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The Ultimate Secret of the Socorro UFO Hoax Finally Told

(originally published Aug 9 2012)

Paper lantern

For over four and a half decades, many around the world have wondered about the true nature of the sighting in 1964 of a landed unidentified flying object that was reported on the ground and then taking off by Officer Lonnie Zamora in Socorro, NM. In the fall of 2009 this author’s investigation disclosed that the Officer had been victim to a hoax that was perpetrated by students at the New Mexico Institute of Technology.


Now, three years later, a more complete account of the hoax has finally emerged including:


  • The astonishing way the hoax was accomplished

  • The number of people involved in the hoax

  • Why they did not come forward

  • Remarkable film that visually documents how the college students constructed and flew the craft, according to the college’s President

  • The collective concern for Officer Zamora by the perpetrators and the college President in the wake of a youthful folly snowballed out of control



The story of the Socorro UFO sighting by Zamora, the aftermath, and the hoax solution to the sighting were reported by this author in a three-part series available here:

Socorro UFO Hoax Exposed (Famous UFO Sighting Was a College Prank)

Socorro UFO Hoax Part 2: Getting Closer to the Culprits

Socorro UFO Hoax Part 3: Physical Evidence Points to a Prank

The investigation and interviews above produced:


  • A confession after 45 years had passed, by renowned Los Alamos physicist Dr. Stirling Colgate who was the former President of New Mexico Institute of Technology (NMIT), that the event was a hoax by students that he knew. He also confirmed that he had explained this decades ago to his friend, secret UFO researcher Dr. Linus Pauling.


  • An acknowledgement by NMIT professor and philanthropist Dr. Frank Etscorn (who was the inventor of the nicotine patch) that it was a hoax.


  • A confirmation from a leader of the school’s Energetics lab (who was a student there in the mid 1960s) that it was a hoax.


  • Several former students and a school public information administrator offered astounding information on a long-standing tradition of technical pranks – and even a “society” devoted to the pursuit. (Of course one must ask why so many ranking NMIT administrators and illustrious men of science would implicate their own school after being approached if it were not so?)


  • Little-known official reports at the time were surfaced that showed the presence of charred cardboard, footprints and evidence of pyrotechnic ignition at the UFO site.


Stirling Colgate
Dr. Stirling Colgate

Dr. Stirling Colgate is perhaps the greatest living physicist in the world. An associate of Edward Teller, at age 86 Colgate still reports daily to work helping to lead advanced physics for one of the most esteemed scientific institutions on the planet, Los Alamos National Laboratory.


Colgate was the former President of NMIT and was known as a very affable, likable administrator who was very close to his students. So much so that it is reported that he often shared drinks and gossip at Socorro’s Capitol Bar. It is in this air of academic conviviality that Colgate learned of his student’s involvement in the hoax on Zamora.

When a document was discovered in the Pauling archives in which Colgate wrote to his friend, multiple Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Linus Pauling, that the Zamora sighting was a hoax, this author then contacted Colgate. Colgate confirmed the contents of the letter to Pauling and that, among other things:

  • He still knew the incident to have been be a hoax

  • He remains friends with one of the hoaxers

  • That person “does not want his cover blown”

  • Accomplishing the hoax “was a no-brainer"


Now, very recently, Colgate has made things much clearer.


In email replies received by this author from Dr. Colgate dated August 1 2012, and on August 8 2012 to further questions that I had of him, much was learned about the “reasons and ways” of the hoax.


Dr. Colgate has, I believe, truthfully and on his legacy, now graciously imparted to me further insight on the hoax scenario. In his words:


“It was a prank and I was very concerned for Officer Zamora.”


“No one would come forward on this, they were all embarrassed.”


“So many things were pressuring me and still are about this.”


“I did not feel that I could add anything by pressuring the students, and recognized it as a prank.”


“The students were embarrassed about the possible harm that could have come to Zamora (from the prank.)”


“No additional communication with Pauling (on this)”


“He too may have been embarrassed.”


Colgate says more to me in another email, whose additional replies from him are given below. But we learn from the above cryptic comments that Colgate and cohorts acknowledge the obvious, for they too are human:


They felt pressured about what to do, felt embarrassed about what they had done, and were sorry with concern for Lonnie.  Lonnie could have conceivably been fired from the police force, psychologically marred for life or other adverse things.


The hoaxers must have been uncomfortably conscience-stricken about all of this. It was never thought that the story would get so big. They did not mean it to snowball like that.


They were confused about what to do and were shamed life-long about what they had done. And really, who wishes to bring up to friends, family and work associates the youthful follies which we all wished had never happened? Should these perpetrators (who are now retired seniors) turn their world upside down and go public simply for our satisfaction?


We also find out that Pauling too, lost interest and never again brought up the Socorro subject with Colgate, because he too wished not to suffer any potential professional embarrassment in being in any way associated with Socorro. Confirming Colgate, further review of the Pauling archives shows that there was indeed never any further interest in the subject by Pauling.



Beauty is often found in simplicity. And so it is with Socorro. For all of the speculations about the hoax involving such things as tethers, remote control and flame throwers – it needn’t be and wasn’t.


