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The Travis Walton Case - Fire in the Sky

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On November 5th, 1975, one of the most interesting UFO events in history took place in north eastern Arizona. A work team consisting of seven men reported encountering a reflective, luminous object the shape of a flattened disc hovering close to their truck on a remote dirt road in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, USA. According to the crew, one of the men, Travis Walton, exited the truck and approached the object on foot, where he was allegedly struck by a brilliant bluish light and hurled to the ground some distance away. In fear, the other crew members fled the scene, returning after a short period of time to find no trace of the UFO, or of Walton.

The driver of the truck was Mike Rogers, the crew foreman and a personal friend of Walton's. While fleeing the scene, Rogers reported looking back and seeing a luminous object lift out of the forest and speed rapidly towards the horizon. He, along with the other five witnesses, would eventually be subjected to polygraph (lie detection) examinations on thirteen occasions regarding the event, the successful outcomes of which catapulted the case into the national spotlight. Walton turned up five days later, confused and distraught but with fleeting memories of alien and exotic human entities. He was also subsequently subjected to a number of controversial polygraph examinations .

As the first seriously investigated UFO event to involve the disappearance of an individual in conjunction with a UFO sighting, the incident put the honesty of UFO claimants, as well as the validity of lie detection evidence, squarely in the spotlight. A total of thirteen polygraph examinations have been conducted in association with the case, tests which have been the subject of considerable discussion and acrimonious debate.
 
The seven witnesses described the UFO (which they encountered on 5th, November) as a "large, glowing object hovering in the air below the treetops about 100 feet away" (Mike Rogers) which was "smooth and giving off a yellowish-orange light" (Dwayne Smith). Other descriptions by the various witnesses included "unbelievably smooth", "flattened disc" with "edges clearly defined". Rogers and Walton estimated an overall diameter of about twenty feet.

As Walton approached on foot across the clearing, the "UFO began to wobble or rock slightly", and then emitted a "bluish light that came from the machine", "a blue ray shot out of the bottom of the craft and hit him , "that ray was the brightest thing I've ever seen". This light sent Walton "backwards through the air ten feet", "hurled through the air in a backwards motion, falling on the ground, on his back", "flying -- like he'd touched a live wire". "The horror was unreal."

Here are two narrative descriptions of the encounter from two of the crewmen, Mike Rogers and Allen Dalis, as told by polygraph examiner Cy Gilson in his summary of test results in 1993.

Dalis' Testimony:

"During the pre-test interview, Mr. Dalis related the following events that occurred on that day. Mr. Dalis said they had finished work for the day and were heading home. It was almost dark. He saw a glow coming from among the trees ahead of them. As they came to a clearing, he saw the object he called a UFO. Mr. Rogers was slowing the truck down to stop as Travis Walton exited the truck and began to advance towards the UFO in a brisk walk... Mr. Dalis described the UFO as being a yellowish white in colour. He said the light emitting from it was not bright but a glow that gave off light all around itself. Mr. Dalis saw Walton reach the UFO, stop and look up at it. He said it looked as if Walton was standing there, slightly bent over, with his hands in his pockets. Mr. Dalis said the UFO began to wobble or rock slightly and he began to become afraid. He put his head down towards his knees. As he did so, a bright light flashed that lit up the area, even the inside of the truck. He immediately looked towards the UFO. He saw a silhouette of Walton. Mr. Walton had his arms up in the air... Mr. Dalis turned towards Mr. Rogers who was in the driver's seat and yelled for him to 'get the hell out of here'..."

Related by Mike Rogers:

"...Mr. Rogers was on the opposite side of the truck from the UFO. He had to bend over slightly to view it in its entirety through the truck windows. He described the UFO to be glowing a yellowish tan colour. He could not say if the light emanated from within the UFO or was a lighting system outside, that lit up the UFO. He did say he could see the shadows of the trees on the ground, around the UFO. He said it was round and about 20 feet in diameter. He said the UFO was about 75 to 100 feet from the truck... As Mr. Rogers started to move the truck, a brilliant flash of light lit up the entire area, even inside the truck. It was described as a prolonged strobe flash. He did not see a beam of light emit from the UFO and hit Walton. As the flash occurred, Mr. Rogers turned around in his seat to look at the UFO again and saw Mr. Walton being hurled through the air in a backwards motion, falling on the ground, on his back. At this time, Mr. Dalis and someone else yelled to get the hell out of here..."

