On November 17, 1975, two college students, driving near the Palisades-Kepler State Park outside of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, spotted a "star-like" object in the southwestern sky. Both Suzanne Erenberger and Dave Vardeman watched as the object slowly descended (as illustrated in the drawing at the left). Vardeman then pulled onto a gravel road, and both got out of the car.
According to Erenberger, first interviewed within hours of the sighting, the object moved slowly, lost some altitude and a red light appeared under it. She said, "We watched it come down and as it hit about one to two hundred feet, this bright, white light came on.... There was a big red light on the bottom...."
Interviewed by a reporter for the Cedar Rapids Gazette two days after the sighting, she said, "We were very close to it, maybe about thirty feet away and it was about twenty-five feet off the ground.... It looked like it, or at least the top part, was made of glass."
When I interviewed Erenberger about ten days after the event, she told me that there had been a very bright, very intense light that was glowing inside the craft. Erenberger thought that the light came from some kind of cockpit and she thought that she could see two shapes behind the light. These were dark shapes of a torso with a head but with no sign of arms or legs and certainly no facial features.
Erenberger said, "We could see it quite well." She said that the craft was disk shaped, with a huge glass dome and about thirty feet in diameter. The UFO stayed close to the ground, and finally disappeared behind some trees, suggesting to her that it might be landing.
As the first object disappeared, according to Erenberger, a second began the same, strange descent. It was farther away and she couldn’t see the details as well. After it reached the ground and disappeared, a third, similar object, began its descent. While this was happening, she was sure that she could see another dozen or so lights in the sky above them, all looking as if they were waiting their turn to descend.
All of this frightened both Erenberger (seen at left at th location of her sighting) and Vardeman. They returned to the car and drove into nearby Mount Vernon. They called the police, and an officer accompanied them back to the site. Although Erenberger thought she could see a number of the lights still hovering in the sky, the officer thought they were just stars. He didn’t see anything strange.
The chief of the Mount Vernon police, although unsure of what Erenberger or Vardeman had seen, believed they had seen something frightening. Erenberger, according to the police chief, was terrified, nearly hysterical. He joke with her, trying to calm her down. He did not believe, at the time, that either witness was lying or participating in a hoax.
The chief said that checks at the local airports revealed there were no aircraft in the area. He did find that a smoky fire was burning in the field where the UFOs were supposed to have landed, or over which they had disappeared and he wondered if Erenberger and Vardeman might have seen lights reflecting off the smoke.
Erenberger also talked to the Cedar Rapids police, who told her that the airport had no reported traffic at the time of the sighting. She was also told that there was no meteor activity that might explain what she had seen.
Erenberger told reporters that she was upset by the attitude of the police. She said, "It really upset me because they took it so lightly. I was really afraid, too, and told them, ‘Hey, look, this thing is real. We know what we saw.’"
Erenberger and Vardeman weren’t the only ones to see something strange that night. Richard Manson, a young man who was a member of the local squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, told me that he had seen the same thing. He said that as he was driving home from Mount Vernon, he noticed a bright red light. He thought there might be a bright blue light on top of the object. He said that the UFO appeared in the south and drifted across the highway to the north. He lost sight of it and didn’t stop to look for it. He said that he would never have reported the sighting had it not been for the news broadcasts carrying Erenberger’s story.
Mount Vernon police also said that about an hour after Erenberger and Vardeman made their reports, two others called to say they had seen some type of strange object. The police didn’t bother to take the names of the additional witnesses and I was not able to find them.
This sighting is unremarkable. Yes, there were multiple witnesses, and there was a report of either a landing or a close approach to the ground, and there was the description of two somewhat vague beings seen. It would probably be relegated to the unidentified file, if not for a couple of important points. This is what turns this into an important case.
During the investigation, I was able to obtain several drawings, and copies of the interviews that were given by Erenberger. The first came within hour or so of the sighting, the second two days later and the last about a week or ten days later. In other words, I have an evolution of the testimony given by Erenberger over the space of about two weeks.
One of the first things I did, after hearing the news reports, reading the various available statements, and interviewing Erenberger, to hear her tell the tale, was to find the other main witness. Almost the first thing that he told me was that he believed that the media handling of the report was irresponsible. He said that the TV reporters had no interest in talking to him and he made it sound as if they actually attempted to avoid him.
But, he also said that he had only seen lights in the distance and nothing else. He said that he had seen no shape behind the lights and that he thought the pictures, of the domed craft, and of the alien shapes drawn by Erenberger were "ridiculous." The one thing that he said that might be of most importance was that "She remembered more than I do."
That was the critical point of this case. "She remembered more than I do." She has a story that is certainly much more interesting because it involves alien creatures, and if not a landing, certainly a close approach to the ground. But now we have two witnesses, who were riding together on the night of the sighting, who apparently did not discuss the case between them after the event, and who have two very distinct, almost mutually exclusive stories. How do we reconcile these differences?
That’s easy, we go back to the original statements and the original descriptions. On the night of the sighting, both talked of lights seen in the distance, lights that seemed to float to the ground, and that disappeared behind the trees. Two days later Erenberger was talking about a domed disk that had a glassed in cockpit (seen on the left). And just days after that, she was telling people that she had seen humanoid shapes behind the lights. It is clear that her story evolved. She was not consciously inventing details, and just as clearly, she believed that she remembered all the new details, swearing to all, "Hey, look, this thing is real. We know what we saw."
