Space Case

Witnesses testify in the mystery of the Metro East UFO

Melvern Noll wheeled his GMC Sonoma pickup into the parking lot of Fun Land of Highland. It was 4 a.m. on Jan. 5 and dead quiet in the small Illinois town some four miles south of I-70 in Madison County. Fun Land has been Mel Noll's enterprise these last 12 years, operating for all but the winter months, offering the folks of Highland wholesome diversion with its miniature-golf course, go-kart track and video games. Noll, 66, coming off an overnight run to Bloomington -- he's also a part-time truck driver -- had stopped at his business on the way home that frigid morning, worried that the pipes might freeze. He stepped out of his pickup and started toward the office/snack bar/arcade room when something caught his eye. "I happened to look toward the northeast," he says in a down-home country dialect, "and seen, like, a bright star and never thought too much about it, just 'That's awful low for being a star.'" He went into the office for a bit, checked the plumbing and returned to his truck: "I looked up and there it was, just like a big house floating in the air, with windows in it and a bright light on the inside, like there might've been a big room in there."

Although it is difficult to judge the size of an airborne object at a distance -- there's no point of reference by which to gauge -- Noll estimates that the craft was "about the size of a football field." The object was moving slowly, perhaps 50 mph, some 800-1,000 feet above him and off to the south, providing a view of its side and bottom as it passed along a stand of trees. "I just couldn't hardly believe my eyes what I was seeing up there," he recalls. "I mean, there was no noise, nothing! And I was looking for wings and couldn't see no wings on it. I thought, 'What in the heck is it?'" Noll stood on the parking-lot gravel contemplating this strange sight for five minutes or so: "I just kept watching it, and at one point it seemed like it slowed down and I had the feeling it spotted me down here, and it scared the heck out of me. Then it kept a-going toward the southwest." The last he saw of the craft, a mysterious and silent behemoth, it was sailing silently past the Oberbeck Grain Elevator.

When Noll walked in to the Highland police station and told them about the UFO, he felt compelled to add that he hadn't been partying. The dispatcher, Nancy Edwards, reassured him: "I believe you. I can see it in your face that you saw something." Edwards then got on the horn and notified a St. Clair County police dispatcher, who in turn began a round of contacts to patrol officers in various jurisdictions.

Nothing much was shaking in Lebanon at 4:11 a.m. when Officer Ed Barton received the call from St. Clair County dispatch. Barton, who at first scoffed at the dispatcher's request to look for a flying object in the shape of a "two-story house" with white lights and red blinking lights -- "If I find it, what am I supposed to do with it?" -- soon changed his tune when he spied a "very bright white light just east of town." From the time he first saw it, "and that was a good five, six miles away," says Barton, "it looked like two large -- very large -- bright white lights so close together it looked like they were almost touching, with rays of light emitting from them." Barton switched on the cruiser's overhead lights, driving south on Route 4 in the general direction in which he'd seen the craft. "I was going rather fast," he says, "because I thought at first it was a plane going down."

Getting an occasional visual on the craft through the trees, Barton turned on Route 50, heading eastbound about three miles into the village of Summerfield. And there it was. "Just imagine an elongated, narrow triangle, but massive, so big it blotted out the stars that would've been above it," Barton says. "And on each of the corners of this thing were these round, bright white lights, so bright I had to squint to look." It had been stationary, but then it began to move. "That's when I noticed it was coming toward me, and so I pulled off the road, turned off my overhead lights, turned off my squad car."

All the witnesses saw the object at different distances and different angles. Barton had one of the closest views -- by his reckoning, it was some 200 feet away and about 1,000-1,500 feet in the air. Barton's proximity helps discount the theory that the craft was an airplane. "I was a military brat 21 years -- my father was active-duty Air Force -- so I'm familiar with both foreign and domestic aircraft," he says. "It got to where I could usually identify an aircraft just by the engine noise, and when this thing went over, it made zero noise. I mean, that's what really caught my attention -- no noise whatsoever."

