Cleveland's flying saucer sleuths are looking for proof that UFOs are real. They've been looking for a long time.

Finding Forrester
The lights appeared sometime around midnight. There were just two at first, blinking on the road ahead. Then the three people in the car, driving home to Ashtabula on a deserted stretch of Route 11, noticed more red flashing lights to their left and right, just above the trees. And suddenly, the biggest one of all, as bright as a searchlight, lit up the sky behind them.

The woman at the wheel was so scared she began to cry. The lights followed them. Though it was a clear night, something sprayed water across the windshield. You should drive, the woman told her husband. Keep driving, he told her.

The lights kept pace with their car for miles. For a moment, the car's headlights and dashboard blinked out, and the car alarm sounded; then the power came back. Soon after, whatever was behind them disappeared, and the other lights backed off. When they got home, early in the morning last July 23, the husband called the state highway patrol and reported that they'd seen a UFO.

Within three days, the Cleveland Ufology Project's investigators were on the case.

George Pindroh, Chuck Eppolito, and Rick Dell'Aquila drove out to Ashtabula to hear the story. They decided the witnesses were stable and reliable; the husband is a retired cop, they noted. Only one thing seemed hard to believe, and it wasn't the description of the lights or the car losing power.

"We thought it was very strange that this woman said she'd traveled Highway 11 for quite a number of miles and saw no cars," says Pindroh. So they went back to Ashtabula County and drove the freeway late on a Saturday night. Sure enough, they saw hardly any traffic.

They stopped by the highway patrol post, where the dispatcher who took the witnesses' call told them she'd seen an unidentifiable silver object in the sky the day after the sighting. At a rest stop on Route 11, near where the witnesses first saw the lights, people told the investigators they, too, have seen strange stuff in the Ashtabula County skies.

To the highway patrol, the Route 11 lights were not a major event. The commander of the Ashtabula patrol post says the incident was not recorded in the logs, and troopers didn't follow up on the call.

To UFO debunkers, it wouldn't be much of a story. Skeptics say descriptions of unrecognized aerial objects are notoriously unreliable; they say people often fall back on cultural ideas like UFOs to explain the unexplained.

But for Eppolito, Pindroh, and Dell'Aquila, it was their biggest moment as an investigative team. Their report on the sighting was published in the journal of the Mutual UFO Network, a national organization of UFO enthusiasts.

Pindroh refused to contact the witnesses in Ashtabula to see if they'd talk to Scene. "It's almost like a doctor-patient relationship; there's a bond of confidentiality," he says.

He and his partners stop short of saying what they think the sighting on Route 11 was. "Was it one of our craft? An extraterrestrial craft? Some other phenomenon of nature? We don't know," Eppolito says.

But Eppolito and Pindroh say it's one of several incidents, going back to a 1994 Trumbull County flying saucer mentioned in an NBC-TV special, that show Ashtabula and Trumbull counties are a "hotbed" of UFO sightings.

The three men are among a few determined people in the Cleveland area so fascinated by unidentified flying objects that they've become freelance UFO sleuths, looking into reports of strange craft in the sky or testing purported evidence of visitations. They're driven by the belief, or at least the possibility, that a few of these sightings are more phenomenal than just a misidentified plane, planet, or meteor.

Some of the investigators are convinced that aliens are visiting Earth. Others are more careful, saying they just want to know what's behind the "UFO phenomenon."

Some of them have waited a long time for an answer.

The night a flying saucer was spotted over Cleveland, the UFO hotline rang 92 times. One caller described it as silvery, with a dome on top; another said it was circled with amber lights. It appeared primarily over the near West Side, with a brief jaunt to Fairview Park.

"It was a large disk-shaped object, with lights on its perimeter flashing on and off in a sequential pattern," recalls Rick Hilberg, who was 18 at the time. Hilberg and a friend from the hotline later retraced the UFO's path and interviewed 60 people who saw it. It's one of the most-witnessed UFO sightings anywhere, he says, but he never figured out what it was.

That was 35 years ago, and though Hilberg's been into UFOs most of his life, it's still his most exciting saucer story.

