Longform

The Hack and the Quack

Page 2 of 11

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.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega