In 1966, Ralph Turner was a 27-year-old reporter at the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, writing stories about city politics and crime that would lay the groundwork for a distinguished journalism career.

On a chilly November night that year, Turner was sent out, on what seemed at the time like a wild goose chase, to do a story that lives on to this day.

He spent a few hours in a Mason County field under cover of dark waiting for a chance encounter with the Mothman.

This weekend at the Fifth Annual Mothman Festival, Turner will recount the time he spent investigating sightings of the creature in the Point Pleasant area and his part in one of the most best-known mysteries in Mountain State history.

It's a story Turner once pledged he wasn't going to tell anymore.

But the monster, or the myth at least, has a hold on him.

"No matter what I did in my career as a professor or all my years as a reporter, this is what follows me," Turner said. "I decided a year ago I wasn't going to talk about it again, but I shouldn't have done that. I almost gave it up, but you can't. Mothman won't go away."

Turner, an award-winning journalist and retired Marshall University professor, has for years told his tales to Boy Scout troops and Rotary Clubs. They tend to capture an audience's imagination, not because he has any real answers about the mystifying red-eyed creature, but because he has first-hand experience of what it was like when the monster captivated an entire town.

He went to Point Pleasant that night in 1966 not really knowing what to expect.

"I had one of those tough city editors," Turner recalls. "He called me up and told me to go up there and check out the nonsense. He didn't believe in it at all."

Turner didn't either. Well, not really.

"It seemed unrealistic that it was some sort of Mothman thing, so the challenge was to find out what was going on," he said. "I didn't think there could be such a thing, but I do remember I stopped at my house on the way and got a ball bat. Just in case."

Turner and a photographer from the newspaper made the hour-long drive from Huntington to Point Pleasant in an old Ford Bronco.

"It was foggy around the river," he says. "It looked like Dracula-type weather all along Route 2. It was misty and foggy and damp."

The duo set up shop near the abandoned powerhouse in Point Pleasant, known as the TNT area. It was the place where most of the Mothman sightings, which numbered 10 or so at that time, had occurred.

Even at 10 o'clock at night, the spot was crowded with people hoping to catch a glimpse of the monster.

"There were people still stirring, and we just set up some railroad ties there, and we kind of camped out with our reporters' pads and cameras," Turner said. "We stayed up all night and didn't see anything."

The story didn't end there, of course. Turner took it upon himself to try and find the source of the weird phenomenon.

He called a biology professor at West Virginia University, and wound up writing the first report that attempted to solve the mystery and explain the sightings as something other than the supernatural.

A story -- "That Mothman? Would You Believe a Sandhill Crane?" -- appeared that week in the Herald-Dispatch with Turner's byline. Nonbelievers still tout the story today as proof that the Mason County myth is based on a bird.

In an interview with Turner and with local police, biologist Robert Smith said descriptions of the Mothman perfectly matched those of a sandhill crane, a huge winged bird usually found in the Deep South and in Canada.

Smith said he thought one of the animals, with its seven-foot wingspan and ringed, fleshy red eyes, might have gotten caught in a corner of West Virginia while trying to migrate further north.

Turner's story temporarily stalled furious speculation in Point Pleasant, but the crane explanation didn't hold up for long.

"I figured, case closed, people saw a bird," Turner said. "I think there's a logical reason for everything, and it was the most logical conclusion I know of that anybody has offered. Obviously, a lot of people didn't agree with me."

Turner says he only wrote, at most, a handful of stories about the Mothman sightings, but he has become one of the central characters in the story that's now known nationwide and that became the basis for a blockbuster movie just a few years ago.

"I started getting calls from friends telling me that someone had done a book in Indiana or somewhere and I was known in it as the Mothman reporter," Turner said. "The movie was a real stretch. I like to kid that Richard Gere played my part."

Turner will be a keynote speaker in this weekend's Mothman Festival, an event that's growing each year and is expected to attract as many as 5,000 monster fans and paranormal experts from all over the country.

He isn't planning on publicizing the fact he still believes the legend of the Mothman probably was born by people witnessing the frenzied fight for freedom of a lost bird.

"I don't think they're going to change it to the Sandhill Crane Festival," Turner quipped. "For years in Point Pleasant, they didn't know much about it. The movie has had to do with a lot of it, but they have a lot of fun with it."

In one of his news stories about the Mothman, Turner turned speculative about whether the mystery might ever be solved. He seemed to have fairly accurate foresight of how the incident would forever change the county.

"Just what was seen in the dark that night may never be firmly established," he wrote in a Nov. 22, 1966 story. "The Mason County monster may become a legend. Maybe a new tourist attraction has been born."

Contact writer Kris Wise at or 348-1244.