At that moment, a mere half-mile from Officer Barton, a resident of Summerfield was also observing the aeronautical phenomenon. Johnny Doss, 43, had undergone heart surgery in July. He still wasn't back on the job as an environmental-waste hauler, and he wasn't sleeping well. His wife, Cindy, an EMS coordinator in Lebanon, has a police radio that the couple keeps tuned to police and fire chatter. Sometimes Johnny passed the hours listening in. That morning, he heard the report of the UFO and listened to Officer Barton's live account through the crackle and static that the object was "just east of Summerfield and it keeps changing colors." Doss thought he might just walk outside and see for himself. The thing -- "way larger than an airliner, with several bright lights" -- had already passed over his home. He says he stood out in his yard watching it for a few minutes, until the low-flying, westward-heading craft receded behind some trees at the edge of town. When he came back into the bedroom, Cindy woke up. "I asked him what he'd been doing," Cindy says, "and he answered, 'I was outside looking at the UFO.'"

Meanwhile, on Route 50 near a hummock called Haas' Hill, Officer Barton stood outside his patrol car, watching whatever it was move on. "It started going away from me again rather slowly, almost like a hovering or a floating, and then when it turned away from me, it didn't bank like an aircraft or a helicopter. It was almost like a car going around a curve, just a flat turn. Then it seemed to accelerate fairly rapidly, and I reached back in the car, picked up the radio, told St. Clair County what I was seeing, and the next thing I know it looked to be over Shiloh, about seven miles away. I told CenCom (the St. Clair County police dispatcher), 'If you have one of those Shiloh officers look up now, they should see it.'"

"Yeah, I think I'm seeing it," Officer Dave Martin of the Shiloh Police Department told the CenCom dispatcher over in Belleville. "It's big; it looks like an arrowhead; it's got three bright lights shining downward and small flashing red lights between the bright lights. No markings, just plain. I couldn't tell you what it is," he offered, "'cause I don't know."

When Millstadt police officer Craig Stevens, working the graveyard shift, heard the unfolding accounts on the radio that morning, he thought he might as well go see what was up. Whatever it was seemed to be on a flight path toward Millstadt. "I went over to the east end of town and sat in a car-wash parking lot and didn't see anything," he remembers, "so I went over on the north end of town to Liederkranz Park, where there's a big open field and it was a lot darker. I was sitting there seeing blinking lights from airplanes, and I thought that's all they saw. I turn around, and I was, like, wow! This thing was only 500-1,000 feet off the ground, and it was huge."

Stevens says the craft was shaped like a "fat arrowhead, about 18-20 feet thick, with three white lights in back and a red light at the bottom." Soundless, it passed almost directly overhead. "It was a rush," he says. "First thing that popped in my head: 'Get the Polaroid.' I ran to the trunk, grabbed the Polaroid, snapped the picture." Unfortunately, Polaroids aren't made for shooting distant objects at night, plus the cold temperatures had retarded the development chemistry. Nothing truly discernible was on the developed print, just some faint lights.

By the time the thing appeared in Dupo, a small town along Route 3 some eight miles south of the Poplar Street Bridge, it had been followed sporadically for nearly an hour over a 60-mile-long northeast-to-southwest flight path that, drawn on a map, looks like a fishhook. Dupo police officer Matt Jany saw the UFO within minutes after being alerted by the Millstadt PD, though only from afar, through binoculars. Still, his description corroborates the others'. The object "wasn't like a normal aircraft," Jany remarks. "It was real wide and real long and taller in the middle." It had "lots of lights on it, white lights at the extremes, red lights in the middle. There may have been some blue in there, too." When he first viewed it, the craft was "heading north, and it wasn't going very fast." After only a few minutes, however, it changed course and headed east, back toward Millstadt or Cahokia.

