THE EPISODE THAT WASN’T: THE LAS VEGAS UFO
In the official schedule of UFO Hunters, season 1, the first episode was titled “The UFO Before Roswell” and concerned the Maury Island case and the Kelso crash. But that was not how the season actually started. It started on a hilltop in a dense national forest just outside Las Vegas and with special guest James Sanders, author of The Downing of TWA Flight 800 (Kensington, 1997), a book that actually prompted an FBI raid on New York publisher Kensington Books. Sanders and I have a penchant for getting into trouble, and this first episode of UFO Hunters set the pace for the series that wound out over three seasons. It captured on camera a UFO over Area 51; a bovine-human hybrid fetus C-sectioned from a mutilated cow lying along the side of a country road in Dulce, New Mexico; and an encounter with a federal police officer from the army base at Dugway, Utah, trying to confiscate our cameras and videotape by claiming—falsely—that we were filming on a military reservation without permits. Yes, we got into a lot of trouble during our three seasons, and it was this first excursion to Las Vegas that set the tone.
The story began in late summer 2007, even before we began planning the episodes for our first season, with an e-mail to UFO Magazine by someone calling himself Ben, or, alternatively, Colonel X, a United States Air Force officer stationed near Area 51. Colonel X sent us photos of what he called a “reverse-engineered UFO” simply hanging in space over the Nevada mountain ranges. He offered to meet us at a good location from where we could film the object and then reveal its existence to the world.
His report, which he submitted to UFO Magazine, located the object as viewable from the southeastern slope of Mount Charleston overlooking the Las Vegas strip. In his article for UFO Magazine, September 2007, he wrote:
Without revealing too much detail my about job which could lead the government to discover who I am, I am going to let you in on the scoop of the month. I am currently in Nevada, home to Area 51 and the best UFO hunting ground in the world. There are enough sightings here to keep most of the big organizations busy, but I just happen to know how and where to find a Roswell disc.
Of course its location is a secret. For those of you with a compass it can be found near the southeastern side of Mt. Charleston that overlooks Las Vegas. Since June I have been corresponding secretly with the Disclosure Project concerning its location. I have a high-level rank in the Air Force. It allows me to work in the Nellis Air Force range, which is really supposed to be clear of aliens. So, in late May when a disc showed up I wrote the big disc hunters to let them in on what was going on here.
The government wasn’t keeping it in a hangar, like all the books say. There were too many officers looking for it in the buildings where it might be seen and photographed. They were keeping it over near the city limits where it could only be seen using a military surveillance radar. I thought about calling the police, but the only way to see it or prove it was there would be to use the military radar, which the base commanders were not going to allow. So who was going to believe me without evidence?
I took the problem to an engineering contracting firm off Tropicana. I asked if they knew of any way to target an “aircraft” without radar. I did not have any radar so how could I find a target if it was directly overhead? Their engineer pointed out a CCD imager called an ICX429AL EXView, Sony’s top-of-the-line infrared sensor. The engineer said if it gave off infrared light and was within 100 miles, this chip could see it. It would not be a very big spot on the screen, but it should appear as a white-hot group of pixels. With a good lens you would be able to zoom right up to it once the CCD picked it up.
I never told him I was going to use the imager to target a Roswell disc. Not that it made any difference. The ICX429 was not a restricted technology and could even be purchased online. It took only 48 hours to have it sent to my office, and within a few days I was able to spot the saucer without too much difficulty.
Seeing it for the first time was breathtaking. It just sat there motionless. It did not move to the left or to the right. It did not even look like it was flying. It was a few minutes before I realized it was hovering. The darn thing was hovering! I could not believe it. I was imaging a hovering disc. You really had to see it to believe how it looked. It could hold its position better than any helicopter I had ever seen. I took some images and sent them to Richard Hall, Dennis Balthaser, and the Disclosure Project.
The first to respond was the Disclosure Project. After a little debate among the staff who monitor the organization’s email, they sent everything over to Dr. Steven M. Greer. The images did not go to him right away. I guess they reviewed everything before it went to Greer. The first staff member sent the images to another staff member who then sent them to their big office. When Greer saw the shape of the saucer he wanted a meeting right away and anything I could get him.
Richard Hall had seen the photos and got Don Berliner to use a separate email at konsulting.com to begin correspondence. However, Berliner learned that Greer was involved and did not want to intrude on the find. I had thought that Berliner would have wanted his photo analyst ready to help the Disclosure Project with any technical expertise they might need, but he said, “Now that we know Dr. Greer is involved in your project, there will be no need to send us any further information and pictures.” It was a finder’s-keepers situation for them. If the Disclosure Project was first on the scene then that is who they wanted to handle it.
