By Brad Reynolds
At a glance, 1975 looked like a great year for American cattle ranchers. Beef production reached its peak at 132 million head—a height the industry had never before seen, nor has since. And for good reason. Feeder cattle prices were the lowest they had been in half a decade. Even so, feedlots were hesitant to buy, as profit prospects were questionable. To make matters worse, hay and feed grain production was down. Input costs rose. Small-scale producers suffered the brunt of these fluctuations, and liquidation became the best option for some. In the summer of 1975, slaughter rose sharply.
But the ranchers weren’t the only ones thinning their herds.
The mid-Seventies marked the beginning of a bizarre phenomenon—a wave of cattle mutilations across the West and Midwest. It began at first with a series of isolated incidents, many of which were written off (by either law enforcement or the ranchers themselves) as attacks by local wildlife. Then a pattern began to form. If this was the work of predators, why didn’t the carcasses exhibit signs of biting or tearing at the flesh? Why did the removal of hide and organs always seem such a precise dissection? Why were there rarely tracks—animal, human, or otherwise—near the remains? And what of the blood—or lack thereof? In many cases, the animal was found exsanguinated.
A panic began to spread.
In October 1975, a Salt Lake City news station reported that 1,600 cattle had been mutilated across 28 states. A $2,000 reward was offered by the Wisconsin Livestock Protective Association for information leading to the arrest and conviction of cattle mutilators. A farmer-vigilante group was formed in Nebraska. In Colorado, Governor Richard D. Lamm issued a statement on the phenomenon, calling it “one of the greatest outrages in the history of the Western cattle industry.”
By Thanksgiving Day, mutilation reports in Montana numbered thirty. Local ranchers were growing restless. Some united to patrol the rural landscape. Others fixated on their Second Amendment rights.
While the federal government was slow to react, the cattlemen’s plight did not go unnoticed by local law enforcement. An investigative task force across five counties (Cascade, Chouteau, Judith Basin, Pondera, and Teton) was established to respond to the problem more effectively.
Leading the charge was Captain Keith Wolverton, a ten-year veteran of the force. In May 1975, he’d transferred to the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office at Great Falls, pledging three weeks to solve the mystery. But months passed, and not one arrest was made, no motive established, and there’d been not one witness to a mutilation actually taking place.
Officers became convinced that the mutilators were tracking their patrols with radio scanners. So, they obtained two unmarked cars and a pickup truck, and equipped them with telephones in an attempt to catch the perpetrators undetected. Six months later, still nothing.
With conventional tactics yielding no results, the investigation took an unconventional turn. Captain Wolverton made a plea to the public: anyone with information on the mutilations—even if it seemed supernatural or absurd—was to report it immediately. They would not be ridiculed. Their reports would not be trivialized. At this point, any lead was welcome.
Captain Wolverton’s appeal was sincere, and an atmosphere of openness quickly permeated the task force. Soon, calls came pouring in about men in black, lights in the sky, and creatures in the night. All were investigated with the upmost seriousness. Montana’s cattle industry was under attack, and no suspect—no matter how unusual—could possibly be overlooked.
Cultists & Copters
Vets were consulted, toxicologists too, and pathologists both local and out-of-state. Evidence from cattle mutilations was sent to an area hospital, along with a number of labs across the country. Even Montana’s state university system lent a hand in analyzing samples.
Some of the greatest minds in the country were working to solve the mystery—along with a handful whose credentials were less than reputable. One such individual was a self-proclaimed ESP expert in Arkansas. He had earlier assisted the Cascade County Sheriff’s Department in connection with a homicide case, so when he wrote Captain Wolverton about the mutilations, Captain Wolverton saw no reason to disregard him.
The man relayed that he had recently attended a UFO conference and that one of the lecturers was an investigator and also a helicopter pilot. The investigator theorized that the mutilations had been perpetrated by a nefarious cult, equipped with helicopters and special shoes that left no tracks.
A wild theory? Sure. But it was about as plausible as anything else the Montana task force had looked into. In fact, there were multiple points to its credit.
For one, if cultists were involved, it might help to explain why the blood was frequently drained and sex organs were removed.
This line of inquiry led the task force to the “Montana Site”—a location near Butte where ritualistic ceremonies were said to be performed. Captain Wolverton and Deputy Ken Anderson personally investigated the site on April 14, 1976, detailing in their report a list of bizarre findings. Most prominent was the discovery of a fire pit with several engraved stones nearby. One had “5-15-29” scratched into it, referring to the numerology of the Devil. Some bore swastikas and pentagrams. Others read “Isis”—the Egyptian goddess of fertility. Her worshipers were known to offer up sacrifices to her… on an altar bearing the symbol of a cow.
Strange incidents around the country supported the idea that cultists were to blame for the mutilations. A Forest Service guard in Idaho spotted two men in black, hooded robes in a county where numerous mutilations had taken place. A sheriff in Colorado found a bag containing a scalpel, surgical gloves, and a bovine penis.
That cultists were behind the mutilations was purely conjecture. The use of helicopters, however, was a theory with legs to stand on.
