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Phoenix's UFO Congress Probes What Believers Insist Comes From "Above"

Andrew Pielage

David Armstrong's music is out of this world.

At least that's how he explains it. According to the Minnesota-based musician's website, his "spirit guides recently turned him onto a being named The Traveler." Armstrong communicated with it, and The Traveler "brought David music from various Alien races to help humanity adjust to the ascension frequencies occurring on our planet."

The music sounds surprisingly funky.

Armstrong has five portable CD players splayed across his table at the 2014 International UFO Congress, an annual gathering of UFO enthusiasts at the Radisson Fort McDowell Resort and Casino on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, near Fountain Hills. Each CD player has a corresponding set of headphones and features a different set of recordings.

Their covers bear UFO imagery and cosmic scenes. Some feature music composed to aid in healing and meditation, naming songs for locations in the Southwest: Scottsdale, Palm Springs, and Joshua Tree. But on albums like Galactic Groove and Music from the Stars, containing tunes he says were beamed to him from a light being from the Andromeda Galaxy, Armstrong plays synthetic acid jazz, sounding like something between a digital Funkadelic and the theme from Seinfeld.

The UFO conference's vendor room acts as a window into its attendees: There are New Age crystals for sale; Native American art featuring UFOs conspicuously floating in beautiful desert skies. One booth examines the extraterrestrial/sasquatch connection, while pop culturists, like Aaron Sagers of the Travel Channel's Paranormal Paparazzi, and former FBI agent Ben Hansen, who hosts Fact or Fake: Paranormal Files on the Syfy channel, display their wares: footage taken with high-tech cameras, books, and posters. There are Sedona citizens discussing orbs and vortexes, wooden flutes emitting haunting melodies, and underwear. Kind of sexy underwear, even: a black thong stretched over a silver mannequin's buttocks. There is a blue alien head — "The Observer," a nearby sign explains — prominently featured on the skimpy strip of fabric.

It's the 23rd installment of the UFO Congress. Founded in Laughlin, Nevada, the Congress has taken place on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation since 2010, when Open Minds Production, a Tempe-based media company, began organizing the event. Between February 12 and 16, it drew about 2,500 people who convened on the resort to take in presentations, shop, watch films, and argue about the true nature of extraterrestrial phenomena. The event boasts "experiencer" sessions, where therapists Yvonne Smith and Gwen Farrell confer with alleged contactees. These sessions are closed to the press.

The conference boasts a who's who of UFO and paranormal celebrities, including: Stephen Bassett, whose Paradigm Research Group was responsible for a 2013 Citizen Hearing on Disclosure in Washington, D.C.; Robert Powell, director of research for the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON); Sagers; and George Noory, host of the popular overnight radio program Coast to Coast A.M.

The parking lot is packed, with cars from Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, California, Oregon, and Idaho, among other states, in addition to plenty from Arizona. Organizers say there are visitors from Switzerland, Canada, South Africa, and other faraway locales.

The vast majority is gathered to discuss and debate the existence of extraterrestrial beings.

Some attendees are convinced that alien visitors are benevolent; others warn of an impending invasion. Some are here to debunk the discussions and presentations. There are others seemingly not interested much in aliens at all, discussing instead Hitler conspiracy theories and kvetching about the ever-encroaching power of the Federal Reserve, the global elite, the Illuminati, and powerful lizard people.

The UFO Congress is something like a Ron Paul rally crossed with Phoenix Comicon. It's a gathering that draws a diverse crowd united only by a shared belief that things are not what they seem.


Tempe's Open Minds Production, an LLC dedicated to UFO and paranormal research, is responsible for a glossy, full-color magazine, published bi-monthly, a radio program/podcast, a popular YouTube program (Spacing Out!), and the annual UFO Congress.

The staff — Angela Allison, Alejandro Rojas, Maureen Elsberry, and Jason McClellan — does everything from booking guest speakers at the conference to making sure they're happy with their accommodations to running lights, sound, and visuals.

Allison prefers not to speak with the press, but Rojas, Elsberry, and McClellan have no such aversion to the spotlight. The three constitute the face and voice of the media company. Rojas famously hung out with the Kardashians on their show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, taking the socialite family to southern Nevada's Area 51 (a remote extension of Edwards Air Force Base that some UFO believers allege hosted encounters with space aliens) and introducing them to Travis Walton, the Snowflake logger who claimed he was abducted by extraterrestrials in 1975.

Walton's account is one of the most popular UFO-abduction tales in the history of the field — Rojas says he'd rank it in the top 10, maybe the top five. His vivid story of going aboard an alien craft is harrowing: Awaking in the vessel, Walton says, he was surrounded by "grays," alien beings in orange jumpsuits, shorter than five feet tall with enormous eyes and domed heads. After a five-day search in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, Walton was found west of Heber. The 1993 film Fire in the Sky was based on Walton's story.

