The Hack and the Quack
Jim Dilettoso is playing a duet on a piano with a man who has a cross made of his own crusty, drying blood on his forehead.
On Dilettoso's own head is a mass of curly grayish hair. His mane dips and sways with the fluid rhythm he lays down, and his swaying locks, combined with his wire-rim glasses and the handsome seriousness of his face, evoke the eccentric genius and renowned UFO researcher he's rumored to be.
Plucking out a tentative melody on the higher keys, a moon-faced Giorgio Bongiovanni beams as he tries to keep up. With his tangled brown locks, Bongiovanni might be taken for a Deadhead if it weren't for the blackish dried blood decorating his forehead. Ridges of the finger-smoothed ocher make a crude cross a few inches wide; around the cross, a field of fresher, redder blood is smeared.
Bongiovanni's blood sources are hidden beneath fingerless gloves. Eight years ago, Bongiovanni claims, the Virgin Mary visited him, delivered a message about Jesus consorting with space aliens, and, after Bongiovanni offered to help carry Christ's message, the Virgin zapped his palms with lasers that came out of her eyes. He's been carrying his stigmata ever since, rubbing the blood coming from his palms, feet and other sites onto his forehead to maintain his cross.
The duet draws a swarm of photographers who block the view of the other 500 people sitting at tables in the ballroom of the Gold River Casino in Laughlin, Nevada.
It's the culminating Saturday-night banquet of the Seventh Annual International UFO Congress. There's a giant blowup space alien in the parking lot. Extraterrestrials and E.T. hybrids disguised as middle-aged white people sit among the Earthly guests munching on a lasagna buffet. In the hall next door, you can get your aura photographed.
Sitting at the head table, naturally, is Arizona secretary of state hopeful and former Phoenix councilwoman Frances Emma Barwood, who is scheduled to address the gathering.
"This is all new to us," Barwood's husband, Mike Siavelis, says sheepishly as the evening descends into surreality.
Barwood merely smiles.
Her tablemates include Stephen Bassett, Barwood's UFO political consultant who's paid to work the space-alien side of her bid to become secretary of state. He's busy introducing Barwood to the luminaries of the UFO community.
The man sitting across from Barwood, for example, Dr. Jim Harder, once taught electrical engineering at UC-Berkeley but today helps people, through hypnosis, recover memories of being abducted by aliens. Bassett speaks of Harder in hushed tones, clearly wanting Barwood to know that she's in the presence of UFO royalty.
Harder's wife, Cedar, leans over to make an even more startling revelation.
"My husband," she says, "he's an E.T."
"Did he tell you that?" she's asked.
"He didn't have to. I realized it by observation."
She should know. She reveals later that she recently recovered memories of being abducted by aliens herself.
Until Barwood's speech caps off the night, the UFO Congress will entertain itself with bad stand-up comedy, a "song for the future" by a woman who says she learned it by channeling aliens, and several group photos.
But the highlight is a tribute given to Shari Adamiak, who recently died. Rather than eulogize Adamiak with a description of who she was or what she accomplished, a severe woman chooses instead to tell a remarkable episode from Adamiak's life.
Adamiak had accompanied UFO researcher Steven Greer on an expedition into Mexico. There, in a remote area, the two were surprised by soldiers carrying AK-47 rifles. Suspiciously, the soldiers' uniforms carried no insignia. Adamiak and Greer figured they were dead, but they prayed ardently to space aliens. In obvious answer to their plaint, the two spotted a flying saucer overhead.
The craft had no sooner passed when the soldiers, remarkably . . . .
At this point, the narrator halts, sensing that even in this atmosphere of abject credulity, her story is reaching ridiculous proportions. To make sure everyone gets the point, she says emphatically, as a challenge: "This is a true story."
. . . the soldiers, under the beneficent influence of extraterrestrials, walked to a van, dropped their AK-47s, picked up guitars and began strumming, enabling Adamiak and Greer to make their escape.
"True story," Bassett assures Barwood.
Truth by assertion: It's in abundant supply at the UFO Congress, where people are more interested in discussing the implications of aliens living among us than looking for hard evidence of actual landings or abductions. As Cedar Harder will say later, the conventioneers have "moved beyond talking about the nuts and bolts of UFO investigation."
It's been a remarkable year since hundreds of Arizonans thrilled to lights seen over much of the state March 13, 1997.
When Barwood, then a councilwoman, asked the city to look into the sightings, she became a national media phenomenon and will no doubt bring much outside attention--and outside campaign donations--to her otherwise unglamorous race for secretary of state.
Jim Dilettoso's own star has risen as a result of his proclamations that the lights over Phoenix could not have been flares, airplanes or anything else manmade. His scientific-sounding claims have made him and his Tempe firm, Village Labs, a regular in television, radio and newspaper reports.
