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Capturing the “Oakland Creature”: 49 years ago, confusing sightings and a mass theory terrified Nebraska town

Oakland Creature
Posted at 5:26 PM, Mar 04, 2023

A freakish scream in the wee hours of July 4, 1974, woke Dale and Linda Jones from a deep slumber. They thought one of their pigs had gotten its head caught in the pen’s slats.

Shep, their German shepherd mix, barked incessantly from the front porch.

Dale grabbed a flashlight and headed to the pig pen on his farm a couple of miles south of the small Nebraska town of Oakland, off of US Highway 77. Finding nothing wrong with the swine, he turned back toward the house. Then he heard the scream again.

"It was like something I'd never heard before," Jones said. "It's indescribable. People asked me, and I'd try to tell them, but unless you heard it … ."

Running back to the house, Jones reached for a baseball bat to use while he checked his farm for a wild animal. Then Linda, standing on the porch, trying to quiet Shep, saw it. A silhouette of a figure standing several hundred feet away.

"It took off running on two legs, between the corn cribs toward the cornfield," Linda Jones said.

The couple went back inside on that Independence Day night, locked the doors and latched the windows. They had no air conditioning in the old farmhouse, and thanks to the heat and their spiked adrenaline and anxiety, sleep proved impossible.

Together, Dale and Linda lay in bed, eyes open, wondering: What in the world have we seen? What … exactly … was that?

The Joneses, in their early 20s at the time, were likely the first to witness an unidentified figure that became known as the "Oakland Creature." Once their story became public, the sightings — and talk about what this creature was, or wasn’t — spread like wildfire across the town of 1,300 residents known as the Swedish Capital of Nebraska.

Nearly 50 years ago, many area residents bought the idea that some type of creature was roaming the area, putting everyone on edge. Many people in fact believed that a giant monster had infiltrated the normally quiet community, say newspaper accounts at the time as well as new Flatwater Free Press interviews.

Oakland Creature
Dale and Linda Jones were likely the first to see the figure that became known as the Oakland Creature on July 4, 1974.

To outsiders this may seem like an outrageous theory, experts say, just like any seemingly supernatural occurrence or conspiracy theory can seem.

But, to the people involved, something seemingly outrageous – something like Bigfoot roaming your hometown — can begin to make perfect psychological sense.

“Knowing what I know about science, I know that bears don’t mate with monkeys,” to create Bigfoot, said Andy Norman, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh who studies phenomena like Bigfoot sightings, conspiracy theories and QAnon beliefs. “Everything we know about biology says they can’t.”

But “an ordinary cougar call can actually feel more like Bigfoot if that’s what you had on your mind,” he said, of how one sighting can often lead to many sightings. “Everybody’s been talking about it, right? Our brains are tricky, and they often detect patterns that aren’t really there.”

To some local residents of Oakland in the summer of 1974, it most certainly didn’t feel like a mind trick. It felt wholly, undeniably, real.

Within a few days of the initial incident, Nick Wickstrom recalls an odd scene early one morning while he was delivering the Omaha World-Herald newspaper on a back road outside of town. Wickstrom, then 13, along with brother Tom and their father, Emory, saw something large running alongside the gravel road on four legs.

"It looked like it was running on its front knuckles," said Wickstrom, now retired from the U.S. Navy and living outside Ann Arbor, Mich. "It didn't look like anything I've ever seen before or since. There was no tail. Its legs looked like ours. But, for all I know, it could have been an opossum. It would have been a really big opossum.

“But, I couldn’t identify it. You know, we were country kids. We could identify just about every critter out there. But this one was different.”

Some witnesses claimed the creature stood more than 6 feet tall, resembling the body of a bear with the face of a monkey. State zoologists disputed that any known animal matched the description.

Late one night, some teenagers hanging out at the cemetery, on the southern edge of town, allegedly saw the creature walking upright along a tree line. They threw firecrackers at the figure, watching it scamper into the woods.

