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USA Today - For Oct. 9, 1998

Are we alone? UFO Conference launches today in Cocoa Beach


COCOA BEACH, Fla. - Of all the images jamming the expressway to the millennium, few have matched the macabre impact of those from Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., in March 1997:

Thirty-nine dead "true believers," close-cropped hair, matching black outfits and sneakers, overdosing on phenobarbital after posting Web site farewells. Their goal: To rendezvous with an alleged unidentified flying object streaking toward Earth behind comet Hale-Bopp.

As details of the Heaven's Gate UFO suicide cult began to dribble out of the San Diego suburb, few were as troubled as Whitley Strieber. On the eve of his lecture during the Space Coast UFO Conference in Cocoa Beach, the author still wonders whether the tragedy could've been prevented.

"I was extremely upset, I took it very personally," Strieber recalls from his home in San Antonio. "I thought, `If only I had worked harder. If only I had communicated better, maybe these people would've been in a better place, and they would've realized the belief system they had evolved was a total fantasy."

The irony is that, almost single-handedly, Strieber helped elevate the level of discourse on space aliens into the pop mainstream.

Overnight in 1987, a man who had enjoyed considerable success as a futurist/horror novelist became a best seller on The New York Times' nonfiction list for a first-person account of what he claimed were his ongoing alien abductions. Battered by skeptics and embraced by believers, Strieber's Communion - and its cover art of a bug-headed alien with huge black eyes - sprouted legs to emerge as an archetypical symbol.

"It has become something that we've been getting used to," he said. "You even find it on bluejeans now. We have demystified and disempowered those great black staring eyes, and we have absorbed them into our culture. If this involves alien contact, and if a process of acclimatization is going on, then my main job seems to have been to communicate that face, more than anything else I've done."

Strieber is a keynote speaker in the three-day UFO Conference beginning today at the Cocoa Beach Hilton. Sponsored by a Gulf Breeze organization called Project Awareness, the conference offers a mixed bag for the alternative crowd. In addition to veteran UFO researchers Stanton Friedman and Bob Oechsler, the fare includes lectures on remote viewing (Skip Atwater), Mars anomalies (Vince DiPietro), Egyptian mysteries (Zecharia Sitchin), after-death communication (Judy Guggenheim) and channeling (Mary Jo McCabe).

UFOs have come a long way since Communion hit the bookstands.

Exploited most recently for megabucks in "The X-Files" and "Independence Day," UFOs have attained a momentum that was supposed to have been quashed in 1969, when the Air Force dismissed the phenomenon in Project Blue Book.

In June 1992 - as a result of so many abduction reports cropping up in therapy sessions - an Abduction Study Conference convened at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, scientists, theologians, historians, folklorists and medical professionals compared notes and gleaned insights. In July 1997, about 50,000 people converged on Roswell, N.M., for the 50th anniversary of an alleged flying saucer crash. In March, assisted in part by a report financed by philanthropist millionaire Laurance Rockefeller, the Journal of Scientific Exploration called for a renewed official study of UFOs.

Now the momentum has spilled over to cyberspace. Log onto the Internet and you can find countless UFO conspiracy sites.

Trying to understand

Cocoa psychologist Duncan Bowen is an interested bystander who hosts a weekly talk show on WMEL radio called "UFO Live." In the years since Communion, Bowen has converted to the possibilities raised by Strieber.

"I do believe the phenomenon is real," said Bowen, who'll moderate a NASA forum at the conference this afternoon. "But obviously, it's hard to pinpoint, because I think it involves a reality we don't understand yet."

Despite the government position of official indifference on UFOs, weird, fleeting images in the sky continue to be scarfed up by cameras and camcorders, which gives conference speakers plenty to talk about. Secret government investigations, coverups, the weight of evidence - for three days, ufologists will make their case in a court of public opinion.

One of the conference organizers, Vicki Lyons, first got involved in 1987. She had just finished reading Communion when she saw a local television report of UFO sightings in her own back yard - just across Pensacola Bay, in Gulf Breeze. It was the first of a number of sightings that would establish the sleepy Panhandle community as one of the nation's UFO hot spots. Scores of eyewitnesses eventually would see, photograph or videotape strange red lights over the Gulf of Mexico waters.

As the Gulf Breeze UFO "flap" reached its zenith in the early '90s, Lyons and fellow skywatchers Pat and Buddy Crumbley of Mobile, Ala., formed Project Awareness to get the word out. But after staging more than a dozen conferences, Lyons says answer to the riddle remain elusive.

"One thing we've learned is, there aren't many answers, just more questions," Lyons said.

The Heaven's Gate incident wasn't exactly the best PR for ufology, either. "We don't need to create a new religion," Strieber warned. "We have enough trouble as it is."