 

Rojas was invited on the show because he'd recently written about a sighting that Kendell — Kris and Bruce Jenner's daughter and half-sister to Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney's — had tweeted about.

"Khloe wanted to go to Area 51," Rojas says. "They needed someone who knew what it was about. So they called me. People always make fun of me when I emphasize this, but [the Kardashians] were really nice, very interested, and they asked great questions."

Clearly, the Kardashians were impressed with Walton and Rojas. Bruce Jenner, not as much.

Sporting a slim suit, salt-and-pepper hair, and a soul patch, Rojas serves as the UFO Congress' emcee, introducing speakers and warming up the crowd. The former director of education and PR for Mutual UFO Network, Rojas has been a UFO buff for decades. He helped curate lectures for the annual symposium at Roswell, New Mexico, the site of the most famous UFO case in U.S. history when, during the summer of 1947, a craft alleged to have contained extraterrestrials crashed near a ranch.

In 2010, he helped launch Open Minds. He's a contributing editor for the magazine, co-organizes the Congress, and records a podcast for Open Minds' website.

Rojas began professionally exploring ufology in 2000, when he attended a UFO event at the Washington Press Club. Military men, a Federal Aviation Administration official, and scientists discussed the UFO phenomenon, and the information spoke to Rojas.

"I found it fascinating that people didn't really know about this stuff, and it didn't make a lot of press," Rojas says. "I felt, well, [that] I needed to learn more. I became sort of a hermit, dived into studying, and I eventually became an investigator for MUFON."

Elsberry and McClellan share Rojas' interest in exploring UFO phenomena through the lens of visual media and pop culture. The two host Spacing Out!, the Open Minds-produced YouTube show that examines UFOs in international headlines, shares space news, and features interviews with people such as Huffington Post contributor Lee Spiegel, and X-Files actor Dean Haglund, also of The Lone Gunmen fame. Tom DeLonge, a member of the pop-punk band blink-182, discusses his thoughts on extraterrestrial life on the show. In his segment, DeLonge's characteristic wit shines throughout, as he explains UFO trips out into the desert to "smoke pot and get weird," while also talking about the topic more seriously.

The tone of Spacing Out! benefits greatly from the pop-culture sensibilities of Elsberry and McClellan. Both studied media at Arizona State University before earning what seems like dream jobs to young UFO enthusiasts: full-time positions creating media content about the subject. In addition to their television and video projects, both contribute to the magazine. In the latest issue, McClellan penned an article compiling arguments that Bigfoot — one of the most persistent topics in the field of cryptozoology (the search for animals whose existence is unproven) — might be an extraterrestrial.

Elsberry joined the Open Minds team in 2009. In a field dominated by older men, her good looks earn plenty of enthusiastic attention in the YouTube comments accompanying Spacing Out! clips. She recently joined the cast of the reality show Uncovering Aliens, which has aired on Discovery's sister channels, Animal Planet and Science. She grew up in Washington state and has been fascinated by UFOs and the paranormal almost all her life.

"I was always into the paranormal [and] ghosts," Elsberry says. "I grew up watching E.T. and things like that. So I had a strong interest in it. But I never expected myself to be in a full-fledged career doing it."

McClellan never expected it either, but his background in music and visual production serves him well at Open Minds. He creates vivid animation for the conference, and his love of music — funky electronic sounds and ska — adds a hip factor that often is missing on other UFO websites and podcasts. With his thick black-rimmed classes and white-blond hair, swooped in one direction and shaved high on the sides of his head, he's got visual charisma. He's scheduled to appear on an upcoming History Channel program, Hangar 1, produced in conjunction with MUFON. He grew up in Arizona, and his interest in UFOs stems mostly from his fascination with outer space.

"I grew up in Buckeye, basically out in the desert," McClellan says. "Went camping every weekend; you know, I always saw weird shit in the sky. I was here in '97; I saw the Phoenix Lights. I've definitely been a believer. I believe there are unexplainable things. I've seen it. But I haven't really been a 'UFO guy,' but I've always been huge into space and sci-fi."

 

McClellan posits that Open Minds is one of the few companies in the United States with a paid staff dedicated to UFO research. Company founder John Rao stays out of the spotlight. He registered Open Minds Production as an LLC in 2010 and founded Secure Medical Inc., which aids in "remote" healthcare through electronic tools..

"He's just a guy who's really interested in this topic, who feels that more could be done to [explore] this topic," Rojas says. "So he's hired us to do that. He makes his money through other ventures, not through what we're doing with Open Minds [laughs]. Hopefully that will happen in the future. The [two-decades-plus annual Congress] might not be going without him."

Though the magazine has a healthy subscriber base and the site is one of the most popular UFO news outlets, the Congress is the most attention-drawing aspect of Open Minds' mission.

