10 Years Later The Montauk Monster Is Still a Weird, Gross, Dark Mystery

The Montauk Monster

The Montauk Monster Eli Neugeboren for Observer

The Montauk Monster began its reign of terror in July 2008, when the ghastly creature washed up on the shore of Ditch Plains, a popular surfing beach on the Montauk peninsula.

Three young women claimed to have first spotted the beast at the tail end of New York’s Long Island, and snapped a photo of the bloated, bruised carcass that appeared to have been scorched by the sun. Or maybe it was fire. The photo would would soon fascinate and revolt the millions who laid their unfortunate eyes upon it, after Gawker published the image in an 87-word blog post that set that internet ablaze.

Was it a pitbull mercilessly defeated in an illicit dogfight? An escaped mutant from a mysterious animal disease research center on nearby Plum Island? A raccoon robbed of its fur in a postmortem tumble through the sea? A turtle without its shell? But turtles don’t have teeth, and dogs don’t have dinosaur beaks. All anyone could agree on was that they had never seen anything like the Montauk Monster before.

Like most of us, I first saw the photo by way of the Gawker story. I don’t remember doubting for a second that the creature in the photo existed; whatever it might be, it was real. At the time, all that I cared to know was What in tarnation is this thing? And then, later: Where is it?

Then and now, the story of the Montauk Monster is a slippery one; to try and make sense of it is like trying to hold a cupful of sand in your fist. To the best of our knowledge, the infamous photo was taken on July 12, 2008. It’s been credited to Jenna Hewitt, who was joined by her friends Rachel Goldberg and Courtney Fruin when they reportedly stumbled on the carcass during a leisurely day at the beach. It would be two weeks before the beast landed on the radar of New York City media; the Gawker post was published on July 29. In that brief period of relative quiet, tales of Viking funerals, grave-robbings, and alleged Photoshop hijinks whispered among the shadows of the Montauk dunes, away from the spotlight’s glare. Few of us may ever know for sure what really happened. But we know this: By the time the proverbial sirens came blaring, someone had time to hide the body.

As best we can tell it, this is the story of the Montauk Monster.

***

The byline on the Gawker post belonged to one Richard Lawson, now Vanity Fair’s chief film critic, but then a twentysomething writer who had moved from Gawker’s advertising sales team just a few months before. A PR agency had sent the soon-to-be famous photo of the Montauk Monster to Anna Holmes of Jezebel, Gawker’s sister site, and she, reportedly believing it was some kind of viral marketing campaign, forwarded it to Larson.

Within minutes of its posting, the story blew up. Drastic understatement: Lawson was surprised. “I thought it was a dead thing that looked weird.”

The grisly story was picked up by national outlets like Fox News, the Huffington Post, and NBC. Experts who weighed in on the Montauk Monster’s identity (one believing it was made of latex) were all working from only the notorious, dubious photo—anyone who wanted to see the beast in the flesh was out of luck. By the time the creature became known as the Montauk Monster, it was already gone.

The locals who spoke to the media in the weeks following the discovery had vague and varied explanations for how and where the carcass disappeared, but shared a unified message: Don’t bother looking—you won’t find it. In early August 2008, an unidentified witness told Newsday that she had heard from people who had seen the monster after it was moved from Ditch Plains to an undisclosed residence.

“Now it’s decomposed and it’s just skull and bones,” the witness said, noting that she’d seen a photo of the creature on some people’s phones, and that it was no bigger than a cat. She didn’t explain how she was able to determine the animal’s scale from those photos, and dodged a reporter’s request to see where the remains were buried. Jenna Hewitt also told Newsday that the carcass was rotting in the woods in the backyard of a “guy” she declined to identify.

Loren Coleman, a veteran cryptozoologist based in Portland, Maine, knew about the Montauk Monster before most of us did — in fact, he named it.