Some two hours after Jany watched the object disappear from sight, a 50-year-old English teacher spotted the UFO while driving to work. Where the object had been in the interim and why no one else saw it during that time is another mystery. Steven Wonnacott's workday commute is a routine one: Each morning he leaves home at 6:45 and follows Lake Drive west through Belleville to East St. Louis High School. The thoroughfare eventually crosses over I-255, he explains, "and on the west side of that overpass there's Frank Holton State Park and quite a vista of the southwest sky. That's where I first noticed it. At first I thought it was airplane from Parks (Airport, in Cahokia), but it looked far too big for an airplane and it had no navigational lights." Dawn was breaking, and Wonnacott, "arrested" by the unusual sight, slowed down as much as he could to watch it longer. "As the sun came up, I could see it was an arrowhead shape," he says, "and it had a couple of really bright lights with many other smaller lights around it. It looked to me to be motionless, but it was hard to judge, since I was moving."

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 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."

Even as late as the weekend of March 11, personnel from a TV station in California had come to the Midwest to interview as many of the witnesses as they could muster. "The phone's been ringing off the hook ever since," says Ed Barton. "And I've had people tell me I was lucky to see it and so on, and I think, 'Ah, if they only knew.'"

The publicity has made some of the witnesses celebrities in their own towns. Kathy Floyd, Noll's girlfriend, says they can't even go out for a cup of coffee anymore without townsfolk approaching, rather shyly at first, then asking questions, generally the same ones: What was it like? What does he think it was? Was he scared? "Every place you go, they want to talk about it," says Floyd. "We were in Hardee's for an hour-and-a-half the other night, just answering questions. Mel's not tired of it. His story's always the same, and that's one of the reasons people believe him."

The clerk at the Gas N' Grab on Millstadt's main street says the March 7 edition of the National Examiner, the one with the story about the Metro East UFO featuring Millstadt's own Officer Craig Stevens -- big picture of him in uniform and all -- was pretty much snapped up the day it came out. Everybody in this town of 2,700 knows about the UFO; it's hard to not know when you have TV vans with unfamiliar call letters on the sides running around town, not to mention reporters and photographers pestering the citizenry. Some, such as the stocky counterman at Hardy Feed & Grain, refuse to offer comment on the UFO affair -- too controversial -- whereas others, such as librarian Sue Hucke, warm to the topic. "This is a German community," she explains. "We take things with a grain of salt -- anybody who said anything about it did so with a smile on their face. I doubt that anybody here thinks there's anything to worry about."

And there will always be someone to try to make a buck on anything. Over at Mertz Ford, also on the main street, a few little-green-men blowups are still sitting in the windows of the dealership. They first appeared about a week after the sightings. "That was my wife's idea," says Don Mertz. "We got a lot of action out of these guys -- must've given away 20 or 30 of them. Buy a car, get an alien. The great thing is," he grins, "they only cost a couple bucks apiece."

Even the authorities have been swept up in the wave of interest in the sightings. When Lt. Frank Szewczyk of the Millstadt PD is asked to comment on the publicity, which seems to be building rather than dying down, he blurts, "I'm really pissed at Stevens," emphasizing "pissed." It initially seems that he's angry with his subordinate for dragging the department and the town through the muck of notoriety -- Millstadt was, after all, the department that spurned advances by the East Coast media -- but appearances deceive: "I'm really pissed at Stevens," he repeats, deadpan, "for not calling me that morning and waking me up."

Whereas the tabloids and radio talk shows played up the story, emphasizing the more lurid elements -- the monstrous craft hovering motionless over the puny awestruck earthlings below as if scrutinizing them -- John Velier lived up to his promise to employ sound judgment and empirical data in trying to arrive at a plausible explanation. By the end of January, two theories had been advanced on the NIDS Web site: the B-2 and Aereon hypotheses.

The first theory assumes the presence of a B-2 Spirit bomber that night. The general outline of the B-2 fits the arrowhead or triangular shape reported by most witnesses, and the wingspan of the aircraft is 172 feet, more than half "the size of a football field." The speed of a B-2 varies greatly, and with its flaps down it can fly quite slowly. Further, the B-2 has three lights that are retracted when the plane is put into stealth mode. The bug in this theory is that Whiteman Air Force Base, 200 miles west of St. Louis, is the only B-2 base in the country. A check of the flight records at the 509th Wing at Whiteman AFB by NIDS researchers indicates that no B-2s were flying at the time of the sightings.

