were still friends at that point. So it was just like, “Oh! Guess who lives in Denver?”

BLVR: And after learning that, how long were you following him?

DH: Real actively? About two months.

BLVR: In Sasquatch, when you start talking about this, we get a series of images flashed on the screen. I may have misinterpreted this, and correct me if I’m wrong, but one of them seems to be a newspaper headline reporting that you’d been arrested for stalking.

DH: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

BLVR: You never mentioned that in either of the stories you’ve written about it. So what happened?

DH: I hadn’t mentioned it because it happened after the story came out. So about two weeks after the story came out…Well, I don’t know this for a fact, this is supposition on my part, but it seems he wasn’t entirely honest with his wife. It was his wife who went to the cops and was basically like, “This crazy guy wrote this article, and he’s clearly a threat.” And they arrested me.

BLVR: How long did they hold you?

DH: Just a few hours. Until I could bail out.

BLVR: Was that after the original story or the follow up?

DH: It was after the first story came out. It was Memorial Day weekend 2004 that I was arrested.

BLVR: You took pains in that original story not to name him or clearly identify him in any way, but a decade later,in a follow-up you called “Outing the Bogeyman,” you did publicly name him in print.

DH: Right.

BLVR: Could you tell me what led to that?

DH: Yeah, I was asked to testify in support of a proposed piece of legislation in Alaska that would make it mandatory in public schools that kids receive education about what childhood sexual abuse is, how to report it and who you can report it to. The same day I was in the state capitol building in Juneau, two different people approached me separately, one an elected official, one a state employee who works in the state capitol building. Neither had any knowledge of the other. They told me, in essence, “I’ve been thinking of contacting you for a decade.” Both of them had first hand knowledge that the man they believed to be the same unnamed Bogeyman in my original story  had sexually abused kids in two different communities in Alaska in the 1980s. That’s important, because when he raped me he was a minor, but in the 1980s he was an adult. I listened to their stories, then basically said, “What’s the name?” And it was him both times. One of them told me the story right as I was about to testify, and my testimony was going to be televised.  

BLVR: Oh, Jesus.

DH: I’m sure I had a shellshocked expression on my face, but fortunately I’d scripted my remarks. One part of me was giving the testimony, and in the other part the wheels were spinning a million miles an hour.

[Note: When they met in the early 2000s, Holthouse’s rapist promised that there were no other victims, that Holthouse had been the only one. Holthouse later sent him a note informing him that if any evidence ever arose that he had raped other children, Holthouse would publish his name.]

BLVR: After that, you ran the story. You named him. You also filed a police report, which you had never done before. That was in 2014. Have there been any further developments?

DH: Nope… nope.

BLVR: I know there’s also a “Stalking the Bogeyman” short in the works. Is that based on the play or is it a documentary?

DH: How do you know that? I think you’re right, but how do you know that?

BLVR: I’m a very good journalist.

DH: It’s based on the play. It’s a short adaptation of the play. I’m impressed that you were able to dig that out. I don’t know how you did it, but good job. I’ve recorded sort of an epilogue for it. It’s tricky throughout because after I wrote the play the story became this living, evolving thing. And so Marcus Potter, the director who brought the play to life, he and I were wondering if we should change the play. Do we need to tag something onto the end of the play to answer the questions the audience is left with? And we decided no, the play itself is working. But in the case of this short we decided to record an epilogue. I did it because of your earlier question, “Has there been any progress in the case?” I wanted to re-issue my pledge, and do so in this epilogue, that even after all these years if someone decides to come forward, I will stand with you. I will back you up, I’ll back up your allegations with my own publicly.

BLVR: This is a big question, but looking back now, having gone through so much, after being raped at such an early age, how do you think that affected your trajectory? That is to say, your dealings with people and the world as a whole—and do you think that could have been any kind of a factor in your decision to become an investigative journalist?

DH: Oh, a hundred percent. I’m on the cusp of fifty now. Looking back I can clearly see what a huge impact it had on the development of my personality and my psyche, on the creative and career choices I made. Definitely for me, publishing that first story, “Stalking the Bogeyman,” was one of those events in life where there’s The Before and there’s The After. Let me put it this way: After I published it, I found I wasn’t comfortable taking the same sorts of risks I had been before. I started to put more value on my own life than I had before.

BLVR: That feeds into something else I wanted to ask you about. In both your print journalism and your films, you tread on a lot of very dangerous ground, whether it’s corrupt cops or neio-nazis or drug cartels, the Night Stalker or Sasquatch. I can imagine your experience could have left you with a fascination with some of the darker, more violent human impulses.

DH: Right, I had a really gnarly self-destructive streak all through my twenties and early thirties. I just didn’t give a fuck. I don’t want to overstate things and say it’s a wonder I’m still alive, but it was a close thing on several occasions. But during that time I gained experience in navigating the underworld, and keeping myself alive in sketchy situations. It’s continued to serve me well, but the impulse, the driving force behind putting myself in the underworld, if you will, or dealing with criminals is different now. Now it’s based on experience and competence and the fact that I can, and know how to do it. No longer am I seeking it out out of some kind of death impulse  that I had. I think if it weren’t for journalism, I would’ve been a criminal.

BLVR: It makes me think of a lot of the writing you were doing about neo-nazi groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center, and even earlier, when you went undercover as a skinhead to cover a white power music festival. Was there anything particular about that whole mindset, that whole scene, that drew you to it?

DH: I think I was starting to mature a bit when I went to work for the Southern Poverty Law Center. I was still drawn to dark subjects and wanted to steep myself in it, but I wanted it to be more ideologically driven. I also wanted the bad guys that I went after to be indisputably bad.

