Meet the People Who've Made Orange County a Worldwide Center of UFO Research
It was early August in 1965 and business as usual for Traffic Inspector Tech 2 at the Orange County Road Department. Overgrown foliage on street signs had brought Rex E. Heflin to Myford Road, near the intersection of Walnut Avenue in Santa Ana. He was driving northeast in a Ford work van, less than half a mile from Interstate 5, when his work radio suddenly went out.
Heflin fiddled with the radio, attempting to contact Orange County Road Maintenance headquarters. Then he noticed something moving in the sky to his left. He figured it was a military plane, given he was just a mile from the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. But it did an impossible move, then just hovered. Quickly grabbing his county-issued Model 101 Polaroid—used for taking photos of anomalies along OC roads—he instinctively snapped a picture through the windshield of his van.
The aircraft was circular, squat, with a semi-flat top—similar in shape to a man's straw boater hat. It continued to move oddly—hovering and tilting, "similar to a gyroscope when losing its stability," Heflin recalled years later. And then, almost as quick as it appeared, the machine flew up and shot away toward Old Saddleback, leaving behind a ring of blue-black vapor.
Heflin had just seen an unidentified flying object.
He took three photos of the UFO and one of the vapor it left behind. Three of the four made the front page of the Orange County Register (back then known simply as The Register) and eventually went national. He told the paper he was "reluctant to report the flying-saucer incident to the press or the military because I knew I'd be branded some sort of nut."
The Helfin affair is a story all unto itself, but you should know it involved the Air Force's secret UFO investigation team, bona-fide men in black, the theft of Helfin's photos, a mysterious phone call to him 30 years later that led to their reappearance in a Manila envelope in his mailbox. But it remains Orange County's most famous UFO sighting. It also sparked a movement: 52 years after the incident, Orange County continues to be a hotbed of UFO research and has become the mother ship to the world's largest UFO-investigation network.
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The rumble from identifiable flying objects taking off and landing is audible from within the beige stucco walls of MUFON International headquarters. The two-story office building that sits just across the street from John Wayne Airport looks like the type of quiet place you'd go to meet your tax guy or mortgage broker. And aside from having to get buzzed in to enter, MUFON's space is office-park drab—no alien cadavers, no vintage movie posters, not even any life-sized grays. There's a large conference room that serves as executive director Jan Harzan's office, plus a few cubicles and computers. Scores of books are stacked and scattered throughout.
"What else can I tell ya?" Harzan asks. "It's a real phenomenon."
MUFON is broken up into worldwide chapters, with members in 43 countries ("We get about 20 percent of our sighting reports from out of the country, from all over the world—from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe," Harzan says), as well as chapters in all 50 states. Larger states such as California are broken up into sections, and Orange County has its own.
The nonprofit claims to operate the world's largest and most detailed database of reported UFO sightings. When someone reports a sighting, they're asked via an online form more than 50 questions—the weather during the supposed sighting, the latitude, the longitude, anything about the area where it happened—and to upload photographs, video, sketches and/or audio. After a report is filed, it's sent to a field investigator (a MUFON-trained researcher) in the area near the sighting.
The head field investigator for Orange County is Diane Hall. She works closely with her sister Linda Fletchner, who handles sightings near Ontario. "We're the sister field investigator team," Fletchner says. "When we get a case, within 24 hours, we like to try to notify our witnesses. I'll email them and introduce myself—I'll say, 'Hi, I'm Linda, the MUFON field investigator assigned to your case, and I have a couple of questions'—because they don't always fill out all of the report."
Each case is assigned a number, and investigators are asked to fill out a Form 30 on the secure MUFON website. Easily explainable cases—like, say, a plane or lights in the sky—are called Category Ones, or Fly-Bys. Fletchner says sightings near Disneyland are common and can pretty much always be attributed to the Mouse. "Most of my cases, I'd say 96 percent, are terrestrial—we can explain it," Fletchner says, who always sends the reporting party an email explaining the truth. "But there's that other percentage that we can't explain. And before I put 'unknown' down on a case, I have to make sure I have exhausted every explanation it might have been. We don't just say, 'Oh, well, I don't know' and put down 'unknown'—it's not acceptable."
It's those rare cases that are published in the monthly glossy MUFON International Journal. In the March 2017 issue, 10 unexplained sightings were highlighted. One such case includes a photo of Donald Trump's helicopter taken over the Iowa State Fair. Iowa MUFON state director Gregory Andersen gives his analysis: "It appears to be a bug or a bird."
In addition to playing archivist and detective to unexplained sightings, MUFON International also organizes a yearly symposium, featuring speeches and appearances by famous researchers and even alien contactees. Orange County has hosted the MUFON International Symposium four times, the latest at the Hotel Irvine in 2015. The theme that year focused on academia and media outreach (the Weekly was represented by a ragtag group of reporters).
