Strangers in the Night

In 1966, Ohio cops chased a UFO into Pennsylvania. Then the government got involved, and things got really weird.

April 17, 1966, 5 a.m.: Chief Gerald Buchert is on patrol in Mantua, when the Portage County Sheriff's Department sends word over the radio for its deputies to look for lights in the sky, last seen headed east.

Buchert races home to wake his wife and grab his camera. Joan Buchert is still groggy as Gerald leads her from the house, babbling excitedly but making little sense. She becomes annoyed with his refusal to explain why she must venture outside in her bathrobe before sunrise.

She stops complaining abruptly as he points into the dark, cloudless sky. An object resembling two tea saucers joined together hovers not far from their yard. Light emanates from it, but it makes no sound. Then it moves slowly and deliberately to the east, tilting and tipping along the way. Gerald snaps a photo before the object moves out of sight.

At about the same time near Ravenna, Portage County deputies Dale Spaur and Wilbur "Barney" Neff are investigating a car abandoned at the side of a rural road. The vehicle appears to be filled with radio equipment. Painted on the side is a triangle with a lightning bolt through it and the words "Seven Steps to Hell."

From behind, they hear a strange electrical humming sound. They turn and watch in amazement as a saucer-shaped craft -- perhaps 50 feet long and 20-some feet high -- rises slowly from behind the trees and hovers in the air. A bright light shines from the bottom, bathing the ground. Squinting, the officers make out what appears to be a dome on top and a protrusion like a thick antenna.

Spaur remembers his radio and reports what he's seeing. After a confused exchange, the dispatcher advises the officers to shoot it down, so they'll be able to prove their story. Spaur draws his gun hesitantly and aims it at the craft.

At the Ravenna police station, Sergeant Henry Shoenfelt suddenly wonders whether Spaur and Neff have spotted a government weather balloon. He gets on the radio himself and reverses the order to fire. Wait there, he says, until someone can be sent with a camera.

But then the craft suddenly starts hauling ass to the east. Spaur and Neff scramble back to their car and give chase.

Half an hour later, Spaur and Neff are miles out of their jurisdiction, racing down dark, rural roads at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour. Near the Pennsylvania border, Officer Wayne Huston of the East Palestine PD joins the chase, which continues over the state line. Even as the impending dawn pales the sky, the lights of the strange craft remain distinct.

Back in Ravenna, the dispatcher calls an air-traffic control tower in Pittsburgh. While they are on the phone, Spaur radios in to say there are already fighter jets in the sky, flying toward the craft. Another Portage County deputy also sees three jets moving to intercept.

At about 6:15 a.m., Spaur and Neff's car sputters -- it's running on fumes. They pull into a Conway, Pennsylvania service station, where Officer Frank Panzanella stands drinking coffee, watching the object sail by.

Moments later, Spaur, Neff, Huston, and Panzanella listen as their radios pick up chatter between pilots who are chasing the craft. As they catch sight of it below them, the saucer accelerates rapidly, heading straight up this time, and disappears.

When residents of Mantua, a small community in Portage County, called the police during the 1960s, the phone rang in Gerald Buchert's house.

"As kids, we weren't supposed to touch that phone," says his son, Harry Buchert. "For a while, it was a one-man police department. So he was it, 24 hours a day. My dad was very dedicated to the police department. It's probably what caused his death." Gerald Buchert was still chief of police when he suffered a brain aneurysm in 1986.

In life, the chief was known for his stubbornness. "If he thought something was right, he wouldn't back down," recalls Joan, his wife. But he'd be forced to make an exception -- publicly, at least -- amid the furor touched off by his close encounter.

The next morning, The Plain Dealer and three other papers carried stories about the high-speed, two-state chase. The PD quoted Buchert as saying the object was "round when I looked straight up at it, but when it moved to the left -- I feel like an idiot saying this -- it looked like a saucer, like two table saucers put together."

The attention from the local media was only the beginning. Tiny Mantua and other parts of Portage County were soon overrun with reporters from all over. The UFO phenomenon was already decades old in 1966, but this sighting was one of the most dramatic -- and seemingly credible, coming from police officers -- ever reported.

"It was like we set off a bomb in this town." recalls Joan Buchert. "My husband lost 20 pounds in three days."

