By Jim Nintzel and Héctor Acuña
WE'RE OUTSIDE THE Roswell planetarium when we suddenly find ourselves surrounded by small greys.
We aren't spooked. These three gleaming aliens are mostly harmless, despite their best efforts to appear threatening. They're the Marquez kids, covered head to toe in silver body make-up, all dressed up for today's Alien Costume Contest. Aside from their giggles, the youngsters look like they've just wandered off the set of a black-and-white episode of The Twilight Zone.
Submitted for your approval: Roswell, New Mexico, a quiet farming town where, nearly half a century ago, on a dark and stormy night, something came crashing down from the heavens.
WHAT THAT SOMETHING was is a matter of some dispute. The U.S. government, along with the skeptics, maintains the wreckage was from a top-secret atomic spy balloon, a story the UFO community says is bunk.
They say a flying saucer crashed outside of Roswell. When the military arrived, they not only got the bird, they got aliens--little grey humanoids, one of whom was still alive (its final fate is unknown).
Both sides agree on this much: Just after Independence Day in 1947, rancher Mac Brazel told the county sheriff that he'd found some funny debris in his field. The sheriff alerted the local Army authorities, who sent Col. Jesse Marcel out to the ranch to recover the wreckage. Marcel found strips of balsa wood, fishing line and strips of metal--metal he'd later say was "nothing from the earth."
Marcel collected the debris and returned to the base. On July 8, 1947, an Army public information officer sent out a press release announcing that the Air Force had captured a flying saucer: "The many rumors regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the co-operation of one of the local ranchers and the Sheriff's office of Chaves County.
"The flying object landed on a ranch near Roswell sometime last week. Not having phone action, the rancher stored the disc until such time as he was able to contact the Sheriff's office, who in turn notified Major Jesse A. Marcel, of the 509th Bomb Group Intelligence office.
"Action was immediately taken and the disc was picked up at the rancher's home. It was inspected at the Roswell Army Air Field and subsequently loaned by Major Marcel to higher headquarters."
Higher headquarters, in this case, was Wright Field in Fort Worth, where the wreckage was supposedly flown. When the press arrived at Brigadier General Roger Ramey's office, however, they were in for a let-down. The flying disc, Ramey announced, was actually only a wayward weather balloon.
Thus began, say UFO researchers, one of the greatest cover-ups in the history of mankind--a cover-up that continues today. They believe the military moved swiftly to recover all traces of the craft and swore everyone involved to secrecy, sparking a conspiracy that is only today beginning to unravel.
The Roswell Incident has been the basis of several books, which formed the basis for Roswell, a Showtime movie starring Kyle McLaughlin and Martin Sheen. It's also favorite location for shows like Sightings and Encounters.
All the questions finally drove local Congressman Steve Schiff to ask the military what really happened at Roswell. After some stonewalling, the Air Force unleashed a bombshell, admitting there had been a cover-up: It wasn't a weather balloon at all--it was a top-secret spy balloon being developed by Project Mogul, a program cooked up by government eggheads to monitor Soviet nuclear tests.
The story did little to dissuade UFO investigators, who dismissed the Project Mogul explanation as a new cover-up of the original cover-up. And who can blame them for doubting the government's veracity? The military had just admitted it had lied about the balloon back in '47. Schiff asked the General Accounting Office to conduct an investigation, expected to be released soon.
Being a flashpoint in one of the great mysteries of our time has changed tiny Roswell and its 50,000 mostly friendly residents. This small southeastern New Mexico dairy town has become a hot spot for UFO buffs. The local Chamber of Commerce executives are happy to chat about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, and cab drivers will tell you they believe we are not alone.
Some, of course, will say that it's all a lot of hogwash, that nobody used to talk about flying saucers until after the TV cameras showed up, but Roswell is a place where people on the street openly talk about lights in the sky, shadowy conspiracies and secret scientific projects. A friendly fast-talker from Colorado let us in on how a mysterious "they" were recently able to recreate the Philadelphia Experiment--shattering the time-space continuum itself.
The city fathers--initially disdainful of their town's reputation as an extraterrestrial holy land--have come to realize that there might be a tourist buck to be made here. For the Fourth of July Weekend, the Chamber of Commerce organized the Roswell Encounter '95, a fun-for-the-whole-family flying saucer festival. It included the Great UFO Float Race, a flying disc throw, the Out-Of-This-World laser/light show and a 10-K Alien Chase, featuring a guy in an alien suit waving runners across the finish line.