BLVR: Reading these stories from the early 2000s and considering where we are now, it struck me that you were way ahead of the curve on the neo-Nazi front. A lot of these people you were writing about fifteen years ago now run the G.O.P.

DH: I know. The first piece I did was for Westword, and I thought it was going to be a one-off. I thought, “Okay, I’ll go undercover as a neo nazi skinhead, I’ll write the piece and that’ll be it. Just go on to the next thing.” But once I was on the other side of the curtain, I saw how well-financed, and organized, and how much bigger the movement was than I anticipated. How much more serious, y’know? At the gathering I was at, The Rocky Mountain Heritage Fest, there were financiers there, okay? These were the money men for the movement. These were not dipshit, drunk skinheads—these were serious people. I was like, “Holy shit—I don’t think most people have any idea how much of a threat this is.” Now we do. I take no solace in having been right at all. When I went to work for the Southern Poverty Law Center I was like, I’m going to dedicate my professional life to investigating and exposing hate groups. I had a lot of people who said, “What the fuck are you doing? Why are you wasting your time and talent on this?” But I saw it.

BLVR: The long piece you did about white supremacists in the military was fantastic.

DH: That’s another one, and now they’re finally getting serious about it. They got that guy as defense secretary who has experience with it. He was at Fort Bragg, and the skinhead gang in the ranks there really were conducting random murders of black people just off base. So he knows. Finally we’re getting serious about it.

BLVR: So what got you into filmmaking?

DH: It’s funny. That same movie, Cockfight, was directed by a guy named Tiller Russell. At the time he was a film student at the University of Southern California. He asked me to go on camera as part of his senior project. It was one of those decisions where, at the time, I had no idea what kind of ramifications it would have for me down the line. To answer your question, he got me into it. He’s still one of my best friends and one of my closest collaborators. But it was years down the road. After he did that cockfight movie he started doing unscripted TV—series documentary work. About twelve years later he called me and asked if I wanted to start riding shotgun for him on some doc work he was doing. So he got me into it.

BLVR: Which brings us back around to Sasquatch. What prompted you to return to that story almost thirty years after the fact?

DH: So I’d worked with director Josh Rofe on Lorena, a series about the Lorena Bobbitt case. We were nearing the end of post-production on Lorena. He’d become a fan of this podcast called The Sasquatch Chronicles.

BLVR: I know it well.

DH: Yeah, so he texted me one night and said “Man, I would love to find a legitimate true crime story with some kind of Sasquatch angle.” I hadn’t thought of it in years, but was like “oh, fuck.” I immediately texted him back and said I might have one. So that’s how it got started. He told me to call around to see if that story had spread around beyond just the cabin that night. If anyone else had even heard that story, let alone knew anything else about a triple homicide. Then it was just a process of reaching out to anybody I could who had a history in the dope business up there at the time to see if the story had spread beyond the walls of that cabin.

BLVR: The project was an interesting confluence of filmmakers. The Duplas Brothers, who are producers/directors/actors, executive produced. Josh Rofe, who’s a producer/director, directed. And though you’ve generally just been a producer, you’re the one on camera, though I get the sense you were as much producer here as anyone else.

DH: Oh, a hundred percent. My on-camera was not the vision at the outset. We got to a certain point where we realized that for the show to work we had to make the investigative process part of the show.

BLVR: Without giving too much away, how much research did you do before the doc actually got underway? That is, how much of the story did you have in hand before the cameras started rolling?

DH: Not much, actually.

BLVR: So you had no idea where the story was going to be leading you.

DH: Not really. All I did was confirm that yes, there were certain circles up there that were aware of the story, had heard different versions of it and had different ideas about whether or not it actually happened, and if so who’d done it and why. I established that. That gave us enough to say, okay, we’ll go and see what we can find out.  

The tricky thing was the introduction of a camera crew. The camera fundamentally changes any kind of interaction you’re having with sources. So it was a tricky show to make. Sometimes I was up there with a crew, and we tried to have as small a footprint as possible. Strip it down so you could be pretty nimble, shoot in a car at a moment’s notice if that’s what it takes. There were also times when I just went up there by myself with a hidden camera and a a recorder.

BLVR: What was the atmosphere like when you went back thirty years later? How had it changed?

DH: It was worse. And I know we’re gonna get shit from people who live up there who are gonna say, “Thanks a lot for portraying our home as a drug-infested, violence-ridden cultural wasteland.” But there are two worlds up there, and have been since the Seventies. What I think changed in the Seventies is that people started doing what they called green for white or white for green—trading cocaine for weed or the other direction. Part of that world took a dark direction at that point.

To answer your question, there are towns up there that are so meth-ridden that… let’s see, how to describe this? The legalization of cannabis up there was basically like someone had closed down the town mill.

BLVR: There’s one grower you talk to toward the end of Sasquatch who says that after legalization, the level of violence in the area went up astronomically.

DH: Yeah, because there’s more competition and less money to go around. People are hurting, and rip-offs are even more common. Also there’s just a river of meth that runs through the whole story of Sasquatch. To my mind Sasquatch isn’t a weed story. It’s a meth story. That series is a meth story.

Again, I just want to draw this distinction. There still are back to the land hippies up there raising their kids and home schooling their kids and eating vegetables from their gardens and growing dope on the side. Living this very healthy, positive way of life. This is happening. It always has been. This is not the world in which this series is set. That’s not the world I was delving into when I was up there. I was on the darker side of the yin/yang circle, which is dealing with tweakers. Crystal meth has its own logic.

You go up those mountains, you go up those mountain roads, and the forest gets denser, and you can very quickly feel that you’re pretty exposed, that you’re in a pretty sketchy position.

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