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Why a Boston lawyer bankrolled Bigfoot researcher

(Ryan Huddle/Globe Staff)

The FBI captured the imagination of the nation last week when the bureau released 22 pages of documents concerning the origin of 15 unidentified hairs and tissue sent to the agency by a renowned Bigfoot researcher.

The documents, which date back to the 1970s, include a letter from Peter Byrne, director of the Bigfoot Information Center and Exhibition in Oregon, asking if the FBI would analyze some mysterious samples — “the first that we have obtained in six years which we feel may be of importance” — that he suspected of belonging to a Sasquatch.

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The bottom of the type-written note revealed Byrne’s sponsor: The Academy of Applied Science, Boston, Massachusetts.

That’s right. Boston. Birthplace of the American Revolution. Home of the Celtics, the Red Sox, the Bruins, and apparently, Bigfoot benefactors.

The Academy of Applied Science was founded in 1963 by intellectual property lawyer Robert Rines. A nonprofit dedicated to promoting science and technology, the academy was based out of Rines’s home on India Wharf, on Boston’s waterfront, at the time, and supplied Byrne with more than $1 million in his quest to prove the existence of the hairy hominid.

The New England lawyer was better known, however, for his fascination with another cryptid: the fabled Loch Ness monster.

Rines, who died in 2009, was a polymath. He held more than 80 patents for his inventions. He founded Franklin Pierce Law Center, the first law school in New Hampshire. He taught patent law at Harvard and MIT, his alma mater. In his spare time, he composed music for Broadway and off-Broadway shows. He even won an Emmy.

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But the Loch Ness monster was his obsession. It all started when he was vacationing in Scotland in 1972. Looking through a telescope, he eyed “a large, darkish hump . . . with rough, mottled skin, like the back of an elephant,” according to The New Yorker. And so the decades-long chase began.

Rines was relentless in his pursuit of the mythic Scottish monster. In the fall of 1970, as the Globe reported, he tried to lure Nessie to the surface with “sexual stimulants” — tape recordings of the mating and eating rituals of various fish and aquatic mammals — dropped into the depths of her watery lair. Needless to say, Nessie resisted temptation.

For later expeditions, Rines collaborated with MIT’s famed Harold “Doc” Edgerton to attempt underwater photographs of the monster. He enlisted a pair of camera-mounted dolphins for another mission, but called it off when one tragically died. In the ’90s, he turned to high-powered US Navy sonar technology.

“He brought a lot of respectability to the field,” said Loren Coleman, founder of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine. “He had credibility. He wasn’t some crackpot. He wasn’t some fly-by-night person that just threw money at it. He was long-term.”

Coleman crossed paths with Rines many times throughout their careers. They started corresponding in the ’80s over their shared affinity for cryptozoology. In July 1999, Coleman said, he ran into Rines eating breakfast in the village of Drumnadrochit on the west shore of Loch Ness. The men were in Scotland on separate expeditions.

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Rines must have been impressed with Byrne’s Bigfoot credentials, Coleman said.

Byrne was one of the so-called Four Horsemen of Sasquatchery, known for their pioneering research of the Bigfoot phenomenon between the ’50s and ’70s.

A former serviceman for the British Royal Air Force, Byrne made a name for himself as a successful big-game hunter in Nepal before embarking on his career as an international Sasquatch researcher. (“Hunter” is a common misnomer for Byrne, who stood firmly in the “no-kill” camp of Bigfoot seekers.)

Rines was just one of the wealthy financiers bankrolling Byrne’s pricey Bigfoot expeditions across the Pacific Northwest and the Himalayas. On one such trip to Nepal in 1958, financed by Texas oilman Tom Slick, Byrne swiped a finger from the “Pangboche hand,” the supposed mummified remains of a yeti, from a Buddhist monastery. With help from actor Jimmy Stewart and his wife, Gloria, the finger was smuggled to the United Kingdom. (Scientists analyzed the finger’s DNA in 2011. The results? Human.)

With Rines’s backing, Byrne founded the Bigfoot Information Center and Exhibition in The Dalles, Ore. By 1976, the center had logged 94 “credible” Bigfoot sightings, The New York Times reported at the time.

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That same year, the newly released FBI documents show, Byrne wrote to the bureau asking if it would examine the hairs and tissue he was unable to identify. Surprisingly, the FBI agreed.

It turned out that the samples were “of deer family origin,” the FBI said.

Byrne didn’t give up. With a $1 million, five-year grant from Rines’s Academy of Applied Science, Byrne started the Bigfoot Research Project, also in Oregon, in the early 1990s. The money from Rines allowed Byrne to hire two assistants “to help him launch the most high-tech monster search the world has ever seen,” as the Chicago Tribune put it in 1995. Byrne even operated a toll-free number, 1-800-BIGFOOT, that callers could use to report possible Sasquatch sightings or unusually large footprints.

Rines “felt there were new animals to be discovered on the land, in the air, and in the sea,” Coleman said. “He felt deep down . . . he wanted to support those efforts.”

Byrne, who is 93, told The Washington Post last week he’s actually never seen a Bigfoot. And Rines never recaptured that moment of joy and wonder when he believed he spotted Nessie on his vacation to Scotland in 1972. Rines died of heart failure at the age of 87. Toward the end of his life, he was convinced all Loch Ness monsters had perished, lamenting in interviews the creatures had gone extinct due to global warming.

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Any future quest for the legendary beasts, he believed, would only turn up their bones.


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.