UPDATE ON WHY FAMOUS 1964 UFO-COP CASE
WAS A HOAX
(Originally published Nov 2017 )
A SOCORRO SUMMARY
On April 24, 1964 at 5:45 PM in Socorro, New Mexico, a law enforcement officer named Lonnie Zamora reported seeing a landed egg-shaped craft, with its occupants standing outside the UFO. Long believed to have been one of the best UFO cases in history, over a years-long investigation this author uncovered the truth: the sighting was one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated. The hoax was exposed as a college prank by students at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in the following articles:
In this latest report, we learn more about:
The college president’s final statements on the matter
A famous science-fiction author who visited the site right after the landing and declared it a hoax
Statements made by faculty and students who were there at the time, that cast doubt on the event as an actual UFO incident
Why the town doesn’t want to talk
A hoaxer, identified and interviewed
COLLEGE PRESIDENT’S FINAL CORRESPONDENCE ON THE HOAX
Dr. Stirling Colgate emailed me three times about the event. His final email to me in 2011 (Colgate died age 88 in 2013) confirms and reiterates that the incident was a hoax by students. He also chastises me for making public my dialog with him. The email is reproduced in part here for the first time. Colgate replied to my email by adding his responses below my comments to him. I have placed his responses in italics:
AB (Anthony Bragalia):
You told Dr. Pauling that it was a hoax and that the student who engineered it had left.
SC (Stirling Colgate):
That is still the best of my memory.
You confirmed to me 45 years later that this was true: that one of the perps was a personal friend of yours, that it was a “no-brainer”, that they “didn't want their covers blown”, that you have not talked about this publicly, that you would see if now they would come forward.
The Late Dr. Stirling Colgate
(Los Alamos Physicist,
former NMIMT President,
I should not have told you that, but indeed it was a hoax…it was a mistake to be quoted.
You simply cannot deny this. And you are angry with me that I found your reply to Pauling in his archives. You never thought ‘in a million years’ that it would be found out nearly a half-century later.
I am not angry that you found that letter. It is what I knew then and now. It is only you posting it on the web without it being a collaborative effort with academic publishing.
Do you intend on telling more, and confirming more specifically what you have told Pauling and me?
There is no more to tell.
Do you believe that it is your obligation to truth and to history to reveal all, or is your loyalty to the pranksters?
I resent the last question, having dedicated my life to science.
In the email quoted above, Colgate states three additional times that Lonnie’s UFO sighting resulted from a hoax: “That is the best of my memory”, “indeed it was a hoax”, and “It is what I knew then and now.”
However, he said that “it was a mistake to be quoted.” He adds later that it should have been “a collaborative effort with academic publishing.” I had told him that I was an author, so his claim that I should not write about it was a bit disingenuous, and I had also said that I was “researching the history of science” – we had not agreed to a collaboration to academically publish this story. His claim that “there is no more to tell” is belied by his suggestion that we should have published about the event in a journal. Colgate’s conflict is evident. He wished that the story of the students had never gotten out, and now he wanted to protect them, but he also didn't want people believing a myth about ET visitation to Socorro.
FAMOUS SCI-FI WRITER SMELLED A HOAX RIGHT AFTER THE INCIDENT
The acclaimed science fiction writer Jack Williamson (who hailed from Portales, NM) lent keen insight into the UFO event. Williamson, active until his death at age 98, was well-known for his work that appeared in pulp fiction magazines for decades, including Amazing Stories and Astounding Fiction. Williamson, a visionary, conceived and coined the term “terraforming” in 1942.
His friend, fellow sci-fi writer Frederik Pohl, related in his 2000 book Chasing Science, that he and Williamson investigated the site of the “UFO landing” at Socorro very soon after it happened. They saw evidence of human involvement, and believed it to be the work of students at the nearby New Mexico Institute of Technology. They had found clues that led them to this conclusion:
Williamson had observed four depressions in the sand, appearing to him as human-made, which led him to immediately believe that this was a “set up”.
Also, he brilliantly noted something that others never mentioned: the burned bushes, thought to result from the craft’s take-off emissions, were scorched from the bottom up. One would expect that bushes scorched by flames from above would be scorched from the top down. He believed that pyrotechnics were involved, and of course he was right.
LONNIE DRANK, STUDENTS PRANKED
Socorro’s Memorial Mural to the Zamora Sighting,
Sergeant Zamora was not “Saint Lonnie of Socorro”. Many people over the years have elevated this man to a place of undeserving virtue. Dave Thomas (an employee of New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, and President of New Mexicans for Science and Reason) decided to set up an intranet website expressly for staff and alumni of the College. The purpose was to create a venue where people could place comments on the Socorro UFO event. It was hoped that such comments would provide further understanding of what happened that day.
