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Is there more than corn in Indiana?
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
At around 10 pm on Thursday, April 8th 2004, several residents of Rochester, IN saw something they couldn’t explain.
A large disc-shaped object, approximately 100’ long with two rows of bright, white/yellow lights, hovered about 40’ to 50’ feet off the ground. It made no noise at all, and after a short time, seemed to vanish without a trace.
Beth Carpenter, a retired factory-worker who now teaches country line-dancing three nights a week, says her granddaughter spotted the object as they were pulling into Carpenter’s driveway. They got out of the car and went around the side of the house to get a better look, and for nearly a minute they watched the object hovering over a copse of trees about 300 yards away. “We stood there watching it for maybe 20 seconds,” says Carpenter. “We couldn’t move. We couldn’t talk. After about 20 seconds, the lights (on the object) went out. They were out for maybe 10 seconds, and then they came back on.” The lights went out again, and Carpenter says the object began to move off to the Northeast, but they lost track of it.
Carpenter says several times that while she and her granddaughter watched the object, they couldn’t move. She describes it as being mesmerized. I ask if she means they were so amazed at what they were seeing that they couldn’t do anything. “Well, we’ve gone over that and over that, wondering if we were so in awe we couldn’t move,” she says. “But I think if that was the case, when the lights went off the first time and were off for 10 seconds… well, 10 seconds is a long time, and we stayed there. It wasn’t until it went to move after the lights went out the second time that we started to move and talk.” Carpenter adds that it was then she and her granddaughter got a little scared. “A child is going to get scared,” says Carpenter, whose granddaughter is13. “Any adult in their right mind would have been scared, but there was no fear until it started to move.”
Carpenter and her granddaughter went inside and called the police. She also called the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC) in Seattle, Washington. While she was on the phone with NUFORC director Peter Davenport, the lights in her house dimmed several times, to the point where they almost went out.
There is a community of scientists and researchers in the US that call themselves UFOlogists, and the incident in Rochester, just a little over 60 miles to the west of Fort Wayne, has got these people very excited. It turns out, Indiana is practically buzzing with UFOs. We’re not quite a hotbed, but there does appear to be what is called “significant” activity in Northern Indiana (at least somebody seems to be interested in what we’re up to in the Hoosier state).
But the Rochester sighting features a number of factors that make it something more than unexplained dots high in the sky and zigzagging lights. Beyond a craft landing in broad daylight and beings getting out with maps to their home world, the Rochester case contains everything a UFOlogist could reasonably hope for. For one, this object was seen by a lot of people, nearly 20 as of this writing, at very close range. For another, all the witnesses describe the same thing: a large, disc-shaped object with two rows of lights, silently hovering about 50 feet off the ground.
And finally, the credibility of the witnesses who have detailed their experience is impeccable. “They honestly believe that they saw a UFO, “ says Christina Seiler, who wrote about the sightings for the Rochester Sentinel. “All their descriptions were very similar. Hauntingly similar. None of them are the local kooks. They’re all regular folks.”
The incident was so extraordinary that it garnered the attention of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), a non-profit, volunteer-driven corporation based in Colorado and dedicated to collecting data on UFOs with the ultimate goal of finding out what they are and why they’re here. Lest anyone think MUFON is some dodgy outfit run out of someone’s garage in-between shifts at the local Kinko’s, MUFON (www.mufon.com) is an enormous organization, with members all over the world and investigators in all fifty states. They’ve been around since 1969, and screen their directors, investigators, and researchers with the same thoroughness that they conduct their investigations.
In fact, the Rochester case ranks as a genuine CE1, a Close Encounter of the First Kind, where a UFO is seen at close range, but with no interaction with the environment. The Close Encounter system was developed by Dr. Allen J. Hynek, who is credited with launching UFOlogy with his 1972 book The UFO Experience: A Scientific Study. In a Close Encounter of the Second Kind, a UFO is seen at close range, and physical traces or interaction with animals or objects are noted. A Close Encounter of the Third Kind is a UFO seen at close range, and occupants are noted. UFOlogists have added two new classes of Close Encounters since Hynek’s death in 1986: Close Encounter of the Fourth Kind, which is an alien abduction; and Close Encounter of the Fifth Kind, which establishes communication between human and alien. MUFON doesn’t offer any official statement as to what it thinks UFOs are, but anyone willing to hazard a guess at the thoughts of the UFOlogy community in general might be tipped-off by the words “alien” and “human” in those two descriptions.
