The creature looked like something from another world — or a comic book — and every kid in town was determined to catch it. One of them almost did.
by Robert Goerman
On Sunday evening, March 1, 1981, I was watching The Amityville Horror on my 12-inch black-and-white television screen when the telephone rang. I immediately recognized the voice as that of Arnold, Pa., Police Sgt. Jim Dargenzio, an old friend.
“Bob, where were you last night?” he asked. “I tried to reach you on this situation we got here. Seems some boys encountered some really weird creature by the railroad tracks . . . less than three feet tall, all green, wrinkled skin, long arms. . . .
“The rub is that one of the boys picked the damned thing up and tried to carry it home! The thing wriggled free. Didn’t hurt him or anything. It fled into a drainpipe and got away. But it’s been seen since. Seems to be sticking around.”
After Jim filled me in, Police Chief Bill Clark telephoned and added his 10 cents’ worth. It was clear the officers were taking the bizarre story seriously and requesting my unofficial assistance. The Arnold police department wanted me to catch the thing.
Living in the city, where a backyard to an apartment dweller is often no more than a window box three stories up, kids are naturally attracted to those areas where there is room to stretch. In Arnold one such area is Roosevelt Park, a block-long playground complete with amphitheater and war memorials as well as an auxiliary policeman who oversees safety.
But safety never was a teen watchword. Kids crave adventure, especially when there’s the slightest hint of danger associated with it.
Small wonder then that four brothers — Bobby Johnston, 16, Marvin, 13, David, 12, and Chris, 11 — and their friend Randy Uhler, 12, sought out the Penn Central switchyard, with its even rows of boxcars and tankers, bunkers and trees and the like, just as they did every other Saturday afternoon. Here was a battlefield strewn with enemy tanks, a fortress to be assaulted by commando forces, a Martian landscape and more.
As they were playing, young Chris saw what he thought was a green trash bag. Curious, he approached it. Now it looked more like a statue, a big green statue. Of a man? But what kind of man?
The statue moved.
Not much. But it moved.
The thing was squatting down along the railroad track beside a gray tank car loaded with salts. Its back was to Chris, who was a mere 50 feet away.
“I just had to take it home,” Chris would tell me, “or nobody would believe me!”
His mother added, “That boy is always bringing something home and hiding it in our basement — anything he can get his two little mitts on and carry home.”
Chris (“Bring ‘Em Back Alive”) Johnston edged forward, carefully stepping only on the railroad ties, avoiding the crackling cinders and gravel. He could not call for help now. The thing might run.
His arms snaked under the thing’s armpits, lifted up and locked his fingers against the back of its neck — the standard wrestler’s full-nelson grip.
Now Chris screamed for help. “Bobby! Marvin! Help me carry this home!” he shouted. His brothers and friend rushed to his aid.
Bobby, Marvin and company froze in their tracks. They could handle turtles, even snakes, but this was something else. Later, when interviewed separately, the boys agreed that the “something” was green in color with no hair or fur. Humanoid in shape, it had wrinkled “elephant” skin, stood just under three feet tall and walked upright on two legs. It also had a muscular chest with distinct nipples, a tiny one-inch tail and large ears. Chris told me that the skin felt dry and rubbery, stretched like elastic.
“Bobby! Help! It’s too strong!” Chris shrieked.
It wriggled and twisted and squealed and wriggled. Older brother Bobby, five years the wiser, offered this advice: “Drop it and get out of there!” That sentiment having been expressed, Bobby took to his heels.
If the others thought to help Chris, it was too late. The thing broke free of the boy’s grasp and shot into a drainpipe less than eight feet away.
“Those boys were really excited and upset when we arrived on the scene,” Sergeant Dargenzio said. “We were checking a robbery in the area when we saw them running. They thought we were the reinforcements, so to speak, that someone had called us to help them capture this green thing.”
Mrs. Johnston told police her son’s coat had a foul odor “like a dirty fish tank” where it came into contact with the creature.
The next morning I met with Chief Clark and received a copy of Chris’ sketch of the thing made under rather harried conditions in the back of a patrol car. The Arnold police are hard-nosed, cynical cops who have seen and heard every tale in the book: They are anything but gullible; yet they were convinced that the boys had seen something far out of the ordinary. At 11:45 A.M. I drove to the scene and checked it out. Before I left, I inspected the drainpipe. Lying there on my stomach while I stuck head and lantern into the pipe, I halfway expected to come eyeball-to-eyeball with the twilight zone’s answer to Kermit the Frog. But the pipe was empty. In addition, the ground was rocky, eliminating any possibility of tracks.
Before leaving the site, I deployed bait, six apples cut into quarters, in what I deemed strategic locations. A fine sprinkling of powder (to enhance tracks) added a final touch.
Late that afternoon I returned to find the site surrounded by teenagers. Rain had washed away the powder and several slices of apple had disappeared. I noticed that one piece had been chewed on. I fished it out for examination and noted clear, well-defined teeth marks — those of a rat.
Minutes later, upon my arrival at Arnold police headquarters, I saw a scowling desk officer inform a caller that an investigation into reports of a “green thing” was under way. He put down the phone long enough to tell me that calls were flooding in.
By seven o’clock that evening dozens of teenagers were prowling the site. Many were armed with rocks, pellet guns, clubs and flashlights. Cars slowed down and paused on the road above, their occupants jeering. So much for my low-key investigation.
