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The Walton case received mainstream publicity and remains one of the best-known instances of alleged alien abduction. UFO historian Jerome Clark writes that "Few abduction reports have generated as much controversy" as the Walton case. It is furthermore one of the very few alien abduction cases with corroborative eyewitnesses, and one of few abduction cases where the time allegedly spent in the custody of aliens plays a rather minor role in the overall account.
UFO researchers Jenny Randles and Peter Houghe write that "Neither before or since has an abduction story begun in the manner related by Walton and his coworkers. Furthermore, the Walton case is singular in that the victim vanished for days on end with police squads out searching … it is an atypical 'Close Encounter: Fourth Kind' (CE4) … which bucks the trend so much that it worried some investigators; others defend it staunchly." (Randles and Hough, 186)
Discovery in the woods
The case began on Wednesday, November 5, 1975. Then 22 years old, Walton was employed by Mike Rogers, who had for nine years contracted with the United States Forest Service for various duties. Rogers and Walton were best friends; Walton dated Rogers' sister Dana, whom he later married. Others on the crew were Ken Peterson, John Goulette, Steve Pierce, Allen Dallis and Dwayne Smith. They all lived in the town of Snowflake, Arizona.
Rogers was hired to thin out scrub brush and undergrowth from a large area (more than 1,200 acres) near Turkey Springs, Arizona. The job was the most lucrative contract Rogers had received from the Forest Service, but the job was behind schedule. As a result, they worked overtime to fulfill the contract, typically from 6 a.m. until sunset.
Just after 6 p.m. on November 5, Rogers and his crew finished their work for the day and piled into Rogers' truck for the drive back to Snowflake. The crew reported that shortly after beginning the drive home, they saw a bright light from behind a hill. They drove closer and said they saw a large silvery disc hovering above a clearing and shining brightly. It was around 8 feet (2.4 m) high and 20 feet (6.1 m) in diameter.
Rogers stopped the truck and Walton leaped out and ran toward the disc. The others said they shouted at Walton to come back but he continued toward the disc. The men in the truck reported that Walton was nearly below the object when the disc began making noises similar to a loud turbine. The disc then began to wobble from side to side, and Walton began to cautiously walk away from the object.
Jerome Clark wrote that just after Walton moved away from the disc, the others insisted they saw a beam of blue-green light coming from the disc and "strike" Walton. Clark went on to write that Walton "rose a foot into the air, his arms and legs outstretched, and shot back stiffly some 10 feet (3.0 m), all the while caught in the glow of the light. His right shoulder hit the earth, and his body sprawled limply over the ground." (Clark, 628-629)
About 7:30 p.m., Peterson called police from Heber, Arizona, near Snowflake. Deputy Sheriff Chuck Ellison answered the telephone; Peterson initially reported only that one of a logging crew was missing. Ellison then met the crew at a shopping center. They related the tale to him — all the men distraught, two of them in tears — and though he was somewhat skeptical of the fantastic account, Ellison would later reflect "that if they were acting, they were awfully good at it." (Clark, 629)
Ellison notified his superior — Sheriff Marlin Gillespie — who told Ellison to keep the crew in Heber until he could arrive with Officer Ken Coplan to interview the men. In less than an hour, Gillespie and Coplan arrived, and they heard the tale from the crew. Rogers insisted on returning to the scene immediately to search for Walton, with tracking dogs, if possible. No dogs were available, but the police and some of the crew returned to the scene. Crew members Smith, Pierce and Goulette were too upset to be of much help in a search, so they elected to return to Snowflake and relate the bad news to friends and family.
At the scene, the law enforcement officers became suspicious of the story related by the crew, mainly because there was nothing in the way of physical evidence to back up the account. Though more police and volunteers arrived to search the area, they found not a trace of Walton. Winter nights could be bitterly cold in the mountains, and Walton had worn only jeans, a denim jacket and a shirt; police were worried that Walton could fall victim to hypothermia if he were lost.
Rogers and Sheriff Coplan went to tell the news to Walton's mother, Mary Walton Kellett, who lived on a small ranch at Bear Creek, some 10 miles (16 km) from Snowflake. Rogers told her what had happened, and she asked him to repeat the account. She then asked calmly if anyone other than the police and the eyewitnesses had heard the story. Coplan thought her reserved response was odd; this factor contributed to the growing suspicion among police that something other than a UFO was responsible for Walton's absence. On the other hand, Clark noted that Kellett was known as being generally guarded, and had furthermore raised six children largely by herself under often trying circumstances, which "had long since taught her to not to fly to pieces in the face of crises and tragedies. Yet in the days ahead, as events overwhelmed her, she would show emotion before friends, acquaintances and strangers alike — a fact that would go unmentioned in debunking treatments of the Walton episode." (Clark, 631)
About 3 a.m., Kellett telephoned Duane Walton, her second-oldest child. He left his home in Glendale, Arizona, and drove to Snowflake.
