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Hundreds attend Great Florida Bigfoot Conference in Ocala

Do you believe in Bigfoot? Hundreds of people who on Saturday attended the fourth annual Great Florida Bigfoot Conference do.

The conference took place in Ocala at the World Equestrian Center’s Exposition Center 2. Tennessee-based Gather Up Events organized the conference, the genesis for which was a 2018 Bigfoot-themed local barbecue, said 55-year-old Martin Pippin, who works closely with Gather Up Events’ owner Nikki Beaty.

“While doing that event, we found a huge number of passionate, enthusiastic attendees who were there just because they wanted to hear people talking about their research and encounters with Bigfoot,” Pippin said. “We ended up speaking with some of the local speakers after the event. They came to us and basically said, ‘Wow, this was great. Have you guys ever thought about doing a real conference?’”

Pippin said Gather Up Events hosted the Smoky Mountain Bigfoot Conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in 2019. Eventually, Beaty decided to bring the Bigfoot Conference to Florida.

“Tickets go on sale for the Florida Bigfoot conference every year on Nov. 1,” Pippin said. “We haven't finalized any contracts, but we're planning on being back at the World Equestrian Center for a third year.”

Pippin estimated that more than 2,000 people in total visited the conference, which featured a stage for speakers and about 45 vendors.

Ryan “RPG” Golembeske, 48, served as master of ceremonies.

“You are in the one absolute safe place to go all in on the squatch,” Golembeske said to the crowd. “Everybody here wants to talk about it. Everybody here is obsessed with it.”

Golembeske, who worked on the reality TV show “Finding Bigfoot,” said the event was a success.

“I believe in Bigfoot,” he said. “The proof is out there. All you have to do is go out in the woods and look.”

There were six guest speakers at the conference as well as a Skunk Ape roundtable with local Bigfoot researchers, a silent auction and a section that allowed attendees to come on stage to describe their own encounters with Bigfoot.

Daniel Lee Barnett, 15, was one of the guest speakers who Gather Up invited. He said he has his own podcast and will soon be starring in hisown documentary. Daniel, from the United Kingdom, recalled watching “Expedition Bigfoot” with his grandfather.

“When I came across an 18-inch footprint, and we found Old World monkey DNA. I think that's when things really kicked off,” he said. Daniel said he plans to collaborate more with Pippin and Beaty for future conferences.

Brian King-Sharp, the 49-year-old moderator for the Skunk Ape roundtable, said the conference has allowed him to meet others who are interested in Bigfoot and talk with people who don’t believe Bigfoot is real.

“I believe that the phenomenon is real,” he said. “I can't say 100% that I believe in Bigfoot because I've never seen one.”

King-Sharp said he became interested in Bigfoot after he supposedly heard Bigfoot in the woods near his home at 12 years old.

“I heard hoofs and growls and what sounded like bluff charges,” he said. “I was scared to death.”

Tim Turner, a 58-year-old Winter Haven resident and one of the local Bigfoot researchers at the Skunk Ape roundtable, said he started investigating sasquatches and the Skunk Ape in 2019.

“I keep seeing them in my video footage,” he said, “and I can hear 'em when you're out there in the woods.” Turner said he thinks the Skunk Ape and Bigfoot are cousins with the difference being the number of toes.

A person who said their name was Josh Bigfoot wore two different costumes at the conference and said he thinks the Skunk Ape is Bigfoot’s little brother.

Like others, he said he also believes in Bigfoot after having a personal encounter.

“I saw one out in the woods one night while I was walking out in Chattahoochee,” said the 44-year-old from Tallahassee. He has been wearing costumes for 15 years after a friend put him in one for laughs.

“I do it for fun,” he said. He said his most expensive suit cost $2,500. “This is a great turnout. Lots of good people here, man.”

Danielle Murphy, 30, and her sister Christine Murphy-Roig, 27, traveled to the conference together.

“We just love Bigfoot.” Murphy said. She wore Bigfoot-themed socks and was carrying a Bigfoot plushie named Biggie, which she said she got from Walmart months ago.

Murphy and her sister moved to Marion County from Long Island, New York, and during the drive, she said they listened to cryptid podcasts the whole time.

Jeffrey Onest, a 56-year-old from Leesburg, Florida, said he came to the conference with his wife because of his long-time interest in Bigfoot.

Onest said he had a Bigfoot experience when he was younger and described hearing a “a loud shrieking howl” and seeing “a little bit of eye shine.”

He said the conference was a “bonding, sharing experience” with its guest speakers and vendors. Onest said he plans on coming back for the next conference.

One vendor was Kirk Schanze, a 61-year-old who runs UBigApe with his wife, Jackie.

“We sell handmade monster art and Bigfoot art. We make metal art. We have t-shirts. We have tree knockers,” Schanze said.

Schanze said that UBigApe frequently travels to Bigfoot festivals across the country and was at the last Great Florida Bigfoot Conference as well. He estimated UBigApe to have made $20,000 this year.

“My wife and I are very creative, so this is a great outlet for us to be able to make stuff,” he said. “It's nice to come to a show and have people respond.”

Schanze said he is more of a skeptic about Bigfoot but has an open mind about it.

Another vendor, Ed Lyell, said he recently started Cryptid Glitter a month ago with his wife, Misty, so that they could come to the conference with their two youngest daughters, Layla and Abby.

“We sell some snacks, but mostly we sell handmade jewelry that my wife and my kids make. It's earrings, bracelets,” the 57-year-old said.

Lyell said he and Misty plan on continuing Cryptid Glitter for at least another year. He said this is their first event, and that Cryptid Glitter made about $600.

“Nobody's getting rich, but it's paying for itself,” Lyell said. He said Bigfoot is likely to be real but has never had an encounter himself.

Jason Katz, a 36-year-old conference attendee from Miami, said he has also never had a Bigfoot encounter himself but believes other people’s experiences.

Katz paid $150 for the conference’s VIP package. He said he came to the event to ask Floridians why Bigfoot was said to be spotted so frequently in Florida.

“We're not a state that is known to have big mountains or woods,” Katz said. “Why Bigfoot in Florida? As a writer and interested person, I want to understand why people find these communities for themselves and dive really deep.”

Timothy is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.