RICHARD HESSE RIDES across the football field at DeBremmond Stadium in his flying saucer. Hesse built the silver disc, about the size of a VW bug, with paper mache, scrap chicken wire and some other material he had hanging around the house. He put it all on a bicycle frame so he could enter this weekend's Great UFO Float Race. He's taking an opportunity to show it off at the stadium, where about a dozen tents shelter merchants from the warm summer sun.
This is the Encounter '95 Arts & Crafts Show, a sort of UFO swap meet. On the 20-yard line, The Roswell Area Cultural Affairs Council will take your picture standing next to an alien for $5. Just off the goal line, the local VFW post is raffling off an alien doll. Down near the 50, a teacher at the local community college is peddling ceramic whistles shaped like the heads of small greys.
Besides spending about 70 hours building his saucer, Hesse has also helped organize the Encounter this weekend. He's been among the folks pushing the business community to get involved in promoting their town's rep for about four years now.
"There wasn't much interest for years," Hesse says. "With all the publicity in the last year, year-and-a-half, the business people got interested."
A sculptor who works at a nearby cheese factory, the 40-something Hesse is a believer. During his time in the military he learned there are a lot of secrets.
"When you've seen something, you know what you've seen," he says. "I do believe in space ships and extraterrestrials."
He saw one himself back in 1978 in Arizona, near Florence Junction, where he and a gang of buddies watched a light moving across the night sky.
"The maneuvers were real unusual," he remembers. "Nothing I know of can make a 90-degree turn at speeds of over 20 miles per hour."
Those types of unexplained mysteries are being tossed around in the end zone, where four UFO experts are giving talks underneath a large mesh tent. About 50 people in folding chairs listen raptly while Don Schmitt talks about the Roswell crash.
"We're in a race with the undertaker," the dark-bearded Schmitt solemnly intones, asking any witnesses to please come forward.
Schmitt has co-authored two books with Kevin Randle, UFO Crash at Roswell and its unimaginatively titled sequel The Truth About The UFO Crash at Roswell, which was released just about the same time Roswell premiered on Showtime. The two men say they've talked to more than 500 people who have verified that something very strange happened here in '47.
Randle and Schmitt helped start the current wave of Rowell publicity, a fact that has left longtime UFO researcher Stanton Friedman a little touchy.
"I'm the original investigator," gripes the short, chubby Friedman, who is also speaking at the Encounter. "I'm not in the movie."
He quickly touts his credentials, rattling of his background: "I'm a nuclear physicist who has lectured on the subject of 'Flying Saucers Are Real' for 600 colleges, 100 professional groups, 50 states, nine provinces and four other countries. I've published 70 papers, done hundreds of radio and television programs. I get around."
He started looking into the Roswell case in 1978, when he met retired Col. Jesse Marcel, who told him the thin, tough metal he recovered from rancher Mac Brazel was not of this earth. Friedman recounts his investigation in his book, Crash at Corona. The recent attention on the town has pleasantly surprised him.
"It's been amazing to me," he says. "Now Roswell is the story, except there's so much missing. It totally aggravates me that people won't take it as seriously as they should. The story is legitimate, it's honest, and we don't need any exploitation by manipulation of the truth. I hope the government comes clean about this."
Dave Thomas says the government already has told the truth. Thomas, a senior scientist with the Quatro Corporation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, recently wrote an article for the Skeptical Inquirer detailing the evidence that the wreckage really did come from Project Mogul, just as the government now claims.
"There's two sides to this Roswell business," says Thomas, who is a physics and mathematics graduate of New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. "The one side is the actual physical stuff the rancher found. And nobody's arguing he didn't find something very strange out there. And we think the debris was very well explained by the New York University flights that were part of Project Mogul."
Thomas says the strange metal was nothing more than the radar reflectors attached to the Project Mogul balloons, but he doesn't expect to convince Friedman--although he did recently debate him on a radio show.
"The host asked Friedman, 'Is there anything the government could bring forward that could convince you that it really was a Project Mogul balloon and not an alien craft?' And Friedman said no, there wasn't anything that could convince him of that. He's already made his mind up."
THE SKEPTICS ARE definitely outnumbered in Roswell this weekend. A steady stream of curious visitors stroll into the International UFO Museum and Research Center, where a short series of displays talks about UFO history, sightings, hoaxes and the work of the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies. One wall is dominated by clippings from tabloids with screaming headlines about bizarre alien encounters that often end with a close encounter of the sexual kind.