By morning on November 6, officials and volunteers had scoured the area around the scene where Walton went missing. No trace of him was discovered, and police suspicions were growing that the UFO tale was concocted to cover up an accident or homicide. Saturday morning, Rogers and Duane Walton arrived at Sheriff Gillespie's office "explosively angry" because they had returned to the scene and found no police there. By that afternoon, police were searching for Walton with helicopters, horse-mounted officers, and jeeps. (Clark, 361)
By Saturday, word of Walton's disappearance had spread internationally. News reporters, ufologists and the curious began travelling to Snowflake. Among the visitors was Fred Sylvanus, a Phoenix UFO investigator, who interviewed Rogers and Duane Walton on Saturday, November 8. While repeatedly expressing worry for Walton's well-being (and criticizing what they saw as a halfhearted search effort by police), both men would make statements that would return to haunt them, when seized upon by critics.
On the recordings made by Sylvanus, Rogers noted that because of Walton's disappearance and the subsequent search, he would be unable to complete his contract with the Forest Service, and he hoped the search for his missing friend would mitigate the situation. Duane Walton reported he and Walton were quite interested in UFOs, and that some twelve years earlier, Duane had witnessed a UFO similar to the one witnessed by the logging crew. Duane reported that he and Walton had both decided that if they had a chance, they would get as close as possible to any UFO they might see. Duane also suggested that Walton would not be injured by the aliens, because "they don't harm people". (Clark, 631) Without intending to do so, Rogers and Duane Walton had laid "the foundations for an alternative interpretation of the case" with their statements. (Clark, 632) Walton would later report that he never had a "keen" interest in UFOs, even after his supposed abduction, but the tape recorded statement of his brother Duane, while Walton was still missing, runs contrary to Walton's statements.
Shortly after the Sylvanus interview, Snowflake town marshal Sanford Flake announced that the entire affair was a prank engineered by Duane and Travis. They had fooled the logging crew by lighting a balloon and "releasing it at the appropriate time". Flake's wife disagreed, suggesting that her husband's story was "just as farfetched as Duane Walton's". (Clark, 632)
In the meantime, Police officers were making repeated visits to Kellett's home; Duane once returned there to find her in tears as she was being questioned in her living room. Duane told the police to leave unless they had something new to relate, or to ask. Duane suggested that she speak with police only on the front porch, which would allow her to end the interview anytime she chose by simply going inside. She did exactly that after Marshal Flake arrived to relate a message, which Clark notes, contributed to the feeling among skeptics that Kellett was "hiding something. Or someone". (Clark, 632)
Duane also spoke with William H. Spaulding of Ground Saucer Watch. Spaulding suggested that if Walton ever returned, GSW could provide a doctor to examine him in confidence. Spaulding also suggested that if Walton returned, he should save his first urination after returning so it could be tested.
On Monday, November 10, all of Rogers' remaining crew took polygraph examinations administered by Cy Gilson, an Arizona Department of Public Safety employee. His questions asked if any of the men caused harm to Walton (or knew who had caused Walton harm), if they knew where Walton's body was buried, and if they told the truth about seeing a UFO. The men all denied harming Walton (or knowing who had harmed him), denied knowing where his body was, and insisted they had indeed seen a UFO.
Excepting Dallis (who had not completed his exam, thus rendering it invalid), Gilson concluded that all the men were truthful, and the exam results were conclusive. Clark quotes from Gilson's official report: "These polygraph examinations prove that these five men did see some object they believed to be a UFO, and that Travis Walton was not injured or murdered by any of these men on that Wednesday". If the UFO was fake, Gilson thought, "five of these men had no prior knowledge of it". (Clark, 633)
Following the polygraph tests, Sheriff Gillespie announced that he accepted the UFO story, saying "There's no doubt they're telling the truth." (Clark, 633)
In 2009, Walton was a participant on game show The Moment of Truth. When asked if he was abducted by a UFO in 1975, he responded, "Yes", an answer which the polygraph examiner determined to be deceptive prior to taping. Walton, in response to this outcome, said that polygraphs are 97% accurate, even in the best of cases.
Duane remembered Spaulding's promise of a confidential medical examination. Without having notified authorities of Walton's return, Duane drove him to Phoenix, Arizona, late Tuesday morning, where they were to meet with Dr. Lester Steward.