The Aereon hypothesis was spawned when Craig Stevens verified that the craft he observed bore a resemblance to a picture found on the Internet. The picture was an artist's impression of a "stealth blimp" published in the September 1999 issue of Popular Mechanics. (In fact, Stevens made a sketch of what he saw that very day, a sketch that, coincidentally, looks like the stealth blimp, though at the time he had no idea such a thing existed.) The stealth blimp -- actually a revolutionary hybrid of a conventional airplane and a lighter-than-air dirigible (and the subject of John McPhee's 1973 book The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed) -- was tested, flown and patented by the Aereon Corp. of Princeton, N.J., in 1970. That prototype was but 26 feet long, though at the time the company envisioned 800-foot Aereons, floating freighters, for use in both the military and civilian sectors.

The Aereon craft could fit the collective descriptions of the UFO: its configuration, low altitude, slow speed (though Barton's testimony that it accelerated fairly rapidly belies this) and lack of noise. The only problem is that an Aereon spokesperson, questioned by NIDS, "stated emphatically and repeatedly that no craft of such size was ever built, at least at Aereon." In the mid-1990s, says the report, Aereon obtained seed money from the military to develop a stealth-blimp-type craft that would contain three 50-foot radar antennae. Funding fell through, but the patent, with drawings, is still out there. Informed of the characteristics of the Illinois UFO, the Aereon spokesperson said, "If a large Aereon-type craft is flying, then it represents a stolen patent by persons unknown."

Although the craft was near Scott Air Force Base -- practically invaded the airspace there -- officials deny any knowledge of a UFO near the base. Lt. Col. Allan Dahncke, 375th Airlift Wing public-affairs director, said in the Base News, "The (air-control) tower was closed at the time of the sighting and no aircraft were in the air." The base no longer has radar facilities on the field, adds Dahnke, but relies on the FAA radar approach system at Lambert Airport. Lambert reported that the object did not show up on its radar. That the object did not present itself on a radar screen doesn't mean squat to Kathy Floyd and Mel Noll. "Heck, they're probably smarter than we are and they used radar evasion," Floyd says. Who "they" are, she is not saying.

ALL THE PUBLICITY CERTAINLY DID NOT help the witnesses put the incident to rest -- that is, those who want it put to rest. Of the seven witnesses, Noll and Barton seem the most receptive to discussing what happened, but all of them will talk, likely because it was such an amazing episode, way out of the realm of the probable. UFOlogists say it is not unusual for folks who witness something that they can't explain, something ostensibly otherworldly, to have their imaginations ignited in the days following the incident. None of the witnesses has been obsessively building Devil's Tower replicas out of mashed potatoes, as Richard Dreyfuss did in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but all say the experience has changed their lives in some way -- from perceiving a divine causality to feeling physical aftereffects to simply pondering the meaning of it all.

Dave Martin, 28, is possibly the least impressed by the mysterious incident. "It was different," he concedes. "But when it happened, you know, it didn't really hit on me because I'm not into that stuff -- the military aircraft, the 'other world' or the stars. I'm more of a sports jock. It's not my thing to start reading into it and looking for some deeper meaning. They asked me, 'Did I follow it?' No, I didn't. I just went on with my business. I didn't think nothing big of it at the time."

Over time, however, such an experience can cause even a sports jock to start mulling things: "Like I told these interviewers, I know it was no plane, no helicopter, nothing like that. I doubt that it was a military aircraft, though I'm not that familiar with all the military aircraft out there. Until someone tells us for sure, 100 percent, what it was, I'll always wonder about it. Meantime, I've caught myself several times just looking up at the sky."