Harry remembers the endless phone calls and knocks on the door. "It was three days of living hell."

Buchert wasted no time in getting his film developed. He was known for working by a simple code -- "Cover your ass" -- and that's what the photo would do. Or so he thought.

When he was finally satisfied that he'd captured an image of the craft, he called the Cleveland office of the FBI. An agent referred him to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton. Buchert relayed what he'd seen and was told that someone would be in touch.

Major Hector Quintanilla called the next morning. In addition to the incident, they discussed the photograph. The major told Buchert he could release a grainy copy of the photo to the press, but that he should send the negatives directly to him. The chief readily agreed.

Only later did this seemingly routine request begin to look like a setup. As it turned out, photographic evidence and vivid eyewitness accounts would mean little to the Air Force. From his office at Wright-Patterson, Quintanilla released a statement: Buchert's film was "severely fogged," he wrote, and the fuzzy image on it was nothing more exciting than a processing defect.

Furthermore, he said, his experts concluded that the officers had chased a stationary object -- the planet Venus, warped by atmospheric conditions. Nothing unusual appeared on radar, he said, and no fighter jets were sent up.

The press abruptly backed off, but the cops were incensed. They were hardworking men, devoted to their jobs and respected in their towns, and the United States government had just told the world that they were stupid enough to have chased a planet from Ravenna to the outskirts of Pittsburgh.

Buchert later documented his frustration: "I was advised . . . that what I saw was PROBABLY only the planit [sic] Venus as it was in that general area," he wrote on April 22, 1966. "I asked the Major [Quintanilla] if it was the planit [sic] Venus then how come it moved up and down and to the side. I at one time kept the wires from the telephone pole in view and the object DID go below the wires and then above them. The wires were NOT moving. I was advised by the Major that this was due to the atmospheric conditions most likely."

And who could refute that? Quintanilla had an authority on such mistaken-identity cases, civilian astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek, working for him. But it would later become clear that Hynek had been out of the loop on this one.

Even after the reporters had left Mantua and the excitement had died down, Buchert felt as if everyone in town was looking at him funny. He almost resigned. Over time he learned to live with the notoriety, but he never forgot. In a scrapbook, he kept every report, every newspaper article, every scrap of information pertaining to the day that he couldn't bring himself to discuss.

Harry has that scrapbook now. He keeps it in his office at the Mantua police station, where he has served as chief since his father's death. For years, he has wanted nothing more than to find some way to clear his father's name. This would be no small feat, given the time that's gone by and the "official conclusion" of the Air Force. But Harry has some unlikely allies: the sons of the government officials.

Karl Quintanilla's earliest memories are of his father, Hector, getting ready for work. Donning his Air Force uniform. Sliding a firearm into his shoulder holster. Handcuffing a briefcase to his wrist.

In the early 1960s, Hector Quintanilla had been a security officer for the Air Force out of Rome, New York. But after declining assignments related to the escalating conflict in Vietnam -- Hector worried about leaving his family and perhaps not returning -- he wound up in Ohio, chasing flying saucers.

Apparently as punishment for defying his superiors, Hector Quintanilla was assigned to Project Blue Book, the Air Force's investigation into unidentified flying objects, conducted at Wright-Patterson from 1952 to 1969. According to the Blue Book manual, the project had two missions: "First, to determine whether UFO's pose a threat to the security of the United States; and, second, to determine whether UFO's exhibit any unique scientific information or advanced technology which could contribute to scientific or technical research."

Quintanilla was a skeptic. Though willing to accept the possibility of other civilizations, he believed that the distances between our world and others were far too great to traverse. Whether his superiors knew this or cared isn't clear, but skepticism was definitely an asset. The Air Force wanted rational explanations for the thousands of UFO sightings that were being reported each year, and Quintanilla was prepared to provide them.

Unfortunately, investigating possible alien encounters was not a 9-to-5 job.

"He got called. Often enough, it was in the middle of the night," Karl recalls. "He was always grumbling, moaning about it." Sometimes he would go himself. "And sometimes he would send Hynek."

Dr. J. Allen Hynek had been a professor of astronomy at Ohio State and Ohio Wesleyan in 1948 when witnesses in western Kentucky, including the commander of Godman Air Force Base, reported seeing a craft that look like "an ice cream cone topped with red." Air Force officials theorized that what they had really seen was the planet Venus, low on the horizon, through fog. What they lacked was a respected civilian who could back up these claims for a fearful public.