The next day pandemonium ruled. The local newspaper, Valley News Dispatch, was working on a “green monster” piece. I met the reporter, Mike Burke, and urged him not to ridicule the witnesses and to emphasize that this thing was apparently not aggressive or harmful.
I also talked with Marvin Johnston over the phone. In the afternoon I came back to the site, which was overrun with kids.
Knowing that serious investigation was impossible under these circumstances, I returned home until 9:00 P.M. Then I drove back and began to patrol a mile-long stretch of railroad tracks. It was a miserable experience. The rain was turning to snow and the temperature was dropping. Seven hours later, at 4:00 a.m.. I finally got to bed.
Late the following morning, March 4, I was back patrolling the tracks. This time I found something: seven branches, about one inch thick and seven inches long, broken off evenly with bark chewed off like corn-on-the-cob. This was nothing deer would have done, but as evidence of anything it wasn’t much.
But if hard evidence was difficult to come by, wild rumors were all too abundant. The creature was credited with attacking and raping an eight-year-old girl, chewing the leg off a policeman, overturning a New Kensington patrol car and so on and on into the wild blue yonder. The head of the Arnold PTA called the police to ask if these stories were true. Police department switchboards were flooded again.
At 9:00 A.M. on March 5 I talked with reporter Burke at the Dispatch. He told me his first story draft had been rejected because his editors feared it would further “incite public hysteria.” The word came down to keep it light and humorous. I had to agree.
I later interviewed Sandy Uhler, the attractive and articulate mother of 12-year-old Randy, one of the original witnesses. “My son isn’t lying,” she declared emphatically. “He and the other kids were all genuinely frightened and upset by this experience. I’d rather not believe his story because I don’t like the idea of that creature lurking about. I hope you catch it — to end this ridicule.”
Halfway through my interview Chris Johnston walked into the Uhler home on his school lunch break. I showed him a sketch of the creature I had drawn. He confirmed its accuracy.
From there I journeyed to the Arnold police station, where I was handed the logbook. At 7:40 the previous evening, it reported, two police officers had searched the 1600 block of Horne Boulevard for a “three-foot lizard.”
I talked with the patrolman who interviewed the witness, a Glen C. (name withheld by request), a man in his 40′s and the first adult witness.
At 3:00 p.m. the Valley News Dispatch hit the stands complete with a front-page story, headlined “green thing sparks rumors”, that made light of the scare. Reading it, I reflected that not only would no witness in his right mind ever report a sighting after this, but previous witnesses would probably begin reneging their testimony!
By the next day a fresh rumor was circulating. This one claimed that the creature had been captured by the police who delivered it to the Pittsburgh Zoo. It was an iguana.
In reality, of course, iguanas, like other reptiles, are cold-blooded animals. Any reptile subjected to that week’s cold weather (between the high 20′s and low 30′s) would have become sluggish in very short order, then turned immobile before entering a state of deep hibernation. In any case all local police departments denied the iguana story.
Shortly after six o’clock I was back at the site when suddenly a “Green Monster” approached me and asked, “What’s up, Doc?” while chewing on a candy bar. It was a kid, about nine or
10, wearing tennis shoes and a T-shirt emblazoned with a green thing with a drooping tongue. The words provided positive identification: “Green Monster, Arnold, Pa.” He told me he had just bought the shirt at a local department store where they were selling like hotcakes.
Four hours later, on a final visit, I found a crowd of excited men bent forward and staring at something on the ground: a six-inch print with three toes. The men began pouring the plaster for the cast. I hadn’t the heart to tell them that it looked very much as if a dog had slid in the mud and erosion had mutilated the print.
It was a dinosaur-type thing, but yet —” Sherry Coover paused as she sought the right words. “It was human, a child. Definitely not an animal.”
I was impressed. I had done nothing to lead my star witness. I had not placed words or impressions into her mind. But her remark that it was “human, not an animal,” substantiated what the other witnesses had said.
“It must really fear people, the way it took off so quickly when we approached it,” the 23-year-old brunette said when we talked on Monday, May 11, nine weeks after her sighting. “I won’t give you their names but I saw some kids douse it with gasoline and set it aflame. Disgusting! Good thing
most of the gas went everywhere but on this creature. So it wasn’t really hurt.”
Sherry Coover, her brother Mike, 18, daughter Sandy, four, and acquaintance Robert Stoner, 17, had their encounter on that fateful Sunday, March 1, at approximately 11:00 P.M. Until now they had told no one but close friends and family.
It was fortunate that Sherry and I have a mutual friend: Joe Spano, owner of Spano’s Tropical Breeze, Arnold’s finest and only pet store. Spano steered me to this all-important, multiple-witness episode.
“My daughter saw it first — and screamed,” Sandy related. “It was standing upright in one of those large
garbage-dumpster thingamajigs — you know, those square jobs with twin lids. It was picking up food, I guess.
“We all got a good look at it before it jumped out of the dumpster and took off on all fours. Could it ever move fast! We followed it as fast as we could. The whole area is lit up pretty good to cut down on the crime rate. It disappeared down this drainpipe.”
The “dumpster” was located right along Fifth Ave., right in the heart of town, alongside a housing project — and, yes, right along a single railroad line, a spur leading from the industrial district bordering the Allegheny River to a convenient railroad switching area frequented by bored adolescents nearly every Saturday.