The Hack and the Quack

The "Phoenix Lights" made Frances Emma Barwood the darling of the global space-alien lobby. And it'stransformed computer geek Jim Dilettoso into a star in the UFO firmament.

Rudin says his firm took its job seriously when the Discovery Channel asked it to match the images. "I testify in a court of law routinely; I'm a diplomate of several forensic societies," Rudin says. "Basically, you're talking to the guys who do this for a living."

Told that an astrophysics professor found the Cognitech experiment more convincing, Haberer suggested that his station had merely presented a different point of view, as if the question of a flare falling either behind or in front of a mountain had more than one answer.

But that's entertainment, which is what the nation is likely to get on March 11, when the UPN network devotes a half-hour to the Phoenix Lights in its program "UFO: Danger in the Skies." Producer Hilary Roberts says that Dilettoso is featured prominently and that no, her network did not independently examine his claims. His "analysis" will be one of several voices presented uncritically in the program. "We want the viewer to decide who's right," she says, apparently unconcerned that the public can hardly decide what's true when media deliver unexamined claims as fact.

Perhaps no news organization, however, has been as accommodating to Jim Dilettoso as the Arizona Republic. For weeks following the March 13 incident, the Republic promoted flying saucers in nearly every section. Dilettoso could be found on the front page, claiming to have found a drawing in his attic which, underneath another image, mysteriously depicts an alien autopsy; the article suggested that Dilettoso's Shroud-of-Turin-like autopsy drawing has something to do with a flying saucer which supposedly landed in Paradise Valley in 1947.

But the Republic's business section topped that story with a glowing July 1 account about Dilettoso and the cutting-edge things he does at Village Labs.

The paper reported that Dilettoso was on the verge of creating a massive supercomputer network which would give PC owners access to supercomputing power, and claimed that Village Labs and TRW had each invested $3 million in a computer called RenderRing1. One benefit would be the ability to send entire movies over phone lines at incredible speeds. His system would make Tempe the nexus of a special-effects processing center: Village Labs was already helping well-known firms with their special effects, Dilettoso claimed, and had a hand in the complex effects of the movie Titanic.

Dilettoso's sales pitch sounds familiar. Five years ago, New Times profiled him and his futuristic plans ("High Tech's Missing Link," April 21, 1993). Back then, those ambitions were largely the same: Village Labs would develop massive computer networks that would change the movie industry.

Dilettoso also told New Times he had an undergraduate degree from the University of Hartford and a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from McGill University in Montreal. But records at the University of Hartford showed that he had taken a single math class there; McGill University said it had never heard of him.

Today, Dilettoso denies that he ever claimed to have college degrees. "I have 160 to 180 college credits scattered all over the place. I tell people that all the time," he says when the subject comes up.

There's another version of the Village Labs story that Dilettoso is not as quick to tell: that rather than operating from income generated by his computer wizardry, Dilettoso has for years been the beneficiary of eccentric millionaire Geordie Hormel, the heir to the Spam fortune, who pays Village Labs' bills.

Until last year, that is. Hormel pulled the plug on Village Labs in July 1997, and court records show that after Hormel stopped paying rent, the building's owner, the Marchant Corporation of California, sued to kick Dilettoso out.

Marchant's attorneys argued successfully that Hormel, not Dilettoso, was the lessee, and a Superior Court judge found in favor of Marchant, ordering Dilettoso and Village Labs to vacate the premises. But Dilettoso convinced Hormel to bail him out one last time; Hormel shelled out $62,000 for a bond that would allow Dilettoso to file an appeal--and he occupies the building in the meantime, the rent covered by the bond. Hormel says he now regrets paying for it.

Last week, Dilettoso's appeal ran out. He says that Village Labs will vacate the building in a matter of days.

Hormel's wife Jamie contends that Dilettoso and Village Labs have existed primarily through her husband's largess: "[Geordie] has paid everything. He's paid rent and salaries and lawsuits for when Jim didn't pay salaries."

Geordie Hormel confirms that since the company's founding in 1993, he has put about $2 million into Village Labs. But he's reluctant to criticize Dilettoso, afraid he won't get any of his investment back.

His wife is less shy, saying, "[Dilettoso]'s just a liar . . . I mean, there was an article in the Republic in the business section on him and it was such a lie. . . . He tells Geordie that we're going to get money from TRW in three more weeks, then strings him along for a few more weeks. It's happened for years."

Dilettoso defends the Republic article, saying that Village Labs had invested $3 million on the project with TRW. But he later admits that no actual money was put up by his firm; the $3 million figure was a total of Village Labs' rent and salaries since its inception, most of which was supplied by Hormel. He also admitted that Village Labs' "design" work was unpaid.

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