The Waltons reported that they were disappointed to learn that Steward was not a medical doctor as Spaulding had promised, but a hypnotherapist. Spaulding and Steward would later report that the Waltons had stayed with them for over two hours, while the Waltons insist they were at Steward's office for, at most, 45 minutes, most of which was occupied with trying to determine the nature of Steward's qualifications. The precise time spent with Steward would later become an issue in the case.
Walton's return makes the news
By Tuesday afternoon, word of Walton's return had leaked out to the public. Duane took a telephone call from Spaulding, and told Spaulding not to bother the family again. Clark writes that after this telephone call, "Spaulding became a sworn enemy in the case." (Clark 363)
Among the other telephone calls after news of Walton's return was one from Coral Lorenzen of APRO, a civilian UFO research group. She promised Duane that she could arrange an examination for Walton by two medical doctors — general practitioner Joseph Saults and pediatrician Howard Kandell — at Duane's home. Duane agreed, and the exam began at about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Clark writes that "between Lorenzen's call and the physicians' examination, another party would enter, and hugely complicate, the story". (Clark, 636) Lorenzen was telephoned by an employee of the National Enquirer, an American tabloid newspaper known for its sensationalistic tone. The Enquirer employee promised to finance APRO's investigation, in exchange for APRO's "cooperation and access to the Waltons". Since the Enquirer's financial resources were far greater than APRO's, Lorenzen agreed to the arrangement. (Clark, 363)
The medical examination revealed that Walton was essentially in good health, but they did note two unusual features:
Walton in the UFO
Walton reported that after approaching the UFO near the work site, the last thing he remembered was being struck by the beam of light. When he woke, Walton said he was on a reclined bed. A bright light shone above him, and the air was heavy and wet. He was in pain, and had some trouble breathing, but his first thought was that he was in a normal hospital.
As his faculties returned, Walton says he realized he was surrounded by three figures, each wearing a sort of orange jumpsuit. The figures were not human. Walton described the beings as typical of the so-called Greys which feature in some abduction accounts: "shorter than five feet, and they had bald heads, no hair. Their heads were domed, very large. They looked like fetuses [...] They had large eyes — enormous eyes — almost all brown, without much white in them. The creepiest thing about them were those eyes … they just stared through me." Their ears, noses and mouths "seemed real small, maybe just because their eyes were so huge." (Clark, 646)
Walton related that he feared for his safety and got to his feet, and shouted at the creatures to stay away. He grabbed a glasslike cylinder from a nearby shelf and tried to break its tip to create a makeshift knife, but found the object unbreakable, so instead waved it at the creatures as a weapon. The trio of creatures left him in the room.
Matheson finds this portion of the narrative troublingly inconsistent, noting that "despite his 'weakened' condition, 'aching body' and 'splitting pain in his skull', maladies [sic] for which no cause is suggested, he has no trouble jumping up from his operating table, seizing a conveniently placed glasslike rod, and, assuming a karate 'fighting stance', frightened them with this display of macho aggression, enough at least to cause them to run away." (Matheson, 110)
Walton then left the "exam room" via a hallway, which led to a spherical room with only a high-backed chair placed in the center of the room. Though he was afraid there might be someone seated in the chair, Walton says he walked towards it. As he did, lights began to appear in the room. The chair was empty, so Walton says he sat in it. When he did, the room was filled with lights, similar to stars projected on a round planetarium ceiling.
The chair was equipped on the left arm with a single short thick lever with an oddly shaped molded handle atop some dark brown material. On the right arm, there was an illuminated, lime-green screen about five inches square with black lines intersected at all angles.
When Walton pushed the lever, he reported that the stars rotated around him slowly. When he released the lever, the stars remained at their new position. He decided to stop manipulating the lever, since he had no idea what it might do.
He left the chair, and the stars disappeared. Walton thought he had seen a rectangular outline on the rounded wall — perhaps a door — and went to look for it.
Just then, Walton heard a sound behind him. He turned, expecting more of the short, large eyed creatures, but was pleasantly surprised to see a tall human figure wearing blue coveralls with a glassy helmet. At the time, Walton said, he did not realize how odd the man's eyes were: larger than normal, and a bright gold color.
Walton says he then asked the man a number of questions, but the man only grinned and motioned for Walton to follow him. Walton also said that because of the man's helmet he might have been unable to hear him, so he followed the man down a hallway which led to a door and a steep ramp down to a large room Walton described as similar to an aircraft hangar. Walton says he realized he had just left a disc-shaped craft similar to the one he had seen in the forest just before he had been struck by the bluish light, but the craft was perhaps twice as large.
