© Kainaz Amaria | TimesA replica cast of a reported Bigfoot footprint makes the size 8 feet of Betzโ€™s nephew Justin Gant, 13, look petite
Midnight, March 5. A young man drives toward U.S. 19 on Gulf Trace Boulevard in Holiday. He turns on his high beams where the road curves along some woods, just past the recreation center. His lights catch a pair of yellowish eyes, then a broad-shouldered figure, 8 or 9 feet tall, covered in brown hair. The creature freezes before running to the tree line. It stops to look back at the car. The young man pulls over 20 feet away. There are no other vehicles on the road. He can now see the creature from the shoulders up. The man doesn't know why, but he thinks to yell, "Hi!" No answer. The creature disappears into the woods. Believe it?

The young man sure seemed convincing when he reported the sighting to the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization. It dispatched Cathy Betz, an investigator who lives in Land O'Lakes. Her job is to separate hoaxes from actual Bigfoot sightings in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.

She's never seen a Bigfoot herself, but she is convinced they exist. Someday, she says, we'll get proof. Meanwhile, she'll keep her day job: saving lives as a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa.

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Betz, 45, has believed in the cryptid ever since she was a little girl growing up in Florida and her father took her to see the 1972 docudrama The Legend of Boggy Creek. She read up on the subject, exploring evidence, and she became convinced that something was really out there. In 2003 she joined the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization.

She has been a nurse for 25 years. At first, she was reluctant to tell the other nurses at about her new hobby. She just told them her weeklong absences were spent on camping trips. Eventually she let slip that she was attending training expeditions with the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization.

They gave her some ribbing, but she didn't hold their agnosticism against them.

"I don't expect anybody to believe it," she says. "I don't disrespect you for that."

She enjoys the trips as a way to explore the outdoors with a group of interesting and like-minded people, she says. They sleep in tents, look around for signs of Bigfoot, and get training in tracking and hair identification.

"I never imagined myself doing this kind of thing 10 years ago," Betz says. "But I love it."

She has been on four expeditions in Florida and one in North Carolina, and she is now on another in Utah. It was on the North Carolina expedition in 2008 that she had her closest encounter with Sasquatch.

At least she believes it was Sasquatch. It could have been a bear. Something walked around the tent, touching the fabric and grunting.

"I can't say with certainty what it was," Betz said, "but it was in a place with a lot of sightings."

She has collected animal skulls from her various outings, many of which now decorate her home at the end of a dirt road in Land O'Lakes. In her big leafy yard, another skull hangs on a cross of sticks - leftover Halloween decorations, she says. Her bathroom is decorated with enormous exotic bugs that she bought on eBay and framed. She awakes in the morning to crowing roosters and the chirps of her pet parakeet, Skittles.

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Two days after the Holiday man said he saw a swamp monster, Betz met him at the scene. She compared his story to the version he submitted to the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization online. It was consistent.

They searched for tracks but didn't find any. He told her he was sure he had not seen a bear or a human.

Betz's notes are secret, she says, in order to protect the witnesses. She says the young man from Holiday did not want to be identified for this article. She considers her role to be much like what a police investigator does.

"We don't want to be considered like a fluff organization," she says. "In order to be taken seriously, we feel like we should separate out the stories that don't pan out."

As part of her investigations, she often cross-check facts, such as if the witness says it was a full moon. And she examines the area, looking for tracks, hair and other clues. She knows all about inspecting footprints for dermal ridges and mid-tarsal breaks.

"We're really a research- and science-based organization trying to get as much evidence as we can," she says. "We don't want people to think that we're just throwing everything out there that we get."

Based on reported sightings, Betz believes Bigfoot creatures are much like many other Floridians - they leave for the summer. They tend to travel in nuclear families, she says. They eat fish and berries; they kill deer by breaking their back legs, slitting them down the gut, and extracting the liver.

She estimates there are 5,000 to 10,000 of them across the continent.

Scientists doubt that.

"The scientific community is sympathetic to the possibility, but there isn't a whole lot of concrete evidence that is causing a lot of scientists to give up their current research projects and go out looking for (Bigfoot)," said David Daegling, an anthropology professor at the University of Florida and author of Bigfoot Exposed: An Anthropologist Examines America's Enduring Legend. "The problem with eyewitness testimony is that it can't stand on its own from the standpoint of scientific evidence of an uncataloged animal being out there."

Henry Cabbage, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said Bigfoot's existence has not been confirmed. But the agency does keep a file on the subject, which includes news clippings and letters from people requesting permits to go out and catch one.

So, feeling spurned by the scientific establishment, Bigfoot believers have developed their own systems for collecting and corroborating evidence. They have formal reports, credibility ratings, training expeditions and special investigators, like Florida's own Cathy Betz.

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When Betz completed her report on the Holiday Bigfoot, it was classified as Class A - the highest rating of credibility, meaning it was unlikely, based on the observer's conditions, that some other animal was mistaken for a Bigfoot. The report joined the more than 3,700 others posted to the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization's Web site.

"Thousands of people for hundreds of years have been seeing something out there and are describing pretty much the same thing," she said. "Most people don't have anything to lose or to gain, but they're still coming forward."

But the physical proof is still rather scant, and Betz knows this. Photographs and videos are tenuous, and hair samples and footprints are suspect.

(By contrast, there are just 100 Florida panthers, and one of them was caught on video two weeks ago.)

"It's going to take a body," Betz says.

Why has no one found one yet?

Betz says it's possible that the Bigfoot bury their dead. She thinks there are bones, but they're probably sitting unidentified in a museum somewhere.

Bears are hit by cars or shot by hunters in Florida all the time. Why not Bigfoot? Betz said there was once a Bigfoot hit by a car in the Everglades, but it escaped to the swamp.

But when a carcass is found, and Betz is confident one will be, all those people who make fun of her now will be believers, too.

She just hopes the species will be protected.

"Once it's established that it's out there, we're afraid of what's going to happen," she said, fearing poachers or the government. "It's going to be a circus."