"We have such a big crowd every single year. [Participants] register as soon as we open up registration," Elsberry says. "We sell out [the conference] faster and faster."

Admission isn't cheap: Prices range from $35 to $80 for day passes, with full-attendance packages running as high as $319. The crowd, consequently, is older, but Rojas, McClellan, and Elsberry quietly challenge many conceptions of what UFO enthusiasts are like. Even if the Congress does draw more "fundamentalist" UFO believers, the Open Minds team is young, hip, and about as far from the tinfoil-hat-wearing stereotype as you can get.


If the vendor marketplace is an overview of the UFO Congress' vibe, the lecture hall is where things get specific. Over the course of five days, dozens of speakers give detailed, elaborate presentations. Many feature anecdotal stories about sightings and abductions, offering up artistic renditions in lieu of photographs and special effects-laden re-creations instead of videos.

Outdoorsman and blogger Mike Clelland gives a speech straight out of Twin Peaks, discussing variations of the cult-hit TV show's ominous quote, "The owls are not what they seem."

Kim Carlsberg, a former still photographer for Baywatch shares details of her "secret life," discussing her own account of personal abduction.

The Open Minds team selects its speakers, knowing that information provided will vary from talk to talk. Sometimes the speakers contradict each other.

Rojas explains that booking people is tricky. They bring in a wide variety of speakers (some not armed with hard data or information) but steer away from known hoaxers, such as former Georgia corrections officer Rick Dyer, who wanted to bring along his "Bigfoot corpse." Dyer was behind a similar claim in 2008, when his sasquatch was revealed to be a rubber gorilla suit.

This year, the Open Minds team made a conscious effort to bring in speakers with scientific backgrounds. People like Jeffrey Bennett, astrophysicist and author, and Richard Hoover, a former NASA astrobiologist convinced he's found evidence of extraterrestrial microbial life on meteors that have entered Earth's atmosphere.

"You get a lot of the same [speakers] at every UFO conference," McClellan says. "It's difficult, almost impossible, to avoid that. And they are some of the key players in the field — so you've gotta have these people. But something that we've done this year is we've gotten new people who have interesting research and topics, things people are interested in hearing. But they're not the usual suspects."

Hoover, who established the Astrobiology Research Group at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in 1998, has studied diatom algae and cyanobacteria (photosynthetic bacteria) nearly all his life. His credentials are stacked: He's an astrobiologist at Athens State University in Alabama and a visiting research professor with the Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Buckingham in England, and he won the NASA Inventor of the Year award in 1992 for his invention of the Water Window Imaging X-Ray Microscope. He's studied microbial extremophiles (organisms capable of withstanding extreme heat and cold) in the some of the most hostile conditions on Earth: in Antarctica and in Hawaiian volcanoes. Hover is convinced that he's found cyanobacteria on carbonaceous meteorites. He's certain the biological matter is indigenous in the stones — and not from Earth.

"I really [don't discuss] little green men or little gray men because I don't have any evidence of those things," Hoover says.

Hoover's work has been challenged — by scientists stating that his samples were contaminated — and NASA has distanced itself from his findings. He suggests that the potential existence of extraterrestrial life, no matter how minuscule, threatens people's beliefs.

"I was told that there might be people whose religious thoughts would be upset by this. But this was true in the days of Copernicus and Galileo," Hoover says. "The church was upset by [Galileo's] contention that the Earth wasn't the center of the universe. And, yes, there may be people who believe that the Earth is the only habitable planet in the universe and that man is the only intelligent species, but that's . . . not science. Scientists should only be concerned by what they can see and what they can obtain evidence for."

 

Hoover acknowledges that the UFO Congress, with its dyed-in-the-wool believers, is "an unusual venue" for his presentation.

"If I were still working for NASA, I wouldn't be able to get permission to come here," Hoover says. "But I'm retired from NASA, and I'm willing to speak my mind. All I do is report what I've found and what I know. If any scientist wants to debate this with me, I'm willing."

Elsberry says, "There's some backlash because we do have a lot of scientists speaking. I'll have people come up to me and say, 'Why did you have this person? We already know [extraterrestrial] life is here; we know it's abducting people. Why do you have this guy trying to [convince us that] life exists out there?'"

Rojas explains that believers at the conference often accuse the Open Minds team of intentionally deceiving attendees — by bringing in government disinformation agents. Naturally, speakers like Hoover are viewed with suspicion by the Congress' most paranoid attendees.

For Saturday night of the conference, the Elvis of ufology, George Noory, host of the popular Coast to Coast A.M. radio program, is booked. Best heard late at night, crackling from a set of car speakers on the open road, it's a program Noory inherited from former host Art Bell, who launched the show nationally in 1992. Bell's fascination with the paranormal served as an entry point for many would-be phenomenon seekers.