In the '60s, he was one of a dozen ufologists -- people who study UFOs -- investigating, writing, or lecturing in Cleveland. Their work led author Alan Greenfield to dub Cleveland the "UFO capital of the United States." Hilberg helped put together what he calls the country's first "serious" UFO convention in Cleveland in 1964. Throughout the '60s and '70s, he organized meetings, published a newsletter, and collected eerie, unexplainable tales of strange lights, saucers, and giant floating cigars.

Today, the teenage enthusiasm that got Hilberg into UFOs has given way to a quiet, middle-aged calm. A gray-haired man who wears big, '80s-style glasses, Hilberg talks dispassionately and carefully. When he says he's as fascinated as ever with UFO stories, it's not obvious in his tone of voice; you have to take his word for it or take his newsletter and voluminous library as proof.

His careful demeanor fits his philosophy, modeled after Charles Fort, whose early 20th-century writings about the unexplainable made the word "fortean" a catchall phrase for miscellaneous weirdness. Like Fort, Hilberg wades into the vast underground of paranormal claims with an open but critical mind, neither committed debunker nor true believer. He still can't conclusively explain UFOs. "I don't know," he says. "That's why I still pursue it."

His critical eye extended to the UFO hotline, which he took over in 1978. Several hundred calls a year came into his home in Berea, and almost all the sightings could be explained away as planes, bright stars, or other mundane objects.

Today, Hilberg is no longer active in local UFO groups. He hasn't seen any good UFOs himself since the '65 saucer and a cigar-shaped craft he saw over the West Side in 1966. He says he closed the hotline and stopped organizing meetings and conventions so he could concentrate on publishing.

He and his wife, Carol, publish the 34-year-old quarterly newsletter Flying Saucer Digest -- down to fewer than 200 subscribers from its 1970s peak of 650 -- in the time they can spare from their auto-repair shop in Elyria. His family has always been supportive of his "odd interest," Hilberg says. His father drove him to UFO meetings downtown, and his mother and father helped him organize conventions.

The newsletter, six word-processed pages, is full of reports culled from newspapers and other UFO publications: a "fireball" over Alabama, orange lights flying in formation over Illinois, New Mexico police chasing a disk that projected a cone of light. The Hilbergs also publish Weirdology, a newsletter of bizarre happenings, from Bigfoot sightings to cattle mutilations to a report of a Nigerian boy being turned into a yam. Occasionally, Hilberg also compiles UFO history booklets; his 24-page Northern Ohio UFO Casebook is full of stories from the '60s and '70s, but includes only two tales that date from after 1982.

Hilberg mostly presents bare-bones reports with no commentary, but certain stories provoke him. "Let's not even bring up the matter of abductions," he wrote a few years ago. "A person has to try to keep his or her sanity!"

The flying saucer world has changed since he was young. And to Hilberg, it hasn't changed for the better. Since the '70s, he's watched, frustrated, as fellow UFO fans embraced more and more extreme claims.

"We're a nuts-and-bolts, middle-of-the-road publication," he says. "We don't go in for lurid abduction tales. We didn't get into the Roswell fiasco."

Skeptical outsiders might regard Hilberg as a fringe-dweller pursuing a peculiar obsession. But in the UFO movement, he's a lonely moderate -- an old-school UFO researcher who's seen his simple curiosity about strange sightings in the sky eclipsed by stories of crashed flying saucers, government conspiracies, and alien kidnappers. Believers in alien visitation -- once considered too extreme even by most ufologists -- have taken over the UFO movement, leaving cautious saucer aficionados like Hilberg behind.

"There's so much interest . . . in Roswell and abductions, and things like that that are really, really exciting, that people have given up on lights in the sky," says Hilberg. "They want proof. They want to believe."

Hilberg still speaks at an occasional UFO conference, and he used to book speakers who claimed a flying saucer crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. He's polite about it, but he can't hide his disdain for the claims of UFO radicals. He thinks the Roswell incident was likely a military accident, and that abduction stories probably have a "psychosocial" explanation.

