One year after a sensational display of moving lights was witnessed and videotaped over much of Arizona, controversy over what really happened continues unabated.
In the first week of March, 1998, a long article in the weekly Phoenix New Times newspaper, written by Tony Ortega, heightened the controversy by questioning the methods and motives of researcher Jim Dilettoso, whose analysis of videotapes from the March 13, 1997 event has been a frequent feature of recent televised UFO documentaries.
Ortega talked to astronomers and imaging specialists who told him it's impossible to do spectographic analysis of a luminous object from videotape, as Dilettoso had allegedly claimed to do. Besides that, Ortega said, Dilettoso had a history of manipulating evidence in other UFO cases, including the famous Billy Meier photos of "Pleiadian beamships" and photos from Puerto Rico purporting to show an F-14 jet in a dogfight with a UFO. In the Meier and Puerto Rico cases, Dilettoso had provided apparently scientific verification of authenticity. But, said Ortega, the alleged computer imaging analysis of the Meier photos had been debunked by the very lab where Dilettoso said it was done. Meanwhile, the Puerto Rico case, which Dilettoso had supported in a letter he wrote to investigator Wendelle Stevens on NASA letterhead (Dilettoso worked briefly for a NASA facility in Arizona during the mid 1980s), was an admitted hoax according to well-known researcher Antonio Huneeus, who had acquired a confession from one of the hoaxers.
Throughout the long article, Ortega implies that Dilettoso's track record and dubious methods cast a pall over the entire investigation of the Arizona lights. But in the end, Ortega agrees that many questions remained unanswered. While trying to paint former Phoenix City Councilwoman Frances Emma Barwood as an opportunistic kook, Ortega still admits that she had good reason to criticize the city's apparent disregard of the March 1997 events. And though he seems to buy the official explanation that flares were dropped over the Estrella Mountains south of the city, he agrees that Air Force officials at both Luke AFB in Phoenix and Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson were so unhelpful as to justify public accusations of cover-up.
Ortega displays open disdain for the major Phoenix daily newspaper, the Arizona Republic, which "for weeks following the March 13 incident... promoted flying saucers in nearly every section." The Republic had evidently taken a particular liking to Jim Dilettoso, often featuring his picture on the front page. The Republic's treatment of the story was just one glaring example of uncritical media hype, Ortega said.
But even so, in the end, Ortega agrees that something remarkable really happened over Arizona on March 13, 1997 -- even if none of the UFO investigators or media stories have gotten it right.
Despite Ortega's contemptuous dismissal of the Arizona Republic, CNI News finds the following recent story from that paper eminently worthy of consideration. Under the headline, "'Phoenix Lights' witnesses credible, hard to dismiss," columnist Steve Wilson (email@example.com) wrote on March 11, 1998 that his disbelief in the UFO claims was shaken once he met some of the witnesses. Excerpts from his report follow:
By Steve Wilson
Arizona Republic columnist
When the "Phoenix Lights" were reported last year, I yawned. I didn't see them, and breathless TV broadcasts were underwhelming. It seemed easy enough to dismiss the lights as flares or military aircraft. UFOs? You've got to be kidding.
Still, as the March 13 anniversary of the sightings approached, I was curious enough to seek out some witnesses. I found several people with credible credentials who witnessed the lights. At the least, their stories... raise legitimate questions.
The lights were spotted between 7:30 and 10:30 in the evening over a 300-mile corridor from the Nevada line through Prescott Valley and Phoenix to the northern edge of Tucson. Some reports indicate that a single "V" formation traveled across the state, while others suggest multiple UFO events. The lights were seen by hundreds of people.
Here are four:
Dr. Bradley Evans, 47, is a clinical psychiatrist from Tucson. He and his wife, Kris, were driving north on Interstate 10 to a swimming meet in Tempe. They watched the lights for 20 minutes or so move slowly south in a diamond formation and pass over them at an estimated 1,500 feet. Even then, with the car's moon roof open, they heard not a sound from the sky. He was "awed" by the experience and has no idea what he saw. Kris said she couldn't explain it either and guesses it was "something military."
Trig Johnston, 50, is a retired commercial airline pilot who lives in north Scottsdale. His 22-year-old son was looking for Comet Hale-Bopp that night when he noticed the lights and told his dad. [Note: Hale-Bopp's high visibility at that time brought out numerous skywatchers, which may partly account for the very large number of witnesses to the Arizona UFO events of March 1997.]
"I looked up and remember saying out loud, "I'm going to chalk this up to an illusion.' It was the size of 25 airliners, moving at about 100 knots at maybe 5,000 feet, and it didn't make a sound. I've flown 747s across oceans and not seen anything like I saw that night," Johnston said.
"I don't expect anybody to take my word for it," he added. "This was something you had to see for yourself to believe."
Max Saracen, 34, is a real estate consultant who lives in north Phoenix. He and his wife, Shahla, were driving west on Deer Valley Road when they saw a huge triangular craft. They pulled off the road, got out and watched it pass overhead. "It was very spooky -- this gigantic ship blocking out the stars and silently creeping across the sky. I don't know of any aircraft with silent engines."
Dr. X is a physician who lives near Squaw Peak in Phoenix and asked to remain anonymous for fear of ridicule. Her home has an elevated, panoramic view of the Valley, and she has some of the best known videotape and photographs of the lights. Though she had no prior interest in UFOs, the episode prompted her to begin her own investigation.
"I think what happened is mind-boggling," she said. "I'm trying to be as scientific as I can, and a number of things just don't compute."
[Steve Wilson concludes]: I'm not given to an otherworldly answer. But neither do I think these four people and so many others who saw the lights are all exaggerating or delusional. You don't have to be a ufologist to be puzzled about what lit the sky that night.
MEDIA ALERT: On Tuesday night, March 17, Art Bell will host Jim Dilettoso and Kal Korff togther on his late-night radio show "Coast to Coast" for a debate on the Phoenix lights (see http://www.artbell.com). Kal Korff, author of "Spaceships of the Pleiades" which debunks Billy Meier, contributed background information to the New Times article by Tony Ortega and is on record as saying that Dilettoso's research on the Phoenix lights is flawed.
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