Rodger Sugden is the assistant state director and a field investigator for MUFON in our part of Indiana. A Fort Wayne resident, Sugden is an aerial photographer in his mid-50s who served in the US army for several years and has been conducting investigations for MUFON since 1993. Deliberate, and careful with his words, Sugden doesn’t fit the popular perception of a UFO obsessive. And he’s not. Like most UFOlogists, he considers himself a researcher. He hates the phrase “flying saucer,” and he’s quick to point out that UFO doesn’t mean little green men in a spaceship. It means exactly what the acronym says it means: Unidentified Flying Object. “It doesn’t mean it’s some alien spacecraft,” Sugden says. “You don’t know what it is or where it comes from. All you can say is this is what I saw, and this is what it did.”
The world of UFO researchers in organizations such as MUFON is a strange one, but probably not for the reasons you think. On one hand, speculative theories that could have sprung from the pages of science-fiction are discussed matter-of-factly, such as whether our laws of physics can apply to the rest of the universe. As an example, Sugden cites the hundreds of abduction stories where witnesses claim to have seen figures or beams of light go through solid objects. “Any solid object is made of moving molecules,” he says. “All you have to is change the vibrations of that solid object. It’s gotta be like a cheap magician’s trick. It’s probably not a big deal at all.”
On the other hand, anyone in the field with a PhD. is accorded almost guru status among their colleagues. MUFON doesn’t allow anyone without a PhD. to serve as a consultant. It might seem contradictory for an organization that routinely questions the pronouncements of scientists on UFOs to hold such high regard for academic credentials, but it’s a matter of credibility. MUFON calls itself a scientific organization (they have federal tax-exempt status as a scientific research organization), and doctorate degrees are a way of distinguishing themselves from the conspiracy theorists, cultists, and other assorted cranks.
Sugden says the cranks that contact him are relatively few and far between, though he does get them. In one case, he was woken out of bed after 2:00 am by a call from a man who claimed to have seen a UFO. “He had sketches and everything,” he says. “It was a real good case. Then I find out, he’s been under psychiatric care for a long time. He hears voices talking to him through the radio.”
More often, the calls he gets are a case of over-enthusiastic misidentification. Anyone who has ever watched The X-Files or even Men In Black is familiar with the refrain “what you saw was the planet Venus,” and Sugden is often woken in the dead of night by callers who breathlessly describe the planet Venus. “They’ll see a bright light bouncing around up in the sky, turning different colors. Venus looks like it does that, with the atmospheric haze. I’ll ask ‘How long has this been going on?’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s been up there for an hour or two…” Sugden says that people even mistake lightning bugs for UFOs.
But the “real” calls Sugden gets, the calls that might warrant further investigation, are from people who are mystified by something they couldn’t explain. “They describe what they saw and ask ‘is this possible?” They want confirmation. It’s out of their reality box.”
Sugden says that many of the people who have taken the time to look him up, or e-mailed the MUFON headquarters or NUFORC, are credible. A large part of Sugden’s investigations involves determining the witness’ background and reputation. One of the key witnesses in the case in Rochester included a retired school teacher, while a case in Huntington last Christmas involved three policemen and a trained pilot who saw a disc-shaped object buzz a church steeple in broad daylight (“The official explanation was that it was a mylar hover disk,” Sugden says. “A police officer knows what a mylar hover disc looks like.”). These are the kind of witnesses a UFO investigator looks for: earnest, sober-minded, respected, and not known to make things up. “There are other ways of getting attention than saying you saw a UFO,” says Sugden. “That’ll just get you ridicule. Next thing you’ll hear is ‘seen any little green people lately?’”
Sugden was asked to follow-up on the Rochester case. The first thing he did, as he does in all cases, is try to cover every other possible explanation. “We check absolutely everything — what kind of weather it was, if there were any advertising blimps up…”In Rochester, one of the priorities was checking nearby Grissom Air Force Base to see if they had any aircraft that matched the description, or even any aircraft up that night (the answer was no).
