Unidentified: What they saw 55 years ago in Beaver County remains a mystery – The Times

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally appeared on April 16, 2006, in The Times. It recounts Beaver County’s most famous UFO report.

Peering through bifocals at the sky over Northern Lights shopping center, Frank Panzanella sees nothing but a gray, cloudy swath and a stray bird or two.

Fending off the chill of an early spring morning, he’s wrapped in a brown leather jacket, his white hair tucked beneath a ballcap. He’s standing on the smooth asphalt outside Red Carpet Cleaners in Conway.

It’s exactly where he stood 40 years ago Monday, in the early hours of April 17, 1966.

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Then, the cleaners was an Atlantic service station, and Panzanella wore the navy blue uniform of a Conway police officer. Then, when he looked toward nearby Northern Lights, the sky wasn’t so uncluttered.

“It was over there,” Panzanella says, repeating the story he’s told his fascinated grandchildren many times. Above the shopping center parking lot, he says in his deep rumbling voice, that’s where he saw it.

The UFO.

A half-football-shaped metal object beaming down an intense cone of light. It was about the size of a three-bedroom ranch house hovering about 100 feet off the ground.

A thought flashed through Panzanella’s head at the sight: I’m gonna pretend I didn’t see this; nobody will believe me.

But that option vanished as two patrol cars came racing southward toward him, smoke pouring from the balding tires of one car. They squealed to a halt beside the two gas pumps next to Panzanella.

Three Ohio lawmen jumped out. “Do you see that?” they excitedly asked Panzanella? He said, “See what?” Then he reluctantly admitted he did indeed see it.

We’ve been chasing it for 86 miles, the lawmen told him. Their pursuit started near Akron. At times, they were rocketing up to 100 mph, they said, and the thing seemed to be leading them along.

The story they would tell is probably what inspired the nighttime police chase scene in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie “Close Encounters of The Third Kind.”

It would lead to UFO infamy, another in a long line of government denials.

The decision to chase the object from Akron to Conway also would dramatically affect the Ohio men’s lives and possibly cause one to suffer a breakdown.

But Panzanella, now 73, still believes.

“Whatever we saw, the government didn’t want people to know about it,” Panzanella said. “They had to cover it up.”

The chase begins

In the final full hour of darkness on the clear, mild morning of April 17, 1966, Portage County, Ohio, Deputy Sheriff Dale Spaur, 35, radioed a dispatcher to report a remarkable sight — a huge silver object hovering 50 to 100 feet above the ground.

Spaur had been driving Car 13, with sheriff’s Deputy W.L. “Barney” Neff, on a routine patrol of Route 224, near the rural town of Randolph, east of Akron.

Shortly after 5 a.m., they had pulled over to investigate an abandoned red car. Examining the 1959 Ford, Spaur noticed walkie-talkies on the seat and on the outside was painted a triangle-and-lightning bolt emblem with the words “Seven Steps to Hell.”

Moments later, Spaur heard a loud hum, much like an electrical transformer. Turning around, he spotted a flying object rising from the tree line. Neff, too, was out of the patrol car, and the two men stood frozen as they watched the approaching object, which they later estimated to be 40 to 50 feet long and 20 feet high.

Topped with a dome with what looked like a protruding antenna, the object flew directly above them, beaming a cone-shaped shaft of white light so intense it made the deputies’ eyes water. Spaur looked at his hands and clothes to make sure they weren’t burning.

After nearly a minute of standing motionless in disbelief, the deputies snapped to their senses, sprinted to their car and radioed a dispatch center in the Portage County seat of Ravenna. 

Dispatcher Bob Wilson confirmed similar sightings had been pouring in from residents near the Mogadore Reservoir outside Akron and from six or seven police departments in Portage County and neighboring Summit County.

“Shoot it,” advised Wilson, prompting Spaur to warily draw his gun before desk Sgt. Henry Shoenfelt got on the radio worried the object might be a weather balloon. He ordered Spaur to lower his weapon and keep the object under surveillance until another officer could arrive with a camera.

The UFO started to soar eastward, so Spaur slid behind the wheel, and Neff piled into the passenger seat.

The deputies began their pursuit.

An April 18, 1966, front-page article in The Times, and testimony Spaur and Neff gave to an Air Force official a month later, provide the following account:

The object accelerated quickly, and soon the deputies were speeding 85 mph southeastward on rural Route 14 in Ohio to keep pace.

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“Spaur said the object didn’t make any attempt to get away, and it followed the main highway almost as if it knew it,” Times reporter Tom Schley wrote.

Having heard Spaur’s radio dispatches, East Palestine patrolman Wayne Huston was ready when the chase crossed Columbiana County. Spotting the object 800 feet in the sky, Huston joined the pursuit, following Spaur’s car as the chase crossed into Pennsylvania down Route 51 through Darlington and Chippewa townships. Both drivers clocked the flying object at 103 mph.

The patrol cars got stuck behind slow-moving trucks near the Bradys Run Park entrance, and the lawmen didn’t see the flying object again until they reached Bridgewater.

Interviewed later, Spaur said it was as if the object had waited for the officers above Rochester, allowing them to catch up and continue the chase.