The Disclosure team arriving to view the saucer was from Phoenix. This had to be a dream-come-true assignment for them since Phoenix is where the first photographs of the suspected Roswell craft were taken. Those photos are referred to as the shoe-heel saucer photos or the William Rhodes photographs from July 7, 1947. Their appointment was for 2:30 P.M. and at 2:00 P.M. the photographer began setting up the imager while I waited nearby hoping the disc was still there. All I needed was for Greer’s investigators to come all the way from Phoenix to what they would have to call a hoax if they did not get to see the disc.
When they first saw it at 2:40 P.M. they did not even ask if it was anything but the disc. They wanted a CD burnt of the event right there. They had just become the first investigators to see live hover flight under planned or predetermined conditions. The official term which was used to describe the saucer to Greer was “floating.”
At UFO Magazine that August, when Colonel X’s report and accompanying photos arrived, we were thrilled. Imagine the possibilities of featuring an issue with real Greer-approved photos of an actual unidentified floating object right over Area 51. But our publishing the Colonel X report did not go without a reaction from the Disclosure Project folks themselves, admonishing us for publishing his article without the Disclosure Project’s official OK. In other words, the Disclosure Project made it clear that we were not allowed to disclose anything at the risk of blowing open their entire investigation.
UFO Magazine is just that, a magazine, and we don’t take kindly to being told we can’t publish a story simply because someone wants to jump on it first. Besides, Colonel X himself wrote the story that we published in the magazine, so we ran with it. At the same time, however, we were meeting at the UFO Hunters production offices in Santa Monica to set up the first episodes for the coming season, and we were looking for an interview that would start the season off with a brand new case. Because we were already in communication with Colonel X, I suggested we talk to him about going to his location to film the object and bring along some equipment to figure out what it was.
At the same time we were meeting, I also received a call from my old friend Jim Sanders. Sanders, who had written a number of books about the misdeeds of the U.S. government concerning POWs from previous wars and about the shooting down of TWA Flight 800 in 1996, had called to say that there was a strange, very bright star hanging just over the downtown Las Vegas horizon every night. It wasn’t Venus, he said, because the object didn’t move. Also, he could see Venus at the same time. It wasn’t the moon. He didn’t know what it was and invited the newly formed UFO hunters to come out for a look.
With the possibility of meeting Colonel X and of seeing something that fit the bill of a UFO from Sanders’s house, we loaded the cars and Pat, Ronnie Millione, and I drove off to Las Vegas from Los Angeles in our first convoy with crew and producers. Believe it or not, the trip to Vegas back in 2007 was the first time I had ever seen a GPS plot a route, talking to us as we drove through East Los Angeles and into the intense triple-digit heat of California desert. Although you might think that taking this trip was a no-brainer—we were following up on a great photo spread in UFO Magazine to see a floating object that we might capture on television—our ability to organize it was actually in question. What I didn’t know as we set up the episodes for that first season was that budgets didn’t allow us the freedom to change schedules and insert trips into the pre-planning shooting scheme. Therefore, it took a lot of negotiating with time and schedules to fit this trip in. Also, we wanted Colonel X to meet us on-site so we could get an interview with him as well. We needed to go right from Las Vegas to Vashon Island in Washington State for our next episode about the Maury Island and Kelso incidents, and we needed to do this as expeditiously as possible. But it didn’t work out that way.
The initial problem we had was setting the meeting and location with Colonel X. As a network crew, we couldn’t just pull up in a van, unload, and set up the equipment and begin shooting. We had to have location permits and be able to show them to the network before anything was allowed to be broadcast. Networks and motion picture studios are very strict about this because of the high liability they can incur by capturing something on camera and broadcasting it without permission. Shooting permits are just that, permission from the property owner or municipality governing the land that allows images of that property to appear on television or in a movie. Therefore, we had to have someone give us permission to shoot at the location Colonel X was talking about. Also, because the story was coming from Colonel X, we really couldn’t use his name and cite him as an authority without his permission. But Colonel X was telling us that he was afraid his identity would be revealed and that he would wind up in a pack of trouble. Moreover, he said he was doing this without the permission of his superior officers. In the end, he said he wasn’t going to show up for the interview, but that if we had the right equipment, we could go to the location he suggested and capture the object on camera for ourselves. We had committed to going to Las Vegas at a cost of $10,000 a day, which meant we had to get something or a head would roll. Mine, actually.