Incredibly, the site generated several posts from those who had personal knowledge about the occurrence and about Zamora, people who were there in the 1960s. And what they said was revealing:
“It was widely believed then that it was a Tech student’s prank. There were numerous pranksters at Tech in those days.”
“Zamora did drink too much.”
“Lonnie Zamora was reported to have a fondness for drink.”
“I always felt that late afternoon on a Friday was pretty curious, and feels like ‘grand finale’ for pranksters to me."
“Tech has always had older grad students who were (are still) brilliant, quickly clever and just subtle enough to pull off such a believable prank.”
“Lonnie drank. I hung out at the Capitol Bar with him.”
It should be noted here that Dave Collis, formerly of the College’s Energetic Materials Research Center and a student in the 1960s at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, told me in no uncertain terms that Lonnie was often seen drinking beers at the local tavern and was not averse to tipping the elbow. Others interviewed have indicated that Zamora (who worked for eight years at the College as a mechanic before becoming an officer) was irritated by the out-of-towner students and was quick to anger with them.
Dr. J. Allen Hynek, UFO investigator for the USAF at the time, who interviewed Zamora, wrote in his report a rather back-handed compliment about Zamora’s level of intelligence: “I would conclude that Zamora, although not overly bright or articulate, is basically sincere.” Bear in mind too, that Zamora wore thick corrective lenses and lost his glasses for a period of time during his UFO encounter. So we are left with a sincere but excited, sight-impaired individual of limited mental prowess as our sole witness to the UFO landing. Although some, including Kevin Randle, point out that some other witnesses (including some whose names were either not taken down or were not publicly released) reported seeing an impressive craft in the air, none of these reported a landed craft or small figures. And what they likely saw in the sky was the unique balloon sent aloft by students. The same one seen by Lonnie Zamora.
THE TOWN THAT DOESN’T WANT TO KNOW THE TRUTH
Socorro’s Memorial Mural to the Zamora Sighting,
I had an extremely revealing conversation last month with Mr. Paul Harden, a long-time Socorro resident and the town’s unofficial “historian”. Mr. Harden indicated that he is angry with me for saying that the sighting was a hoax. He thought that I was out to “ruin” Socorro’s claim to fame. He then cursed me most foully. I told him that I was simply trying to find the truth.
When I mentioned Dr. Stirling Colgate’s letter to Dr. Linus Pauling about the hoax, he laid into me: “That son of a bitch. He was a dope-smoking asshole. He should never have said the things that he did.” Harden then slammed the phone down on me.
I knew in that instant that many in Socorro simply do not really want to know the truth.
In fact, the town has constructed a mural memorial to Zamora’s UFO sighting (see above). Located several hundred yards from the site, it reads in part:
'Southwest of this location is one of the best documented UFO sightings in history. It was witnessed by Socorro Police Officer Lonnie Zamora.'
Lonnie is artfully painted in larger-than-life perspective on the main mural panel, standing aside his police car, in an arroyo. Saint Lonnie of Socorro.
WHY WERE FACULTY AND ADMINISTRATION AT THE COLLEGE SO TIGHT-LIPPED ABOUT THE EVENT?
In Kevin Randle’s new book on Socorro, Encounter in the Desert: The Case for Alien Contact at Socorro, he recounts an observation by the late skeptic Phil Klass that “while he was in Socorro, [Klass] had noticed that the scientists at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology seemed to be underwhelmed by the idea that an alien spacecraft had landed in their town.”
In Klass’s words, “If the story was true, the most exciting scientific event of all time – a visit from an extraterrestrial spaceship – had occurred almost within sight of the institute. How could these scientists be so uninterested?"
How indeed! Well, because they didn’t want their students to be implicated. They knew – like Dr. Colgate and Dr. Etscorn and Dave Collis’s professor – what those kids did, and that they would have to be expelled. It was good-natured fun, by bored but talented tech-nerds, that snowballed out of control. Kevin points out Klass’s excellent, well-founded point about uninterested scientists, but fails to explore just why the supposed “lack of interest”. That’s because it wasn’t a lack of interest, but rather it was out of an abundance of concern that their silence was maintained. Concern for the ruined reputation of the school and the ruined lives of the involved students kept faculty and admin in the know on the down low. Not answering questions or offering information on the event that had happened in their very midst may have seemed strange, but not when you realize just how risky it would have been to do so.