For Craig Stevens, 33, a three-year veteran of the Millstadt PD, the experience has left a yearning for the truth and whatever realizations it may bring. "Since then, I've searched the Internet and kind of started my own personal investigation," he says. "I'm trying to find out what it was, and I'm 98 percent sure it was either a military or experimental craft. You know, the stealth fighter was out, what, six to eight, maybe 10 years before the public actually knew about it, and I'm sure that was called 'sightings' prior to us knowing about it.

"Still," continues Stevens, "the questions run through your mind. It makes you take a look at yourself and your beliefs. I've just tried to make some sense of it, because I believe in God and I haven't been able to nail down how the Bible and all this relates. I still think this was something manmade, but there is that vague possibility it was something else, and if so, I don't know how God would feel about it."

Ed Barton also has a difficult time putting the experience behind him. "I'll tell you," he says, "I'm still wondering what the hell it was I actually saw. If it was one of our government's new projects, just have them say, 'It was one of ours, but we can't tell you any more about it.' OK, fine -- case closed, as far as I'm concerned. But what leads me to believe it probably wasn't some military R&D craft, No. 1, why would they test something like that over a populated area, where if the thing went down you've got a bunch of civilians to worry about and trying to contain the site would be sheer hell on the military? And two, why would they light it up like that? Why draw attention to it?"

Among the witnesses, Barton was the one who had at least already entertained the notion of UFOs' appearing at odd times and places on the planet. This open-mindedness on the subject has no doubt been fueled by listening, as he does, to the late-night ruminations of Art Bell on KTRS (550 AM), where no conspiracy theory, no government coverup, no paranormal experience is too far-fetched. Bell, coincidentally, claims that he and his wife saw something quite similar to the Metro East UFO some two years ago in the American Southwest, where he lives. If this revelation brings out the sniggering skeptics, Barton is not among them.

"Personally, I think it's kind of arrogant for us to sit here and think we're the only life forms in the entire universe," he says. "That doesn't mean I believe that whoever, whatever it is was coming from light-years away just to see us for whatever reason."

Both Stevens and Barton have experienced bouts of insomnia since the sighting. "When the incident first happened," says Barton, "I didn't sleep for two-and-half days. I finally calmed down to where I was able to get some sleep." Then came the headaches -- "real strong, above and behind the left eye" -- which began a few days after seeing the UFO. "I don't want to say it's directly related to this (Jan. 5 incident)," Barton cautions, though he has contacted Peter Davenport at the National UFO Reporting Center in Seattle. "I told him what was going on, and he said that headaches were a fairly common occurrence (after seeing a UFO). He said they should go away pretty soon, which I'm hoping, because it's not a case where they slowly come on and slowly fade. It's like one minute -- boom! -- they're there, and the next minute they're gone."

Though his daughter had assured him he had seen an actual UFO, Steven Wonnacott kept wondering about it, and when he saw the article in the Post the next Sunday, he was largely delivered from his state of bewilderment. "It was such an unusual thing I had seen," he says, "and I wasn't sure there was some rational explanation for it." Wonnacott still doesn't have a rational explanation for it, but, like Officer Stevens, he's become more interested in the subject of UFOs -- searching the Internet, reading books. "Just curious," he says, "no more than that. I think about it from time to time, especially when I drive over that overpass."

Despite differing attitudes toward the experience, the witnesses are united in their reaction to the dismissive comments in the Jan. 25 Post-Dispatch by four UFO experts, including Phillip Klass, founder of the Committee of Scientific Investigations of Claims of the Paranormal and the purported "dean of UFO research." Among the article's speculations: that the sightings represent a "social-psychological phenomenon" in which people believe they see a UFO because they are looking for one; that movies and TV shows such as The X-Files have stepped up belief in extraterrestrial life, causing more people to see more UFOs; that smart, honest, good people can still be seriously wrong about seeing a UFO. The most contentious comment was by Klass, who flatly stated the object described was "probably a hoax" and called the entire remarkable incident "bogus."