Noory took over in 2003, and though Bell has publicly denounced the show's direction since his departure, it's remarkably popular, broadcast on 570 stations.

Noory bounds onstage wearing a black blazer, jeans, and boots, as Giorgio Moroder's "The Chase" blares over the speakers. Originally featured in the 1978 film Midnight Express, the song is best known as the theme to Coast to Coast.

"This is the by far the biggest event I've attended," Noory remarks to the audience.

He cracks PG-13 jokes for a few minutes, invokes the names of some of the most legendary figures in ufology — Walter Sullivan, author of the bestseller We Are Not Alone, and Stanton Friedman, civilian investigator of the Roswell Incident — and invites Huffington Post contributor Lee Spiegel onstage to discuss the recent Dyer/Bigfoot case.

Spiegel keeps the conversation light, taking a humorous jab at the size of the purported Bigfoot's penis ("Big foot, little penis," he says). It's fun back-and-forth, leaning more toward the entertainment side of things. Noory opens the floor for questions. It doesn't take long for things to get strange.

A young man claiming to be the reincarnated Christ speaks into the microphone at the foot of the stage, demanding to know whether Noory is suppressing information that the Earth is covered by a thick layer of cosmic glass.

The crowd hisses. "Next!" one attendee shouts, and another suggests that Mr. Christ could be yanked from the mic with a long cane. The crowd, dedicated to the otherworldly and beyond, has limits to its patience.


Standing outside the vendor market, Danny Torgersen, frontman of genre-bending Phoenix band Captain Squeegee and guest DJ at the UFO Congress, explains how he chooses songs for the audience.

"I like to take songs that aren't necessarily about the topic" — songs like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone" — "and make them about the topic." Torgersen spins these tracks alongside classic sci-fi recordings and modern indie rock from the Flaming Lips and Grizzly Bear. Torgersen volunteers at the event each year, and he says he loves it. The information — from all its various sources — thrills him.

Back in the vendor room, 40-something Jeff Willes discusses his website, www.ufosoverphoenix.com. He's gathered material for 20 years by pointing cameras at the skies over metro Phoenix. Asked whether the area's light pollution makes it difficult to document flying objects, he smiles.

"A lot of my sightings take place during the day," Willes states.

Across the aisle, Lynne Kitei discusses The Phoenix Lights, a 2005 documentary about the 1997 event, in which thousands observed lights in a "V" formation over Phoenix, Prescott, and other parts of Arizona. Though it was explained by Air Force officials as flares dropped by National Guard planes, Kitei isn't convinced. She left a medical job and acting career — she played "Florence Arizona" in the Coen brothers' 1987 comedy Raising Arizona – to pursue what she says she saw. The film, produced with R. Steve Lantz, is scheduled to screen March 11 at Harkins Shea 14, celebrating the 17th anniversary of the local event.

 

Like those who've long discounted an official explanation that Roswell Incident wreckage was from a secret Air Force weather balloon, Kitei continues to investigate because she's unsatisfied with government explanations about what she and many others witnessed.

Willes and Kitei attend the UFO Congress each year to discuss openly what's often dismissed as fringe or pseudo-science. People here toss out terms like "definitive evidence" with impunity. They sport shirts with slogans like "I think therefore I'm dangerous."

One attendee explains that the conference is "like church" to him. He's cautious as he talks. He doesn't want government agents — "Men in Black" (he believes they sport similar get-ups to that movie's characters to avoid suspicion) — overhearing him. Like many at the Congress, he believes the government is hiding info, that the National Security Agency fears gatherings like this, where truth-seekers could put together the pieces and spark a revolution.

"You've got your various cliques," McClellan says, smiling. "There are certainly pockets of people who are 100 percent convinced that extraterrestrials are here, abducting people and interacting with people. There are groups of people who are fascinated by this. There are people who say, 'Yes, life is out there, and we're going to find it soon, but it isn't here yet.' And then you have the hundreds of people who say, 'We are aliens.'"

Rojas says, before taking the stage to introduce another guest, "You've got a really wide variety of opinions and ideas. It's certainly something we struggle with, because we try to represent all of that . . . We attempt to get information out there in an unbiased way."

The Open Minds team may be interested in objectivity, but for many of the people who attend the Congress, as noted, there's no convincing necessary.

In the vendor hall, curious musicians test out wooden flutes, attendees browse mountains of free literature and flyers for online radio programs. They meander by David Armstrong's table, checking out his outer space funk CDs. At Ben Hansen's table, there's a spread of books, photos, and a poster. It features a grainy picture of a UFO hovering over woodlands — an image popularized on the wall of FBI agent character Fox Mulder's office in The X-Files.

It reads: "I want to believe."

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Radisson Fort McDowell Resort & Casino

10438 N. Fort McDowell Road
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