But the Heaven's Gate cult - led by Marshall Applewhite - made the parallel difficult to ignore. Rushing into the vacuum of faith, Applewhite and his disciples methodically took their own lives, leaving behind dreamy videotaped testimonials about the eternal bliss awaiting them aboard the UFO.

"There are fringe elements in every group you can think of - politics, religion, you name it," said Pat Crumbley. "After (Heaven's Gate) happened, I had a sister call me up and say, `I have to ask you one question: Is that what you believe?' She didn't understand that we haven't figured this thing out, that what we're doing is research."

But for growing numbers of people, the debates long have surpassed the "is-it- real?" stage. They are now wrestling with meaning. One could even argue that discussions are polarized along sectarian lines, with at least two academicians addressing the masses from media pulpits: Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard psychiatry professor John Mack ventures the UFO visitors are likely benign and instructive; Temple history professor David Jacobs' books advance nightmare scenarios of trauma and violation.

It's all for sale

And like religion, it is all for sale - alien talismans, candles, self-help books for abductees, videos, T-shirts, bumper stickers. The holy water concept has yet to be alienized, but for $9.95, you can buy what Andent of Waukegan, Ill., advertises as "strange, glowing earth from Roswell, N.M." UFOs shadow the rock music charts. The Foo Fighters borrowed the name from glowing spheres tailing warplanes in World War II; Sheryl Crow sings, "they may be angels."

The cumulative effect has been an inescapable awareness of high strangeness, no matter which side you're on. But, Strieber says, prodding society's institutions to give UFOs more serious consideration is another matter.

After Communion was published, Strieber was deluged with letters from people reporting similar experiences. So he established the Communion Foundation to coordinate research efforts among a number of scientific disciplines.

Over the years, Strieber says researchers have recovered eight so-called implants, those small, mysterious foreign objects abductees claim were inserted into various parts of their bodies. One of them came from Strieber, which he discusses in his latest book, Confirmation.

Talk about your Xfiles. In Strieber's words: "I had an object in the outside part of my left ear. I remember the incident; it was May 1994. Last year, since this implant stuff was having success with other people, I decided to have it removed. It was a simple, in-office surgery. The doctor opened it up. He found in there what he described as a little white disc.

"He touched it with a scalpel and it moved away. He opened the incision up a little more and touched it more aggressively and cut off a little edge of it. Whereupon the object moved about an inch down into my earlobe. A full inch."

Strieber says the recovered fragment was a crystallization of collagen and calcium carbonate, both of which are found in the body. But the process that crystallized it - and mobilized it - remain a mystery.

Lab work conducted on implants usually is done in secret, by curious scientists at odds with their administrations. Strieber also says there's more work to be done by analyzing abductees' brain-wave activity, a technique called PET scanning. So far, half a dozen labs have refused to get involved.

"Unfortunately, we live in a society where the scientific  community that could provide us with some focus in this area is   reluctant to do so," Strieber said. "And as science continues to  stick its head in the sand, superstition just grows and grows.  The few studies that have been done are much too thin to give us  any more than a directional idea of what might be going on.

"Consequently, I think there are people out there with phenomenally evolved belief systems that haven't got a scintilla of proof behind them at all. I'm afraid that what we saw with Heaven's Gate can happen again."

Space Coast UFO Conference schedule

Lectures $10, special events $15, tickets available at the door at Cocoa Beach Hilton


11 a.m.: Judy Guggenheim lecture, "After Death Communication"  1:30 p.m.: NASA forum 3:15 p.m.: Whitley Strieber special event,  Panel of Abductees 6:30 p.m.: Skip Atwater, retired military  intelligence officer lecture 8:15 p.m.: Bob Oechsler lecture,  "UFO evidence"

SATURDAY 8:45 a.m.: Skip Atwater special event, "Out of Body   Experiences" 10:45 a.m.: Vincent DiPietro lecture, "Mars  Investigation" 1:45 p.m.: Judy Guggenheim special event,  "Investigating Inner Spiritual Wisdom" 3:45 p.m.: Zecharia  Sitchen lecture, "UFOs and Ancient Texts" 7 p.m.: Whitley   Strieber lecture 8:45 p.m.: Mary Jo McCabe special event,  "Spirits' Interaction With Audience"

SUNDAY 9 a.m.: Zecharia Sitchin special event, "Egypt" 10:45  a.m.: Mary Jo McCabe lecture, Visionary and Spiritual Medium  1:15 p.m.: Stanton Friedman lecture, "Cosmic Coverup: New Revelations"

Billy Cox's column runs every Friday. He can be reached at 242-3774, or FLORIDA TODAY, P.O. Box 419000, Melbourne, FL 32941-9000.

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