Still, despite the scientific methods of data collection and the academic credentials, the perception of UFOlogists as part of some lunatic fringe is a pervasive one. It’s an association Peter Davenport, Director of NUFORC bristles at. “Is SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute) a bunch of kooks? No. We’re no different. I am a scientist. I do not believe in astrology, astral trails, and all of the nonsense that one can find in the American culture. I am committed to investigating the UFO phenomenon until we get some adequate resolution to the question. There are a lot of UFOlogists who are PhD., NASA engineers. These people are no fools. We’re a serious group of people. We’re not astrologers, or glass ball gazers, and all of this nonsense.”
The NUFORC website (www.nuforc.org) serves as a “clearing house” for UFO sightings. Davenport says he receives about 20 per day. He filters out the obvious hoaxes, posts possible explanations if any are available, and if a case warrants particular attention, he shares information with MUFON.
The theories about what UFOs are and where they come from run into the dozens, and fuel a mini-industry of books, films, magazines, and websites. The predominant theories seem to boil down into three main categories: that these are spacecraft from other planets; that these are “inter-dimensional” craft,; or that these are experimental, “secret” military aircraft. This last one seems most plausible, and though Sugden is reluctant to offer any definite answers as to what he thinks they are, he’s quite willing to touch on some of the most common theories about genuine UFOs. “It could be something that this country has that’s military,” he says. “If we had the ability to hover (and I don’t know if we do) and if people see this, what are they going to report? I saw a UFO. It’s a perfect cover. But the military doesn’t like attention. Some of these could be super-secret craft, but they’re going to be somewhere like Area 51 to conduct maneuvers, because they don’t want it crashing in a populated area.”
Well, for that matter, why would a race of beings with the ability to (a) travel from another planet; or (b) slip through from another dimension, need to outfit their ships with the sort of lighting you could find at any high school football stadium?
“I’ve wondered the same thing,” says Sugden. “It doesn’t make sense. A lot of the sightings are at night. Why at night? Because they don’t want to be seen? Then why lights?”
Davenport is a little more forthcoming than Sugden about where he thinks UFOs come from: another planet. But he stresses that he’s just speculating. “I’m not sure,” he says. “As far as I know, I’ve never talked to an alien. We’re studying a phenomenon, we’re in the early stages of our study, and we do not know yet what the relationship between these UFOs and us is. That’s why we’re studying them.”
What bothers Davenport is that he believes somebody knows more about this relationship than they’re letting on. “What troubles me to the greatest degree, is the fact that the US government appears to know about this phenomenon, clearly knows about it, and is not sharing the information with us mere citizens,” he says.
Davenport says that several years ago, he was invited by some very prominent members of the government to a meeting on the East coast. This was no B-movie sit-down with shady men in black, Davenport says. This was a very open, friendly meeting. They were aware of his work, respectful of what NUFORC was doing, and interested to hear what he had to say. Above all, they were concerned. They were worried. They appeared to be as mystified by the UFO phenomenon as any farmer who wakes in the middle of the night to find a large triangular object hovering over his barn and agitating the livestock.
So, if they’re as concerned as the average citizen, why aren’t they telling us about it?
“I don’t know,” says Davenport. “Ask the government. They’re the ones with trillions of dollars of reconnaissance gear orbiting overhead. Why are you a journalist and not pressing the government for answers?”
Well, okay. But the government’s answer on the subject remains the same as it has since 1969, when the Air Force officially closed up Project Blue Book: no UFO reported, investigated and evaluated by the Air Force was ever an indication of threat to national security; no evidence submitted to or discovered by the Air Force that sightings categorized as "unidentified" represented technological developments beyond the range of modern scientific knowledge; and no evidence indicating that sightings categorized as "unidentified" were extraterrestrial vehicles. In short, the Air Force doesn’t investigate UFOs. Of course, this doesn’t rule out that there’s a branch of the government that does investigate UFOs, but no one at MUFON or NUFORC, with decades worth of research, knows what it is.
Meanwhile, Rodger Sugden is wrapping up his investigation of the Rochester case, awaiting the return of soil samples he sent to the lab. He’s not done yet, but he’s confident that the object seen in Rochester was a “genuine” UFO, an Unidentified Flying Object. Beyond that, Sugden won’t even speculate on what he thinks it is. After more than 10 years of investigating for MUFON, he wants the data he collects to speak for itself, and generate more interest and more feedback from other serious researchers. “Put the evidence out there and ask ‘what do you think of this?’” he says. “Usually, that’s a way you can solve a mystery.”