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Famous 1964 sighting was a college prank

(originally published Sept 2009)

Socorro Incident (Lrgr).jpg

After 45 years the truth is now revealed – one of the most famous UFO sightings in history was a hoax. The recent confession of an elderly College President – and a newly discovered document – indicate that the 1964 sighting of a landed UFO by Socorro, NM policeman Lonnie Zamora was the result of an elaborate school prank. This incredible story is publicly recounted for the first time ever by individuals who have held the secret of Socorro for decades.


Lonnie Zamora.jpg
Officer Lonnie Zamora

Socorro Policeman Lonnie Zamora was performing his town patrol duties on Friday, April 24, 1964. But this would be unlike any other patrol Sgt. Zamora had ever experienced. At about 5:50 PM, Sgt. Zamora started pursuit of a speeding car. But the chase was broken off when Zamora heard a loud explosion. He thought perhaps it came from a dynamite shack nearby. He then observed a cone of flame traveling over a hill. Once over the hill, Zamora stopped his car about 100 feet away from what he reported as a strange landed 20 foot "aluminum-white" oval object resting on structured "legs." The ovoid had a red insignia about two feet wide on its surface. Though the artistic rendition of the UFO above depicts an opening, Zamora had reported the object as smooth, without any windows or doors. Zamora also noticed what appeared to be two figures "the size of small adults or large kids" and "normal in shape" wearing "white coveralls" walking around the object.

As Zamora left his car, he bumped it and his glasses fell off. As he started to approach the object on foot, the figures jumped away from his view. He reports that a flame from the underside of the craft then appeared and the object roared away. Zamora heard a high-pitched whine and then silence. The object traveled very fast over him, and then just three feet above a nearby shack – and finally out of view over another hill. Left

at the site were four "landing impressions" as well as areas of burnt creosote bush near where the object has rested.


Zamora, shocked, then radioed to another officer what he had just observed. When the officer asked Zamora "What does it look like?" Zamora responded, "It looks like a balloon." Zamora would later state that he did not know exactly what it was – it could have been a secret military experiment or even ET. Zamora has remained reluctant to offer his opinion on the specific nature or origin of the craft. He says it was strange and frightening. But he leaves the analysis to others – and only indicates that he was sincere in reporting what he had observed. And Zamora was sincere. And he was extremely cooperative with investigators. But he was also hoodwinked.


The period following the sighting in 1964 found Socorro a town turned upside-down. It was also an active one for Lonnie Zamora. He was visited by many journalists and UFO researchers. This included officials from the US Air Force Project Blue Book, investigators from the civilian UFO study group NICAP, and noted skeptics. The story received national and international media attention. To this very day Socorro remains one of the most well-known UFO incidents in history. Still living, long retired and exhausted of the matter, Zamora now avoids any talk about the event.




A former New Mexico Tech President affirmed in the 1960s, in a reply to a letter from renowned scientist Dr. Linus Pauling, that the Socorro UFO was a hoax.


A letter from Dr. Pauling located within the Special Collections of Oregon State University (where the Pauling papers are archived) provides insight into the true nature of the Socorro sighting. In a 1968 letter to Dr. Stirling Colgate – the President of New Mexico Tech – Pauling inquires about the Socorro sighting. Colgate replied to Pauling by sending back Pauling's letter with a handwritten notation at the bottom. Dr. Colgate writes: "I have a good indication of the student who engineered the hoax. Student has left. Cheers, Stirling."


This telling letter can be viewed here (click to enlarge):

Dr. Pauling (a multiple Nobel-Prize winner) was very interested in the UFO phenomenon. An earlier article by this author details Pauling's secret UFO studies. He was researching the Socorro-Zamora landing case when he decided to write to his friend Dr. Colgate, to see what he might have known about the incident. Dr. Colgate's blunt reply leaves little doubt that tricksters were involved. But to allay any further doubt, I contacted Colgate.


Stirling Colgate smiling, wearing hat.jpg

As well as having been NM Tech's President, Dr. Stirling Colgate was a world-famous astrophysicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Considered a science visionary, he specialized in plasma and atmospheric physics. His discoveries in these fields are acknowledged as monumental. His associates included such luminaries as Oppenheimer and Pauling. Colgate still maintains an

Pauling letter to Colgate
Pauling letter to Colgate
Dr. Stirling Colgate

office at Los Alamos at age 84! This author emailed Colgate to see what his thoughts are today on the Socorro UFO and to see if he would shed additional light on the event. In my email to Colgate I attached the Pauling letter from 1968 with Colgate's handwritten notes on the Socorro UFO.