Early on in the investigation, the Cascade County Sheriff’s Department had considered the possibility of helicopters being used as transportation to and from the mutilation sites. The lack of footprints and the fact that most of the crimes took place on fenced-in property, far from the road seemed to indicate the necessity of an aircraft.
Late in the summer of 1975, a flood of strange helicopter reports hit the Cascade County Sheriff’s Department. Some claimed they saw helicopters that could not be heard. Others could hear the helicopters but not see them. In several cases, witnesses reported that their dogs—which ordinarily barked in the presence of an unknown vehicle—fell silent in the aircraft’s presence.
As the reports continued to pour in, Malmstrom Air Force Base was contacted to help sift through the information. In most cases, Air Force officials reported that the helicopter sighted was not their own.
On December 3, 1975, officers tried in vain to pursue a series of unmarked helicopters across multiple counties in a span of two hours and forty minutes. A Teton County law officer was the first to sight one of the crafts, which was heading east from Dutton toward Fort Benton. Another helicopter was spotted in Teton County, this one heading west. Then another north of Great Falls. Then two more at Conrad. Malmstrom’s Wing Security verified that indeed there had been unidentified helicopters in the area. (To their concern, several aircrafts had been spotted above missile sites.)
Cascade County Sheriff’s Deputy Arne Sand, who had witnessed many strange things over the course of the year, wrote in his report that night: “The office sent me north of Great Falls chasing lights in the sky again.”
On October 10, 1975, a veterinarian who had assisted the task force in their investigation was driving south of Bowman’s Corner when he noticed red and white lights in the sky. He noted that the object (or objects) would travel some distance in utter darkness before once again turning the lights back on. In his report of the incident, he said that the cattle in the area began bawling “louder than [he had] ever heard.”
Between the year’s reports of unmarked helicopters and other unidentified aircrafts, Montanans were paying a lot closer attention to their skies. Initially, the five-county task force was unsure of any correlation between the cattle mutilations and reports of strange aircrafts; however, as the investigation dragged on, a connection seemed probable.
In more than half of the state’s mutilation cases between 1975 and 1977, a helicopter or UFO was independently reported within a forty-mile radius of the crime scene, within three days.
On October 18, 1975, local law enforcement, with the assistance of Base Operations at Malmstrom, followed up on a series of UFO sightings reported between 9pm and 7:45 the following morning. At 4:20am on October 19, the Cascade County Sheriff’s Department responded to a call from the sheriff’s office at Shelby. Multiple officers reported seeing a UFO traveling at a high velocity between 2,000 and 5,000 feet. Both Malmstrom and NORAD confirmed that it was not a conventional aircraft. At 4:53am, a Shelby officer was close enough to report a visual. He described it as a “white light, red flame after, green light on top, red light on both sides.” As the object headed west, an officer patrolling in Power caught sight of it and chased it to Dutton before it shot straight up and set a course north toward Conrad. A UFO (though not necessarily the same one) was also sighted that night by Montana Fish and Game officials near Conrad and by Air Force personnel near Cascade. The Air Force officials, who claimed to be within a mile of the object as it passed overhead, described the UFO as having similar features to those reported by officers at Shelby, with one addition: a flame and a lightning bolt emanated from its underside.
UFO descriptions varied widely from one case to the next. A couple in Teton County reported an egg-shaped vehicle with two arms making a continual breast-stroke motion. A Fairfield rancher and his two sons pulled over in their pickup to watch a “hotel size” UFO and four smaller ones through a pair of field glasses. In the statement he gave to local law enforcement, the rancher stated there appeared to be a helicopter with flashing red lights approaching:
“We said, ‘Well, here comes a helicopter to look at this stuff.’ So it came right over the field and no helicopter. And then my boy said, ‘That ain’t no helicopter; it’s just another one of those, isn’t it?’ And I said, ‘Yes, it is.’”
Despite variances in the UFOs’ features, there were consistent characteristics across the majority of cases. Most reports described the objects as incredibly bright—either from lights, fire, electricity, or a combination of the three—which is not exactly surprising, given that they were most often spotted at night. There are some, however, who have extrapolated what these characteristics could mean in the greater context of the cattle mutilation phenomenon.
On October 15, 1975, a cow was found mutilated near Belt—the sixth in the area that year. The left jaw was skinned, tongue excised, and right eye removed. There were no footprints. The pasture was securely locked.
Cuts to the animal’s jaw and eye were believed to have been made with a serrated edge—a consistent feature in most mutilation cases thus far. A Montana medical pathologist and a respected veterinary pathologist in Colorado both examined samples of previously mutilated carcasses, corroborating the theory that the cuts were made with a serrated instrument; though what instrument they could not say. Officers tried to replicate the cut pattern with several tools—pinking scissors, a leather stitcher, even a pizza cutter—but no result was identical.
After the initial examination at Belt, the carcass was transported to the Sheriff’s office at Great Falls for further examination. It was there that a unique discovery was made; not only were the cuts consistent with those of a serrated edge, they exhibited burns.
Examiners puzzled over this development. Was the cow cut with a hot blade? Were the cuts burned after the fact in an attempt to destroy evidence? What did it mean?