In the hangar-like room, Walton reported seeing other disc-shaped craft. The man led him to another room, containing three more humans — a woman and two men — resembling the helmeted man. These people did not wear helmets, so Walton says he began asking questions of them. They responded with the same dull grin, and led him by his arm to a small table.
Once he was seated on the table, Walton says he realized the woman held a device like an oxygen mask, which she placed on his face. Before he could fight back, Walton says he passed out.
When he woke again, Walton says he was outside the gas station in Heber, Arizona. One of the disc-shaped craft was hovering just above the highway. After a moment, the craft shot away, and Walton stumbled to the telephones and called his brother-in-law, Grant Neff. He thought that only a few hours had passed
After hearing Walton's story, Gillespie speculated that Walton may have been hit on the head and drugged, then taken to a normal hospital where he had confused the details of a routine exam with something more spectacular. Walton dismissed this, noting that the medical examination had found no trace of head trauma or drugs in his system. Walton told Sheriff Gillespie that he was willing to take a polygraph, a truth serum, or undergo hypnosis to support his account. Gillespie said that a polygraph would suffice, and he promised to arrange one in secret to avoid the growing media circus.
Duane and Travis then drove to Scottsdale, Arizona, where a meeting with APRO consultant James A. Harder had been arranged. Harder hypnotized Walton, hoping to uncover more details of the missing five days. Clark writes that "Unlike many other abductees, however, Walton's conscious recall and unconscious 'memory' were the same, and he could account for only a maximum of two hours, and perhaps less, of his missing five days. Curiously … Walton encountered an impenetrable mental block and expressed the view that he would 'die' if the regression continued." (Clark, 637)
Suppressed polygraph exam and controversy
In the meantime, Spaulding had announced to the press that he and "Dr." Steward had questioned Walton for two hours, and had uncovered inconsistencies in Walton's account that would "Blow this story out". (Clark, 637) The Phoenix Gazette ran a story about Steward, who related his claims that the "Waltons fear exposure" of a carefully crafted lie. (Clark, 638)
Sheriff Gillespie arranged for a polygraph, but when word of the exam was leaked to the press, Duane canceled it, thinking that Gillespie had broken his promise to keep the test a secret. Gillespie would later insist he had not leaked word of the polygraph, and that the case had become too sensationalistic to keep anything secret for long.
The National Enquirer wanted Walton to take a polygraph as soon as possible, and arranged for one, after Duane insisted that he and Walton have the power to veto any public disclosure of the test results. Harder thought that Walton was too distraught to take a polygraph, but the examiner — John J McCarthy, of the Arizona Polygraph Laboratory — said he could take Walton's nervous state into consideration.
In interviewing Walton before the exam began, McCarthy extracted two admissions from him: First, that he had smoked marijuana a few times, but had never used the drug regularly, and secondly, that he and Mike Rogers' younger brother had committed check fraud a few years earlier by altering payroll checks. It was his only serious brush with the law – Walton completed two years probation without further incident – but Walton remained deeply embarrassed about the check fraud episode. (Incidentally, Philip J. Klass notes that Walton once claimed to have been jailed for this crime, though he actually received two years' probation as a first-time offender.)
McCarthy then administered the polygraph, which remains mired in controversy. Walton asserts McCarthy behaved unprofessionally, while McCarthy insists Walton both failed the polygraph and tried to cheat. At one point, says Walton, McCarthy asked if Walton had "colluded" with anyone to perpetrate a hoax. Walton said he was unfamiliar with the word, and Walton reported that McCarthy replied, in a confrontational and aggressive manner, that collusion was planning or conspiring with another, just as Walton had colluded to steal and forge payroll checks.
After completing the exam, McCarthy determined that Walton was lying. Clark quotes from McCarthy's official report: "Based on his reaction on all charts, it is the opinion of this examiner that Walton, in concert with others, is attempting to perpetrate a UFO hoax, and that he has not been on any spacecraft". (Clark, 640) Later, McCarthy would assert that "sometimes Travis would hold his breath, in an effort to 'beat the machine."
The Waltons, APRO and the National Enquirer then agreed to keep the results of this polygraph a secret, due in large part, they insisted, to doubts about McCarthy's methods and objectivity. Eight months later, when word of this decision was made public, there would be more charges of deception and cover-up. Walton would later take and pass two additional polygraph exams, though the suppressed results of the first exam would shadow him and earn mention in nearly every discussion of the case to the present.