Colgate took several days to reply to me. In his email, Colgate answered very cryptically and sparingly:

  • To the question, "Do you still know this to be a hoax? His reply was simple: "Yes."

  • When asked, "Today, decades later, can you expand on what you wrote to Pauling about the event?" He wrote: "I will ask a friend, but he and other students did not want their cover blown."


  • He offered that the hoax, "was a no-brainer."


  • When asked "Specifically how did they do it?" He just answered, "Will ask."


  • When queried, "Have you ever publicly commented on this?" he replied "Of course not."


It has been some time now, and I have never heard back from Stirling Colgate. He indicated that he would "make some inquiries" to see what more could be detailed on the event. Perhaps his "friend and the other students" who he alludes to are still not ready to come forward and be identified. As Colgate puts it, maybe they still do not "want their cover blown."


Or perhaps Colgate was stunned that the Pauling letter was ever discovered – and knows that he has already said too much. Colgate is likely conflicted about having known about the hoaxers – and the truth about the Socorro UFO – for decades. He said nothing publicly then – and prefers to not say a whole lot more now.



Dr. Frank T. Etscorn was a Psychology Professor at New Mexico Tech from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s. Dr. Etscorn is famously known for being the inventor of the Nicotine Patch. A wing of the College was dedicated to Etscorn in 1993. Etscorn had known about the Socorro UFO event from the decade before he began work at the College – and it had always intrigued him. This author learned of his interest and contacted Dr Etscorn to ask if he had ever found out anything about the sighting and what had really happened. In a recent telephone conversation, Dr. Etscorn related:

"As a project, a former student of mine had examined the case in the mid 1980s. Using yearbooks and networking, she began calling alumni who were at Tech in 1964. She somehow located one of the former students believed to have been involved. He would not

New Mexico Tech

expand on the hoax or have his name used – but she found out it was a hoax. My memory of her investigation is spotty – it was 25 years ago. But I remember that she also found out through records that coincidentally a rear projection device was stolen from the campus the day of the UFO sighting."


Etcorn was a noted psychologist. He said that the psychology of these Techies was such that they liked to fool those who they thought were foolish.


We discussed how the pranksters may have incorporated:


  • A large helium balloon resting on the desert floor to appear "landed" and then released up into the air on cue. Perhaps it was a reflective white colored balloon or a balloon fitted over with glossy-white craft paper – with added "landing struts" and a red insignia drawn on its side.


  • "Roaring" or "whining" explosives, pyrotechnics, model rockets, thrown flares or a flame device.


  • Smaller students dressed in white lab coats acting as the "aliens".


  • The digging out of "landing depressions" and burning of nearby bushes. Soil or rock in the area may have been "salted" with silicon or trinitite from the school's Geology Lab.


And perhaps it was intentional that Zamora was led to the landed craft by a speeding car. One of the students may have purposely engaged Lonnie in a car chase to lure him to where the hoax was staged. Zamora reports that he "broke the chase" to investigate the UFO – just as the students knew that he would.


Though these ideas about how the hoax may have been accomplished are strictly speculative, Dr. Etscorn reminded me of an important fact: Nothing that was reported was beyond the abilities of "smart Techies" to create.




Dave Collis was a freshman at New Mexico Tech in 1965, a year after the Socorro UFO incident. Collis went on to become a published scientist helping to lead the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center at NM Tech. He is considered a world expert in researching blast effects and explosives.


Collis explained that he himself enjoyed planning pranks when he was a student at Tech. In 1965, he and his friends had planned a "paranormal" prank and shared the plan with one of his trusted Professors. The Professor (who had been with Tech for years) told him that NM Tech had a long history of pranking – and that one of them was especially noteworthy. Collis then said that the Professor (whose name he does not remember or does not wish to offer) had "confidentially told me that the UFO sighting by the town cop was a hoax done by Techie students." Collis did not want to press the Professor on who did it – or how. Collis says, "He was telling me this in confidence, so I didn't ask for the details and he didn't offer." When asked if the Professor could have been making up the hoax story, Collis replied that in the context of his conversation with him, there was no reason for him to lie. The Professor had told him the truth about the hoax, of that he was sure. Collis, when told about Stirling Colgate's confirmation that it was a hoax said, "Colgate is a brilliant man and he was a great College President. From what I was told by my Professor, it was a hoax. And if Colgate also says it was a hoax, it was." Collis (who is a pyrotechnics expert and often directed NM Tech's July 4 Fireworks) said that it always has surprised him that people didn't seem to realize just how "terrestrial" the reported Zamora UFO seemed to be in the first place.