A recent edition of Hard Copy and upcoming specials on Japanese television, the UPN network, and A&E all feature Dilettoso and the spectral analysis he claims to do from videotapes of the event.
"These were not flares," he says with certainty.
For many, the assertions of truth are enough.
And for the media, such proclamations not only prove sufficient but make for good copy.
Perhaps no assertion has been as widely taken for proof that aliens visited Phoenix last March than Dilettoso's claims that his "sophisticated optical analysis" eliminates more prosaic explanations for the March 13 lights. From the Discovery Channel to the Arizona Republic to USA Today, Dilettoso has been advertised as an expert who can divine the nature of lights with his bank of computers. Not one of the publications or programs has described the scientific principles behind Dilettoso's claims.
With the arrival of the Phoenix Lights anniversary, news reports will no doubt mushroom, and Dilettoso and his techniques will receive more attention as reporters breathlessly tell the UFO story of the decade: how Phoenix has, in only a year, become the center of the UFO cosmos, the site of recurring visits by strange aliens, and home of a heroic political avatar.
What they won't tell you is that Dilettoso employs the language of science to mask that, given the tools he uses, he is incapable of doing what he claims to be doing.
So what? you say. Does anyone really care if a few oddballs gain notoriety from science fiction? Who are they hurting?
Dr. Paul Scowen, a visiting professor of astronomy at Arizona State University, cares.
"I become quite offended when people pull this sort of nonsense," Scowen says. "We in the science business make our living doing this stuff to the best ability we can, and applying all of the knowledge that humankind has assembled to this point in science to figure out what's going on. . . .
"Why should people care? Because it's been so high-profile and they've been told lies. That's why people should care."
Many Valley residents had gone out last March 13 looking for a spectacular event in the night sky. Comet Hale-Bopp was near its closest approach to Earth, and that night it could be seen in the northwest, as bright a comet as has been seen in 20 years.
About 8:30, however, something else appeared--a vee pattern of lights that traveled nearly the entire length of the state in about 40 minutes.
The witnesses included New Times writers. David Holthouse and Michael Kiefer both saw the pattern of five lights move slowly overhead. Holthouse says he perceived that something connected the lights in a boomerang shape; Kiefer disagrees, saying they didn't seem connected. Like other witnesses, both reported that the vee made no sound, and each saw slightly different colors in the lights. Both watched as the lights gradually made their way south and faded from view.
The many eyewitnesses have elaborated on this basic model: Some saw that the lights were not connected, others swear they saw a giant triangular craft joining them, some felt it was at high altitude, others claim it was barely over their heads and moving very slowly. All seem to be describing the same lights at the same time: About 8:15 the lights passed over the Prescott area, about 15 minutes later the vee moved over Phoenix, and at 8:45 it passed south of Tucson.
That's about 200 miles in 30 minutes, which indicates that the lights were traveling about 400 miles per hour.
An alert owner of a home video camera caught the 8:30 vee pattern on tape. Terry Proctor filmed the vee for several minutes. The quality of the tape is poor, and even under enhancement the video shows nothing joining the five lights of the pattern. However, the pattern of lights changes over just a few seconds. The lights clearly move in relation to each other, proving that the lights represent five separate objects, rather than a solid body. This is consistent with witness reports from Prescott, where one light trailed the others temporarily.
But someone got an even better view than Proctor and his video camera.
That night, Mitch Stanley and his mother were in the yard of their Scottsdale home, where Stanley has a large Dobsonian telescope.
He and his mother noticed the vee pattern approaching from the northwest. Within seconds, Stanley was able to aim the telescope at the leading three lights of the pattern.
Stanley was using a 10-inch mirror which gathers 1,500 times as much light as the human eye, and an eyepiece which magnified the sky 60 times, effectively transporting him 60 times closer to the lights than people on the ground.
When Stanley's mother asked him what he saw, he responded, "Planes."
It was plain to see, Stanley says. Under magnification, Stanley could clearly see that each light split into pairs, one each on the tips of squarish wings. Even under the telescope's power, the planes appeared small, indicating that they were flying high. Stanley says he followed the planes for about a minute, then turned his telescope to more interesting objects.
"They were planes. There's no way I could have mistaken that," he says.
The next day, when radio reports made Stanley aware that many thought they had seen something extraterrestrial, he told Jack Jones, another amateur astronomer, about his sighting. Jones later called both the Arizona Republic and Frances Emma Barwood. Neither called Jones or Stanley back.
Barwood says she passed on Stanley's name to Dilettoso's Village Labs, who didn't call the young man until New Times first reported his story in June.
Although hundreds of Valley residents saw the vee formation, the media have paid much more attention to a separate event that occurred later that night.
At 10 p.m., up to nine bright lights were seen to appear, hover for several minutes, and then disappear southwest of Phoenix in the direction of the Sierra Estrella. Video cameras at points across the Valley caught the string of hovering lights. All nine were visible from some locations, others saw fewer.
