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An Ohio police chief took the only picture of the UFO that Sheriff’s Deputy Dale Spaur chased in 1966. (NICAP)

Seeing a UFO ruined Dale Spaur’s life

How do we decide what to believe?

All the articles about UFOs over the last month got me thinking about a dramatic flying saucer sighting that happened near where I grew up.

“If I could change all that I have done in my life, I would change just one thing. And that would be the night we chased that damn thing. That saucer.”

That’s what Dale Spaur told a reporter in the autumn of 1966, six months after he saw a large, metal aircraft hovering over his police cruiser on the side of a highway. It was 5 a.m. and dark out, but there was no mistaking it. The thing was 40 feet across, shaped like a saucer and only about 150 feet above them, creeping over the treetops and bathing the street below in bright, white light. His partner, Wilbur Neff, saw it, too. So did dozens of other people, including law enforcement officers in four counties. Police radios across Northeast Ohio and Western Pennsylvania were abuzz that night with talk of a flying saucer.

Feeling a bit spooked, Spaur called the radio operator at the Portage County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s perfectly still,” he said, “and it just makes a humming noise.”

The dispatcher ordered him to keep an eye on it. So he did. Spaur threw the car in gear, and they took off after it east down U.S. Route 224. They hit speeds of 103 mph as they followed the slowly rising saucer toward dawn. Near the Pennsylvania line, a local police officer saw the saucer then saw the two deputies screaming after it. So he joined the chase.

Spaur ran his tires bald and his gas tank dry in Conway, Pennsylvania, just as the sun was appearing over the horizon. The three officers pulled into a gas station and watched with another cop as the aircraft ascended straight up into the sky.

The Associated Press picked up the story. (Project Blue Book)

The papers went crazy. The Associated Press picked up the story, and it went national. Even though many people saw the UFO, Spaur became the main witness. It was Spaur’s saucer.

I can understand why that happened. For one, he was the driver. He’s the one who chased it 86 miles. Two, Spaur was clear and articulate about what happened. He gave multiple accounts of the incident to reporters and investigators, and his testimony was consistent. But maybe the biggest reason Spaur got singled out is because he kept telling the story while the other cops backed away.

“I’d rather not talk about it,” Gerald Buchert, the chief of police for the village of Mantua, told a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter. “It’s something that should be forgotten…left alone. I saw something, but I don’t know what it was.”

The Air Force had a program at the time called Project Blue Book. Until the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program began in 2007, this was the highest-level government effort to identify UFOs. They spent $20 million between 1952 and 1969 investigating UFO reports around the country. Spaur’s sighting was one of them, and the case files were made public when Blue Book shut down.

The head of Blue Book at the time was man named Hector Quintanilla, a straight-laced Air Force major who referred to “UFO buffs” in his memoir as “people [who] have ceased to live in our real world.” He worked at a drab desk in an office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, with a poster of the solar system tacked to the wall behind him. He had more work than he could handle, especially between 1965 and 1967. He described the rash of UFO sightings during those three years as mass hysteria, and he might be right. Quintanilla’s office was getting three saucer sightings a day.

Quintanilla

In March 1966, a month before Spaur’s sighting, a trucker in rural Michigan said he saw a glowing saucer touch down. Others said they saw it, too. The claim garnered massive publicity, and Quintanilla was forced to call a press conference in Detroit to announce his findings. He attributed the incident to “swamp gas.” The American public had never heard of swamp gas and were not persuaded. Neither was Congress, which called a committee hearing on UFOs.

Quintanilla was livid. He thought the “UFO buffs” were manipulating politicians and the press to stoke fears of a government conspiracy to hide evidence of aliens. The members of Congress, eager to prove there was no conspiracy and to satisfy public demand for the truth, grilled Quintanilla hard during his testimony. He almost lost his cool to one congressman. “I considered his questions irrelevant and political,” Quintanilla recalled in his memoir. “Hell, I didn’t go around the country tracking down every alleged UFO photo.”

Two days later, the Spaur sighting happened, and the papers and the UFO buffs sprang back into action. Quintanilla had only just gotten back from Washington. He called the Ravenna sheriff’s office and asked for Spaur. “So,” he said, “tell me about this mirage you saw.”

Spaur started to tell him, but Quintanilla cut him off. “Did you have it in view for more than a few minutes?” Yes, Spaur said. They’d chased it for miles.

“Then he kind of lost interest,” Spaur recalled.

Quintanilla combed through his various air traffic and astronomical sources and discovered three satellites and the planet Venus were in the part of the sky where Spaur and the others were looking. So that’s what he put in his report: Spaur chased a satellite and Venus. Case closed.

The UFO buffs at the National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) wouldn’t have it. Their 10,000 paid members demanded answers and accountability. They had a good thing going with Spaur, who, of course, thought he knew the difference between a satellite in earth orbit and a house-sized hunk of metal drifting over the treetops above his head. And as long as Spaur kept talking, the newspapers kept listening.