"I think a lot of it is culturally induced," by '30s pulp sci-fi, '50s B-movies, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the '70s, he says.

"Frankly, a lot of people who get involved in the UFO subject get frustrated or bored with it." Unwilling to slog through countless false or inconclusive reports, they drop out or turn to wilder theories.

"It's a very romantic notion and kind of a scary thing, too," he says. "Who wouldn't want to read about someone being abducted and their experiences aboard an honest-to-God spaceship someplace, rather than read about Joe Schmo in Pocatello, who saw this strange light in the sky?"

Last month, in a gray convention hall in Lima, flying-saucer enthusiasts from around the state gathered for what one organizer called an "all-star cast" of UFO lecturers. It was the fall symposium of the Mutual UFO Network of Ohio, and the new school of ufology got prominent billing.

The opening acts were longtime UFO researcher Bruce Maccabee; Nancy Talbott, who studies crop circles (geometric patterns in farm fields that some believe are left by aliens); and Lima's number-one ufologist for the last 50 years, John Timmerman. But the biggest stars, who made the boldest claims, spoke last: abduction researcher Budd Hopkins and the "father of Roswell," Stanton T. Friedman.

Hopkins is the best-selling author or co-author of five books about people who claim aliens have kidnapped them. His presentation focused on slides of drawings made by child abductees. A PBS special a few years back attacked Hopkins's methods, showing him clumsily leading little children into saying they'd seen aliens and pressing hypnotized adults to describe how extraterrestrials violated them. In person, Hopkins comes off as a naive yet earnest guy, empathetic in his descriptions of emotionally scarred abductees.

Friedman is another story. A wild-eyed fast-talker, he angrily blitzes through a sprawling lecture so quickly that his points are hard to absorb. He talks about UFO studies that left some cases unexplained, shows slides of blacked-out government UFO documents, and describes a glowing imprint a UFO reportedly burned into a Kansas field. He also recounts the Betty and Barney Hill story, ufology's first big abduction tale, in which an alien gave Betty Hill a lesson in galactic commerce, showing her a map of trade routes between stars. After her alleged abduction, Friedman recounts, Hill scribbled down a crude version of the map, and a researcher later claimed to identify the points on it by comparing them to a three-dimensional diorama of the sun and nearby stars.

Friedman thinks aliens are here for sure. He tars old-school fence-sitters as "apologist ufologists." And he accuses the army of covering up the purported 1947 UFO crash near Roswell, which he takes credit for exposing in the 1970s. He spins a complex tale involving top-secret documents that seem to show Presidents Truman and Eisenhower knew of the crash (skeptics have called the documents forgeries) and secondhand accounts of Roswell wreckage and alien bodies stored at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton.

It's a "Cosmic Watergate," Friedman charges -- repeating the new-school ufologists' great claim: "Aliens are visiting Earth, and certain elements of the government have known about it for more than 50 years."

With that, the conference-goers break for dinner and quickly discover there's almost nowhere to eat in downtown Lima on a Sunday night. So they crowd into Kewpee Hamburgers, filling the tiny White-Castle-esque restaurant with talk of UFOs and crop circles.

At one booth, Chuck Eppolito, George Pindroh, and Rick Dell'Aquila dive into burgers and fries. They've attended the whole conference, and they'll head back to Cleveland ready to give a full report to fellow members of the Cleveland Ufology Project, a local UFO study group Rick Hilberg belonged to in the '60s.

The new school of ufology has influenced all three of them. Dell'Aquila, an attorney in Seven Hills, says he got seriously into UFOs after seeing Friedman's government documents and being intrigued by what might be behind the black censor marks. Pindroh, a retired electrician from Cleveland, believes in abductions.

"There seem to be a lot of our people that are being abducted by these craft, these machines," he says. "Their bodies are being tampered with, experimented with against their will." Alien kidnappers extract sperm and eggs, implant pregnancies in women, then snatch the fetuses away a few months later, he says. "It sounds farfetched, but it is happening."

