By Lindsay Toler
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The incident impressed him enough that he told his wife and children about it over dinner that evening. "My daughter said matter-of-factly, 'Oh, that was a UFO, a spaceship.'"
IF MEL NOLL HADN'T HASTENED TO THE local police station to report what he had seen, his experience might have been just another unsubstantiated UFO sighting, another case for the crackpot file. As it happened, Noll's sense of citizenship set in motion a series of sightings, remarkable even in the voluminous and storied annals of UFO sightings. Where it came from and where it went nobody knows, but the Metro East residents and police officers who saw the enormous, wingless deltoid craft as it traveled over Madison and St. Clair counties that morning insist that it was neither an apparition nor a manifestation of peculiar atmospheric conditions. It was not the result of a mass hallucination, as some purported experts would later suggest. It was not a hoax concocted by these officers. What they saw was something real, something awesome and, as yet, something unexplainable.
For all the media attention the story would eventually bring, the initial accounts were decidedly subdued -- at least in the big-city newspaper. KTVI (Channel 2) first broke the story on a Jan. 7 newscast, but it wasn't until Jan. 9 that a rather sketchy story appeared in the Sunday "Metro" section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. That first article mentioned by name only Millstadt police officer Craig Stevens, who told P-D reporter Valerie Schremp that "it's been driving me nuts since I've seen it. I haven't been able to sleep for the last day and a half." The Lebanon Advertiser, on the other hand, gave the story front-page, over-the-fold prominence in its Jan. 12 edition: "Huge UFO Is Reported to Have Flown Over Lebanon," blared the headline. The story's final paragraph noted that "the Federal Aviation Administration has suggested that the object may have been an advertising blimp."
The second article in the Post appeared on Jan. 12, and this time it made the front page. A week later, the sightings had drawn national media attention, chiefly because of the credibility of the witnesses. It's not often that four police officers come forth to report seeing the same UFO. Art Bell, host of a nationally syndicated late-night radio talk show, lost no time in snagging Stevens and Barton for interviews the day after the incident. As word spread, the calls became so numerous that Millstadt Police Chief Ed Wilkerson put out a gag order on media interviews, snubbing such outlets as ABC News and Extra, a tabloid TV-news show. Interferes with policing, the chief said.
Moreover, the reports had prompted intense interest among professional UFO investigators, the real-life counterparts of The X-Files' Scully and Mulder. Peter Davenport, director of the National UFO Reporting Center in Seattle, got some quality time with the witnesses -- four cops and three civilians -- as did Forest Crawford, assistant director of Illinois Mutual UFO Network. The most exhaustive effort was undertaken by John Velier, director of the Las Vegas-based National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS). Millstadt was the first department to go public with a report on the sighting, and Officer Stevens took the initiative and contacted NIDS, the result of a flier sent to police departments nationwide requesting reports on this very sort of thing. Working from a motel in Collinsville, Velier and a team of investigators spent several days interviewing witnesses and officials at Boeing and Scott Air Force Base. (Those interviews may be perused at www.accessnv.com/nids.) A retired FBI agent, Velier assured anyone who asked that he had no hidden agenda. "I'm not here to prove or disprove the existence of extraterrestrial life," he remarks. "I'm here to gather facts through a scientific approach."
Meanwhile, some of the witnesses were trying to make sense of what they had seen through any approach available. Officer Martin met with Officer Barton at the MotoMart in O'Fallon after their shifts were done that morning -- to compare notes and check reality. "We basically saw the same thing," says Martin. Two hours after the fact, the sightings were but tidbits in the ravenous vortex of the tabloid-news industry, but in their small-town-cop way, the officers suspected that a gale of publicity was even then en route to beat down their doors. "We were half-joking around," recalls Barton, "like, 'Why couldn't somebody else have seen it? A rookie -- let them take the heat.'"
Two months later, the heat is still on. Officer Barton and other witnesses who were known to the media (seven Metro East residents were interviewed by "official" -- or at least experienced -- UFO investigators on the promise of confidentiality, and five of them have talked to the media), were still being hounded for interviews. Noll, for one, seems to enjoy the notoriety. "I'm meeting more people," he notes blithely. "A lot of radio stations have been calling. Newspapers too -- from Chicago, Peoria, Springfield and as far away as Seattle. It don't bother me to talk about it. You know, I'm glad I got to see it -- a once-in-a-lifetime thing."