"So they called the closest astronomer," says Paul Hynek, the doctor's son. "They needed a person in the field to say it was bunk." This suited Dr. Hynek just fine; he relished the challenge of overcoming panic with science. And he was still consulting on UFO cases when Quintanilla was assigned to Blue Book.

"Our house had all these relics," recalls Paul Hynek. "My bedroom, much to my chagrin, was the biggest UFO library in the country. We were a normal suburban family. But there were all these incongruous things, though. We had a Christmas tree, but most of the bulbs were UFOs."

"People used to ask Dad if he believed in UFOs," says Scott Hynek, Paul's younger brother. "He challenged the word 'believe.' 'I haven't seen a whale,' he would say. 'But you wouldn't ask me if I believe in whales. There are enough reports of them to believe they exist.' Then eventually he saw a whale and couldn't say that anymore."

There were also the phone calls. Answering them became a favorite pastime for the Hynek kids. Sometimes it was a guy calling himself Prince Michael of the Perseids. Another would warn that star movements were indicating that their father's life was in danger.

"The phone would frequently ring at dinner," says Scott Hynek. "He would always take the call. A certain amount of these people were crazy, some weren't. It was hard to tell the difference. But if you're in your car and it suddenly stops and you see something in the sky, you're going to seem strange even to people who know you. He gave people a chance to tell their stories."

Over the years, Dr. Hynek was able to explain away nearly every reported sighting. Hector Quintanilla was haunted, however, by the unexplained 2 or 3 percent. Hynek empathized, but the unresolved cases were a source of tension.

"Dad sort of felt [Blue Book] was a dead-end job for Air Force personnel," says Scott Hynek. "It was their job to make us feel safe about what was going on in the sky. But sometimes they wanted to fit a square peg into a round hole."

Karl Quintanilla recalls meeting Dr. Hynek once, when his father brought the scientist home for dinner. Even then, he knew that the men were at odds. "My father felt Hynek was exploiting the subject for his own notoriety. In other words, when Dr. Hynek would go to press conferences, it wasn't with the exact line [my father] wanted."

Hector Quintanilla worried that someday there would be a dramatic, credible sighting that Hynek would not be able to dismiss as Venus or an airplane. Such a scenario could ruin his career. Obviously, the UFO phenomenon was just a case of overactive imaginations. But that 2 percent -- what of those? Why couldn't the astronomer just do his job?

Quintanilla's concern over Hynek's methods may have been why he didn't consult the scientist on the Ravenna case.

William Powers, Dr. Hynek's assistant at the time, blew Quintanilla's cover. In a letter to Spaur and Neff, Powers wrote: "I found out considerably more about this event than the Air Force investigator did, because I cannot agree with the evaluation publicly released a few days after the sighting. What you have reported to me could not possibly lead to such a conclusion [the Venus explanation]. As a matter of fact, Dr. Hynek agrees with this. He was not consulted before this news release was put forth."

When Quintanilla found out about the letter, he realized that if the situation were going to remain contained, he could no longer avoid visiting Mantua. The Buchert home was his first stop.

Joan Buchert recalls the well-dressed man from the Air Force as friendly. "We sat and had coffee," she says. "They discussed the picture. They discussed the priest."

"The priest" was the head of St. Joseph's Church in Mantua. The Bucherts cannot remember his name, only that he had come to Gerald and said that he too had seen the object. Another highly credible witness, another thorn in Quintanilla's side.

After this visit, the Air Force became "highly involved," Harry Buchert says. "We were bombarded by calls at home. My Dad had more meetings with the Air Force. They were trying to tell him it was a weather balloon. He couldn't change their minds. You just surrender to it eventually."

On May 10, Quintanilla conducted taped interviews with Spaur and Neff, their boss, Sheriff Ross Dustman, and dispatcher Robert Wilson. The transcript shows that Quintanilla seemed to alternate between the Venus and weather-balloon explanations, but remained adamant that the officers had not seen anything out of the ordinary. He denied that Air Force jets had been dispatched, insisting that nothing had shown up on radar.