"When I read that, I wanted to call Mr. Klass and give him a piece of my mind," says Barton. "Well, I'm sure that someone who's never seen what we've seen can talk the skeptic," Stevens adds. "It (the article) kind of aggravates me because I feel that my credibility and integrity as a police officer is pretty high held. I mean, I state facts all the time, and that's what I saw, and that's what I reported."

"I didn't read about it," offers Martin, "but the other guys told me about it and, you know, it kind of pissed us off. At first we thought we ought to call them up and give them a piece of our mind, but then we thought, 'Well, that's just going to carry it on, so maybe we shouldn't.' So we just let it at that and said, 'Whatever they want to print, that's fine.'"

Mel Noll puts it succinctly, saying, "Nobody seems to know what it was, but I know what I seen, and that's all the further I can go." Seven witnesses in seven separate localities -- that number holds reassurance for Noll. "That night they told me somebody else seen it, I was relieved. I could sleep better then. I didn't know what I'd seen, and I wanted somebody else to see it, too."

Maybe others did see it but are keeping mum -- well, not talking to the press, perhaps, but willing to share with a fellow witness. "I've had five to six letters from people, saying they saw it the same morning," says Stevens. Is it possible other cops saw it that morning? Barton thinks so. "There's two officers in Mascoutah that saw it," he says, "apparently watched it go from I-64 to Summerfield. One is Sgt. (Cathy) Anstedt and the other is Officer (Bob) Ribbing, but for whatever reason they've decided not to come forth." He adds with a chuckle: "I've been dimin' 'em out anyways."

When contacted, however, Ribbing says, "It was just an aircraft," sounding as though he has explained all this before. "We saw an airplane with its landing lights on up near Scott Air Force Base in the early-morning hours. But as soon as it turned off its lights, I could see it was an aircraft." Although Barton is skeptical of this explanation, he understands the officers' reluctance to divulge the truth about what they saw, if indeed they saw it. Barton speculates, "They don't feel like talking about it because of the ridicule I and the other officers were getting."

For Stevens, that ridicule comes in the form of sophomoric pranks. "For the most part, the officers here have been real supportive," he says. "You know, there's one who kind of bugs me about it, in a joking manner. He believes I saw something, but still he leaves a little gummy green alien in a tube on my desk, calls it Craig's test-tube baby." With Martin, it's shades of Mork And Mindy: "Folks at the gym, the supermarket, they don't make remarks," says Martin. "The ones that give me shit are the guys I work with. They just joke around, sarcastic, do that 'nanoo-nanoo' thing with the fingers. Little stuff like that, nothing big." Wonnacott, too, admits to being the brunt of some mild ribbing. "They make spaceship noises and joke about my credibility," he says of his colleagues at East St. Louis Senior High School.

Of course, it may be that those who dispense gibes are in reality envious. Harrison L. Church, publisher of the Lebanon Advertiser, sitting in a room that looks more like a museum than a newspaper office, says he has no doubt that Barton and the others saw something quite remarkable: "Whether it's of this earth or another planet, who knows? Most people have formulated the impression there are things out there we don't know about, don't understand, probably from other worlds, but are no threat to us. I think we've figured out if they wanted to sack and burn the place, they would've done it by now."

Mel Noll sits in the arcade room of Fun Land, a bunch of newspapers with stories about the UFO spread out on a table. "Tell you what," he says, "a lot more people around here are looking up at the sky." Ditto for Noll, the inadvertent instigator of this entire affair. Well, maybe not inadvertent, for Noll believes that some higher power guided him to be in that place at that time; he believes that his part in the event was more than caprice. "Oh, I think I had help letting me know I should look," he says. "Otherwise, most times if I stop in here on cold mornings, I don't bother to look at the sky. But, you know, it just seems that everything was timed just right so I could get here at the time that light was coming. And then I went in and came back to the truck and something made me look again. You don't just normally look up in the air, and I was just amazed what I saw coming. I just couldn't hardly believe myself. My goodness, what is that? Just like a floating home up there, something big with lights in it. And close, so close somebody could have waved at me out the window and I would've seen it."

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