As the ramifications were considered, a visitor popped in. Taking interest, he asked to view the carcass, and the examiners obliged.
He recognized the cut pattern. He’d seen it many times
This type of edge was produced by a laser.
The Nightmare After Christmas
The phenomena came in waves. Throughout 1975, cattle mutilations increased in frequency. Then there were numerous reports of unidentified helicopters. Then UFOs.
Beginning on December 26, 1975, a new wave of bizarre sightings flooded in. Late that afternoon at Vaughn, two junior high school girls noticed that the horses nearby were stamping their hooves and rearing up wildly. When the girls approached to see what had spooked the herd, they spotted a stout, seven-foot creature 200 yards out. One of the girls, using the scope of a .22 rifle, got a better look. She described the creature’s face as “dark and awful looking and not like a human’s.” After firing twice into the air, she and her friend ran to safety. Looking over her shoulder, she spotted several more creatures in a nearby thicket.
On December 27, Captain Wolverton, Undersheriff Glenn Osborne, and Deputy Dick Gasvoda investigated the scene.
No evidence was found and no creatures either; although,
an attempt to “flush them out” of the nearby brush was made. The officers could not determine what had scared the girls,
but what they could verify was the girls’ sincerity. Both passed a polygraph.
While investigating the property, the officers questioned the father of the girl who lived there. He had not been around at the time of the sighting, but he mentioned that on Christmas morning he had awakened to a godawful screaming—like a man dying an agonizing death. He took a rifle and flashlight to investigate, but found nothing. His dog refused to go with him.
Large, hairy creatures continued to be reported throughout 1976. Some described what they’d seen as “Bigfoot.” Others believed these creatures to be aliens. Several reports mentioned a disturbing cry.
At approximately 4:30am on April 4, 1976, a 16-year-old Helena boy awoke and, unable to go back to sleep, looked out his window at the family pasture. At about 5am, he saw a tall, hairy creature walk across the meadow, taking large strides and moving its head from side to side as if looking for something.
A local newspaper reported that the boy had described the creature as being ten feet in height, but when Captain Wolverton and Deputy Anderson questioned him about it, he was adamant that he’d been misquoted and that the creature was only eight feet tall.
He told the officers that when the creature was directly east of the house, it was met by a second, shorter creature. The taller one reached down and picked up a large, dark object with something flapping from the ends of it. The taller creature handed the object to the shorter one and then started lumbering in the direction of the house. When it was within 100 feet, it stopped and looked up at the boy in the window.
Terrified, the boy ran downstairs and woke his father, but when they returned to the window, there was no sign of either creature or the strange object.
The next day, the boy’s sister found a track in the pasture. They made a plaster cast of it, which the officers used to make one of their own. It measured 17.5 inches long and 7 inches wide.
The boy drew for the officers three sketches of the creatures. He relayed that he’d been getting made fun of at school for what he’d seen, but the officers reassured him. In his official report, Captain Wolverton wrote: “I believe that he did see what he reported.”
In a phone conversation with a man writing a book on similar sightings, Captain Wolverton was told that the creatures had been spotted across the U.S. They were said to smell like rotten eggs, have the ability to become transparent, and could be shot at without being harmed.
Each investigation yielded new clues, but making heads or tails of them was something else entirely.
By the end of 1977, cattle mutilations and related phenomena began to peter out. After years of investigation by the Montana task force, the mystery was no closer to being solved. Theories among the officers—and the general public—ran the gamut from “aliens did it” to “it’s just magpies.” Some believed that the U.S. government was responsible, and that the episode had all been part of a top-secret bio-warfare project. One woman, who was interviewed by authorities in Montana, claimed that it was a group of rich people paying the downtrodden as much as $1,000 for animal parts.
Fingers were pointed in many directions, including back at the ranchers whose cattle had been mutilated. The idea was that they had orchestrated the phenomenon themselves due to the poor cattle market. Rather than send their cattle to slaughter or to a feedlot for meager profits (or a potential loss), they could claim destruction of property and receive a payout from livestock insurance.
It was a flimsy theory and an insult to injury as far as
the ranchers were concerned. The whole ordeal, paired with the turbulent economic conditions and restrictive policies of the decade, solidified in many ranchers a distrust of the federal government.
After years of public pressure, the FBI finally launched an investigation (dubbed “Operation Animal Mutilation”) in May 1979. The investigation was headed by FBI agent Kenneth Rommel, who expressed immediate distaste for the assignment and in December 1979 told Taos Magazine he had reached his conclusions right after taking the job. In June 1980, he submitted a 297-page report which, in short, concluded that the mutilations were predominantly the result of natural predation.
With that, the federal investigation came to a close.
…But the mutilations have continued.
From 2001-2002, some twenty cattle were found mutilated in Montana.
In 2006, a mutilated cow was found in Pondera County. An impact mark in the soil nearby seemed to suggest that its body had been dropped from a considerable height—and bounced.
In 2010, a cow was found in Meagher County with its tongue and udder removed, flesh and tissue scraped to the bone.
There were only a few drops of blood nearby.
“Everybody’s got a theory,” said Sheriff Jon Lopp, who investigated the scene. “I’m still as confused as I was when I started.”