Our backup was the Jim Sanders interview. He said we could see the object from his driveway in the front of his house, hanging low over the horizon and brighter than any star. Sanders is not given to fantasy. If anything, he is more a skeptic than anything else, especially when it comes to being given stories from official sources. Here’s an example, the example that launched the two of us from the comfort of our living room couches to subpoenas coming over our fax machines at daybreak from the FBI and a date in federal court on Long Island.
It began on a hot summer night in July 1996, when Sanders was watching a breaking news feed from CNN about the crash of a TWA 747 heading from JFK to Paris. The plane, according to the news report, exploded over Jamaica Bay and fell into the ocean. All on board were presumed dead. Liz Sanders, Jim’s wife, was at the point of tears. She was a senior flight attendant for TWA and had personally trained much of the flight crew on that jet. Sanders was also in shock until he heard a strange comment from the news reader. The navy, Sanders heard, was denying reports that a missile, a U.S. Navy missile, had brought down the jet. Wait a minute, Sanders said to himself, why would the navy deny that one of its missiles had brought down the jet when nobody reported that a missile had brought down the jet. The story for him had just taken another turn.
Sanders had been down this road before, dealing with government denials before there was anything to deny. First, you deny a story so as to turn any news agency away from reporting the story you already denied. Then, evidence pops up showing that you are culpable. Next, you deny it again, pointing out, with due annoyance, that you already denied this, so why raise it? Should a reporter pursue the story in the face of your denials, you simply ban that reporter from your circle of access. Access journalism at its best.
In his previous books, Sanders had stood in the face of withering denials from the government: he presented evidence showing that the military had left POWs behind in Southeast Asia after the Paris peace talks ended the Vietnam War. He also showed that the military had left POWs behind in Soviet hands at the end of World War II. Sanders also faced a tirade by Senator John McCain when Sanders asked him questions about his involvement in the savings and loan scandal that marked the U.S. recession of the early 1990s. Yes, Sanders had been there and knew when a cover-up was in the making. Therefore, when he heard the navy denials, he knew that there was something the government didn’t want Americans to know. And it was that something Sanders had to learn.
A year after that night, Sanders had discovered not only that it was most likely a missile that had brought down TWA Flight 800 but that tests he had conducted on one of the seat backs from that plane—tests indicating the seat had residue on it from a solid-fuel rocket engine—had been falsified by the government in an attempt to debunk him. In fact, more than thirteen years after the crash, the FAA still hadn’t been able to prove that the explosion of the center wing tank was the cause of that crash. I actually saw the FAA’s test plane at a lab in New Mexico, where we filmed a segment for UFO Hunters. And I asked the technician directly whether they developed any proof that it was the center wing tank. The technician just rolled his eyes and said that it was no accidental explosion that brought the plane down. Thus not only was Sanders the guy who could smell a rat from the other side of town, he was usually right when it came to stories over the edge. Sanders’s reputation and past experience meant to me that if Sanders saw a bright object hovering over the horizon that wasn’t a planet, a star, or a satellite, then something was indeed there, and we were on our way to Las Vegas to see it with our own eyes.
This was our first trip together as a brand new crew as we caravanned across the desert through the small towns along the interstates on our way to Las Vegas, chattering from car to car by walkie-talkie. It was a trip many in our crew had made before, and we talked about other famous travelers who took this route, including Sam Kinison, who was killed in a car crash as he returned to Los Angeles from a performance gig in a Las Vegas club. Sam had called me from the road, hours before his fateful encounter, because we were planning a meeting to talk about a book we wanted to write together about his life and his comedy.
Interstate 10, the Lincoln Highway, which runs from the Pacific coast, across the United States, and right to the Atlantic, is the first freeway you take on the way to Las Vegas. From our office in Santa Monica, the 10 takes you past downtown LA, past East LA, and into the desert, the landscape changing from the yuppie corporate towers of downtown to the glass and steel urban landscape of East LA to what Southern California and the inland valleys really are: cactus, scrub brush, and chaparral.
As the caravan wound east, SUVs holding the cast, minivans holding the crew and production staff, and the huge van holding the cameras and equipment, it was just setting up on rush hour, when downtown empties in all four directions. Downtown LA is a commuter’s town, fed by a metro subway and light rail, bus lines, and endless freeways. Along the way, driving is like an obstacle course as frenzied drivers battle for every inch of a lane, the bigger the SUV, the more aggressive the driving.
As members of a traveling show, we were just getting to know one another, playing hometown and high school geography and girlfriend bingo, sharing songs from our iPods and demonstrating whose device had more features than the others. On a new crew, when you know you’re going to be thrown together in some of the most uncomfortable circumstances imaginable—such as a chartered bus driving across Mexico for forty-eight hours without a usable bathroom—you start out being as polite as possible before you start getting down and dirty, playing the dozens, and laughing at each other.