Silent through most of the interview, Dustman spoke up near the end, apparently out of frustration: "Well, I, I feel this way about it. It's too damn bad that these things are running around through our sky over our heads, and the United States Air Force and the government doesn't know what's going on out there. Because there's too many of them, and there's too many people have seen it." (Dozens of civilians claimed to have seen the craft as well.)

"What does the Air Force think these are, Major?" Wilson asked.

"Misinterpretation of conventional objects and natural phenomena," Quintanilla responded.

"What category does this go under? What Dale saw?"

"Place it under the category of satellite and atmospheric observations."

Dustman: "Well, I'm sorry it's turned out this way, because I know a lot of people have come to me and they saw the same damn thing, and there's too many people involved for this thing to be a mirage, or somebody's imagination."

Soon after Quintanilla returned to his base, Chief Buchert was ready to call it quits. The mayor was annoyed with him, and everyone else was giving him sideways glances. "The only reason he stayed [on the job] was, I made a call to his mom and dad," Joan Buchert says. "It was a frantic phone call. His parents had a big impact on him. I don't know what they said to him, but he was better afterwards."

When a Plain Dealer reporter came calling about six months later, Buchert turned him away. "It's something that should be forgotten," he explained, appearing nervous.

Officer Neff also declined to be interviewed, but his wife spoke. "I hope I never see him like he was after the chase," she said. "He was real white, almost in a state of shock. It was awful.

"And people made fun of him afterwards. He never talks about it anymore. Once he told me, 'If that thing landed in my back yard, I wouldn't tell a soul.' He's been through a wringer."

Today he lives in Florida "with two of them Taco Bell dogs." He can talk about it now, though he prefers not to. "When I left Ohio, I got away from it all," he says. "I don't look up anymore. I look down. I just want to forget." But he stands by his story.

So does Officer Wayne Huston, who left his job in East Palestine, moved out west, and started going by his middle name, Harold. People track him down occasionally, he says, and he's gracious, but won't dredge up the past. In the aftermath, he took a lot of heat for leaving his town unprotected to join the chase. "The chief of police and I didn't get along. [The incident] didn't help. I really don't want to go further than that."

Pennsylvania officer Frank Panzanella refused to be interviewed. He is not known to have recanted any part of his account.

Dale Spaur fared the worst -- perhaps because he was alone among the cops who saw the UFO again, about two months later. He lost weight and began disappearing for days at a time. He left his job and his wife. Six months after the chase, a PD reporter found him living in a motel in Solon, gaunt and destitute.

"I have become a freak," he said in his last known interview. "I'm so damn lonely. Look at me . . . 34 years old, and what do I have? Nothing. Who knows me? To everyone I'm Dale Spaur, the nut who chased a flying saucer."

"I know Dale had a lot of problems after that, but I'm not sure they were all caused by the UFO," says Henry Shoenfelt, who was the sergeant who advised Spaur and Neff not to shoot at the object. "All of the problems that occurred in his life after that, he blamed on it. I can't agree with that. We all have to accept responsibility for our actions."

Still, he adds, "I never doubted what happened. Not for one second."

As recently as two years ago, Spaur had a small house in Rocky River. His mail is forwarded to a post-office box in West Virginia, but his whereabouts are unknown.

During Major Hector Quintanilla's interview with the police officers, one of them asked, "What did you do that you got this kind of job?"

"I really don't know," Quintanilla responded. "I've often asked myself that question."

Whether the historically skeptical major was moved at all by his interviews with the officers is not known. In any case, it did not affect his ruling. The Venus explanation stood.

But not everyone was willing to accept it. In May 1966, the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), then a 10-year-old, civilian-run organization, took an interest in the case. Investigator William Weitzel picked up where Quintanilla had left off, collecting every report and newspaper article he could find, and reinterviewing Spaur several times. The most intriguing piece, however, came from Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the Air Force consultant. Hynek noted that Venus had risen at 3:35 that morning and would have been too high in the sky, by the time of the sightings, to be mistaken for an aircraft.

In 1968, Weitzel personally delivered his files to the University of Colorado, where researchers were conducting a review of UFO sightings for the Air Force. But their report, submitted to Congress in 1969, made no mention of the Ravenna case. Armed with the researchers' conclusion -- that "further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby" -- Congress disbanded Project Blue Book.