In the August 8th email from Stirling Colgate, he opened up even a bit further about how the students had hoaxed Lonnie. I had of course always wanted to know from him just exactly how the deed was done.  How did the students do it?


I stated to Colgate that he must know how they did it – and directly asked of him:


 “How did they do it? What was the craft made of?”


His short but telling reply:


“A candle in a balloon. Not sophisticated.”


I also asked Stirling how many were “in on the hoax?” Again, a short reply:


“I’d say about 3-6.”


Those who still steadfastly adhere to explanations other than “hoax” to the Zamora sighting will no doubt dislike what was said by Stirling.


But an amazing video by two college-age students from the UK (posted just months after my series on the Socorro hoax) may give us visual documentation of exactly what Dr. Colgate is referring to and how the hoax was performed.


Skeptics of my work on this simply do not wish to accept the truth that Lonnie Zamora first radioed his police partner that the white object “looked like a balloon.”


Here in the video below, two very clever British boys show us what Colgate means by how a simple “candle in a balloon” can also be an extraordinarily effective hoax and aerial effect (you can advance to 1:17 if you wish to go directly to the launch):

Video illustrative of how the hoax was done

Now, not only does Colgate say it that was a “balloon candle” type affair, but he also says that there were a very small number of college students that were involved, perhaps three to six.


And he is again right. There would have minimally been:



Two short students in white coveralls (actually white lab suits) acted as “aliens” and had launched from the ground Lonnie’s landed “UFO.” Lonnie never claimed that he saw the short people get into the “vehicle.” By that time he was too busy escaping or planning his escape to really note where they went.


One additional student that was needed was a speeder to lead Lonnie just out of town and near where the two “aliens” awaited Lonnie.  This should have been the most obvious clue of all to a hoax: Lonnie had to somehow be made to get to the hoax – and he was, by a freshman in the car like the above.



Another student was used to create the explosion that had diverted Lonnie on a direct path to the “staging area.” This student may have also created the roaring and high pitched sounds that Lonnie reported emitting from the UFO. The sounds that Lonnie reported were actually resultant from “pyrotechnic whistles” according to the President of the world’s leading fireworks association (see prior articles.)  All of this material was available at the school’s Energetics Lab which sponsors the annual July 4th fireworks.


So Colgate is correct that about at least 3-6 students were involved in executing the prank.


A very large white candle balloon (with a red, drawn symbol on its side) launched by lab-suited students are what Lonnie saw. The roars were provided by both the balloon-flame contraption and by pyrotechnic whistles. As shown in the UK video above, such devices, even when rather large, can travel very high and far – and quickly.


Lonnie Zamora

Many still will insist that no one could be fooled by such a lit balloon contraption. But one must consider several things about the sole witness to the event:


Lonnie was confused, stirred up and frightened:

In small town Socorro, Officer Zamora was often tasked to “deal with” the students at the school. A student speeder trying to “show off” his hot vehicle whisks by Lonnie and Lonnie is in hot pursuit. This is surely not how Zamora wished to be spending a Spring evening awaiting the leave of the students from the school, being stirred up and having to chase some smart and smarmy kid-speeder. Lonnie then is startled to hear an explosion “like from a dynamite shack.” He was confused by the unfamiliar flying thing and frightened to crouch from the flame, roar and whistles.

Lonnie had impaired vision and required corrective lenses, which he lost:


We do not know if Lonnie wore single vision or bifocal lenses, but the images of him available to us show very thick lenses. Such lenses mean that the wearer’s vision is seriously compromised relative to the ability to correctly estimate distance.  And at a critical point of viewing the “UFO,” we know that startled Lonnie had jolted his glasses, dropped them to the ground, and stooped to locate them, found them, placed them back on his head and then re-adjusted his position to locate the UFO to see it again.


Lonnie reported things as he saw them, did his utmost best to answer questions put to him, and was a good person. But like all of us, he had his flaws…including flaws with his powers of perception that dusky day. He was not “Saint Zamora of Socorro.” He was neither an educated man nor an articulate or especially intelligent man, as gracefully noted by the Air Force’s Dr. J. Allen Hynek in his interview report of Zamora.  Lonnie probably had never seen such an unusual thing and to his faulty perception that day, remained honestly and thoroughly confused. And remember also the context of the time, 1964, a time when satellites were like science fiction and man had barely even been in space, and not yet on the moon.


Combining all of these things, it is easy to see how this sole witness out in the arroyo could imagine that he was seeing something truly remarkable. But it really was not that at all.



Continued appeals to truth and to history sometimes pay off. Such persistence in doggedly pursuing such old folks to find that truth for history sometimes gets me in trouble on such old cases. I am called overly aggressive and “leading” by some.  Say what they will, but it often yields answers and the solutions to mysteries. I approach and re-approach witnesses to Roswell, as well as in all my UFO investigation. When TV’s “Columbo” Peter Falk solved crimes, it was always at the very end, after taking some time, and always with a “re-approach’ of someone with whom he had already discussed the crime. Waiting a few years perhaps got Dr. Colgate to thinking it was about time to tell as much of the truth as he could.


And so it is with Socorro. Time has finally told all.

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