According to the story, upon returning to the scene, the crewmen searched briefly through the woods, calling Walton's name. They then proceeded down to the main road and, after some debate, decided to call the police and ask for assistance. They were first met by a Deputy Ellison and subsequently by Sheriff Marlin Gillespie, who would later describe the crewmen as apparently sincerely distressed. The officers and crewmen went back up the hill and searched again with flashlights, eventually calling off the search and making plans for a more thorough manhunt beginning early the next morning.

The next several days were marked by unsuccessful searches for the missing Walton, including some use of helicopters and dogs. Temperatures dropped below zero the first two nights of the search, dimming hope that he was alive. Meanwhile, law enforcement officials were looking for alternate explanations of the event, including the possibility that Walton had been murdered.

In their initial reports, the six crewmen had indicated a willingness to undergo any kind of lie detection test to establish their truthfulness. After the second day of searching, law enforcement officials brought in Cy Gilson, a polygraph examiner from the Department of Public Safety (associated with the state police,) to test all six. Five of the witnesses passed this polygraph examination, while for the sixth, Allen Dalis, the test was ruled inconclusive (unable to assign a reading).

While the successful tests fueled media interest in the case, the inconclusive result for Dalis put some heat on him personally. While some of the crew members, such as Rogers and Walton, had been friends long before the forest service brush-clearing contract, others were only acquaintances, and in the case of Allen Dalis, he and Walton were said to have had argued in the past.

However, some questions were answered -- and others raised -- when Walton suddenly returned, apparently confused and distressed, phoning his sister from an Exxon station near the small town of Heber just after midnight the night of November 10th.

In his book "Fire in the Sky", Walton would later describe his perceptions as he allegedly first regained consciousness: "I regained consciousness lying on my stomach, my head on my right forearm. Cold air brought me instantly awake. I looked up in time to see a light turn off on the bottom of a curved, gleaming hull... Then I saw the mirrored outline of a silvery disc hovering four feet above the paved surface of the road. It must have been about forty feet in diameter because it extended several feet off the left side of the road... For an instant it floated silently above the road, a dozen yards away. I could see the night sky, the surrounding trees, and the highway centre line reflected in the curving mirror of its hull. I noticed a faint warmth radiating onto my face. Then, abruptly, it shot vertically into the sky, creating a strong breeze that stirred the nearby pine boughs and rustled the dry oak leaves that lay in the dry grass beside the road. It gave off no light, and it was almost instantly lost from sight. The most striking thing about its departure was its quietness..."

Besieged by media, Walton's brother Duane reportedly tried to discreetly provide Travis with medical and scientific attention. The Walton brothers would eventually permit the case to be handled by the UFO investigative organization APRO, led by Jim Lorenzon. This resulted in an exclusive relationship with the National Enquirer, which was seeking the "scoop" on the Walton abduction and helping to bankroll APRO's investigation. The Enquirer, advised by Dr. James Harder of the University of California at Berkeley, arranged for psychological examinations and a polygraph test for Travis. The Enquirer would eventually run a large feature, and APRO touted the case as one of the most important events in UFO history.

Overview Of The Polygraph Evidence:

The initial tests of the six witnesses, performed by Cy Gilson while Walton was still missing, were CQT-format examinations. The questions he asked primarily addressed the possibility of some non-extraordinary foul play at work, but pointedly questioned the witnesses regarding the veracity of the reported UFO event. As mentioned previously, five of the six passed, with the one inconclusive result.

In the next test to be performed, a private investigator named John McCarthy was hired to test Walton relatively soon after his reappearance. McCarthy ruled Walton deceptive, and the test results were regrettably suppressed by APRO and the National Enquirer. (This test will be discussed in detail below.)

A follow-up examination of Walton by George Pfeifer ruled Walton truthful. After allegations aired by critics, Walton's mother and brother also took and passed polygraph tests administered by Pfeifer.

Twenty years later, in 1993, Cy Gilson retested key participants Travis Walton, (foreman and Walton friend) Mike Rogers, and Allen Dalis (the original "inconclusive" result), using a state-of-the-art computer-scored CQT methodology. All three passed.

The significance of the unanimous passing of competently administered CQT examinations by all six witnesses is considerable. Assuming independent tests, the odds of gross hoax (all participants lying about the UFO encounter) is less than one-tenth of a percent using the reasonably conservative figure of 70% for test accuracy, and on the order of one in a million using the 90% figure suggested by field tests. In short, relatively strong evidence that some kind of real event took place. On the basis of such evidence, APRO praised the case as one of the most important in history.

