In the last several days, there has been something of a controversy raging about the Socorro UFO landing. Although it started a couple of years ago when Ben Moss and Tony Angiola began a new investigation, the controversy exploded with the publication of my book, Encounter in the Desert and then Tony Bragalia’s web posting that he had solved the case, though the new information presented there wasn’t all that new or dramatic and the solution didn’t really answer the major questions. You can read his take on Socorro here:
To fully understand all of this, let’s take a look at the history of the Socorro case with an eye on the hoax explanations which is Bragalia’s “new” explanation. Dr. Donald Menzel, the Harvard astronomer who wrote a number of books explaining all UFOs as hoaxes, illusions, delusions, misidentifications and confabulations was quick to point to students as the culprits in this alleged hoax. On September 10, 1964, just over four months after the landing report, Menzel wrote to Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the Air Force consultant on UFOs, “It certainly sounds to me like a hoax or, perhaps a hallucination.” And then in a letter on February 19, 1965, to Hynek, Menzel and his partner Lyle Boyd suggested that high school students who didn’t like Zamora because he issued them speeding tickets, “planned the whole business to ‘get’ Zamora.”
Hynek responded, "Opal Grinder [owner of a gas station on the edge of Socorro] does have a high school student working for him, and I talked with him at length [meaning, of course, the teenager working for Grinder]. Teenagers generally hate Zamora’s guts, but it was added that they hate all ‘fuzz’ and that if they wanted to get even with Zamora, they would simply beat him up or do something more direct, like letting the air out of his tires or something with immediate results rather than resort to an involved hoax."
It does seem that such an elaborate hoax would have been beyond the capabilities of high school students no matter how bright and how clever they might be. It should also be noted that while Hynek was not thinking in terms of high school students, he did ask “My old friend, Dr. Jack Whotman, President of the New Mexico School of Mines (sic) [which is in Socorro], who said he knew of no geophysical or other types of experiments going on in the area at the time. He, as the rest of the townspeople, were puzzled by the event…”
That, of course, was not the end of it because in a new round of investigations suggested students at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology were now identified as the real perpetrators of the hoax. Tony Bragalia found a letter to Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling dated 1968 saying that the event was a hoax, but it should be noted that Pauling is only the recipient of the letter so his name here means very little in this context. In other words, that it was sent to Pauling is of little real note.
The letter, however, was written by Stirling Colgate, who was a reputable scientist, was at one time the president of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology following Whotman in that position, who said the case is a hoax and was a person of note. We don’t know what he really knew about the landing for certain and since he wasn’t there in 1964, he might not know of anything special. It might just be his opinion that the whole thing was a hoax because, well, it couldn’t be the landing of an alien spacecraft. He talked of pranks and unidentified students, and even that he knew who the pranksters were but we have nothing solid to corroborate this allegation. He wouldn’t release names, though so many years after the event, when he was in communication with Bragalia, I’m not sure what harm it would have done to the former students, their reputations, or the reputation of the school. It certainly wouldn’t do the belief that something alien had landed anything good, but the allegation is often enough in something like this.
Bragalia located another source, Dave Collis, who, as a freshman in 1965, or a year after the landing, had heard some stories from fellow students. He provided what some, at the time, have considered new evidence of a hoax. According to Bragalia:
Dave Collis was a freshman at New Mexico Tech in 1965, a year after the Socorro UFO incident. Collis went on to become a published scientist helping to lead the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center at NM Tech. He is considered a world expert in researching blast effects and explosives. Collis explained that he himself enjoyed planning pranks when he was a student at Tech. In 1965, he and his friends had planned a "paranormal" prank and shared the plan with one of his trusted Professors. The Professor (who had been with Tech for years) told him that NM Tech had a long history of pranking- and that one of them was especially noteworthy. Collis then said that the Professor (whose name he does not remember or does not wish to offer) had "confidentially told me that the UFO sighting by the town cop was a hoax done by Techie students." Collis did not want to press the Professor on who did it - or how. Collis says, "he was telling me this in confidence, so I didn't ask for the details and he didn't offer."
When asked if the Professor could have been making up the hoax story, Collis replied that in the context of his conversation with him - there was no reason for him to lie. The Professor had told him the truth about the hoax, of that he was sure. Collis, when told about Stirling Colgate's confirmation that it was a hoax said, "Colgate is a brilliant man and he was a great College President. From what I was told by my Professor, it was a hoax. And if Colgate also says it was a hoax, it was." Collis (who is a pyrotechnics expert and often directed NM Tech's July 4 Fireworks) said that it always has surprised him that people didn't seem to realize just how "terrestrial" the reported Zamora UFO seemed to be in the first place.[i]
Finally, there are names attached to people who supposedly had some inside knowledge of the hoax but who weren’t involved themselves, weren’t part of the prank and therefore had no first-hand knowledge. They had heard about it from someone else who still isn’t named but was there (or might have been there) who believed it to be a hoax with no reason to lie, according to them and Bragalia. We then go back to Colgate who reaffirmed that it was a hoax, but again, it is from others that he heard this and he supplied no names of the perpetrators. More importantly, there are no details on how they pulled this off which is an important consideration.
Bragalia, in his new, 2017 article about this, does up the ante slightly. He interviewed a man who was apparently part of the hoax or claimed that he was. He offers this as further proof. Bragalia wrote:
This author [meaning Bragalia] has found and spoken to an involved perpetrator of the Socorro UFO hoax, a student at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in 1964…
There is also major disappointment over what was not shared and what cannot be shared. I cannot tell you with 100% assurance exactly how the hoax was performed… And I am unable, due to the requested anonymity, to tell you the names of involved people. But what I did learn is perhaps equally as important, just as enlightening.
I will step in here to say that I do understand this. Bill Brazel, he of Roswell fame, told me that since his name had been released in 1980, he periodically received telephone calls from strangers, often late at night wanting know if he had been quoted accurately. During the Roswell investigation we (that is Don Schmitt, Tom Carey and me) were asked by some to keep their names out of it. Given the world we live in, especially today, I get this, but also note that anonymous testimony must be taken much more lightly than testimony of a source whose credentials can be checked. But an anonymous source who provided no names and no details is hardly “just as enlightening.”
The individual did not reach out to me – I contacted him by phone. Retired and in his 70s, he is a man of accomplishment. Though he never denied being a perpetrator, he also does not want his name associated with the event. How many of us would want to recount our youthful follies to our children? Who amongst us would wish our names on the net, revisiting embarrassing moments during our late teens or early twenties? Where are those of us who will come forward to publicly explain our tricks and lies from college?
Again, I step in to point out that many of those who were pranksters in their teens and early twenties have long ago owned up to their pranks. And if the students did pull this off, would it be embarrassing to them today? Since he is an older man, of accomplishment, it would seem that he had little to fear by revealing the pertinent information about the hoax even if he was involved in it. Without that information we have just another unverified rumor.
I once asked Dr. James van Allen, whom I was interviewing about UFOs, if such a discussion would be harmful to his reputation. He didn’t think so because his body of scientific discoveries and his work was impressive enough that he could express his opinion without fear of it damaging him. At that late date in his career he didn’t have much to fear. But I digress. Back to Bragalia:
As he pointed out, there is a ‘damned if you do or don’t’ dynamic to admitting publicly to the hoax. When one asks, how was it propelled and navigated? How many were involved? What were their roles? – no answer that a perpetrator may provide will ever be sufficient. They will be victimized as liars. They will be told that they must reunite on camera and reenact the prank. They will be forced to play the ‘20 questions’ game – a game that they do not need or want to play for us. They would be demanded to show physical proof. They think instead, “Why do I need to show proof of anything to anyone?”
Well, that answer should be self-evident. If they pulled off a prank, then how they did it would be important information and while there are always those who will not let go of a prime UFO case, even when good evidence is presented, there are more of us willing to embrace a solid answer when it is provided. So, yes, we do need a name and we do need to know how it was done and to suggest that “no answer that a perpetrator may provide will ever be sufficient,” is just a cop out because there are no answers at this point.
In fact, he thinks about the event so much less than many of us do, that I got the sense that, although he knows of the continued interest in the case all these years on, he was not aware of Dr. Colgate’s statements on the hoax. That is how I got him to say anything about the event of substance. When I told him Colgate said it was a balloon, he agreed, “Yes, it was.” When I said Colgate knew it to be students that were involved, he said, “Well, yes, of course, but that is all I am about to say any further on any of this.” I was not to get from him details on who or how many were involved, what balloon was sent up, how it was powered and controlled, how they hid from Lonnie, etc. He was clearly not going to offer up the identities of the others, nor the details of what they did. All he really wanted to say was how only grief would come to him were he to do so.
Robert Sheaffer, over at Bad UFOs, has looked at all this evidence. He, I believe, comes into the discussion as nearly neutral as possible. Though he is known as a skeptic, he seems to be quite reasonable in his skepticism, which is always a good sign and something that you don’t always fine in skeptics. You can read his analysis here:
|Early hot air balloon showing the flame and|
the people standing near it.
Sheaffer did mention that I had rejected the hot air balloon because I believed that it was a non-starter. Here’s the reasons I believe that, which I think too many have ignored. The flame in a hot air balloon points up, not down. There were other witnesses who called the police station as the object passed overhead. It was moving against the wind. Once it had landed, the roar stopped, but in such a case, a hot air balloon begins to lose heat and the balloon envelop begins to deflate. Once the two occupants saw Zamora they ran around behind and there was the sound of a hatch closing. The object began to rise, but the flame was apparently pointed down rather than up, at least to one way of thinking. I looked at a whole bunch of hot air balloon pictures, starting with some of the very first and didn’t see any where the flame would have been pointed down (which is to say that I didn’t see any as opposed that there are absolutely none). A flame pointing down would have burned the riders or set the basket on fire. Finally, Sergeant Sam Chavez of the New Mexico State Police arrived at the landing site about two minutes after the object took off, but there was no balloon seen in the sky. It had disappeared, according to Zamora, lifting off and then flying against a rather strong wind before shooting up at high speed.