Eppolito is convinced the government hid the crashed Roswell saucer -- he says too many people saw something for it to be a hoax. He believes the military used alien technology from the saucer to develop new weapons, and that it kept the discovery quiet to avoid a War of the Worlds-like panic. "I believe the government and even the extraterrestrials are always spoon-feeding us, getting us acclimated to the theory that they actually are there," he says.

They may be new-school ufologists, but they're also investigating lights in the sky as enthusiastically as Hilberg did years ago. They're all certified UFO investigators for the nationwide Mutual UFO Network.

"People call us the Three Musketeers," says Pindroh. "We go out all over Northeast Ohio to investigate reports."

Eppolito has looked into about a hundred local UFO reports in the last decade. "Captain Chuck, UFO Consultant," reads his business card, adorned with an alien head, a saucer, and his phone number.

So how do you become a certified UFO investigator? You study the Mutual UFO Network's official field investigation manual, then take a test on basic astronomy and chemistry, plus practicalities like how to preserve and take samples from landing sites. Then you spread the word that you're ready for action.

It helps to have a good source. Eppolito says he used to get regular referrals from NASA's Glenn Research Center. (Lori Rachul, Glenn Center news chief, confirms that NASA gets a few UFO reports a year, and that she's referred callers to Eppolito.) This year, when Eppolito teamed up with Pindroh and Dell'Aquila, they started looking into reports e-mailed to MUFON's website.

Like Hilberg, Eppolito says more than 90 percent of UFOs can be identified: planets, meteors, old satellites, or "space junk" falling back to Earth. This year, a guy in Oberlin claimed to have videotaped a UFO, but Eppolito and Pindroh watched it frame by frame and saw the edge of a TV screen in the picture.

The investigators know that some people think hunting for UFOs is strange. So they're wary of reporters, worried the media will mock them. "There's a serious component to this that deserves scientific study," insists Dell'Aquila, who doesn't accompany Pindroh and Eppolito to an interview with Scene back in Cleveland. Eppolito is friendly and talkative, but Pindroh complains about the time a Cleveland TV station used spooky music to introduce an interview with him.

Both have been interested in UFOs for decades. For Eppolito, it started in 1964, at age 20. He was necking with his then-fiancée in an orchard and looked up to see a silver, cigar-shaped craft hovering in the air. He thought it was a blimp until it suddenly shot off, taking only five seconds to disappear over the horizon. "The speed was so phenomenal," he says. That convinced him he'd seen an alien craft. "What else could it be?"

A stout, curly-haired guy with big glasses and a loud voice, Eppolito used to work as a skycap at Hopkins Airport, where he got the nickname Saucer Man because he wore a UFO pin as his tie clasp and asked passengers if they'd seen anything strange in the air. He's been out to Area 51, the secretive military installation in Nevada, six times, swinging by on his trips to Las Vegas. He went right up to the line beyond which guards shoot intruders on sight, trying unsuccessfully to spot the strange lights that are said to appear over the base.

Pindroh, a roly-poly man who doesn't smile much, says he became interested in UFOs as a kid. He remembers poring over a report on Project Blue Book, the Air Force study of the flying saucer craze in 1955. About 15 years ago, Pindroh saw a windowless metal craft hovering off Cedar Point Road near Rocky River Reservation. "Once you see a UFO, it will change your thinking on the subject forever," he says.

The center of ufological inquiry in Greater Cleveland is a small, sparse room in the activity center of St. Charles Catholic Church in Parma, where flowery drapes frame the windows and Jesus stares out from a two-foot crucifix. But there's no connection between the church and this crowd, except for the money that rents the room; once a month, it's the gathering place for the Cleveland Ufology Project, founded in 1958 and claiming to be the oldest continuously operating UFO study group in the United States.

CUP, as its members call it, is basically a small discussion group that gives out more titles than its size seems to warrant. Ten people, middle-aged to retired, file in on a rainy Saturday night in December. Pindroh, the treasurer, sits by the door, asking members to sign in. Eppolito, CUP's director of research and investigation, shows up wearing a necklace with little metal alien heads hanging from it.