The Debunker Strikes Back:

Media attention attracted both supporters and critics of the UFO phenomenon. One of the most well-known UFO sceptics, Philip Klass, became deeply involved in the case, and vociferously denounced it as a hoax.

Klass published numerous white papers on the case, criticizing witnesses and attributing damaging comments to key players. He would eventually present his completed criticisms in his books "UFOs -- the Public Deceived" and later in "UFO Abductions -- A Dangerous Game".

Some of the negative evidence publicized by Klass is worthy of attention and, at the very least, a raised eyebrow. Most memorably, Walton's brother Duane made a number of curious comments during an interview with UFOlogist Fred Sylvanus during Walton's disappearance, suggesting that he was convinced Travis had embarked on a great adventure. For example, when asked if he believed Travis would be returned, Duane replied: "Sure do. Don't feel any fear for him at all. Little regret because I haven't been able to experience the same thing." (Supporters would later characterize this as Duane's attempt to defuse the popular notion of Travis as a victim, lab rat or hunting trophy.)

But Klass frequently pushed the evidence well past where it was willing to naturally bend. For example, in his discussion of the Sylvanus interview, which took place at the search site and involved both Duane and Mike Rogers, Klass wrote of Rogers (underlined, and in all caps): "BUT AT NO TIME DURING THE HOUR-LONG INTERVIEW DID ROGERS EXPRESS THE SLIGHTEST CONCERN OVER WHETHER TRAVIS MIGHT HAVE BEEN INJURED OR KILLED".

The actual tape includes such comments as these from Rogers: [Recalling event:] "...we're going to have to go back. I agreed, you know, we couldn't leave him over there if he was hurt, which he certainly looked to me like he received some kind of [pause] something, some kind of injury, I don't know if it just stunned him or hurt him. Since we haven't found him we don't know but [big sigh, pause]..." And: "...no tracks, no pieces of clothing, no blood, no nothing. I mean there was no trace of it, and there was no trace of him. Some of the guys started crying; I remember I started crying..."

Klass aggressively tried to characterize Walton as a 'known UFO freak', while Walton denied any unusual interest in the subject prior to his abduction. For example, Klass wrote in his June 1976 paper: "...I asked [Dr. Kandell] whether Travis or Duane had indicated any previous interest in UFOs during his November 11 discussions and examination. Dr. Kandell replied: 'They admitted to that freely, that he [Travis] was a 'UFO freak', so to speak ... He had made remarks that if he ever saw one, he'd like to go aboard.' "

Walton was eventually able to obtain and present Klass' original transcripts of the conversation, which presents a different picture than that suggested by Klass' cut and paste quotation:

Kandell:
They admitted to that freely, that he was, you know, a "UFO freak", so to speak. He's interested in it.

Klass:
Which one?

Kandell:
Travis. He had made remarks before that if he ever saw one, he'd like to go aboard, this and that. So, yes, that was mentioned. That was out.

Klass:
When was that? Was that when you and Dr. Saults were there or when more of the people were there?

Kandell:
No, that was, I think, subsequently, it came out. I don't know whether it was that Friday night, or it could have been that I, that it was in the newspapers, that somebody else might have mentioned it.

Klass:
But you heard it from their own lips?

Kandell:
I think so. I think so. I can't be 100-percent positive. But if I didn't, it was discussed. They didn't deny that. That wasn't denied. Continuing to pound out a negative characterization of key participants.

Klass writes in "UFOs: The Public Deceived":

"Clearly Rogers feared that at least one member of his crew would fail [a follow-up polygraph] test, regardless of who was accepted as the examiner. Investigator Bill Barry's book quotes Rogers as saying, "[Witness] Steve [Pierce] told me and Travis that he had been offered ten thousand dollars just to sign a denial. He said he was thinking about it... So I told him, 'Then you'll spend the money alone, and you'll be bruised.'" The latter suggests that Rogers was threatening Pierce with physical harm if he recanted."

Klass' presentation suggests a hoax organized by Rogers and Walton and held together with raw physical threats (although the reader is left with some confusion as to why Rogers would be admitting this to investigators.) But again, this citation appears in a rather different light when contrasted with the original passage from which Klass is quoting (from Barry's book:)

"According to Mike Rogers, 'Steve told me and Travis that he had been offered ten thousand dollars just to sign a denial. He said he was thinking about taking it. We asked him, 'Even though you know it happened, would you deny it just for the money?' He said maybe he would; he was thinking about it. So I told him, 'Then you'll spend the money alone, and you'll be bruised.' "

Klass' creative use of ellipses artfully shifts the context of the comments. Klass also deceptively injects the term "recant" (with its connotation of a public confession of error), when clearly Pierce was talking about falsely denying the event in return for money.