Once alerted, Oakland Police Chief Greg Webb engaged the assistance of North Bend's police chief, who had a pet coyote trained for tracking. The police searched the area deep into the overnight hours, coming up empty.

"We had a drought that year, so it was about impossible to find any tracks," said Leonard Canarsky, who served as a part-time officer with the Oakland Police Department before being elected Burt County sheriff later that year. "I remember spending nights in the city park looking for it.”

The Joneses, who had been the first to encounter the phenomenon, believe the Oakland Creature used a pasture on their farm as its home base.

"We'd hear it every night," Dale said. "We had 22 acres of land, along with some woods, so there was no way of finding it."

That didn't stop people from trying. Locals organized hunting parties, but they always came up empty, he said.

At the height of the sightings, three Omaha television stations sent news crews to the Burt County community to interview locals. Area newspapers, including the Omaha World-Herald, published stories on the sightings.

At about the same time, reports of cattle mutilations were widespread across northeast Nebraska, including Burt County.

Law enforcement officials didn't believe the two were related, Carnasky said.

"The mutilations were too well-performed for them to have been done by animals," the law officer said. "The cattle had hearts removed. Other specific organs. It was more like sacrifices."

Sightings stopped as cooler weather moved into the area in September. Linda Jones delivered the couple’s first child that month, and neither she nor Dale recalls hearing noises after that. Once the Oakland Creature disappeared, talk faded, and the creature became a distant memory for those who remembered it at all.

But the now-distant memory remains. And a now-faded question: What was it?

Unsure what people actually saw, Canarsky, the former Burt County sheriff, wouldn't have been surprised if the creature had turned out to be a mountain lion.

"The drought probably would have brought them along Logan Creek, looking for food," he said.

Others, like Harriett McFeely, owner of the Bigfoot Crossroads of America Museum in Hastings, believe that the creature could have been Bigfoot-like, though she doubts that Bigfoot would ever mutilate domestic animals.

The lack of evidence suggests there’s likely a logical reason behind the story, said Norman, the professor who studies Bigfoot sightings and group behavior around theories like it. But he wouldn’t have necessarily believed that had he been a teenager or young adult in Oakland in 1974.

“I love a good mystery as much as the next person,” he said. “Stories like this have long fascinated me, and had I been there at the time, I’m sure I would have been really curious to find out.”

Oakland Creature
Some residents of Oakland described the so-called “Oakland Creature” with a bear body and a monkey face. Others say it was a mountain lion and a giant possum.

During an interview, Norman pointed out that reports of extraterrestrial visits spiked in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as millions of Americans reported having a close encounter with a third kind.

It’s impossible to say for certain what changed, he said, except for one thing:

The movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the hit Steven Spielberg movie released in 1977.

“Science of why people believe things has a lot to teach us. One of the takeaways is that people often see or perceive what they expect or hope to see,” he said. “Reported sightings spiked because more people were kind of either hoping or expecting to experience strange phenomena.”

However, Norman said, people in Oakland who saw something and then tried to make sense of it shouldn’t be ridiculed or diminished by the rest of us.

Sometimes, people believe in things like “The Oakland Creature” because it satisfies an emotional or psychological need – because it feels gratifying or simply right.

And sometimes, people believe in things like “The Oakland Creature” because the human mind craves an explanation, even when there isn’t one.

“There are many species on the planet that we have not yet documented or cataloged,” Norman said. “But the chances that something the size of a Bigfoot has managed to escape all scientific confirmation are vanishingly small at this point.”

He pointed out that the lack of evidence of proof like fossil remains.

“But never say never, right?”

To this day, Linda and Dale Jones say they do not know what they heard, and saw, starting on the night of July 4, 1974. They don’t know if it was a psychological phenomenon. They don’t know if it was an actual physical creature, or a wild animal of some kind or a mountain lion.

They do know two things. Whatever they saw was not normal.

And whatever they saw, they had and still have no desire to meet it up close.

“If somebody would ask me to go look for it, I didn’t want to see it,” Dale Jones said. “It was just terrifying.”

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

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