Mike Krzyston, from the yard of his Moon Valley home, captured all nine on video. "I hit pay dirt, finally!" he exclaimed as the lights appeared. "This is a major sighting!" said another videographer as he taped five of the lights.
In June, however, KPNX-TV Channel 12 reporter Blair Meeks filmed a drop of flares by military planes over the Air Force gunnery ranges southwest of Phoenix. The hovering lights looked remarkably like the 10 p.m. lights of March 13, and Meeks suggested it as a possible solution to that night's second event.
Within days, Tucson Weekly broke the news that the Maryland Air National Guard, in Arizona for winter training, had a squad of A-10 fighters over the gunnery range that night, and they had dropped flares. An Arizona National Guard public information officer, Captain Eileen Bienz, had determined that the flares had been dropped at 10 p.m. over the North Tac range 30 miles southwest of Phoenix, at an unusually high altitude: 15,000 feet. (Captain Drew Sullins, spokesman for the Maryland Air National Guard, says that the A-10s, which have squarish wings, never went north of Phoenix, so they could not have been responsible for the formation of planes seen at 8:30 p.m.)
Local UFO investigator Dick Motzer and others have shown that the initial appearance of the 10 p.m. lights, the number of lights seen from different elevations in the Valley, and the timing of the lights' disappearances all correspond well with flares dropped at high altitude beyond the Sierra Estrella.
But questions remain.
If Stanley saw that the 8:30 lights were airplanes, whose were they? And why did Tucson's Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where the Maryland Air National Guard's A-10s returned that night, initially say it had no planes in the air at that time?
Krzyston and others who taped the 10 p.m. event insist that the 10 p.m. lights hovered in front of, not behind, the Estrella, where the gunnery ranges lie.
Most publicized objections to the 10 p.m. flares hypothesis have come from Jim Dilettoso, who claims that sophisticated tests performed at Village Labs show that the lights filmed by Krzyston and others could not have been flares--whatever caused the 10 p.m. event, Dilettoso claims, was like no source of manmade light.
Local and national media alike have found his statements irresistible.
While careful to tell the mainstream press that he makes no claims about extraterrestrials, that his research simply eliminates the possibility of flares, Dilettoso is perhaps feeling more bold as an increasing number of reporters seeks his opinions.
Dilettoso is needlessly conservative. If the lights of March 13 were of otherworldly origin, it would be one of the most significant events in human history.
That's been the holy grail of a movement spawned decades ago that shows no sign of abating. But research into UFOs has changed considerably, much to the chagrin of investigators who still insist on a scientific approach to unexplained sightings.
Interest in "flying saucers" exploded in post-World War II America, prompting the Air Force to hire an astronomy professor, J. Allen Hynek, and others to investigate. For more than 20 years, Hynek and the rest of the Air Force's Project Blue Book examined UFO sightings, the vast majority of which were easily explained as natural phenomena.
The military ended Hynek's contract and Project Blue Book in 1969, and four years later Hynek, by then head of Northwestern University's astronomy department, created the Center for UFO Studies. The center examined UFO claims scientifically and tabulated its results. In its initial studies, the center found, for example, that 28 percent of sightings were simply bright stars or planets (in 49 of those cases, witnesses estimated that the celestial objects were between 200 feet and 125 miles away).
Of 1,307 cases which the center examined in the early 1970s, only 20 seemed unexplainable. The center stopped short of claiming that those 20 were caused by alien spacecraft.
UFO investigator Philip J. Klass, in an article about Hynek, points out that few present researchers apply the same kinds of rigorous study to the subject. For today's "investigators," the slightest mystery is obvious proof of an extraterrestrial presence.
Hynek died in 1986 in Scottsdale. By then, the field he helped pioneer was changing radically.
Jim Marrs is a good example. Author of the best-selling Alien Agenda, Marrs is touted as both an expert on UFOs and the John F. Kennedy assassination (and, incredibly, connects the two in Alien Agenda, suggesting that Kennedy was killed for his knowledge of U.S.-space alien contacts). Oliver Stone mined Marrs' 1990 book Crossfire for his conspiracy-minded film JFK.
Today, Jim Marrs is giving a sermon.
He's a featured speaker at the Seventh Annual International UFO Congress. His message: There's no question aliens are among us. The real question, he asserts, is what their "agenda" is.
"I feel like I'm preaching to the choir. I don't think I need to explain anything to you," he says in his Texas twang.
Marrs preaches about our moon, for example, asserting that it is "the original UFO," and a great mystery. Marrs asserts that, unlike other celestial objects, the moon travels not in an ellipse but "in a nearly perfectly circular orbit."
No one objects to this falsehood. In fact, the moon moves in a very respectable ellipse which can change its distance from Earth up to 50,000 kilometers.
To Marrs, the sum of this and other effects--which include several basic errors of astronomical knowledge from a best-selling author who claims to be an expert--lead to only one, unavoidable conclusion: It is obvious that an ancient, extraterrestrial race parked the moon in a perfect orbit around Earth.
No one in the audience laughs.
"I don't have to explain this. You all believe this, right?" Marrs asks, and he gets a resounding "yes" from the choir.
Meanwhile, two women ignore Marrs as they talk about why aliens are abducting so many people. One says aliens want to create a hybrid human-alien race which will be able to operate the advanced technology aliens plan on bestowing us.
The second woman says that the hybrid race would be pandimensional, capable of disappearing into the fourth dimension.
Lights in the sky. Bizarre dreams. Objects whizzing by in video shots which look just like bugs out of focus. Memories of alien abductions "recovered" by suggestive hypnotherapists.
The movement barely resembles the field of inquiry taken seriously by the late Hynek.
With a heavy dose of New Age influence, the UFO movement increasingly grows less like a science and more like a religion. Some investigators point to an early case that marked this shift: the elaborate claims of a one-armed Swiss farmer named Eduard "Billy" Meier.
Since 1975, Meier has claimed to have had more than 700 contacts with aliens from the Pleiades star cluster. In most of those contacts, a female alien named Semjase has appeared to Meier, allowed him to photograph her spacecraft, taken him on rides in the craft, and even whisked him into the past to meet Jesus Christ, who was duly impressed with the advice Meier gave him. He has taken more than 1,000 photographs of Semjase's craft (which Semjase only reveals to Meier when he is alone), as well as photos of alien women, closeups of famous celestial objects, and even the eye of God. Meier claims that he is the reincarnation of Christ and that his teachings, based on what Semjase tells him, will save mankind.
Arizonans were instrumental in promoting Meier-mania. Beginning in the late 1970s, Wendelle C. Stevens, a Tucson UFO enthusiast, and others began touting and publishing Meier's photos (while playing down the messianic stuff).
Looking at Meier's photos, it's hard to believe he was ever taken seriously. Yet several Arizonans assured the UFO-hungry public that they had tested Meier's photographs and had found them to be genuine.
One of these investigators included a young man who claimed that he had used computers to verify the authenticity of Meier's photographs.
His name was Jim Dilettoso.
Kal Korff is one UFO researcher who believes Jim Dilettoso is a poseur.
Korff became interested in UFOs and began corresponding with Wendelle C. Stevens in the late 1970s. The two swapped UFO photos, and Korff studied the Billy Meier phenomenon. When the normally open Stevens refused to discuss certain aspects of the Meier case, Korff grew suspicious.
His doubts led him to write two books, one in 1980, the second in 1995, debunking the Meier case. In 1991, Korff traveled under an assumed name to Switzerland and inspected many unpublished Meier photographs. Korff's investigation, revealed in his book Spaceships of the Pleiades, showed that Meier's outer-space photographs were actually crude snapshots of TV science programs.
One photo is of two out-of-focus women who Meier insisted were aliens. In a tape-recorded interview with Korff, Jim Dilettoso claimed that the photo was authentic because the woman in the foreground had elongated ear lobes. But Korff showed that a clearer, unpublished photo taken by Meier revealed that the elongated ear lobes were actually lengths of the woman's hair.
In one of Wendelle C. Stevens' books of Meier photographs, futuristic-looking (for 1979) computer enhancements of the spaceship photos are accompanied by captions which purport to describe tests that authenticated Meier's photos.
De Anza Systems, a San Jose company, was credited with providing the computers to do the analyses.
In 1981, Korff interviewed De Anza employee Ken Dinwiddie, who confirmed that Dilettoso had brought the Meier photos to his shop. But Dilettoso and another man had simply asked that De Anza make some sample enhancements of the photos as a demonstration.
"They came to De Anza under the pretext of wanting to buy our equipment. We demonstrated it, and they snapped many pictures and left. We made no data interpretations whatsoever," Dinwiddie told Korff in the presence of two other investigators.
"What about the captions which appear in the [Meier] book under each photo? Are they correct?" Korff asked Dinwiddie.
"Those are their interpretations, not ours. Nothing we did would have defined what those results meant."
It was clear to Dinwiddie, Korff writes, that Dilettoso and Stevens dreamed up the impressive-sounding captions despite that they had nothing to do with demonstrations De Anza had performed.
Korff showed Dinwiddie a caption below a Meier photo that purports to show a hovering spacecraft: "Thermogram--color density separations--low frequencies properties of light/time of day are correct; light values on ground are reflected in craft bottom; eliminates double exposures and paste-ups."
"No, we put those colors in the photo!" Dinwiddie exclaimed. "Jim [Dilettoso] said, 'Can you make the bottom of the object appear to reflect the ground below?' I said yes, and we performed the operations that they asked for."