Quintanilla was free. He retired from the Air Force not long after and focused on golf, until a golf-cart accident left him with head injuries from which he never fully recovered. He died in 1997.

But he lived long enough to see his son Karl follow in his footsteps, in a manner of speaking. After working as a cameraman on game shows and soap operas, Karl Quintanilla began editing UFO documentaries. His best-known work to date is a Sci-Fi Network show on Bob Lazar, a physicist who claims to have worked on a top-secret "reverse engineering" project involving a captured UFO stored at a government base in the Nevada desert.

Karl told his father about Lazar. "He said, 'That's not the government, but be careful,'" Karl recalls. "I think he was suggesting there were other parties interested. A black operation. Maybe not the government, but it comes to the government in the end."

In January, Karl received a scanned version of the Buchert photograph through e-mail. After viewing the digitally enhanced image, Karl was not inclined to dismiss it as a processing glitch, as his father had done in 1966.

"The longer I look at it, the more fascinated I become," Karl says. "In the enhanced picture, it does have the classic [saucer] shape. There's the classic tilt forward, like the craft I've seen in the [Lazar] video. With all due respect to my father and the Air Force, given the fact that [the police] were tracking this thing at 103 miles per hour, saying it's Venus is a stretch."

After Blue Book folded, a disillusioned Dr. Hynek moved his family to Chicago and founded the Center for UFO Studies. Uninhibited by government overseers, he spent the rest of his years applying the scientific method to reports of sightings from around the country.

In 1976, a young Steven Spielberg hired Dr. Hynek as a consultant for a movie. Its title, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, borrowed a phrase Hynek had coined. A scene near the beginning, in which police chase UFOs through rural Indiana in the middle of the night, is an homage to the 1966 Ohio-Pennsylvania incident.

Dr. Hynek died in 1986.

His son Paul Hynek, a partner in the production company behind many episodes of the MTV series Driven and other reality-based projects, also has seen enhanced versions of the Buchert photo. He too rejects the Venus explanation.

"By 1966, [my father] had already investigated thousands of UFO sightings, and he wrote extensively about just how often throughout the ages the planet Venus has been mistaken for a UFO," Paul says. "So . . . when he says that this picture -- and whatever was reported by the Ohio deputies who zoomed into Pennsylvania in hot pursuit of it -- was not in fact Venus, it's hard for a reasonably open person to dismiss it.

"This shows what I believe were the misaligned interests of my father and the Air Force. For my father, a dispassionate scientific observer, the goal was to shed scrutinizing light on the reports, and let the chips fall where they may.

"Does it mean that it's a spaceship from Mars, with little green men? No. It just means that given the available evidence, it remains a UFO -- an unidentified flying object."

The Ravenna case attracted the attention of Dr. James E. McDonald, the physicist, meteorologist, and former Naval intelligence officer who spent most of his career in the 1950s and '60s arguing for real scientific inquiry into the UFO phenomenon.

The incident "calls for reevaluation not only on the scientific grounds involved, but also to avoid unfairly subjecting to local public ridicule the several officers who have testified," he wrote. "The available evidence (especially Wm. Weitzel's extensive report for NICAP) seems to me to make the astronomical explanation, that now stands as the official Air Force evaluation, quite unreasonable."

Problem is, there's no one to hear an appeal. The Air Force has been out of the UFO investigation business -- officially, at least -- since Project Blue Book was shut down.

Five days a week, Harry Buchert patrols the streets of Mantua from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. When he pulls out of the station, he passes the baseball field dedicated to his late father. At the end of his shift, he writes reports on the day's events -- usually nothing more exciting than traffic violations and domestic disturbances -- in an office his father once owned.

The episode with the UFO is always at the back of Harry's mind. He remembers the frenzy of the town in the days following the incident, his father's uncharacteristic acceptance of the humiliating explanation.

Harry has spent his life following in the footsteps of his old man. So it's only fitting that he'd want to write the final report on the one piece of business his father left undone.

Validation will not come from the Air Force, but maybe the opinions of Karl Quintanilla and Paul Hynek will help put the matter to rest. Or maybe from one of the pilots whose planes the officers saw. Or maybe from Dale Spaur, who may still be out there somewhere, running from his memories.