The museum also has a few murals, a few alien statues and a room where people can watch Roswell on a big TV screen. There's also a research room with a couch, some chairs and a bookshelf containing about 100 UFO books, ranging from Erich Von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods to Timothy Good's Above Top Secret, along with magazines and other official-looking documents.
Tourists are lining up in the museum's gift shop to buy T-shirts, hats, books, videos, coffee mugs and reproductions of the Roswell Daily Record's most famous front page, from July 8, 1947: "RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region."
The weekend's crowds are running museum chief Walter Haut ragged. A former soldier, the 73-year-old Haut was working at the base when Marcel brought in the debris in 1947. He's the public information officer who sent out the press release announcing the capture of the UFO. He doesn't talk too much about the incident, except to say he never thought to question his orders.
"We were a different breed of cat 48 years ago," Haut remembers. "You didn't ask questions. They told you what to do and when they wanted you to do it. When Blanchard told me to put out that press release, that's what I did. When Gen. Ramey told me it was not a flying saucer, it was a weather balloon, the general was a lot smarter than the colonel. I say that from the standpoint that if you weren't smarter than the colonel, the colonel would be the general and the general would be the colonel."
About a year after the incident, Haut and his wife decided they liked Roswell enough to settle down there, a decision he says had nothing to do with the crash. He got out of the military and ran an insurance agency for nearly three decades. After he got tired of that business, he opened an art gallery and framing shop for about a dozen years.
The idea of opening up the UFO museum came in the late 1980s, when a UFO buff told him he had a golden opportunity here in Roswell. Haut kicked around the idea with a few friends, got some donated furniture and finally found a space in a local bank building, where it was not an immediate success.
"We learned one thing quick: You don't put a UFO museum on the seventh floor of a bank building and anticipate anybody coming up to see you," Haut says. "A few people did--news media, friends who wanted to have a cup of coffee...."
Haut and his partners soon realized they needed a better spot, so they approached the city council to ask for a building for the museum. After some wrangling, they finally landed their current Main Street home, where they formally opened in October 1992. Since then, they've expanded into the building next door and hope to get an even bigger location soon.
"We have been so cotton-picking fortunate--so many people have given us things," Haut says. He points proudly to his most impressive display, a diorama of a doctor dissecting a small alien, a leftover prop from the movie Roswell.
After Roswell previewed locally, Haut asked the filmmakers if he could have an alien from one of the scenes. They wouldn't give him the one he wanted, but they were willing to donate an immobile doll, provided he signed a certificate agreeing to be "the guardian of one deceased alien," he recalls. "I said, 'I'll sign most anything.' "
The museum has been enough of a success to allow Haut to pick up a fancy computer and fax machine. He doesn't know how to use the high-tech stuff, but his partner Max's son-in-law turns up to help once in awhile. He'd like to hire a couple of employees, but right now the non-profit museum gets by with about 35 volunteers, many of whom are grey-haired senior citizens who have retired in Roswell.
Haut has never seen a saucer, but he does believe they're out there. Still, he says, there are a lot of kooks.
"I don't believe in the multitudes of sightings and reports," Haut says. "I think we've gotten to the point where everything you see is a flying saucer. I cannot believe the preponderance of reports that, 'Oh, I see one every Thursday,' or, 'I see one every week.' By gosh, if these things are going at such amazing speeds, they've got to be crashing into each other."
HAUT'S MUSEUM ISN'T the only UFO research facility in Roswell. Just north of town, the UFO Enigma Museum sits in a long, odd-shaped building on the edge of the desert.
The museum's pamphlet boasts the "UFO Enigma is seen as New Mexico's center of serious research and exhibits one must see! This can be attested by the many visits of the following national and world organizations: CNN, Sightings, Good Morning America, magazines Omni and Mufon, plus visitors showing interest and curiosity from our own States, Russia, Brazil, England, Canada and other countries.
"UFO Enigma is located right where such a museum should be 'next door to where the action took place!' That of allegedly boxing saucer debris for shipment by aircraft...and near the old Roswell Army Air Field. (Where alien bodies were allegedly taken and prepared for shipment.)"
Inside, the place doesn't quite live up to its billing as a "fantastic museum." Visitors who pay the $1 admission fee (50 cents for kids) can see the requisite photos of lights in the sky, some Star Trek and Roswell paraphernalia, a few photos of the space program and a handful of display cases with evidence like an old dirty bottle found near the debris field. Like Haut's museum, there are books, videos, T-shirts and other souvenirs for sale.
