The midst of a global pandemic is a perfect time to catch up on TV shows. With just about everything other than “essential businesses” closed there isn’t much to do except hunker down and binge-watch those shows you’ve been meaning to check out. I took the opportunity to finally watch the History Channel’s Project Blue Book, a docu-drama based on the life of astronomer-turned-ufologist J. Allen Hynek. In addition to his respected academic work as a professor, Hynek worked with the US Air Force to investigate UFO sightings under Projects Sign, Grudge, and Blue Book.
Project Blue Book is certainly an entertaining show. The two seasons feature plenty of UFOs, conspiracy theories, Cold War subterfuge, and even a dash of lesbian queerbaiting, all set during the early 1950s. It’s like an amalgamation of X-Files, Mad Men, and The Americans, and, if you have even a passing interest in UFO phenomena, a good way to kill time in quarantine. Each episode starts with the disclaimer, “the cases depicted are based on real events,” which presumably makes the show a fun way to get caught up on the early days of UFO lore. The show depicts a number of famous cases, such as the mass sighting over Washington DC in 1952, the Hopkinsville Goblins, which was explored thoroughly on Hellier, and the abductions of Barney and Betty Hill. While we shouldn’t expect too much from the network that brought us Ancient Aliens, Swamp People, and Pawn Stars, it does seem like the writers of Project Blue Book have done their homework.
In addition to Roswell, government mind-control programs, and crop circles, the show’s second season even touches on cases of UFO-related mutilations. The episode “Area 51” finds Hynek and Air Force Captain Michael Quinn, the official government Scully to Hynek’s Mulder, investigating a case of human mutilation at a secret government compound near Groom Lake. An airman at the base goes missing after sightings of strange lights, and his body is discovered in a tree, missing eyes, tongue, and internal organs.
These kinds of mutilation cases are well-represented in UFO history, but most of the victims are horses, sheep, goats, and cattle. My introduction to the UFO community came during a story I worked on investigating the history of cattle mutilations in Colorado, which saw thousands of cases reported during the mid-70s. Unlike the vast majority of sightings, mutilation cases are some of the few UFO-related incidents that leave behind actual forensic evidence. The official explanation, given by the FBI, is that the cattle mutilations are the result of natural predator activity. However, independent investigators have disputed those findings, noting anomalous electromagnetic activity at mutilation sites, bizarre necropsy findings such as organs turning to mush, and strange indentations in the ground and evidence that the carcasses were dropped from a great height.
Cases of human mutilation are rare, but not unheard of. The most well-known human mutilation case took place in Brazil in 1988. The Guarapiranga Reservoir case has a human victim, and mutilations that parallel those seen in a majority of the cattle mutilation cases. The mysterious deaths of nine skiers in Russia’s 1956 Dyatlov Pass incident have also been tied to sightings of strange lights in the sky, and two victims were found missing eyes, and one missing a tongue.
Project Blue Book’s “Area 51” episode examines a case known as the Lovette-Cunningham Incident. The History Channel was kind enough to supply a supplemental blog post explaining the history of the incident, giving viewers the chance to examine the “real events” behind the episode. Colin Bertram, the author of the History Channel blog, notes that the sources of the Lovette-Cunningham incident is from “controversial conspiracy theorist William Cooper (1943–2001), who asserts he was tasked with analyzing an annotated version of Grudge Report 13 in the early 1970s. The other came from William English, a former Green Beret captain who says he too was asked to analyze the document, while assigned to a U.S. security service at a former Royal Air Force base in Chicksands, England.” Bertram also cites the book Military Encounters with Extraterrestrials: The Real War of the Worlds by Frank Joseph, who wrote about both Cooper and English’s accounts in detail. Unfortunately for Bertram, The History Channel, and those who are getting introduced to UFO investigations by shows like Project Blue Book, the Lovette-Cunningham incident never happened, both Cooper and English were exposed as complete frauds in the late 1980s, and Frank Joseph, the author of Military Encounters with Extraterrestrials, is a neo-Nazi.
