To Billy Meier's fans, he's a gentle Swiss farmer who has befriended UFO pilots from the Pleiades, a powdery star cluster more than 2 quadrillion miles from Earth.
To Meier's foes, he's the biggest hoaxer since the UFO fad began four decades ago. Meier's tales of flying aboard UFOs with lovely spacewomen have triggered civil war in the weird, wacky world of "Ufology," an international movement whose members slog through swamps and forests, night and day, to investigate sightings of unidentified flying objects or "flying saucers."
Wednesday is the 40th anniversary of the first "modern" UFO sighting June 24th, 1947 - when a private pilot sighted saucer-shaped objects zipping past Mount Rainier in Washington State - and ufologists are celebrating with conferences from Burbank to New York City and Washington, DC.
Although few are trained scientists, they like to form clubs with grandiose names such as "Intercontinental UFO Galactic Spacecraft Research and Analytic Network, Inc." and "Aerial Phenomena Research Organization."
But in four decades they've gained little scientific respectability, and some fear they'll lose even that because of the Meier controversy - a steaming stew of bizarre claims, ugly accusations, crude fakery, financial exploitation, "stolen" and "vanished" evidence, and alleged death threats and assassination attempts.
"If you ever want to see a parallelism to Jim Bakker and PTL, you're seeing it right here," snarled one anti-Meier ufologist, William Spaulding of Phoenix. "I get emotional about (Meier) because I've just seen ufology go down the drain...it just reeks of money, a slick way to make a buck."
He isn't alone. "The Meier case is probably one of the most obvious hoaxes in the history of the subject," said ufologist Ronald Story of St. Petersburg, FL, author of "The Encyclopedia of UFOs."
Meier is a "damned charlatan - I wouldn't touch his stuff with the proverbial 10-foot pole," said Don Berliner, an official at the Maryland-based Fund for UFO Research.
The Meier fad is part of a "credulity explosion" that is helping to wreck ufologists' credibility, said one of the men ufologists fear most, Robert Sheaffer of San Jose, author of "The UFO Verdict." Sheaffer has exposed some famous saucer sightings as hoaxes and misidentifications of natural phenomena. Ufology "isn't dead yet, but it's dying," he said.
Ufologist Jim Speiser firmly disagrees and accuses Sheaffer of "wishful thinking." But he acknowledges that trying to gain scientific respect while Meier is in the news is "like trying to get a date when your little brother who picks his nose is always hanging around."
Speiser, of Fountain Hills, AZ, runs an electronic "bulletin board" that allows saucer buffs to rap via personal computers.
So why on Earth has Atlantic Monthly Press, one of the nation's most respected publishers, just released a book - "Light Years" by Gary Kinder - that suggests there may be something to Meier's claims after all? A book whose sources include an imprisoned child molester and a San Jose chemist who tells ghost stories to plants? A book that, some say, whitewashes what has been called "the most infamous hoax in ufology"?
Its a strange story that began in the mid-1970's in the green hills of Switzerland. Eduard "Billy" Meier, a one-armed, bushy-bearded farmer, amazed local residents by saying he had established psychic contact with saucer pilots from the Pleiades.
End of part 1
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