This year's event will be held in July in Las Vegas and will focus on the case for a secret government space program. Sections vie to host it in their area by bidding to MUFON International, sort of like the Olympics of ufology—"only on a much smaller scale," Harzan says with a laugh.
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It's the third Wednesday of the month, and a stream of people file into a room at the Costa Mesa Senior Center. They're not here for an after-hours Bingo night or Jazzercise class; they're here for answers.
A younger brunette with a cash box and a younger man with a roll of raffle tickets greet attendees of the monthly meeting of the Orange County chapter of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON). Plastic clip-on name badges for MUFON OC members are laid out in alphabetical order on a table. Members, students and first-timers pay $10 to attend; everyone else pays $15.
About 100 plastic chairs are set up in rows facing a computer projector and an empty podium. In the back, a few 6-foot tables host vendors. Many of the attendees are the target audience for other activities at the Senior Center. Tonight, some reporters from Orange Coast College's student newspaper show up thanks to a recent advertisement in the Coast Report, but that's about it for young folks. "If you come [to the meeting], it will be the first time a reporter has attended in about five years," Dr. Robert Wood, a longtime member of the MUFON International Board of Directors, tells a scribe.
This month's meeting begins when MUFON OC director Eric Hartman takes the podium. The Huntington Beach-based attorney and former pilot runs down what has happened since last month's gathering and what's coming up. The next month's featured guest is a good one: investigative journalist Linda Moulton Howe. The crowd murmurs with approval for the earthfiles.com editor and Coast to Coast AM radio-show regular. Hartman advises the crowd to arrive early, as Howe's last appearance at MUFON OC quickly sold out, mentioning they'll be adding space to the room to accommodate a larger-than-usual crowd.
"The normal functions of most of Mutual UFO Network is basically to do the observations and report the sightings," Wood explains. "But our particular local section is a little different in the sense that we focus on research issues. We try to have an interesting speaker every month."
MUFON leans on the many local ufologists who work in Orange County. Many of the speakers have appeared on the History Channel's runaway-hit series Ancient Aliens, including Nick Pope (who appeared in the episode "Now You See It Now You Don't") and Jason Martel ("Was the Ark of the Covenant Used to Power the Great Pyramid?").
It was Harzan who moved MUFON International to Newport Beach earlier this decade, which cemented Orange County's status in the UFO-research universe.
"It was perfectly smooth," Harzan says of the first time he saw a UFO. He was 8 years old when he spotted one outside his family's Thousand Oaks home. "There was not a seam or a rivet in it. Then I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, how do they get in and out of it?' There's no windows; there's no doors. There's no way to access it. I'm staring at this thing, and I say, 'Oh, my god, these things are real.'"
He tried to tell his best friend about it at school, but the pal completely dismissed the story. "So I realized, at that point, you can't tell people something like this," he recalls. "It's like telling people you saw your dead grandmother walking through the bedroom. It's just too far out there. I didn't talk about it for years."
Harzan held on to that secret for decades, but the sighting never left his mind. Then, in the late 1980s, a business associate gave Harzan a flyer. "I look at it, and it's a UFO conference at LAX. It was called the UFO Expo West," he says. "So I go to this UFO conference, and I'm shocked to see 1,000 people in attendance. And what was even more shocking was they had these speakers there who claimed to have been aboard these craft and having traveled around the universe."
He discovered many believers had stories similar to his. "My interest in UFOs started in about the sixth grade," says Hartman from his office on 10th floor of an upscale Huntington Beach office building in the shadow of the Bella Terra shopping center. "That was in—and I don't like to date myself that much because I'm older than I look and older than I feel—but that was in the '50s." The Roswell incident of 1947 had sparked a national craze in not only pop-culture interpretations of little green men, but also serious queries into similar incidents and theories.
Hartman's curiosity remained into his adult years, and he joined a UFO investigative group when he moved to Orange County in the 1980s. He recalls the group's early days, when it held meetings in a conference room of the Costa Mesa Police Department, thanks to a member who was also a police officer.
Eventually, enough people were interested in the subject that the group created a local MUFON chapter in 1995. According to the Register, OC had become "a hot spot for UFO sightings."
"It is truly a sad state of affairs when you can't poke fun at UFO kooks anymore," a columnist wrote. "Exactly what kind of world is this where UFO chasers no longer are strange men with aluminum wrap on their heads, but perfectly respectable scientists and businessmen?"
Hartman and Harzan have seen MUFON wax and wane over the past 30 years. "Public interest in things seems to be generated usually by some traumatic event," Hartman says, "and it kind of moves in cycles or waves and the public can lose interest very suddenly, too, if there's nothing happening."