Riding shotgun, the seat I wound up occupying for three seasons, I could see what looked like a mirage in front of me in the middle lane of the 10 freeway. It was a minivan, no taillights, and it looked like it was dead stopped. On an LA freeway, that was a prescription for disaster, especially in the days before holding a cell phone while driving was illegal.
Our production assistant, driving our van, noticed the stalled car up ahead in our lane and, as the converging freeway traffic began to swerve and the lanes turned into a string of red brake lights, he turned onto the shoulder and gunned the car into passing gear. We sped through the sound of screeching brakes and passed the stalled car with no one in the driver’s seat and into the clear. While I called out a warning to other cars in our convoy over the walkie-talkie, we could hear the crashes behind us as the freeway turned into a scene from a disaster movie.
When I think about it, had it not been for our freewheeling production assistant, the entire UFO Hunters series could have ended right then and there on the 10 freeway heading out of LA. But it didn’t. In fact, we made the trip to Las Vegas, stopping only once at the legendary Greek Oasis along the 15 freeway for gas, Greek coffee, and lots of spanakopita and baklava, and reached Vegas by early evening. By nine, we had checked in to our hotel—not on the strip or even remotely close to it—and I was on the phone to Sanders.
Yes, he said, the object was still there, still burning bright and hovering low over the horizon, and still stationary, unlike any star or planet. Sanders said he could see Venus rising, see the North Star late at night, and see that the object seemed to hover in place and not travel across the sky. As far as he was concerned it was a UFO because he couldn’t figure out how to identify it. But was it Colonel X’s reverse-engineered flying saucer? That was the subject of the investigation.
Our first stop was Sanders’s house, where the cast arrived first and waited for the rest of the crew to arrive and set up a camera. We would film in the house, letting Jim explain how he discovered the object in the sky and why he thought it was so strange. Then, we would film outside to see how well we could capture the object on camera. Sanders explained that you could see lots of strange things over Las Vegas, but this bright light in the east was stranger than most. It was there every night without fail. It didn’t move across the sky the way a star did. And it was just too bright to be anything but an artificially illuminated object.
Could it have been the space station, we asked?
No, because it didn’t move. In fact, we would be able to see satellites make their way across the sky, Jim told us, if we went up to the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest high above Las Vegas and found a place to shoot where no light pollution would get in our way. So we set up our gear to see if we could spot the object, and when Jim pointed it out, it was there.
To the naked eye, it was almost like a very bright planet, bigger than Venus but not bigger than the moon. But it was the brightness that fascinated us. It seemed too bright to be a star and too big to be Venus. And, as Jim said, it wasn’t moving across the sky and wasn’t twinkling. But the light pollution from the nearby Las Vegas strip was overpowering. We watched it, talked with Sanders some more about his books, and then packed up for the night and the trip to the national forest the following day.
The next day, following Jim Sanders’s advice, we made reservations at a restaurant and way station up in the national forest to find a place to assemble our camera-mounted telescope and capture a wireless signal to use the automated star chart on our computer. If Colonel X was right, we should be able to see something hanging off in the night sky, stationary and brightly illuminated, just as we saw from Jim Sanders’s driveway. It would appear, Colonel X said, as the sky turned black over the eastern horizon.
We knew it was there because we’d seen it before from the city at Jim’s house. But what would it look like without the light pollution distorting the sky, and what could we capture on video? It got tense as we assembled the camera and loaded the star-mapping software into the Alienware laptop computer that the company had given us to use for the show. Mounting the huge telescopic lens was a chore that the crew had to undertake very carefully. The lens assembly was delicate as well as expensive and was the heart and soul of the entire shoot. If we could capture a close-up of what the colonel told us was there, it would certainly be a coup.
We started filming the segment. With the telescopic lens on the camera locked in place, we each took turns looking through the eyepiece as the camera itself recorded the object. At first neither Pat nor I could believe our eyes. The object had a definite shape. It was almost like a flat platform very brightly lit. We checked the star maps on the computer wired into the camera and could find nothing in the sky. According to the computer chart, what we were looking at through the eyepiece was simply empty sky. But what we could see through the eyepiece was a large platform just hanging in the air as if it were suspended on invisible wire. What was it?