( Bill Barry, whom Klass is quoting, offered a blistering review of Klass' investigative demeanour, for the record: "His method of dealing with their evidence was harsh, smug, superior, unfair, and sometimes worse. And when push came to shove, and evidence could not be impugned, he simply ignored it and omitted it from consideration." )

Klass eventually focused on his "forest contract theory" for hoax motive, wherein Walton and Rogers were staging the hoax as a way to get out of the forest service contract via an "act of God" provision. According to all parties, Rogers was in fact close to defaulting on the contract. Klass documents this, citing Forest Service Contracting Officer Maurice Marchbanks.

However, Klass failed to relay Marchbanks' opinion of the plausibility of such a motive, as Marchbanks is reported elsewhere stating flatly, "There was no way such an alleged hoax could benefit Rogers." Forest Service Contract Supervisor Junior Williams concurred: "He had no reason -- I didn't see that he had anything to gain, as far as his contract was concerned, or anything else, to conjure up a story of this kind."

Klass On Polygraph Evidence:

Klass attacked the original Gilson tests on the grounds of insufficient questioning regarding the UFO incident. He quoted Gilson as saying, "That one question does not make it a valid test as far as verifying the UFO incident."

This, however, contradicted Gilson's written word at the time. And in 1993, in preparation for retesting, Mike Rogers asked Gilson to state for the record whether his opinion of the original tests had changed. Gilson replied:

"Today, in 1993, I am still of the same opinion that they were valid examinations and the results were conclusive on the five. Even though there was only one question asked that related to the UFO sighting, it was a valid question and the results proved none of you were lying when stating you saw an object that you believe was a UFO. ... I hope this letter will satisfy you, and anyone else, that my beliefs in the results of those examinations, are the same today as they were in 1975."

But however lacklustre Klass' case on all these counts, the crown jewel of his campaign was clearly the discovery of the initial, failed polygraph test of Travis Walton. On a tip, Klass tracked down John McCarthy and found himself in the possession of a genuine scoop: a polygraph test failed by the primary actor Walton and suppressed by the UFOlogical group APRO and the National Enquirer.

APRO's advisors, such as Dr. James Harder, had felt the test was inconclusive as a result of Walton's emotional instability. The Enquirer accepted this and ordered the follow up Pfeifer test. Yet such excuses would ring hollow to the ears of many observers.

In fact, Klass' discovery of the McCarthy test turned many UFOlogists and much of the public against the case. For example as recently as 1997, popular UFOlogist Kevin Randle panned the case as a hoax in his book The Randle Report, arguing that, due to its proximity to the original events, the McCarthy test "spoke volumes" about Walton's truthfulness.

The test would also achieve a sort of urban legend status among UFO sceptics. For example, Anson Kennedy of Georgia Sceptics was quoted on Robert Sheaffer's web site as saying:

"But the real 'bombshell,' as Klass describes it in his book, was the fact that Walton had failed an earlier polygraph examination miserably and this information had been suppressed by APRO, which had been proclaiming the Walton case 'one of the most important and intriguing in the history of the UFO phenomena.' This test was administered by John McCarthy, who with twenty years of experience was one of the most respected examiners in the state of Arizona. His conclusion: 'Gross deception.' Proponents of the Walton case never mention this examination."

The story, including the embellishments (McCarthy "with twenty years of experience was one of the most respected examiners in the state of Arizona") could be traced directly, of course, to Klass.
 
So what happened to Travis Walton in the mountains of Arizona in 1975? The horrific on-craft alien encounter depicted in the 1993 Paramount film is almost entirely a fictional presentation, although the bulk of the film, pertaining to the human drama, is broadly accurate and well presented. Walton's actual memories of his experience include a frightening but brief and unviolent confrontation with large-eyed alien beings (with pupils, as opposed to standard abductee "greys",) followed by an encounter with silent and seemingly bemused humans of exotic appearance who escorted and tranquilized him. Are these memories -- some assisted with hypnotic regression -- an accurate and literal reflection of reality? Like the UFO problem itself, the ultimate explanation of the Walton disappearance remains a protracted mystery.

Compiled by Dave Cosnette.

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