Once word of the suppressed polygraph was made public by Klass, many who had thought Walton had related a true account (or at least what he thought was a true account) reconsidered the case with a more skeptical eye. Walton, Duane and APRO members argued that McCarthy was biased, and had asked Walton embarrassing, irrelevant questions in an effort to create turbulent conditions more likely to produce a negative result. According to Clark, the opinions of recognized polygraph experts were divided about the propriety of McCarthy's exam: Harry Reed supported the validity of McCarthy's exam, while psychologist David Raskin of the University of Utah asserted that McCarthy's method was "more than 30 years out of date."
Philip J. Klass — an aviation journalist by profession, but also a well-known UFO debunker — launched a concerted, sustained critique against Walton's claims, arguing especially that there was a strong financial motive to the entire affair. Rogers knew he would be unable to complete his contract with the Forest Service, argued Klass, and concocted a scheme to invoke the contract's act of God clause, thus dissolving the contract without fault. Others argued against this idea, noting that defaulting on a Forest Service contract was not necessarily the catastrophe Klass implied: Rogers had failed to complete two of his many earlier Forest Service contracts, yet had been rehired without apparent prejudice. Furthermore, despite his anxiety over the contract, Rogers never invoked or tried to invoke the "act of God" clause in the aftermath of Walton's disappearance.
Klass and others also noted that The UFO Incident was broadcast on NBC just a few weeks before Walton's disappearance. This made-for-television film was a fictionalized account of the Hill Abduction, the first widely publicized case of alien abduction. Klass and others speculated that Walton had been inspired by the program. Walton denied that he had watched the program, but Klass notes that Mike Rogers watched at least a portion of the program. Clark argues that Walton's account of his time on the UFO is quite different from the Hill account, and that furthermore, "there is not a great deal of similarity between Walton's and any other abduction narrative" publicly discussed as of November, 1975. (Clark, 649)
In 1978, Walton published The Walton Experience, in which he outlined his own narrative of the event and its aftermath. The same year, Bill Barry published The Ultimate Encounter, in which he argues that the various debunkers, especially Klass, did not make persuasive cases and that Walton and others alleging similar experiences related events more or less as they believed they had happened.
Matheson argues that Walton's book makes a few fundamental errors that severely harm his case. While Walton "proclaims self-righteously" that he intends only to relate events and not "interpret" them, Matheson writes, "the reader will see almost immediately that large sections of the book are nothing more than highly speculative, purely imaginative recreations on his part". (Matheson, 109) For example, after he is knocked unconscious by the blue beam, Walton offers precise, novelistic dialogue describing the conversations of his fellow crew workers after they drove away in a panic. Yet Walton never mentions whether he is paraphrasing their words based on what they related to him, if he interviewed the others to determine who said what, or if he simply assumed what they said. Matheson argues that this represents a "lack of concern for literal accuracy that the reader cannot help but suspect is characteristic of the entire work". (Matheson, 110)
After the initial furor subsided, Walton remained in Snowflake and eventually became the foreman at a lumber mill; he married Dana Rogers and they had several children. Beyond the film based on his encounter, Walton has occasionally appeared at UFO conventions or on television specials.
Fire in the Sky
In 1993, Walton's book was adapted into a film, Fire in the Sky, directed by Robert Lieberman and starring D. B. Sweeney as Travis Walton, Robert Patrick as Mike Rogers and Scott MacDonald as Walton's brother Dan Walton. Clark writes that the film found "Moderate success, mixed reviews, and ufologists' complaints about its inaccuracies and exaggerations." (Clark, 650) Especially inaccurate was the portion of the film detailing his time on the UFO; it bears almost no resemblance to the original narrative. Screenwriter Tracy Tormé even sent letters to many ufologists, claiming that the changes were requested by studio officials, and apologizing for making such substantial alterations to Walton's narrative. (Randles and Hough, 188)
Walton and Mike Rogers made a few promotional appearances to support the film; they debated Klass on Larry King Live. At one point, Klass lost his temper and called Rogers a "goddamned liar." (Clark, 650) In his book, Clark does not offer any background context to explain Klass's remark on Larry King Live.
In the renewed publicity generated by the motion picture, Walton, Mike Rogers and Allen Dallis agreed to take polygraph examinations at the behest of "a skeptical ufologist, Jerry Black". (Clark, 650) Again, the tests were conducted by Cy Gilson, and the men all asserted that the events as they related them were true. Gilson concluded that all three men were truthful in regard to their responses about the events of November 5, 1975.
At the time of the film's release, Walton re-issued The Walton Experience under the same title as the film; expanding it to include text rebutting Klass's commentary.