On the night of the sighting, Erenberger and Vardeman were interviewed by the Mount Vernon police. They made a sketch that not only contained the geographical details from the location of the sighting, but also a representation of the objects they had seen. On that sketch, the UFOs were represented by star-shaped objects with a point under them to show the bright light. There was no indication on that drawing to suggest that there had been a disk shape behind the lights, and certainly no indication of any alien creatures.
Erenberger was next interviewed for a high school newspaper by Wade Wagner. Erenberger gave him a sketch, this one showing a disk-shaped object with a big light on the bottom, a row of flashing lights around the lower edge, and large glass-topped area. The drawing was much more detailed than the original.
Finally, I had the opportunity to interview Erenberger. She gave me a sketch (seen on the left)as well. It resembled, to a fairly fine degree, the one that she had given to Wagner. The major difference is that she had added two shapes that represented the flight crew, as she remembered them.
The term that fits here is confabulation. Psychological texts define it as a "filling" in of memory, often associated with the black-outs that come from heavy drinking. This does not mean that Erenberger had been drinking, only that her mind had filled in details for her. She truly remembered seeing the disk with creatures inside it, though that was not what she reported on the very first night.
What happened to Erenberger is not all that uncommon, even with events that are considered "traumatic", and therefore, fixed in memory. Ulric Neisser, who was teaching at Emory University when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, realized that he had a perfect opportunity to study these sorts of "flashbulb" memories. The day after the disaster, he gave the students in his freshmen psychology class a short questionnaire about the events. He asked them where they were when they heard and how they had heard and other such questions. He then filed the questionnaires for three years.
The students, when they were seniors, were given the same questionnaire about Challenger. He added an additional question, which was about the accuracy of their memories. According to the results provided by Neisser and graduate assistant Nicole Harsh, a quarter of the students didn’t have a single memory that was accurate. In one case, a student said that he had been at home, with his parents, when he heard, though the questionnaire, prepared the day after the explosion, revealed that he had been in class when he learned of the disaster.
More important, however, was the reaction of the students to the proof that their memories were inaccurate. None disputed the accuracy of the statements they had made the day after the event, but one student, when confronted by the discrepancy between what she had written just hours after the explosion and with what she remembered three years later, said, "I still remember everything happening the way I told you. I can’t help it." She was defending the memories that were clearly an invention in her own mind.
This doesn’t mean that all memories are flawed. The rest of the students produced results ranging from a hundred percent agreement, to a point were there were some minor problems, on down to those who had no accurate memories. This suggests that when interviewing witnesses, just days after an event, the memories might not be wholly accurate. The evolution of Erenberger’s tale shows just how quickly these events can become clouded.
This suggests that it is important to talk to all the witnesses about the sighting. Such interviews can provide clues about what had actually happened rather than just what the witnesses remember. Had I only interviewed Erenberger, I might have believed that this was a close encounter of the third kind. In reality, I believe that the case can be solved.
Just days after the event, I drove out to the area and sat in my car looking in the same direction that Erenberger and Vardeman had been facing. Contrary to what the police in both Mount Vernon and Cedar Rapids reported, I did see aircraft in the area, apparently landing at the Cedar Rapids Municipal Airport. I saw the airplanes in the distance, I saw the bright red light, and I saw a sudden bright white light as the landing lights were turned on. I watched as the objects drifted down, and I saw them disappear behind the trees.
What the airport had told the police is that there had been no regularly scheduled flights into the airport on the night of the sighting. That didn’t mean that the airport was not open and it did not mean that private aircraft weren’t landing. In fact, it didn’t even mean that cargo flights, using multiple engine aircraft hadn’t been landing. It meant that there were no commercial passenger planes landing.
With the wind blowing away from the witnesses, there was no sound to the aircraft. They looked like distant lights, drifting silently through the sky. It was clear to me, based on the original descriptions, and on what I had seen, that this was a case of mistaken identity. The witnesses had watched the traffic at the airport.
Manson, a member of the Civil Air Patrol should have been familiar with aircraft and the Cedar Rapids airport. When I talked to him, it was clear that he had only the vaguest sense of what he had seen, and was basing his description, not on that observation, but on what had been reported in the newspaper. His drawing of the object (seen at the left) didn’t resemble that given by Erenberger, and certainly didn’t match that suggested by Vardeman. His sighting was clearly inspired by those others.
Again, I don’t believe that he was lying, or that he was seeking the spotlight. He was just trying to help with the investigation. And finally, based on the documentation that we were able to find, it turned out that he hadn’t even been on the road on the night of the sighting. His experience had taken place a day or two earlier.
The lesson, however, was that even when a witness reports a metallic, structured craft with great detail, that description can be a creation of the mind. Here, a point of light in the distance was turned into a spacecraft with a crew. Three descriptions were gathered, and all three were at odds. Even the descriptions given by Erenberger changed as time passed, distorting the facts, but providing an exciting story of alien visitation.
To learn what was actually seen, and to determine what had happened, it was necessary to interview everyone who had claimed some involvement. It was necessary to examine the scene because that provided clues about the reality of the sighting. Finally, it was necessary to compare the statements made at the time of the sighting with those made just days later. By investigating all aspects of the case, it was possible to remove the sighting from the "unidentified" file, into the "solved as an aircraft" file.
Probably the most important lesson here was that none of the witnesses told a lie. All reported as accurately as possible what he or she had seen. Unfortunately, some of the statements made just days after the event turned out to be inaccurate. Without the complete notes, we all would have been fooled.