One of the things that makes investigating anything related to unexplained phenomena difficult is the dearth of credible sources. The UFO community, while largely full of hard-working, honest folks who really want to know the truth behind a phenomenon which has been widely reported and documented since at least 1947, does have its share of the disingenuous – liars, narcissists, and grifters looking to make a profit. My first investigation into cattle mutilations in Colorado revealed that one of the most diligent journalists covering the mutilations in the 70s, a writer named Dane Edwards, who mysteriously disappeared after receiving threats about his mutilation coverage, was actually a con-artist with a long history of fraud before and after his foray into the unexplained. I learned very quickly that when dealing with anything related to UFOs you need to take almost everything with a grain of salt.
Bertram’s History Channel blog, while concisely summarizing the Lovette-Cunningham Incident, leaves out a lot of pertinent details. Bertram repeats the story that English and Cooper encountered the story of the Lovette-Cunningham incident in an official military document called “Project Grudge Report 13,” but frames the story in a way that implies that Cooper and English were both just military whistleblowers. Cooper and English both have a long, and checkered, history with the UFO community during the 1980s, an era when perceptions of UFOs and extraterrestrials began to shift from benign “space brothers” to bizarre, convoluted conspiracy theories involving the US Government.
Bertram describes Cooper as a “controversial conspiracy theorist,” which is like calling Adolf Hitler a “former German ruler.” Milton William “Bill” Cooper is the ideological grand-father to some of the craziest conspiracy theories around today. Cooper is mostly known for his 1991 book, Behold a Pale Horse, and his shortwave radio show “The Hour of the Time,” in which he addressed a broad range of topics, including the “Ozone Hoax,” Fluoridation, conspiracies around the AIDs crisis, and topical events like Waco and Ruby Ridge. Before Alex Jones and InfoWars was a household name, there was Cooper. QAnon devotees, who express fear of government mind-control programs, the New World Order, the Illuminati, Satanists, secret underground bases, and communists can trace their lineage back to Cooper.
Before finding popularity within the militia movement, Cooper honed his grift within the UFO community. He got his start in the UFO community with claims of a UFO sighting while a member of the crew of the submarine USS Tiru. Shortly thereafter, Cooper began making more amazing claims of knowledge about secret programs gleaned from his time in the Navy, and gained a reputation for corroborating outlandish accounts from folks like John Lear. When Bertram notes that “Cooper’s and English’s stories echo one another closely,” that’s because that was Cooper’s whole schtick. He would find a crazy story and then align himself with it, telling people he had seen evidence of it himself or heard about it from his “contacts” in Naval intelligence. This was how Cooper and English established a working relationship.
In the appendices of Behold a Pale Horse, which includes copies of Cooper’s DD-214, an annotated article on pet microchips (which could be placed in children!), and grainy photos of UFOs, is a letter from English to Cooper dated June 1989. English expresses his respect for Cooper and hopes for a joint lecture tour in the future. Kenn Thomas’ 2015 book, Inside the Gemstone File, which describes a number of bizarre conspiracy theories itself, gives passing mention to Cooper and English, describing them as “UFO lecture celebrities.” In addition to UFOs, Cooper was known for his early conspiracy theories around the JFK assassination, and would charge $15-$35 for attendance at his lectures, where he would show a grainy copy of the Zapruder film, allegedly plagiarized from conspiracy researcher Lars Hansson.
English was himself known as something of a grifter in the UFO community as well. In his book Fact, Fiction, and Flying Saucers: The Truth Behind the Misinformation, Distortion, and Derision by Debunkers, Government Agencies, and Conspiracy Conmen, noted UFO researcher Stanton Friedman recalls English’s involvement in the 1981 Cash-Landrum UFO incident. The Cash-Landrum incident is one of the few incidents to have left forensic evidence, in the form of burns and physiological effects suffered by the witnesses, which led to a $20 million lawsuit against the US Government. It was one of the more credible sightings of the decade, but unfortunately, according to Friedman, English, who was an initial investigator of the incident as a member of the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO), “sold his story to a tabloid and was expelled from APRO for violating confidentiality.” The Cash-Landrum story first appeared in public on the cover of the Weekly World News, a less-than-credible weekly tabloid.