But Spaur was already fraying under the pressure. He was a young guy, 34 years old, from a small town. His colleagues laughed at him. People around the world were calling into the station asking for him, coming to his house. NICAP urged him to keep speaking, and members of Congress were talking about his case. His marriage was starting to show signs of stress.

In response to backlash, Quintanilla agreed to meet with Spaur at the Ravenna Police Station. They spoke for nearly an hour surrounded by reporters, a NICAP investigator and Spaur’s colleagues, who kept interrupting with jokes about the “mother ship.” At one point, Spaur said he didn’t know what to call the thing. If it were a car, he’d just call it a Ford or a Chevy, but he’d never seen anything like this before. So he’d called it Floyd, his middle name. He also said he’d seen it subsequently.

Quintanilla took these as signs Spaur was having a mental breakdown. “It has been my experience in cases like this, that the longer publicity drags it out, the worse the principal witness gets hurt,” he recalled. “This is exactly what happened to Dale Spaur. A few months after his encounter with the UFO, his life was a disaster. Dale Spaur would never be the same man again. He lost his job, his family, his friends, and he found very little respect among his neighbors.”

I’ve spent the last week pouring through files on this case. The story is endlessly fascinating to me, maybe because I grew up there. If I had been alive in 1966, I might’ve seen this thing. My dad was 10 then. It flew over his house. There are other tantalizing details. Portage County is home to a Stranger Things-like compound known locally as the Ravenna Arsenal. During part of the Cold War, it was used for aeronautics experiments. Could Spaur have seen an experimental aircraft?

It’s also a very sad story. This thing destroyed Spaur. You could think of it as the pre-internet equivalent of a social media lynch mob. He lost his job, because a cop has to be credible and because one night he came home and shook his wife. It left bruises on her arms. “Our marriage fell apart,” she told the Plain Dealer. “All sorts of people came to the house. Investigators. Reporters. They kept him up all night. They kept after him, hounding him. They hounded him right into the ground. And he changed.” She pressed assault charges and left with the kids. Spaur ended up broke and working in a coal mine in West Virginia.

What happened to Dale Spaur isn’t just a UFO story. It’s a dramatic case study in epistemology. How do we know what we know?

Quintanilla approached the investigation as primarily an identification problem: Give the object a name. It would have been more fruitful and probably less painful for everyone (especially Spaur) if they had approached it as an information processing problem: Give the object a description.

First off, the information Spaur could gather with his senses didn’t register a match against any previous experiences he’d had. The shape of the object, its spectacular maneuvers and the humming sound it made were all novel. He did not possess enough information on his own to identify it. He would have to explain it to others to figure it out.

But explaining it to others requires language, an imperfect method of transferring information—particularly visual information—from one person to another. Take one example from Spaur’s meeting with Quintanilla. Spaur said the object “just set there, right out east of us.” The context makes clear Spaur meant to say it sat there. A moment before, he said, “We got in the car, and we set there.” That’s just how some Ohioans talk. But Quintanilla, who grew up in Mexico, understood differently: “Didn’t you say it was going east and setting? How long did that take?” To him, it was setting on the horizon, like a satellite might.

Quintanilla also said Spaur’s story was inconsistent over time. Of course it was. Spaur was relying on his memory, an imperfect method of storing information. As Quintanilla listened to Spaur talk, he was forming his own image of the thing and logging that in his memory. By now, there were as many understandings of what Spaur saw as there were people who heard him describe it, all different by degrees from the thing itself.

That’s how an aircraft you could throw a rock at gets turned into a satellite 200 miles away. The corroborating testimonies of other police officers—which would have been plenty of evidence to convict a murderer—had no effect on Quintanilla.

There’s a philosophical school of thought that refuses to consider perception as proof of anything. They use the “brain in a vat” argument: Sense data could just be a simulation. This is just an elaborate computer game, and we’re the avatars. You think this is reality? Prove it.

Spaur couldn’t. And that’s what drove him to the brink of insanity.

After working in West Virginia a while, he moved to the Cleveland area, remarried and opened a bar, according to Cleveland Scene, which spoke with his son James. “He believed what he saw was extra-terrestrial,” James said.

I’m not so sure. I do not believe aliens have visited earth for the same reason I believe intelligent aliens exist: There are billions of habitable planets in our galaxy alone. My best guess is Spaur and the others saw a top-secret experimental aircraft. And maybe Quintanilla knew it but couldn’t say so. Maybe that’s why he had to say it was a satellite and Venus, to discredit Spaur. Maybe that’s why he felt so bad about it afterward.

“I didn’t like what was happening to Dale Spaur, and yet I was powerless to help him.”

There’s a strange coda to this story, which James relayed to Scene. While Spaur was working in the coal mines, he fell 70 feet and broke his back. It put him in a coma that lasted several days. The nurse assigned to sit at his bedside came running out a few hours later refusing to do it.

“This man is possessed by an alien!” she said.

Update: I originally wrote that satellites are 30,000 miles away. But most satellites are in low earth orbit, about 200 to 1,200 miles away.

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