Who would spend their Saturday night talking ufology? For one, there's Dan Wilson of Painesville, who's spent seven years matching up plane crashes with UFO sightings. He's catalogued more than 3,000 crashes by combing through old microfilm and found 50 UFO sightings that occurred within a few days and a few miles of air accidents. "It's too many to be coincidence," he says.

Co-director Richard Lee, from Cuyahoga Falls, a well-spoken former school custodian with a perpetual grin, says he's been into ufology since 1961, swayed by people who've seen things that "couldn't possibly be anything other than a really far-out phenomenon." His fiancée, co-director Cathy Ruzicka of Cleveland, says her aunt claimed she was visited by spacemen in the '50s and '60s. The story once got Ruzicka's aunt committed to a psychiatric institution, though "in retrospect, it's similar to what a lot of people now called abductees are saying." Her aunt told her the spaceship was blue-green and cigar-shaped -- a description that matches UFOs others saw in the skies of Ohio at the time, Ruzicka discovered.

Lakewood landlord Ed Nelson, who looks up from under a fraying, soiled baseball cap, says a UFO summoned him from his home in North Olmsted in the 1960s. He was looking at a UFO book and the binoculars he'd laid on top of it, when "something urges me to take the binoculars outside." Sure enough, a cigar-shaped UFO was moving slowly across the sky, then suddenly turned bright and disappeared. "They can control every little thing going on here," he says.

There are a lot of claims that aliens have visited us, but very few scientists examining the evidence. So goes the eternal complaint among ufologists, but Phyllis Budinger is doing something about it.

At the end of a country road east of Bainbridge, in a little red garage next to a big red house, she has created something rare: a scientific lab to examine UFO evidence.

Last year, Budinger, an analytical chemist with a master's of science degree, took early retirement from a chemical company she'd rather not name. She spent all of the severance package she received when her company left town, about $30,000, to turn her garage into a laboratory.

"I've had a lifelong interest in UFOs," says Budinger, who's also vice president of MUFON of Ohio. "I've always liked mysteries and solving them. This is the biggest mystery of mankind."

Budinger is pleasant in a grandmotherly way, smart and articulate despite a slightly wavering voice. She would blend easily in a crowd of middle-aged women in bulky sweaters -- except, maybe, for her wide, narrow eyes, which are slightly reminiscent of the spooky stare of pop-culture aliens.

Housed in her garage are a stereo microscope, an old centrifuge, and a $25,000 infrared spectrometer, a device that can identify any pure substance by the unique spectrum it generates when infrared light is shined through it. The lab looks professional to the layman -- except for the old garage door behind a rack of beakers, the big-headed alien blow-up doll, and the poster of a fuzzy flying saucer that reads "I Want to Believe."

Yes, she thinks she saw a UFO once, a disk moving "at an incredible rate" not far from her home. She doesn't know what's behind UFO sightings, though "a lot of evidence would indicate some intelligence is involved."

Some friends have questioned her interest in the subject, but she doesn't care. Her husband, Bruce, has been supportive. Not only did he help her set up the lab, he's become increasingly curious about UFOs now that she's gotten so involved. Her son hasn't shown too much interest, but he did see a UFO once, and a poster he gave her from a UFO lecture at his college adorns a wall in her lab.

Since March, she's spent about half of her time running a freelance chemical analysis business, Frontier Analysis Ltd., taking in paying industrial clients who need mystery sludge identified. That pays the overhead -- service contracts for her equipment, bills for phone calls to the ufologists who send her evidence -- while she tests goop, altered soils, and suspicious silky stuff from UFO sites.

"I want to show that something out there exists that needs to be studied by mainstream scientists," she says.

To kick things off, Budinger got hold of some soil from the site of a purported UFO visitation in Delphos, Kansas. In 1971, a teenager claimed to see a mushroom-shaped UFO hover close to the ground on his family farm. Left behind was a C-shaped ring of glowing something-or-other. It's a famous case among ufologists, celebrated by lecturers like Stanton Friedman (though UFO debunker Philip Klass, after interviewing the teen and his family, accused them of being prone to telling tall tales). Budinger guessed correctly that, if she had something to say about Delphos, it'd get her instant attention and credibility in UFO circles.