ENTER WORLD-FAMOUS BEHAVIORIST DR. FRANK ETSCORN: “IT WAS A HOAX”
Dr. Frank Etscorn
Remarkably, skeptics of the hoax (including Kevin Randle in his new book) never mention the other equally illustrious New Mexico Tech administrator and scientist, Dr. Frank Etscorn, who knew the event to be a hoax. Dr. Etscorn is a renowned behavioral psychologist, the inventor of the nicotine patch, a multi-millionaire, and a philanthropist for whom a wing of the college is named.
About two decades after the Socorro encounter, Dr. Etscorn was approached by a graduate student about her research plans for her Masters thesis. Dr. Etscorn related to me that the grad wanted to re-examine the Lonnie Zamora UFO encounter. She had a sneaking suspicion that the event had far more to do about psychology than anything that might relate to the extraterrestrial. And she was right.
Dr. Etscorn relates that the grad student went through college yearbooks from the relevant timeframe with a fine-tooth comb. Clues were obtained in text describing various students and their interests, etc. After she conducted interviews and made a few well-placed inquiries, the graduate student (as did I) received an admission to the hoax from one of the perpetrators.
And, like my encounter with a perpetrator, he wanted his name left out of it. He wanted people to know the truth and not to believe in a fantasy. As a man of science, he did not want a myth to continue due to his folly. But he did not want to run the risk of ruining his career and reputation and relations with friends and family.
Dr. Etscorn told me that, so convinced was he that his graduate student had solved the Socorro story and identified a hoaxer, he gave her an A on her thesis paper!
Left entirely unanswered by hoax skeptics (including Kevin Randle) is why Dr. Stirling Colgate, Dr. Frank Etscorn, Dave Collis (Energetics Lab) and several other senior administrators and alumni would wish to implicate their own students? Why would these men of science, who are by nature truth-detectors and fact-checkers, lie or misinterpret? Why would they wish to tarnish the reputation of the school? Why would they want to run the risk of harming their former students involved in the hoax? Because their commitment to truth is greater than any of those things.
A HOAXER FOUND, A LESSON LEARNED
This author 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. Using resources and clues obtained over years, the identification was not easy. There were many missed opportunities, embarrassing moments, and awkward calls.
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 (I was not told, but I will make a good attempt later in this piece). 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.
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?
The man is rightly concerned that having his name used would mean continued calls at all hours from strangers, emails from those he does not know, demanding answers. Perhaps knocks at the door from unwelcome inquisitors. Reporters? Why do they need to, for our sake, disrupt the winter of his life, and those of others involved? Why should those involved cause harm to their legacies? Why should they be shamed in front of their families? For what reason should they break a promise made to close college friends that none of them will ever say anything to anyone ever about any involvement in the hoax?
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?”
So that even if they were to come forward as people want, and say how the hoax was done – there will no doubt be critics. There will be those who would say “technically it could not have been done that way” or “it doesn’t fit Lonnie’s testimony”. That is, no amount of explanation would ever be enough.
The worst scenario would be to be believed. That would mean scorn. The perpetrator would be asked how he could ruin Lonnie’s life? How could you live with yourself knowing what you had done?
In talking to him, it was clear: all of this meant more to me than to him. He does not obsess about it like many of us do. I got the distinct impression that he puts it out of his mind, compartmentalizing it as a means of coping with what he had done. Many of us feel that the hoaxers have an obligation to identify themselves and tell all. They of course have no such obligation whatsoever. No more than you have an obligation to tell your daughter about that wild weekend with Jennie back in ’84. Nor do you tell Aunt Helen about the terrific weed that frat brother Joe had at that party in ’87.
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 of substance about the event. 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.
HOW THE GREATEST UFO HOAX IN HISTORY WAS LIKELY DONE
1964/5 Photo of Balloon Aloft near the Zamora Site.
New Mexico Tech Students from the Atmospherics Department.
Does This Picture Show One of the Hoaxers?
The Red Insignia
The International Paper Logo, 1964 (Inspiration for the Red Insignia on the Craft)
The Small Figures in White Coveralls
Similar to New Mexico Tech Physics Department
in the Mid-1960s
Zamora was led to the staging scene by a student speeder
In fact, every element of the hoax could be found at the school. From the balloon from the Atmospherics Department, to the IP paper reams, to the white coveralls from the Physics Lab, to the sounds from the craft (as pyrotechnic whistles from the school’s Energetics Lab) and even the fused sand found at the site (which came from the Geology Department of the Mining school) – everything was there to create the perfect hoax. Of course the essential element was the enterprising young people, bored with the town and mad at the town’s cop. They were the ones who kept the silence and fooled the world for a half century.