MUFON seeks truth behind close encounters
By Raymond Castile
It hovered over a road that ran between Sibley and Elm streets, back when St. Charles was "just a pimple," Widaman said.
A few years after his birth in 1952, Widaman's family moved into a house on Cadillac Drive, a block down from the light and just four houses from what was then the edge of civilization. Beyond the road lay undeveloped farm fields and woodland.
"This was back when KMOX was the only radio station and TV went off the air at midnight," Widaman said. "People went to bed with their screen doors open. There was nothing to be afraid of. There was nothing here."
But there was something here, something that lodged a vague phobia deep in Widaman's subconscious.
"For years, it boggled my mind," he said. "I knew I wasn't afraid of street lights, so why did it bother me?"
Widaman was just entering adulthood in the late 1960s when someone asked him if he had ever seen a UFO.
"I said no, but it felt like giving the wrong answer in a lie detector test," Widaman said.
Friends suggested Widaman undergo hypnosis to unlock the hidden fear. He initially resisted, but finally took their advice. Under hypnosis, Widaman recalled leaving his parents' house late one night and walking to the bottom of Cadillac. He looked up and saw the traffic light. Descending from the sky behind the light was - something.
UFO researchers, or UFOlogists, use five categories to classify UFO encounters. The first three, developed in 1972 by Allen J. Hynek, include the now famous "close encounter of the third kind" - contact with alien beings. After Hynek's death in 1986, UFOlogists added two additional categories, including the "fourth kind" - alien abduction.
"I know people will say that I was hypnotized into thinking I experienced something, but that is not what happened," Widaman said. "I saw something."
Today, Widaman lives with his wife and two children in St. Charles, not far from the scene of his childhood trauma. The repressed memory may have spurred his lifelong interest in UFOs, but Widaman said his fascination stems equally from his general curiosity about science, astronomy and the natural world.
Mike Bohrer, 50, met Widaman at Blackhurst Elementary School and continued their friendship while both attended St. Charles High School. During their junior year, the pair began attending monthly UFO discussion group meetings. Like Widaman, Bohrer's UFO fascination grew from a childhood sighting.
Bohrer was 12 years old when an anomalous light interrupted a weekend barbecue with his family in St. Charles.
Despite that incident, Bohrer said his interest in UFOs remained mild until the summer of 1970, when he helped investigate an alleged landing site on an O'Fallon farm.
"There were four indentations in a field, three forming the points of a triangle, then one in the center," Bohrer said. "There was a branch ripped off a tree nearby, though there had been no major weather. The farmer had not seen anything. But the night before, there was a couple - presumably necking - in a parked car near the farm. They described seeing a classic flying saucer at close range. It was lighted and came along the railroad tracks, flying at twice the height of the telephone poles."
Bohrer said the O'Fallon investigation piqued his interest, leading him to believe there was something physical behind the UFO phenomenon.
In 1968, Widaman's curiosity compelled him to attend a meeting in the home of aerospace engineer John Schuessler. A newspaper advertisement invited the public to come and discuss the UFO phenomenon. That night Widaman found himself in a room full of scientists.
"I sat there thinking, wow, these people really know what they are talking about. Finally someone who has some answers," Widaman said.
The meeting laid the foundation for what became the UFO Study Group of Greater St. Louis, Widaman said. It also brought together many of the people who would later form what would eventually become the world's largest UFO research organization, the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON).
Two groups dominated the UFO scene during the 1960s - the east coast-based National Investigation Committee on Aerial Phenomena and the west coast-based Aerial Phenomena Research Organization.
"They were like the Republicans and Democrats," Widaman said. "They could not see eye to eye. If you were a member of one, you could not be a member of the other."
Frustrated, UFOlogists such as Schuessler and Walt Andrus founded MUFON in 1969, originally calling it the Midwest UFO Network. The organization changed from "Midwest" to "Mutual" after an influx of members from across the nation and around the world.