Coleman is also the Director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

Coleman is also the Director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine. Loren Coleman

Coleman told the Observer that he started getting messages from friends and colleagues about the curious carcass after it made the local news on July 23, 2008, but before Gawker picked it up. And he was skeptical, but not for the reason that some of us might be. After all, cryptozoology is a “pseudoscience” that takes folklore like Bigfoot and chupacabras very seriously—and Coleman is at the top of his field. A self-described fan of alliteration, he coined the term “Dover Demon” back in 1977, after a Massachusetts schoolboy swore on a stack of bibles that he saw a devilish creature with glowing eyes and “tendril-like fingers” sitting on a stone wall in the distant Boston suburb. In his field, Coleman has plenty of admirers.

“July 12 is my birthday, and a lot of people all around the world celebrate my birthday and send me all kinds of greetings,” Coleman said. “So I wondered if they were trying to hoax me. I was very suspicious of it in the beginning.”

Coleman said he tried to make arrangements to see the monster for himself. “It wasn’t impossible for me to get to New York,” he said. “I was open to taking a look, but nobody would produce it.”

He tried to make contact with the the three women who took the photo, but just like the carcass, “they seemed to disappear. These people put up a brick wall around themselves.”

I met with this wall in the last few weeks, while trying to dig up some answers. The answers were much harder to come by than I initially, perhaps naively, believed they would be. I reached out to the key players I was able to identify, in an effort to discover what became of the beast after it was taken from its temporary resting place on the shore. Despite many of those same people being more than eager to talk about it from all angles back in ‘08, my inquiries have been largely ignored.

Eric Olsen, a surfer and real estate agent who told the East Hampton Star that he removed the carcass and left it to decompose on his friend’s property so that he could preserve the bones and give it to a fashion photographer for a Damien Hirst-y art project, has not responded to a message I sent on Facebook, the only place I could find him. Neither the fashion photographer nor the reported owner of the property where Olsen left the monster—before it was stolen, he said—have responded to a request for an interview. I briefly corresponded with a man who ran a blog about the Montauk Monster for several years, who eventually said that talking to the media about it “just doesn’t feel the most aligned for me.” He refused to respond to two direct questions asking to confirm that he saw the monster himself, a claim he made on his blog.

I got an email reply from Rachel Goldberg, but her response was less than enthusiastic. Goldberg, who appears to live in Hawaii now, said that talking about the Montauk Monster all these years later wasn’t “a priority” for her and her friends. She signed off her terse message with “Aloha,” which of course means both hello, and goodbye.

***

The summer of 2008 was a cultural tipping point for Montauk: It marked the opening of the Surf Lodge, an ultra-trendy waterfront bar that drew to the once-sleepy beach community a city crowd accustomed to claiming attractive scenery as their own after “discovering” it, regardless of who was there before.

Partygoers gather at the ultra-trendy Surf Lodge.

Partygoers gather at ultra-trendy Surf Lodge. Is one of THEM the Montauk Monster? Could be. Steven Henry/Getty Images for Tinder

In subsequent years, Montauk and neighboring East Hampton (already plundered by hordes of city rats) would be absorbed into mainstream popular culture. First with the network TV drama “Revenge,” which was set in East Hampton and debuted in 2011, and later with the Showtime mystery series “The Affair,” which put the spotlight firmly on Montauk, perhaps to the chagrin of locals who would have preferred to keep their beaches—and their secrets—to themselves.

“The Affair” depicted the year-round residents of Montauk as somewhat tragic and very fucking shady. There’s small-scale drug trafficking, crooked real estate deals, a fatal hit and run, high school nemeses who conveniently end up as your prison guard, and more than one titular infidelity.

Of course, it’s a scripted television show. Still, an acquaintance who I spoke with in the early stages of researching this story told me in what sounded like a warning that Montauk is a place “with a lot of secrets.” Is the true story of the Montauk Monster one of them? Or was the monster a kind of symbolic warning itself, cautioning the Jitney-come-latelies to stay away? And did someone place it there with precisely that intent, to spook the invaders?