I was thrilled. We had confirmed Colonel X’s observation. Next question: was this our UFO, our flying disk, which is how Colonel X described it and the object in the photos we had published in UFO Magazine? I went back inside the restaurant to text message the editor in chief of UFO Magazine, my wife, Nancy. I wrote that we had found it, that we had Colonel X’s flying saucer in view. I hit send. And then I heard shrieks from outside on the patio deck. “Where is it?” someone said.
I ran back outside only to see the object was no longer there. “It just went out,” one of the crew said.
“I saw the lights flicker,” Pat said. “And then it just started to drop.”
I checked the camera telescope myself, and the object had disappeared. We mumbled; checked the memory cards to make sure that he had actually captured the images, which he had; struck the telescopic equipment while we shot our on-the-fly interviews with the cast; and then wrapped the scene. We piled into the SUVs and headed back down the mountain to the city and our hotel.
Along the way I called Sanders, who confirmed that he could not see the object from his location. But just to make sure, we took a detour over to Jim’s house while he waited up for us. In fact, he was in the driveway with his telescope set up as we pulled around the corner. “It just went out,” he said as we all stared at the empty sky. “Lights just went out and the thing seemed to disappear.”
We stood there for a little while, staring at the sky, and then got back into the cars. Nothing we could do there except stare and wait for the sun to come up. And we had a full day of driving the next day back to Los Angeles. But as we drove across the strip to the hotel, I got a call from Sanders.
“It’s back up,” he said. “As soon as you guys drove down the street, the lights came on and the object seemed to rise to its original position. Damndest thing.”
We’d already captured the object on tape when we were up in the national forest, which obviated the need for any more filming. We were wrapped and ready for the drive back to Los Angeles the next morning. Whatever happened to that object, whatever it was, was a mystery that only a few people could solve. But as far as we were concerned, at least this first segment was over.
On the way back to Los Angeles the next day, I called Bill Scott, my coauthor on Space Wars and, subsequently, Counterspace, both at Forge Books, to ask him what he thought we had seen. For all the years Bill had been the Rocky Mountain bureau chief at Aviation Week, he knew about some of the secret craft the air force had in development. Bill would become one of our frequent guests on UFO Hunters, commenting about conventional and exotic aircraft and the way the black-operations world kept secret weapons out of public view. I told Bill about what we had seen, and he suggested we had come across one of the top intelligence-gathering platforms.
“These platforms can scrub just about any e-mail, phone call, and text message,” he said. “And they’re surveillance platforms, too. They probably picked up your license plates when you texted the office, and when you left Jim’s house, they brought the platform back up.” I didn’t even know we had that capability. “They were funnin’ with you,” Bill said. “Just a little reminder that they knew you were there.”
The Colonel X story of the mysterious object between Area 51 and the Las Vegas strip and the photos Colonel X sent came to us before we got the call from the network to start setting up the production structure for the series. In the moments that we first got the story for the magazine, I had this thrill—more like a chill—that this could be the big IT. This could be the crack in the wall of silence, and, by just putting our shoulders against it, the wall would crumble. We published the story and the photos, but no wall came down. And when the time came to hook up with Colonel X at the site and unlimber our huge telescopic camera, the colonel told us that he couldn’t be there. Someone was onto him. The story had been leaked. Well, of course the story had been leaked because it was the cover story in UFO Magazine. In fact, everybody who read the magazine knew about it. But to do the story for UFO Hunters would be the coup of all coups. Imagine breaking a story on national television not that UFOs were real, but that the government had one and was flying it over an American city.
I consoled myself with the thought that even if this wasn’t the reverse-engineered UFO that Area 51 commentators Bob Lazar, John Lear, and George Knapp talked about, at least it was something. And if we managed to photograph one of our top-secret intelligence-gathering platforms and stayed out of trouble, then it was worth it. The trip taught me that as a crew and a team, we had the ability to accomplish something, to undertake some serious research.
The trip to Las Vegas, one of many more that would follow, also set the stage for how the team on UFO Hunters would comport itself over the next thirty or so months. We would focus on the conventional, evaluate the possible, and eliminate the obvious with science. Check and double-check and make sure that as many skeptical arguments were considered: even if they couldn’t be completely answered, they could at least be held up to the light and scrutinized. Like any good trial litigator, you always, always take the opposing side and argue against yourself so that you know what your evidence and argument must do before a finder of fact. And in our case, the television audience was the finder of fact, weighing our evidence and argument, and even if it disagreed with us, at least it should be able to do it on the basis of the facts and not for our lack of trying.
I felt that in that first episode, the episode that never saw the light of day on television, we set the pace and set the stage for the ensuing episode on Maury Island in one of the strangest cases of America’s UFO history.
Copyright © 2013 by A&E Television Network