"People wanted to be in MUFON because it was so credible. There was no petty fighting," Widaman said.
In recent years, the organization has come under fire from some quarters of the UFO community. Some have labeled it ineffective, despite its reputation as the world's oldest and most influential UFO organization.
Schuessler, who retired from the aerospace industry in 1998, now serves as MUFON's international director, holding office at the organization's Colorado headquarters. MUFON attracts top-name researchers and scientists to its annual UFO symposiums, staged twice in the St. Louis area. It publishes a monthly journal and boasts chapters in nearly every state. Widaman ascended to the position of Missouri state MUFON director in 1986, after two years as assistant director. Bohrer is state section director for Pike and Lincoln counties, serving as a contact for the police, media and public.
"We have trained investigators to go out in the field," Widaman said. "We're very interested in new and old cases. Nine out of 10 UFO encounters go unreported."
On average, about 30 of the Missouri MUFON chapter's approximately 150 members attend its regular public meetings, conducted at 7 p.m. the third Tuesday of every month at Culpeppers restaurant, 3010 West Clay in St. Charles.
Carole Schoenholtz, of St. Peters, joined MUFON in 1986 after watching a presentation by Widaman at St. Mary's College in O'Fallon. Schoenholtz, 56, said she was shocked when Widaman displayed a UFO photograph that looked exactly like objects she saw during the late 1950s while growing up in New York.
"Then 10 years later I was shopping at night with some friends, again at Easter time, when this glowing thing the size of a football field appeared. It was oval-shaped and covered the sky. Lots of people saw it."
The anomalies seem to have followed Schoenholtz to St. Peters.
"On four occasions, my husband an I have seen things from our back deck," she said. "Four years ago, my husband saw oval-shaped objects in the sky. Then two years ago, a neighbor came over and saw something through binoculars. He thought it was a fruit fly, but when he lowered the binoculars, he could still see the object with the naked eye. 'That's not a fruit fly,' he said."
Schoenholtz said she has no idea whether UFOs are extra-terrestrial or manmade, but she suspects the government knows the answer.
"That is part of what MUFON is trying to establish - how much does the government know about it?" Schoenholtz said. "The government is keeping us in the dark. They should not be so evasive. Some of these things are really disturbing people's lives. We're beyond being scared. We're fed up. We want to know what's going on."
Widaman said he is determined to break through what he calls the government's "iron curtain of secrecy."
MUFON member Robert Davis, of St. Charles, said the organization is trying to pressure Congressmen to release information that UFOlogists believe it has collected since 1947, when a suspected flying saucer allegedly crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico. But Davis, 62, said most people are too preoccupied with the pressures of day-to-day life to worry about putting pressure on the government.
"The creative mind is shackled by the 9-to-5 lifestyle," Davis said. "People are worried about watching the stock market, making house payments, picking their kids up from school. They are not worried about UFOs. We are in a quagmire. I don't think in my lifetime we are going to wake anybody up."
It was learning about the Roswell incident that first sparked Davis' enthusiasm in UFOS 30 years ago. Since then, he has traveled the country to investigate UFO sightings and other paranormal phenomena. Davis said he has paid several visits to Area 51, the popular name for a restricted government facility in the Nevada desert, where many people believe UFO-related experiments take place.
"I've sat out in the desert, under the Milky Way," Davis said. "It's quiet, kind of scary. I've seen many UFOs out there."
Though attitudes are changing, there is still a stigma attached to the UFO subject, Davis said. Many people who see them are afraid to come forward for fear of being ostracized. Widaman said that is one of the reasons MUFON exists.
"We are not interested in pushing an agenda," he said. "We are just a local group of normal people with a healthy skepticism who are interested in finding the truth, wherever the data leads. The more people we have asking questions, the more likely we'll get answers."
Space photos are NASA public domain images. NASA does not endorse this Web site.
This story was originally published in the Suburban Journals of St. Charles County, June 30, 2002. Used with permission.