A couple of weeks after I first laid eyes on the creature, I would be among the colonizers. In my memory, Montauk was still abuzz with chatter about the mysterious beast. I think I remember talking about it with the shuttle driver from Montauk Manor, who drove us to the beach not far from where the rotting carcass washed up. I definitely remember the surf being so strong that it would fling you facedown in ankle-deep water, dragging your body over the rocky shoreline as you struggled to get to your feet. I could have sworn I remember the Montauk Monster was the topic du jour when I visited friends who had rented a house, that felt like it was miles and miles from the beach. I thought I heard that the owners of the property had somehow claimed the corpse, that it could be anywhere underfoot.

But no one I spoke to who was there at the time remembers it anywhere near the same way I do. If there’s anything consistent in the twisted tale of the Montauk Monster, it’s that people’s recollections of it don’t seem to line up. Is that only a function of the passage of time? Or is everyone hiding…everything? And who, or what, would be spooking them into keeping quiet?

“I like the idea of [the monster] being kind of an omen of what was going to befall Montauk,” Lawson said.

He also said the story almost didn’t happen. Gawker’s founder and CEO Nick Denton had been away on vacation when the photo landed in Lawson’s inbox, and the reporter says he believes the story wouldn’t have been published if Denton had been there to kill it.

“That’s always been my suspicion, because it seemed a little too goofy,” Lawson said. “It didn’t have this edge to it.”

Edge or no, another young reporter was thrilled to get a coveted interview with the three friends who had snapped the photo of the beast.

At the time, Nick Leighton was working for Plum TV, a Hamptons-based cable station that no longer exists. He interviewed Goldberg, Hewitt and Fruin on the patio of the Surf Lodge on July 31, two days after the Gawker story hit.

“It felt like Frost/Nixon,” Leighton said.

He shared a video of the interview with the Observer. The girls have cocktails in front of them, their eyes hiding behind dark sunglasses. They are less than animated as they answer questions about stumbling upon the Montauk Monster, and downright evasive about what happened to the body after it mysteriously vanished.

“They said it was sealed in some kind of a box,” Leighton said. “I was definitely a little suspicious during the interview.”

But in the video, Goldberg has the digital camera they used to take the infamous photo, and shows Leighton that and a second image, from another angle.

Seems pretty legit, but as Leighton pointed out, it’s “not that you can’t upload a photo back into a camera.”

“If I was Today Nick I would have asked that question. 2008 Nick, I just let it go,” he said. “We were all sort of playing our role in the game.”

Part of that game was a conspiracy theory, coyly promoted in the interview, that the Montauk Monster was an escaped experiment from nearby Plum Island, a highly secretive animal research facility that is the subject of sinister rumors. But there’s no evidence that Plum Island has anything to do with the Montauk Monster.

Leighton said he visited the facility about two years later, unrelated to the monster, after deciding to film an episode of a show he was producing at the time on Plum Island. He had to go through a government approval process to bring a crew to the Animal Disease Center, even though they were only given access to the lab with the “lowest level” of security. A pregnant crew member opted out of the trip, on doctor’s orders. Leighton said they were able to bring in food and drink to the island, but that nothing could leave with them—not an even unopened bottle of water.

He’s certain that the Montauk Monster didn’t come from Plum Island.

“The security is such that I feel comfortable eliminating that theory,” Leighton said. It seems inconceivable that they would let their mutants escape.”

Leighton also said he had heard that the Montauk Monster was torched at sea in a Viking funeral. This may have been a reference to an alternate origin story that emerged almost a year after the story first broke.

According to a June 2009 report in Gawker, Drew Grant (formerly an editor at the Observer), wrote a since-deleted post on the now-defunct blog ASSME (“Association of Shitcanned Media Elites”) about meeting up with an old friend who claimed to have created the monster.

The unnamed friend reportedly told Grant that he and some pals had stumbled across a dead raccoon the weekend before the July 4 holiday, when he was cavorting at Shelter Island with activities that included a “waterboarding endurance competition” and a “clothespins-on-your-genitals challenge.”