"You would think these people were nuts," Harzan says of his fellow believers. "But they [are] just normal, everyday people."
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"Do you want me to tell you what I think is the real history of man?" Wood asks with a wry smile.
The retired McDonnell Douglas researcher sits at the dining-room table of his Back Bay home on an early May afternoon. The only thing in the room that hints at the Cornell-educated Ph.D. physicist's current line of inquiry is a small plastic toy on the otherwise-clean kitchen island. It's a little green man with a camera around his neck, riding inside a plastic flying saucer. The trinket is solar-powered and bobbles when it gets enough sunlight.
Wood sat on MUFON's International Board of Directors for 24 years, retiring just last year. He continues to serve on MUFON's Orange County chapter board—because there's still work to be done.
The octogenarian chuckles for a moment, then launches into a history lesson that most people must've slept through in college.
"The first anti-gravity craft flew in Germany in 1924 when a woman who was a psychic got the plans from an alien race in another star system called Aldebaran," he explains. "In the meantime, Hitler, who was basically involved in the occult, had established a relationship with a group of reptilians who were living here in Antarctica, the Draco Reptilians. They were from the Draco constellation."
He continues with this alternative history flavored with underground arctic alien bases and escaped Nazis for about another 15 minutes. These assertions come not from too many late nights listening to Art Bell, but from 50 years of investigation. Wood's interest in ufology was sparked when he worked for Douglas Aircraft Co. in the mid-1960s. The company funded research into reverse-engineering flying-saucer technology, at his suggestion, in 1967. He read extensively on the subject, concluding UFOs were real.
"The only question in my mind is whether we figure out how they work before or after our competitor Lockheed," he says. "For the next year and a half, they gave me half a million dollars to study [UFO technology]. We hired detectives to interview people, and we did some tests to see if we spun magnets, if it would change the weight or anything like that. We could not find anything anomalous or different or interesting, but we did know that we were spending money at a finite rate and had no idea how close we were getting to the answer, so we canceled the project."
That was about 1970. But McDonnell Douglas did little with Wood's research. Then, in 1993, one of his former workers gave him a call. "He said, 'I know you don't have anything to do, so I got a question for you. I got a fax that says, 'Extraterrestrial Entities and Technology Recovery and Disposal.' He said, 'It's basically a field manual and would you be interested in trying to authenticate it?'"
That manual plunged Wood down a rabbit hole of alleged leaked official government documents and inspired him and his son, Ryan Wood, to create the WikiLeaks of the UFO world: majesticdocuments.com, named after the Majestic 12, the code name for an alleged government committee tasked with investigating UFOs. The collection of papers came from different government whistleblowers and leakers and are sorted on the site by era and given a credibility meter, complete with a little needle gauge.
"Everyone who spends a day or so reading the documents [on the website] will just walk away shaking their heads saying, 'Yeah, it's got to be true,'" says Wood. "Because they're all so consistent. The markings and the references to the organizations and what they were called at that time—they're all consistent."
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Many of OC's most prominent UFO researchers are men of science: physicists, engineers, astronauts. But the most mainstream local player doesn't believe in aliens.
"My main interest in life is public outreach in science," says UC Irvine physics professor Michael Dennin, "and obviously, many of the people interested in UFOs and aliens are also interested in science, so it's a great place for me to do public outreach, in that regard."
He has spoken at comic conventions and teaches a popular course on the science of superheroes. But Dennin is most famous for his many appearances on the History Channel's Ancient Aliens. "I got into this after doing a number of science shows for Prometheus productions. It started with Science of Superman and included Batman Tech, Spider Man Tech and Star Wars Tech," he says. "When they were doing the Ancient Aliens pilot, they were familiar with my work and invited me to be a science 'expert' on Ancient Aliens.
"They like me because I'm their 'friendly skeptic,' and I like that title," Dennin continues. He goes on to explain he finds the subject of UFOs and extraterrestrials interesting, "but I definitely would fall in the skeptic category."
The curly brown-haired professor with a salt-and-pepper beard nevertheless speaks of the universe's possibilities with childlike enthusiasm and wonder. He asserts the typical way humans think about life showing up on the planet is "'Oh! A bunch of random processes happen, and we're just lucky to have gotten life.' Either life is really, really rare and doesn't show up anywhere else, or it's equally likely to appear at any time in the universe because it's just a random thing."
Dennin claims it's not only possible intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, but also probable. "The one thing I can say with great confidence is life is probably in a lot of places in the universe . . . and there are very few things I am confident making strong statements on," he says.
Ever the scientist, he adds, "Now that's not the scientific proof—you still have to do the experiments and test it."
"I don't think the question is 'Have aliens visited us?' because I don't think any of us have hit that technology yet," Dennin concludes. "So the real question is simply who's going to get there first, and who's going to visit who?"
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