This leads to another point, which isn’t exactly relevant to this discussion but one I think needs to be made. Nick Redfern wrote a review of Encounter in the Desert. You can read that review here:
Redfern suggests that there is much in the book that has nothing to do with the Socorro case. He views it as padding. I believe that majority of those reading the book would not be as well versed in the history of the UFO phenomenon as Redfern or me, and that this other information was supplied for context. It helps to understand the importance of the Socorro case by contrasting it to other, similar cases, showing an Air Force attitude about Socorro that wasn’t present in those other cases. And, importantly, it shows that the Socorro case was not stand alone but there were other, similar sightings in New Mexico in the hours and days that followed. That suggests something more than a hot air balloon and while it might be argued that such a balloon might not be recognized as such given the timing of the sightings, those who were flying it around would have been aware of the interest in their flights. Oddly, they never came forward and the Air Force investigation failed to find them and according to Hector Quintanilla, who was the chief of Blue Book at the time, he tried very hard to find a terrestrial explanation.
There is one other thing that Bragalia brought up as a way of validating his new theory and that was Lonnie Zamora drank too much. A closed web site set up by Dave Thomas who is described as an employee of New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, and President of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, to solicit comments from those who had some association with the school. Many of the comments were anonymous and few had a first name and last initial, suggesting that Zamora drank. This seems to be the cheapest of shots because, on the night of April 24, 1964, Zamora was questioned by Captain Richard Holder and Arthur Byrnes, an FBI agent. There is nothing in the official Blue Book file to suggest that Zamora had been drinking before going on duty or while he was on duty which they would have mentioned if he had been. I’d say, “So what?” to that. Zamora drank sometimes but that does not make him out to be a drunk nor does it suggest that alcohol consumption had anything to do with the sighting. It is a red herring without merit.
And then there is
this used as further proof. Bragalia points to
a picture that is labeled,
Small Figures in White Coveralls: New Mexico Tech Physics Department in
the mid-1960s.” But the figures are not in New Mexico. They are actually
students from UC Davis, according to information found by French skeptic Gilles
Fernandez. The photograph was taken during a visit to Intel. Bragalia sent out
a note saying that the caption was wrong and blamed his web master, but as of
December 1, 2017, the incorrect caption is still there. And, Bragalia had been
using this as further proof of a hoax for several years, sending it to me with
the same indication about who were the students in the picture.
The picture used by Bragalia
to illustrate his theory.
to illustrate his theory.
All this argues against it being a hoax. We have flawed information, poorly sourced information, an interview filled with leading questions, and a solution that can be rejected by a careful study of the facts. There should have been some evidence left behind by the perpetrators but that there wasn’t doesn’t tell us that it was not a hoax; only that they found no evidence of it which is not exactly the same thing but is an important observation.
The only part that is impressive are the opinions of Sergeant Chavez and FBI agent Byrnes. There were others who drove to the landing site right away and who were later interviewed by Coral and Jim Lorenzen, Ray Stanford and, of course, Hynek. To make the hoax viable, they all had to be in on it at some point or at some level and, of course, the FBI wouldn’t engage in a dirty trick of this nature (please note the qualification here). There is nothing to be gained by either the Army or the FBI by participation.
Hynek finally does suggest the real problem with the hoax idea. He wrote, "If the hoax comes off well, perpetrators like to gloat abit (sic), and there would have been no point in getting even with Zamora if they couldn’t have gotten some kudos for it."
Or, they would have exposed the hoax after they learned of Zamora’s reaction to the sighting and his sudden world fame as a way of making him look gullible. What better way to get even than to point out he was the victim of a hoax and overacted in a very unprofessional manner? What better way to make him look bad by showing how he had been fooled by a student hoax.
Hynek finally wrote, "Both Quintanilla and I find it impossible to dismiss it as a hoax unless we have some evidence that there was a hoax." Note here, they were looking for evidence of a hoax within days of the sighting and that they found none. Unlike many of those who offered opinions, at least Hynek had been to Socorro.
Even those who came at this from the skeptical side of the house have rejected the student hoax idea. In an article for Skeptical Inquirer, and later posted to “New Mexicans for Science and Reason,” David E. Thomas wrote, "Yet another hypothesis is that physics students with a little too much extra time played a trick on the town, but that rumor doesn't have much credible support."
This does two things for any analysis. It again points out that this hoax idea has been floating around for decades because the Skeptical Inquirer article is from the July 2001 issue and the Internet posting is from May 2006. And, it suggests that the idea doesn’t have much support even with the skeptics who often embrace any explanation to avoid the idea that the case has no terrestrial solution. Maybe the hoax was the students taking credit for the landing but had nothing to do with it. That, at least, would make a little more sense.
The real point here is that the hoax explanation has not been established, the evidence for it is weak at best, including a letter to Linus Pauling and an anonymous source who would provide no real information, and didn’t even make a solid case for his participation. This is just another explanation that really goes nowhere and while it should be a footnote to the case, that’s all it should be – a footnote.
(Note: For those interested in the whole Socorro story or for more information about what is discussed here, please read my book found at:
(Note: For those interested in the whole Socorro story or for more information about what is discussed here, please read my book found at: