Longform

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

Page 2 of 5

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."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.