BLOOMINGTON - Tom Vielhak said he wasn't drinking, under the influence of drugs or hallucinating when he spotted large, hairy, man-like creatures walking upright in Funks Grove.
"I know there's a lot of people who're saying they don't believe us, and think we're crazy about it, but I know what I saw," the Bloomington man said.
His and his son's stories are obviously met with skepticism from people who think the men were mistaken or the victims of a hoax. Yet the story drew a sasquatch hunter from California who took their tales seriously.
Tom Biscardi, who compares himself to a treasure hunter, said he talked with the Vielhaks and others about such encounters, investigated a sighting location this week near Funks Grove and will release more information after conferring with other trackers.
Tom Vielhak, 58, of Bloomington, said he and his 30-year-old son, Chris, said they saw an unidentified animal about six times from June to October. He said his son saw it first along the side of a road in Funks Grove.
"It's still hard for me to believe it too, but it's there," Vielhak said. "It was, anyway."
The pair was in Funks Grove at dusk in early fall during one sighting, Vielhak said, and an animal about 7 feet tall backed into some trees after spotting him.
"I looked over into the trees about probably 150 feet from where I was standing, and it was still light enough to see what was what," Vielhak said. "And this - I don't know what it was - this big, hairy person or man or whatever it was awful hairy and it was taller than I was, it was standing out, standing up beside the trees just looking at me."
Vielhak said he saw another creature that was about 9 feet tall and ran like a football player, and he estimated there were several in the area. He described them as ape-like with black hair and a "deep, gurgle growl" that proved to him it wasn't someone having fun at his expense.
"My son and I both thought long and hard about telling anybody because they'd probably think we were crazy," Vielhak said.
Biscardi compared his search to that of Mel Fisher, a treasure hunter who spent more than 16 years searching before finding the wreck of the 17th century Spanish treasure ship Atocha in 1985.
"Remember one thing: This is America's King Kong," Biscardi said. "I believe it's the eighth wonder of the world. We find this thing, there's no telling how much it might be worth."
Angelo Capparella, a biology professor at Illinois State University who has investigated the Bigfoot legend, said the first question to ask is if the sightings could be a hoax, and the second is whether they could be misidentification of a known species of animal.
The most common such mistake involves bears in Western states, but bears don't live in Illinois.
Capparella said the animal the Vielhaks saw could be a mammal that escaped from a private owner, like the Bengal tiger that escaped at a Bloomington truck stop in September 2002 and was shot by police.
"The only large mammal left in this area is the white-tailed deer, and it's hard to imagine someone would mistake that," Capparella said. "So then you have to ask, Could it be a misidentification of a known mammal that has accidentally appeared here due to human assistance?' And often when that happens, usually eventually they're seen or hit by a car or something because they're so confused."
Capparella said the sightings make less sense in Illinois than in the Pacific Northwest - the more customary location for Bigfoot sightings - because of ecology and geography.
Illinois has little native habitat left, and large mammals have been driven out by human activity, he said.
"There was enough vegetation in the area to support one or two creatures and also to support a bear," Biscardi said of the wooded area southwest of Bloomington. "So anybody that tells you that there's not anything there, they're off, you know, they're off the beam a little bit."