Most of the collection has been assembled by John Price, who bills himself as the executive director of the Enigma museum.
"I always believed that we couldn't be alone," says the 41-year-old Price, a gaunt figure with a lean face that shows the lines of hard living. "There had to be life out there somewhere in this universe."
Does he believe in UFOs?
"Never seen one myself," he says, although he's done a lot of research since 1990. "Up to then, it was mostly curiosity. I believe UFOs are real, there is an intelligence behind them, and they did not originate on earth. That's what I believe as far as UFOs."
As a kid growing up in Roswell, he heard rumors about the crash and the subsequent cover-up. He kept waiting for the military to finally fess up about what really happened. Then, in 1987, about the time the infamous MJ-12 documents were first unveiled, radio legend Paul Harvey had a week-long series on UFOs.
"My dad and I, we had a lot of faith in Paul Harvey," Price says. "We thought, 'Well, he'll get to the bottom of this.' "
But Price is still standing by for that bit of news from Harvey, who failed to crack the case. Price realized it was bound to be swept under the carpet again--although, "Here in Roswell, most people didn't care anyway," he remembers.
He knew he had to do something. He hung a UFO logo outside his new video rental shop, called the Outa Limits, "because we were out of the city limits." He plastered one wall with a display of newspaper clippings about the Roswell incident, adding material as he could. When his customers showed an interest, he started putting out souvenirs.
"We sat a lot of hours in the back room of our store doing research," he says.
The breakthrough came in 1991, when Price learned the theme for an upcoming parade was "Where memories were made."
"My wife says, 'You gotta do it this year,' " he remembers. So he put together a float featuring a crashed saucer and scattered alien remains. Dressed in a silver suit and a rubber alien mask, he rode down Main Street. The float was a hit--people applauded as he rolled by and he took first place for the best portrayal of theme. The saucer is now Price's most impressive display in the museum's Blue Room.
Things got tough about a year and a half ago and Price knew he had to choose between his businesses. Price says he offered to sell his collection to Haut and his partners for $6,000, but they turned him down, so he kept the museum and closed down the video store.
There's an undercurrent of tension between the museums, which isn't all that surprising. After all, Price opened his museum first, and he doesn't count on help from the city council. He points to a paneled wall covered with framed photos of Walter Haut, Stanton Friedman and other researchers. There's even a shot of Randle and Schmitt sitting next to his saucer.
"We try to send people there and we hope they do the same for us, although we do not agree on all matters of research," Price says. "There's been some problems in the past, but I think one day there'll be just one big museum."
THE WEEKEND WRAPS up with a laser light show and performance of the Classic Rock All-Stars, featuring aging veterans from Iron Butterfly, the Spencer Davis Group, Sugarloaf and Rare Earth.
An estimated 10,000 people showed up for Encounter '95, with half of them coming from out of town, says Don Cox, chief executive officer of the Roswell Chamber of Commerce. While he may be padding his numbers somewhat, he says visitors came from as far away as China, bringing $1.2 million to the local economy.
With all the interviews, the people, the stories and the confusion, the festival has left Walter Haut bushed.
"I can barely remember who I am!" he says.
Haut estimates more than 1,800 people passed through the museum's door during the weekend. He's a little disappointed in the turn-out, but he's got his eye on next year.
"This is the first trial run," Haut says. "We're making a lot of mistakes. Next year, it'll be a lot smoother. And 1997, our 50th anniversary, we're going to blow someone's socks off."
Photo 1: Richard Hesse built his own flying saucer for the Great UFO Float Race.
Photo 2: 73-year-old Walter Haut, who wrote a press release announcing the U.S. military had captured a flying saucer near Roswell in 1947, now runs the town's International UFO Museum and Research Center.
Photo 3: Alien alert: Visitors at the Encounter '95 Arts and Crafts Show could have their picture taken with an ET for only $5.
Photo 4: John Price (far right) is the executive director of the Enigma UFO Museum.
Photo 5: Heads up: Alien gear for sale.
Photos 6 & 7: Right: Author Don Schmitt addresses the crowd. Left: UFO researcher Stanton Friedman lectures on the topic of "Flying Saucers Are Real."
Photos 8, 9 & 10: Left: The Marquez kids took second in the Alien Costume Contest. Center: The local VFW post held an alien auction during Encounter '95. Right: The International UFO Museum and Research Center features displays, dolls and murals.
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