In the late 80s English’s story of his experiences as an alleged Captain in the Army Special Forces during Vietnam, and later as an alleged intelligence analyst at RAF Chicksands began to gain attention from UFO researchers. Cooper’s support of English’s claims bolstered his credibility. Cooper and English both gained prominence around the same time John Lear began making in-roads to the UFO community and promoting the story of Bob Lazar, who allegedly worked at Area-51 to reverse-engineer UFOs. All of these large personalities with outlandish stories eventually led to a dramatic public falling out.
One of the more outlandish and questionable conspiracy theories in the late 80s was a document uploaded to UFO bulletin boards called the “Krill Papers,” which tied combined bits and pieces of the MJ-12 conspiracy, cattle mutilations, and Lazar’s story about reclaimed extraterrestrial craft. Cooper, true to form, claimed to have seen copies of the Krill Papers during his time in the navy. In 1990, Don Ecker, director of research for UFO Magazine, wrote an expose about Cooper, calling him a fraud and questioning his business practices and research methods. In 1991 English made what was essentially an early internet call-out post, claiming that the Krill Papers were a fraud perpetrated by Lear to expose the gullibility of the UFO community. Cooper lashed out at English, claiming that he was the real fraud and that his claims of service in Special Forces were exaggerated. Given that English was born in 1952, making him just 18 when he claimed to be a Special Forces Captain in Vietnam in 1970, there may be some merit to Cooper’s claims of Stolen Valor. Cooper also accused everyone who disagreed with him, including John Lear, George Knapp, Stanton Friedman and other notable members of the UFO community, of being government agents and/or Freemasons.
Cooper took his conspiracies and grift and moved onto the militia community, who provided him with a loyal fanbase. He became a part of the sovereign citizen movement, refusing to pay his taxes and vowing not to be taken alive after he was charged for tax evasion in 1998. He gained some notoriety for “predicting” 9/11, but so did Fox’s X-Files spin-off series The Lone Gunmen. He was killed in a shootout with Arizona deputies in November 2001.
English largely disappeared from the UFO community. He did have a short-lived campaign for New Mexico senate, and in 2018 started a gofundme to raise $10,000 to write a book about his Vietnam experiences.
The secret history of the Cooper/English Debacle is largely forgotten, as the story is one of unpleasant community infighting and, of course, complete fabrications. Much of the debate took place on bulletin board systems, early predecessors of the modern internet, and many of those threads that formed the online UFO community of the 80s have been lost to history, although there are a number of sites that have archived those discussions. Aaron Gulyas’ podcast The Saucer Life is also a great source for context about much of the Cooper, Lear, and English drama.
The fact that much of this UFO community history has been lost is troubling, because now outlets like the History Channel are uncritically repeating accounts of some of the more dubious figures from the field, and tying their confabulations to legitimate figures like J. Allen Hynek. However, the History Channel is just citing the book Military Encounters with Extraterrestrials by Frank Joseph, who is the one who should ultimately take responsibility for the lack of fact-checking here. However, Joseph’s lack of attention to detail in the Cooper and English accounts is a little more understandable when you realize that Frank Joseph, before becoming a well-known author in the field of fringe-history, promoting theories about ancient civilizations and Atlantis, is a master in strategically omitting unpleasant details. Before Joseph was a writer, he was a political organizer. He founded the National Socialist Party of America after being passed over for promotion to George Lincoln Rockwell’s position in the American Nazi Party, and was a leader in the legal battle over the 1977 Nazi rally in Skokie, Illinois. When John Belushi said he hates “Illinois Nazis” in The Blues Brothers he was talking specifically about Frank Joseph (aka Frank Collin). In 1980 Joseph was arrested and jailed for sexually molesting young boys. He changed his name and began writing books that fused obscure ideas around racial superiority with bad takes on anthropology.
Why Colin Bertram and the History Channel thought Joseph’s work would lend credibility to two of the more famous frauds in the history of ufology is a mystery, especially when you consider one of the major plot points in another episode of Project Blue Book was the moral question over Project Paperclip, which brought Nazi scientists to America to help our space program after World War II. It’s also a mystery why, with an abundance of credible, documented, and corroborated cases of UFOs that people insist on clinging to the most absurd frauds. While it’s admirable to want to believe, some things, like the government’s complicity in murders and mutilations against its own military service-members, should be held to a high standard of scrutiny. For all the budding ufologists and Project Blue Book enthusiasts out there, please make sure to check your sources.
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