Budinger compared the soil from the site to control samples taken from a few yards away and found that the soil from the ring included high amounts of fulvic acids, calcium oxalate, and oxalic acid. Budinger says the oxalic acid explains why the kid's parents' hands turned numb when they touched the stuff, and she speculated that the combination of the three materials could even account for the glow. Some of the materials, she says, are also present in fertilizer. Her verdict: The results neither proved nor disproved that a UFO left the ring.

She spread the word about her lab in MUFON circles and created a small presentation about the Delphos residue. Quickly, people started turning to her with their physical evidence. Since March, she's received 80 samples from as far away as Holland and Israel.

So what happens when someone uses the tools of science to inspect true believers' evidence? Well, she's seen some things that intrigue her and some pretty unconvincing stuff. Evidence from Israel, found on a beach where people claimed to have spied a UFO, was lube oil with rust in it. People who claim they're abductees have sent her tiny pieces of their skin, where they claim the aliens left stains or fluorescent material. All she sees in the tests is skin. "I don't know what to think about abductees," she says.

She's examined four samples of angel hair, a white fibrous material similar to caterpillar or spider silk that people have claimed to see falling from the sky during UFO sightings. And she's ventured into the study of cattle mutilations. (Some ufologists and other students of weirdology see nefarious patterns in sudden, unexplained deaths of livestock. Dead cattle drained of blood, missing soft tissue and organs, laid out north to south, or found without any predators' tracks nearby are sometimes suspected to be victims of either satanic cults or UFOs.)

Budinger examined a red material taken from a mutilated California bull and discovered it was pure hemoglobin. "It's sort of taken ufology by surprise, because hemoglobin is an isolated component of blood," she says. That means the blood has been processed, she says, and isn't the result of a natural predator's attack.

Nationally known ufologists like Nancy Talbott, the crop-circle researcher, are sending her evidence, and her fame in UFO circles is growing. In early December, she was interviewed on the Jeff Rense show, a nationally syndicated UFO radio program.

Eventually, Budinger hopes to find enough patterns among the evidence to add a "little iota" of knowledge to ufology's quest. "It's going to take a while," she says -- there's a lot more evidence to examine. "We're at the tip of the iceberg."

It must be hard to wonder about a mystery, but never see it solved. Over in Berea, Rick Hilberg looks at his library. He's kept up with the abduction and Roswell writers; he has Budd Hopkins's book Missing Time and Stanton Friedman's Crash at Corona on his shelf. Hopkins is "very sincere," but "on the wrong track," Hilberg says diplomatically; he calls Friedman, a onetime guest at his conventions, a "very good researcher," but adds, "I don't necessarily agree on a lot he says."

When he's asked to name a UFO author publishing today with whom he agrees, Hilberg struggles to answer. Most of the authors he likes, he says, are doing historical research.

That's the direction he's going in, too; when he lectures at conventions, about once a year, his presentation is about the first 30 years of the UFO phenomenon, from the flying saucer craze of 1947 up to 1977, just before abduction and Roswell stories swept through ufology.

Hilberg has plans for all the old sightings reports he's compiled, which sit in file cabinets and bankers' boxes in his library. When he retires, he wants to turn to UFO history full time.

"I'll be doing more publishing, getting some of this historical stuff together, getting it to see the light of day," he says. "All the good case files that have been accumulated over the years will eventually lend a hand to finding the ultimate answer."

Does he hope that he'll eventually see the answer?

"I doubt if I ever will," he says.

When hope fades, it's easy for a ufologist to burn out.

"I've been in this 16 years, and I'm kind of cutting out for about a year," says Eppolito. "It's kind of getting to me. It seems like it's leading nowhere. [Ufologists] still don't have the basic questions answered . . . I'm getting bored with it, until something really drastic and earth-shattering happens."

Science is starting to catch up to UFOs, compared to thousands of years ago, when Ezekiel saw wheels in the sky, he says. But it's not catching up fast enough.

"Whoever they are, they're always a couple of steps ahead."

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