Added Dinwiddie: "My impression of Jim Dilettoso is that he freely chooses to use whatever descriptive text he enjoys to describe things. He is not particularly versed in computer technology. He's a pretty good piano player, though."
Korff says that since his book was published in 1995, Dilettoso has made no efforts to dispute its contents.
Dilettoso tells New Times that he didn't write the captions, but that they aren't misleading. "If you talked to Ken Dinwiddie today, he would say we didn't do this."
New Times did talk to Ken Dinwiddie last week, and he remembers things the way Korff describes them.
Dilettoso has applied even more questionable methods in his "validation" of UFO photographs.
In 1987 and 1988, he worked for an Arizona affiliate of NASA; his work involved helping NASA technology get to the private sector, he says.
But he admits that he wasn't working for NASA in 1991 when he provided Wendelle C. Stevens with a seven-page analysis of UFO photographs taken in Puerto Rico. On NASA stationery, Dilettoso writes that "this is not an official project," but concludes that the photos of a flying saucer encountering an F-14 Tomcat are authentic.
Puerto Rican UFO investigator Antonio Huneeus says the case involved a man named Amaury Rivera who claimed he was abducted by aliens on his way home from work in 1988 and managed to get a picture of their spacecraft as it left with three Tomcat jets in hot pursuit. Huneeus says that UFO enthusiasts who were convinced of the truth of Rivera's story early on now dismiss it as a hoax after, among other things, a photographer named German Gutierrez admitted that he had helped Rivera fake his snapshots.
But Huneeus points out that the case has still played prominently in Mexico, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Argentina and Taiwan, always with the startling revelation that NASA had confirmed the authenticity of Rivera's photographs.
Dilettoso admits that he was no longer working for NASA when he gave his analysis to Stevens, but he says Stevens had lost the analysis he had done three years earlier when he had been employed by the space agency.
"He came into my office and asked me to write the letter and, you know, I did," he says. "An Air Force colonel coming to me and asking for that letter, I at least took pause and said ahhh, all right, but this is not an official project," he says.
So Dilettoso did the favor for Stevens, who indeed is a former Air Force colonel. He's also an ex-convict. Department of Corrections records show that he pleaded guilty to child molestation and spent five years in prison. He was released in 1988.
Jim Dilettoso is asked to explain how he can look at videotape of the March 13, 10 p.m. event and, using image analysis, declare that the lights are not flares.
He begins by explaining that the electromagnetic spectrum includes x-rays, infrared radiation, visible light.
And musical notes.
It's one of the least preposterous things Dilettoso says during a two-hour interview.
He's sitting in the conference room at Village Labs. In the next room, there's a bank of computers which has become a fixture in television footage filmed at the Tempe firm. On the walls and spread out over the large table are charts and diagrams which suggest that complex work happens here.
Dilettoso has finished his explanations about music as a form of electromagnetic energy (it isn't, of course, but it seems rude to interrupt), and he's now explaining how a camcorder can, even from miles away, record the finest details of a light bulb, such as its glowing filament, if you just know how to extract that image from the recorded blob of light. His computers can do just that, Dilettoso says.
If this were possible, astronomers and other scientists would gladly beat a path to Dilettoso's door. Unfortunately, there's something that prevents a camcorder from recording such detail.
It's called physics.
The power of a camcorder, telescope or other visual device to resolve a distant object is limited by its optics. The larger the mirror or lens used, the greater the power to resolve faraway things. That's why astronomers crave bigger and bigger mirrors for observatories--the bigger the mirror, the farther into space a telescope can resolve details.
With a lens less than an inch across, the typical camcorder has a rather myopic view of the world. Any light source more than a mile or so away simply cannot be resolved with any detail. Distant lights--streetlights, flares, alien headlights, even--become "point sources." Like the stars in the night sky, there's no detail to be made out in them.
The narrow lens of a camcorder focuses the light of a point source onto an electronic chip, which gets excited, so to speak, and releases a pattern of electrons, called pixels, that is translated into an analog signal which is put on videotape. What eventually comes out is your television's attempt to describe how the electronic chip reacted when it was struck by the light of a distant bonfire, for example.
The actual light from that bonfire is long gone, however, and has nothing physically to do with the electronic signal on your videotape.
Which is a shame. Astronomers have long known that you can learn amazing things from that original source of light.
Unable to reach the stars for tests, scientists figured out how to perform experiments on the light coming from them instead. Using prisms or gratings, astronomers separate that light into its constituent colors, called a spectrum, which allows them to determine a star's chemical make-up. This process is called spectral analysis.
Still, Jim Dilettoso claims to perform just that kind of magic.
On a computer monitor, he brings up an image of Comet Hale-Bopp. The comet has a line segment cutting across it and, in another window, a corresponding graph with red, blue and green lines measuring the brightness of the slice.
He shows similar frames with similar line segments cutting through streetlights, the known flares captured by Channel 12, and the 10 p.m. lights of March 13.
Each results in a different graph.
It's rather obvious that the graphs are simply measurements of pixel brightness in the cross-sections he's taken.
But Dilettoso claims that the graphs show much more. To him, they represent the frequencies of light making up each of the images. He claims he's doing spectral analysis, measuring the actual properties of the light sources themselves, and can show intrinsic differences between video images of streetlights, flares, and whatever caused the 10 p.m. lights.
Because the graph of a known flare is different than one of the 10 p.m. lights, Dilettoso concludes that they cannot be the same kinds of objects.
In fact, Dilettoso claims that the graphs of the 10 p.m. Phoenix Lights show that they are like no known light produced by mankind.
The fallacy in Dilettoso's analysis is easily demonstrated. When he's asked to compare the graph of one known flare to another one in the same frame, he gladly does so. But he admits that the two flares will produce different graphs.
In fact, Dilettoso admits, when he looks at different slices of the same flare image, he never gets the same graph twice. And when he produces some of those graphs on demand, many of them look identical to the graphs of the 10 p.m. lights.
When he's asked to produce an average graph for a flare, or anything that he could show as a model that he uses to distinguish flares from other sources, he can't, saying that he knows a flare's graph when he sees it.
It's an evasive answer which hints at the truth: Dilettoso is only measuring the way distant lights happen to excite the electronic chip in camcorders (which is affected by atmospheric conditions, camera movement and other factors), and not any real properties of the sources of lights themselves.
Met with skepticism, Dilettoso reacts by claiming that his methods have been lauded by experts.
"Dr. Richard Powell at the University of Arizona believes that my techniques are not merely valid but advanced to the degree where there was nothing more that they could add," he says.
Powell, the UofA's director of optical sciences, confirms that he spoke with Dilettoso. "He called here and I talked to him, and I could not, for the life of me, understand him," Powell says.
"I don't know how you take a photograph or a videotape after the fact and analyze it and get that information out. We didn't say that his method was valid, we said we didn't have any other way that was any better," Powell says.
Hearing that Powell denies calling his techniques "advanced," Dilettoso claims that Media Cybernetics, the company which sells Image Pro Plus, told him that the software package would do the kind of spectral analysis he does.
Jeff Knipe of Media Cybernetics disagrees. "All he's simply doing is drawing a line profile through that point of light and looking at the histogram of the red, green and blue. And that's really the extent of Image Pro. . . . Spectroscopy is a different field."
New Times took audio and videotapes of Dilettoso describing his image processing to Dr. Paul Scowen, the visiting professor of astronomy at ASU. Scowen left Great Britain in 1987 and received his Ph.D. in Astronomy at Rice University in 1993; he now uses the Hubble Space Telescope to study star formation.
"All Dilettoso is doing is extracting a brightness profile. It makes no statement about frequency distribution. What he's getting his knickers in a twist about is he's heard the term 'spatial frequency' and he's confusing it," Scowen says. "He's getting his terms mixed up. He knows the words, but he doesn't understand the concepts behind them."
Scowen notes that when Dilettoso is asked about the limitations of camcorders and videotape, he repeatedly responds: "It's all I've got."
"He's not saying the rest--that it's insufficient," Scowen says.
Curious graduate students peek over Scowen's shoulders, shaking their heads at the videotapes of the Phoenix Lights and Dilettoso's claims about them.
Professor Rogier Windhorst walks in and asks what his students are poring over. Someone tells him Dilettoso claims to be doing spectral analysis from videotape.
"Oh, you can't do that. It's bullshit," Windhorst barks.
"It's a consensus now," Mutz says with a laugh.
Among the true believers, Jim Dilettoso makes even more surprising claims. At the Seventh Annual International UFO Congress, Dilettoso compared the Phoenix Lights to other UFO sightings through the years and in many parts of the globe.
"If we theorize that the lights are intelligently guided, or perhaps that the lights are perhaps the intelligences themselves, we might find that this new activity is unrelated to disc-shaped flying saucers. . . . It may be that these are light-beings," Dilettoso told his audience.
To the press, Dilettoso's careful not to make such outrageous claims. He and his partner, Michael Tanner, instead disseminate a confusing seven-page summary of the many accounts of the 8:30 vee formation, and rather than deduce that different witnesses interpreted the same phenomenon in different ways (which humans have a tendency to do), they suggest that Arizonans actually saw different gigantic triangular crafts at different times and different places. Mitch Stanley is mentioned in a single line: "An amateur astronomer in Phoenix [actually Scottsdale] wrote it off as a formation of conventional airplanes."