Collis also explained that Lonnie Zamora had a reputation for "hounding" the Techie students during that time. The students and the Socorro police did not have a particularly good relationship back then. He said that there was "a lot of friction" at the time between what were felt to be "elitist and educated Techies" versus the "under-educated and simpler town folk." Zamora was always harassing the students for seemingly no reason, and at every opportunity. Many of the college kids just did not like him. What better way to "get back" at Zamora than for them to fool a fool?


Little known is that Zamora himself had worked at New Mexico Tech as a mechanic for seven years before becoming a patrolman. He had developed an insiders view of these college kids' world – a world that was very different than his own. When he left to join the town police, he was then in a position to exert his "influence" on these same kids. Collis further explains that Zamora was known as being "not especially educated." Supporting this are the observations of USAF investigator Dr. J. Allen Hynek. He wrote in his report of his interview of Zamora, "I would conclude that Zamora, although not overly bright or articulate, is basically sincere."



As readers of my articles well realize, I am convinced that ET has visited Earth. But I am also a critical thinker. I recognize the role that pranks and hoaxes have played when it comes to things UFO. I am not happy to report the results of my investigation – but it is a story that must be told. It is an obligation to history and truth. The compulsion to prank is a reality we must always bear in mind in evaluating all UFO reports.


Neil Steinburg's classic study on college pranks, "If At All Possible Involve a Cow: The Book of College Pranks" is very instructive relative to the Socorro hoax. Steinburg's hypothesis is that college pranks happen because there are many young creative minds that feel "stifled." And these minds are looking for release – a little fun. And there is a "geek" connection. Complicated and sophisticated pranks are often pulled off by engineering or science students who have the technical know-how. The many well-known stunts by students at MIT and Caltech show that the grander the stunt, the more highly educated the students. The "fun" of such pranks does not come from admission to them, it comes from the reaction to them.

I recall two pranks that were pulled off by others during my own college days when living in Boston. MIT students had perfected two stunts that were mind-boggling. The first involved taking an enormous promotional prop "cow statue" (weighing a quarter-ton) from the lawn of a suburban steakhouse. Somehow the students were able to hoist the huge cow figure on top of the famous MIT "dome building." They removed it the following day – and returned it to the steakhouse lawn – without anyone ever having seen them. To this day, no one has ever owned up to the prank – and no one has ever come forward stating that they saw the stunt being carried out. It is still unknown how this was accomplished without use of a heavy construction crane. The second prank involved a high-tech catapult. Somehow the MIT students were able to hurl large clear water balloons made of very thin material up and over two city streets. The water balloons were sent careening across the block with precision to land exactly at the entrance of another college's building. When people went to open the door, invisible "water bombs" hit them out of nowhere – causing them to get soaked. Visibly stunned, they had no idea where the water burst came from – and had to go to class soaking wet.




Great jokes can be carried out with great planning and calculation. But great jokes can also backfire. Perhaps the Socorro UFO hoaxers continue to get a "big laugh" over the whole thing and revel in their prank done decades ago. But it is more likely that the New Mexico Tech pranksters – who perhaps became famous scientists – are today oldsters in retirement struggling with what they did. They played a trick on a community, a nation and the world. They are keenly aware that they had involved the Air Force, media, scientists and many others. They know that Zamora's life was made difficult by the event. He was made a spectacle and suffered hugely from the unwanted attention. They must ponder their youthful folly – and how much time, effort and money was expended in the prank's long aftermath. It was "a prank gone wild." It had escalated beyond what they could ever have imagined. Often pulling off a brilliant prank "traps" the pranksters. They create the illusion, but they never receive the "credit." And no credit was ever sought by those who engineered one of the greatest hoaxes in UFO history.

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