Photographer recounts Tahoe April Fool’s monster
April 1, 2009
Before Tribune photographer Jim Grant came to the paper in June 1992, he worked at the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, where he participated in a little April Fool’s prank.
Grant said he collaborated on the prank with James Robbins, who was the Bonanza’s news editor at the time. The two discussed either a lake monster prank, or a Bigfoot sighting on Mount Rose. Since Grant could not locate an ape costume over the weekend, they decided to go with their lake monster plan.
After work on a Monday evening, Grant went to Raley’s and bought a toy brontosaurus. He went home and tied a weight to the toy dinosaur with an old shoestring. He took the figurine down behind the Bonanza’s office, and used a whole roll of film to photograph the “monster” in the water.
Grant said his goal was to imitate the famous blurry, grainy photo of the Loch Ness Monster.
The story ran on the front page, above the fold, in the April 1, 1992 edition.
“We thought it was so outlandish no one would believe it was true,” Grant said this week. “Not putting ‘April Fools’ at the end of the story was a big mistake in hindsight.”
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Another mistake was not informing the publisher of the prank.
Jeff Ackerman, the Bonanza’s publisher at the time, said he was surprised to learn about the story, because he wasn’t in on the joke.
“First lesson … never surprise the publisher,” Ackerman said.
Grant said Ackerman wasn’t happy because instead of reporting the news, the Bonanza became the news.
“We were spending more time answering calls, and doing interviews than reporting,” Grant said.
The story ran the same day the Bonanza switched from mail to home delivery, so half the calls were from people who didn’t receive their paper, and the other half were calling about the lake monster article. He helped field his share of about 400 calls.
“I got a call from a woman who said the story traumatized her dogs, since she took them to the lake each morning. ‘Lady,’ I told her. ‘The bigger story is that your dogs read the Bonanza,'” Ackerman said.
The Bonanza ran a retraction in its next edition, explaining how the story and photo were an April Fool’s prank.
Some elementary school children were scared by the story, according to the retraction, and a real estate agent said the story hurt potential housing sales because his clients thought there really was a monster in the lake. Others thought the story was hilarious.
It didn’t take long for The Sacramento Bee to pick up the story, or for the television networks to investigate the ruckus on the North Shore. Grant said he still has a videotape of an interview he did for one of the Reno news networks.
“It took awhile for the things to settle down, but there isn’t much else happening in Incline Village when the weather isn’t good enough for golf,” said Ackerman, who is now publisher of The Union in Grass Valley.
Grant hasn’t seen the toy dinosaur since. It used to sit at the reception desk in the Bonanza’s office, but then it was donated to the Tahoe Tessie’s Lake Tahoe Monster Museum in Kings Beach.
Many of the residents taken in by the story blamed the photo. Grant said a few of his friends told him they originally thought the story was real because of the picture.
“These were pre-Photoshop days,” Grant said. “Pictures didn’t lie. What you saw was what happened.”
Grant occasionally teaches a photojournalism class at Lake Tahoe Community College, and he uses the Lake Tahoe monster photo as a lesson for his students.
The photo is still the most controversial image Grant has ever shot.
“At least I’ll be remembered for something,” Grant said.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the April 1, 1992, edition of the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza. The story was a fabrication meant to be an April Fool’s Day prank. Readers may have been tipped off by names in the story, including John Hoaks (hoax) and Joseph Kerr (Joe Kerr or joker).
By James Robbins
NLTB News Editor
U.S. Coast Guard officials pulled an Incline Village man from the frigid waters of Lake Tahoe Monday evening after his tiny motor boat was swamped by what witnesses described as a 75-foot, green lizard with a long neck.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Donald Fein. “It was this hideous looking thing with huge scales covering its body. … I’ve been boating and swimming in Tahoe since 1955, but I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Fein, 52, said he was taking a leisurely cruise in his aluminum boat along Tahoe’s East Shore Monday when the beast leaped 10 feet out of the water and crashed down on top of the boat. The boat bent in half under the weight of the serpent and sank to the bottom, he said.
Fein and his pit bull fell into the water and began swimming for shore, he said. The monster circled the two about three times, Fein said, before it closed in. It brushed by Fein and swallowed the dog in one bite. Fein said he was sad that his dog was eaten, but thankful that he was only slightly harmed.
Incline paramedics who responded to the call said Fein’s side looked like someone had rubbed it with “coarse sandpaper.”
Joseph Kerr of Kings Beach, said he was fishing on the East Shore that evening when he saw Fein’s boat get swamped.
“I was watching him drive by in his boat, then I looked away for a minute,” Kerr said. “When I looked back … his boat was underwater and I saw this thing that looked like a giant green tail go underwater.”
Kerr grabbed his camera, which he said he always brings on fishing trips, and when the beast resurfaced he managed to get a few blurry pictures of it swimming along a surface.
Kerr said he then ran to Sand Harbor state park where rangers called the Coast Guard in Tahoe City.
“We were a bit skeptical at first,” said Chief Petty Officer John Hoaks. “We get people calling in all the time who say they’ve seen Tahoe Tessie (a mythical, friendly monster) in the lake. But a man in the water and a sunken boat, we had no choice but to respond. … I mean, you’ve only got a few minutes in that cold water before hypothermia sets in.”
By the time the Coast Guard boat reached the scene, Fein had already made it to shore.
Hoaks said they began to place buoys around the sunken boat, so it could later be salvaged, when the animal returned. “It swam right under our boat,” he said. “It must have been 75 feet long. You know, I never believed any of the stories about monsters in the lake were true. … But now I’ve seen it.”
Researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno and the Tahoe Research Group in Tahoe City were called to the site to investigate.
Dr. Tae Kin of UNR said there was much evidence at the scene to indicate that such a monster does exist.
“Divers found what appeared to be a six-inch long tooth and the scale from a very large fish,” he said. The finds were taken back to UNR for further study.
Kin also noted that his file of Tahoe monster stories has grown immensely over the past few years, but this was the first concrete evidence he has seen to confirm the stories.
According to eyewitness accounts, he said, the monster is typically described as being anywhere from 50 to 100 feet long, dark brown to greenish in color, and serpentine in shape with a larger body and a head similar to a lizard’s.
Most of the stories in Kin’s file have been kept from the public, he said, to prevent widespread panic. But we now think the public has a right to know about the giant creature living in the lake.
By Kin’s estimates, the beast has eaten four people, 16 dogs, a cat, an unknown number of Canadian geese and a horse a young girl was riding along the South Shore in 1975.
The best protection against being attacked, he said, is to wear green clothing, as the beast appears to be color blind and cannot distinguish between green clothing and the blue of the water.
Kin noted that Fein was wearing green army fatigues when he fell into the water.