As for the 10 p.m. event, Dilettoso asserts that his video analyses tell him flares could not possibly be what Mike Krzyston and others captured on videotape, saying, "I don't know what they were. I just know that they weren't flares."
A credulous media, more interested in hyping the Phoenix Lights mystery rather than taking a sober look at the evidence, have repeatedly broadcast those claims. The Discovery Channel, in its October 26 program UFO's Over Phoenix, reported the results of Dilettoso's "high-tech sophisticated optical analysis" as if they were fact.
To its credit, the Discovery Channel did perform another, and apparently solid, test to the flare hypothesis. The network submitted Krzyston's footage to Dr. Leonid Rudin at the Pasadena image-processing firm Cognitech. Rudin was also given a daytime shot from Krzyston's yard showing the distant Sierra Estrella, which is invisible in the nighttime video. Rudin matched the day and night shots frame by frame, lining them up on a distant ridge. The result: an animation loop showing that the flares are not only above the Estrella, but blink out as they reach the top of the mountains, precisely as distant flares would.
In a "10-Files" episode, KSAZ Channel 10, however, questioned the Cognitech analysis. Krzyston insists to Channel 10 that the objects were hovering below the Estrella ridgeline and couldn't have fallen behind the mountains. Channel 10 suggested cryptically that Cognitech purposely faked its test--"Has the footage been altered? And by whom and why? The mystery continues"--and showed its own test, which a Channel 10 production man claimed took "not long at all," proving that the 10 p.m. lights in Krzyston's video were well below the Estrella ridgeline.
New Times asked Scowen to perform the test himself, using two frames grabbed from Krzyston's original video and a 35 mm daytime photo taken from Krzyston's yard by UFO researcher Dick Motzer. After a half-hour of careful scaling, positioning, and rotation with imaging software, Scowen found a good match for the ridge visible in both shots. His results: The flares are just above the Estrella ridgeline or right at it, just as Rudin at Cognitech had found.
Afterward, Scowen was shown the "10-Files" episode and its claim that Channel 10 matched the frames quickly. He wonders how they could have checked several parameters in only a short time. "You have to make sure that the zoom is set the same way. If it's a standard camcorder, there's no numeric readout of the zoom. . . . Did the guy at Channel 10 match the scale? My guess is that he just laid the two pictures on top of each other."
Rod Haberer, producer of the "10-Files" piece, says that he's "comfortable with what we put on the air." But when he's asked what software the station used to match and scale the daytime and nighttime shots, he admits that they didn't use a computer at all. Channel 10 simply laid one image from Krzyston's video atop another in a digital editing machine.
Scowen says it doesn't surprise him. "We're used to dealing with this with the lay public. People do the minimum until they get the answer they want. In science you have to go back and check and recheck to make sure you're correct. I think Cognitech did a great job," Scowen says.
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.
TRW spokeswoman Linda Javier says that in fact neither side put up cash in the project. "We didn't make any investments. We used a system that was built on our own with R&D funding." Asked about Dilettoso's claims, Javier responds, "He has a different way of looking at things."
Says Jamie Hormel: "Supposedly he was working on that Titanic movie. [But] I haven't seen him do one thing he was supposed to have done."
Dilettoso claims that in Village Labs' work on the special effects for Titanic, he collaborated with a Digital Domain engineer named "Wook."
"Wook said that Mr. Dilettoso's and Village Labs' contribution to the production of Titanic was nothing," says Digital Domain's Les Jones. Wook concurs.
When he's pressed about the claims made in the Republic story, Dilettoso says that it's true the various deals have not materialized. But he says he was the victim of an elaborate conspiracy by a TRW executive who wanted to learn Village Labs' techniques and then promote them as his own.
In the meantime, he continues to shop his plans of linking supercomputers, and entertains reporters in front of a bank of computer screens in a studiolike room which he uses for his UFO alchemy.
Perhaps Dilettoso's greatest trick: helping transform Frances Emma Barwood into a national poster child for the UFO movement.
But he meant for that poster child to be someone who already had global notoriety: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
It was to Arpaio that Dilettoso steered an EXTRA film crew on May 6. When the crew found the sheriff out to lunch, they went to City Hall in search of another public official to interview. Frances Emma Barwood says she found their questions reasonable--why hadn't local government done anything about the sightings? And she brought it up in that afternoon's city council meeting. She wasn't prepared for the avalanche of attention, praise and ridicule that would follow.
She also didn't expect to see Arpaio grovel.
Barwood's instant celebrity was the kind of attention Arpaio craves. So, at a veterans' function a few days later, Barwood says Arpaio begged her to send him a letter, officially asking his office to investigate the March 13 lights.
She says she promised to do so. But only hours later, Arpaio aide David Hendershott called her and told her not to send it. She says he didn't explain why.
Hendershott says Barwood remembers things incorrectly. He claims it was Barwood who asked if she could send a letter to Arpaio requesting the posse's help interviewing witnesses.