Gawker provided a detailed argument about the plausibility of the carcass making its way from Shelter Island to where it washed up in Ditch Plains (not very likely but certainly not impossible), and published an image that appeared to show the raccoon corpse on an inflatable tube, which was weighted by a watermelon. Another photo showed the makeshift vessel floating in the water, consumed by fire.

In keeping with all the murky trails leading to and away from the Montauk Monster, Grant’s recollection nine years later varies from the account published in Gawker (taken from Grant’s own post on ASSME that is no longer online.) The old friend credited with the burial-at-sea was actually a patron at a bar where Grant worked that summer. She couldn’t remember his name, she said, but remembered that she promised him never to use it—he was afraid he’d find trouble with animal activists. Grant said she only saw him at the bar a few times after that, and wasn’t sure if he was based on Long Island or in the city.

Grant describes the story of the Montauk Monster as a “shady” one: “It’s going to be one of those mysterious forever,” she said. Still, she found Viking funeral story credible.

“My thought was: This is exactly what happened.”

The cryptozoologist would agree that the story has credibility. Loren Coleman is certain that the Montauk Monster was a decomposing raccoon.

“All you had to do was look at it and know a little bit about zoology, which I do, and you would see that it was barely second-day disintegration and decaying of a [raccoon’s] body,” Coleman said.

He went on to explain in great detail a process he called “skin flipping” that can happen to a body being tossed around in the surf, and purportedly accounts for why the animal’s facial structure appeared distorted —as though it had a beak. In short, the normal decomposition process combined with the movement through rough water can cause “slippage” between the surface skin and the underlying fat.

“It’s disgusting,” Coleman said.

While the cryptozoologist dismissed any of the more fantastical explanations for the Montauk Monster, he believes the story started a trend of cryptid sightings. “Very quickly after that, quote unquote Montauk Monsters started showing up around the world,” Coleman said.

Putting himself at the center of the story paid off: Coleman said that the marketers of Venom Energy drink asked him to provide a quote they used in a campaign to promote a Montauk Monster-themed beverage.

“I turned around and they had paid me $1,000,” Coleman said. “I felt I was cheating them or something.”

Local news reports from the summer of 2008 suggested that some skeptics felt the women who took the photo were possibly trying to cash in themselves. Newsday posed the question to Jenna Hewitt’s father, who dismissed rumors that his daughter and her friends were aiming to turn a profit. There is no indication the women ever earned anything more than comped cocktails at the Surf Lodge for their discovery of the Montauk Monster.

Still, Goldberg told the Observer that she would only consider giving an interview for a fee. She didn’t respond to a follow-up question asking to name her terms.

If the young women’s involvement in the tale of the Montauk Monster really is innocent, as Coleman believes; if they got caught up in a monster media storm through no fault or intention of their own, it’s easy to understand why they might be resentful. Maybe the Montauk Monster is just another local intrigue that the year-rounders tried and failed to keep to themselves.

Looking back to that summer is like peering at Long Island’s easternmost tip through a sepia-toned Instagram filter; the only view of Montauk I can afford in the years that it’s become a lobster roll-filled playground for One Percenters. It’s hard to imagine how the discovery of the Montauk Monster might have played out if it had happened ten years later.

Lawson said he had never been to Montauk before his Gawker post went viral. But the story of the Montauk Monster still haunts him. Lawson said he had opted out of the traffic-based compensation model that Gawker offered at the time; and that if he had been paid on commission he would have made about $9,000 from that one post alone.

“I think I spent the rest of that summer just thinking about that money,” Lawson said.

Asked why he thinks the Montauk Monster’s inner circle clammed up over the years, Lawson was of two minds.

“Maybe there’s a silliness that they don’t want to be associated with,” he said. “Or, they are part of the conspiracy and it really is a monster.”

10 Years Later The Montauk Monster Is Still a Weird, Gross, Dark Mystery