"That's not it at all," counters Barwood, who says that Arpaio pleaded with her in front of veterans who later told her they were surprised to see him so agitated.
Barwood pressed on as the only public official asking why local, state and federal governments didn't take an interest in what seemed to be a questionable use of Arizona airspace, at the very least. Barwood was told that the city had no air force and could do nothing about the sightings. The Air Force, meanwhile, told her that it had gotten out of the business of investigating UFOs and that it was a local matter.
Barwood and the many who saw the lights were understandably frustrated.
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base's spokesman Lieutenant Keith Shepherd didn't help matters. Shepherd told news organizations, including New Times, that the base had no planes in the air at the time of the 8:30 and 10 p.m. events. In her investigation, however, Captain Eileen Bienz of the Arizona National Guard later heard from National Guard helicopter pilots from a Marana air base that they had spotted a group of A-10s heading for Tucson at about 10 p.m.
Only after Bienz asked Davis-Monthan about the planes did Shepherd confirm that the Maryland Air National Guard had used the base for its winter exercises and had dropped flares southwest of Phoenix that night.
It's no wonder that so many people believe the military maintains a UFO cover-up.
The military's reluctance to divulge information also led to confusion about what was seen on radar that night. The media have widely circulated reports that the 8:30 and 10 p.m. lights were mysteriously invisible to radar.
But a formation of a craft or crafts traveling at high altitude over Phoenix would have been monitored by FAA radar operators in Albuquerque, not at Sky Harbor Airport, says air traffic controller Bill Grava, who was on duty at Sky Harbor that night and witnessed the later, 10 p.m. lights. Grava says that if five planes in a vee passed over Phoenix at 8:30 p.m., they would have been represented by a sole asterisk on consoles at Sky Harbor--not something that would have raised the curiosity of operators. As for the 10 p.m. event, Grava acknowledges that the North Tac range is beyond Sky Harbor's radar; if planes dropped flares over the range, it's no mystery why they would not have appeared on consoles at the airport.
Luke Air Force base has more powerful radar systems. But Luke's Captain Stacey Cotton says that radar operators at the base were asked if they had seen anything unusual that night, and answered no. She says that a formation of five planes--traveling at high altitude above Sky Harbor's and outside of Luke's restricted air spaces--would not have been considered unusual. Neither would a flare drop over the gunnery range.
Whether the 8:30 vee formation did register on the FAA's radar monitored in Albuquerque will apparently never be known. Despite the fervent activities of UFO investigators in the days following the sightings, no one bothered to make a formal request with the Federal Aviation Administration's regional office for radar tapes of the Phoenix area for March 13. If anyone had made such a request by March 28, there would be a permanent record for the public to examine, says the FAA's Gary Perrin.
Meanwhile, no base or airport has come forward to identify the five planes that traveled over Arizona seen by so many people, including Mitch Stanley and his powerful telescope.
It's hard to blame Barwood for calling for more openness in government.
On the other hand, Barwood lamely complains that she's been unfairly labeled the UFO candidate. She asserts that her campaign really has nothing to do with space aliens.
She says this as she waits to speak at the International UFO Congress, sitting at a table with her paid UFO campaign consultant, while they're entertained by the piano playing of a man who wears a cross of his own blood on his forehead in his efforts to spread his message that angels and space aliens are one and the same.
Her January 13 press conference to announce her candidacy was only slightly less weird.
Barwood was flanked by a collection of oddballs that included several UFO dignitaries as well as emissaries representing Arizona's militias, patriot movement and anti-immigrant groups.
Barwood did her best to deflate the weirdness by talking about mundane, secular secretary of state things. Such tasks are the nominative reward for winning the post, but Barwood admits that she wants it simply because it would put her only a heartbeat away from the governorship. "If Arizona had a lieutenant governor, I'd run for that," she says.
Barwood says she's frustrated that reporters only want to hear about her thoughts on UFOs (she's never seen one, but at the UFO Congress, she makes it clear she thinks the Phoenix Lights must have been some gigantic, triangular spacecraft or military project). The militia-friendly conservative tries to make reporters understand that she's more interested in other issues, such as guaranteeing Arizonans the right to carry arms in any place and in any way.
But the UFOs will not go away.
When Barwood finishes her press conference, a woman ascends the podium to make her own, unscheduled announcement.
"I would like to speak to the press also. I know what the lights over Phoenix are. I know what's going on with the federal government," she says. "It's my husband. Col. Berger J. Addington, who is the king of kings, the lord of lords. He flies the stealth. He builds cities. And he should flesh up here pretty soon in his multiracial skin. . . . He is the true president of the United States."
The woman is politely led away from the podium, and Barwood can't suppress a grin.
Expect more of the same in the coming months.
Contact Tony Ortega at his online address: email@example.com
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.