By 6:25 a.m. the chase had reached Conway. The sheriff’s car was running on fumes and balding tires, so Spaur screeched into an Atlantic service station, where the deputies encountered Panzanella, the Conway policeman.

With his shift nearly over, Panzanella, 33, had decided to take one more lap through town. Climbing 11th Street Hill, he spotted a strange light in his rearview mirror, which he suspected was the landing lights from a low-flying jet. Fearing a plane crash, he did a U-turn toward Route 65, pulling into the Atlantic station where he watched, in bewilderment, as the brightly lit object hovered above the Northern Lights shopping center parking lot.

“I rubbed my eyes three or four times but didn’t say anything to anyone for the time being,” Panzanella later told investigators.

Told by the Ohio men of the high-speed chase, Panzanella radioed a police dispatcher in Rochester and asked him to notify the Greater Pittsburgh Airport Tower in Moon Township. By that time, the Ravenna, Ohio, dispatcher also had contacted a Youngstown airport.

The police officers and deputies watched what appeared to be fighter jets soaring to intercept the flying object, which the men then estimated to be 3,500 feet high. Spaur and Panazanella said they heard chatter on a police radio indicating military pilots were chasing the craft.

Police officers in Salem, Ohio, later reported they, too, had monitored radio reports of jets chasing a bright object toward Beaver County.

But Air Force officials later insisted that no military planes had been dispatched.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in Conway, Spaur, Neff, Panzanella and Huston saw a plane they assumed had taken off from Greater Pitt fly about 1,000 feet directly below the unidentified flying object.

Meanwhile, piqued by Panzanella’s radio report, Economy policeman Henry Kwiatanowski drove to a hillside vantage point along Route 989 near Shafer Road to see what was happening.

Kwiatanowski spotted two commercial jets trailed by a “squashed football-shaped” UFO, as he later told investigators in a typed report.

Spaur, Neff, Panzanella, Huston and Kwiatanowski — five men representing four law enforcement agencies — watched moments later as the UFO rose straight up and out of sight.

“The last time I saw it, it was the size of a pencil eraser,” Panzanella said. “It shot straight up in the air, and that was the end of it.”

Only one of them would ever claim to see it again.

Investigation

The incident made national headlines, coming several weeks after a series of UFO sightings in Michigan, and 18 days after the Pentagon and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara felt compelled to issue a formal statement saying there weren’t any flying saucers.

As they did in Michigan, federal officials withheld comment initially. Then a few days later, without visiting the Portage-to-Conway chase route, an Air Force leader announced his investigation had concluded the skyward object clearly was not visitors from outer space.

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From his desk at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, Maj. Hector Quintanilla, head of Project Blue Book, the government’s UFO investigation agency, said the deputies must have been chasing a routine satellite, or due to an optical illusion caused by “atmospheric conditions” had mistaken the planet Venus for a flying object.

Nonsense, said Spaur and Neff, who insisted to reporters the flying object had moved vertically and horizontally in a way a satellite simply couldn’t. 

Portage County Sheriff Ron Dustman supported his men, reminding Quintanilla that many residents also had reported seeing strange lights in the sky.

Gerald Buchert, the police chief in Mantua, Ohio, hoped to verify his fellow officers’ claims with three photographs he snapped that April 17 morning.

His photos turned out to be overexposed, except for one that showed a dark, disc-shaped object surrounded by a ring of light to the right of the crescent-shaped moon. Buchert offered his film to the Cleveland FBI, which forwarded him to Quintanilla in Dayton. At Quintanilla’s insistence, Buchert sent the negatives to the Dayton airbase, where Project Blue Book was opened in 1952.

Quintanilla wasn’t swayed by the evidence, writing that Buchert’s film was “severely fogged” and the disc-shaped dot was a processing defect. 

Buchert still believed he saw a UFO, commenting to the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper, “I feel like an idiot saying this, (but) it looked like a saucer, two table saucers put together.”

Taped testimony

With the public sniffing a government cover-up, and the law enforcement witnesses sticking to their UFO claim, U.S. Rep William Stanton of Painesville, Ohio, demanded the Air Force conduct a more thorough investigation.

So Quintanilla came to the Portage County Courthouse on May 10, and with a Norelco reel-to-reel tape recorder rolling, interviewed Spaur and Neff. Also present were Sheriff Dustman, radio dispatcher Wilson, Times reporter Schley, Ravenna newspaper reporter Carol Clapp and William Weitzel, of an independent, Washington D.C.-based UFO investigation agency, the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena.

The recording of that hour-plus interview, later put on cassette tape, is available from the Maryland-based Fund for UFO Research.

Throughout that recording, Spaur and Neff sound lucid, displaying moments of self-deprecating humor, but remaining firm in their belief that what they saw was no satellite or planet.

At the beginning, everyone but Quintanilla and the lawmen are asked to leave the room as the deputies recount their story. Spaur chuckles and says, “You’re not going to believe it. … The thing was like a three-bedroom ranch house.”

But the mood grows tenser and Quintanilla sticks to his stance that the lawmen initially had spotted a routine satellite, and in the course of their chase had mistaken Venus for a flying object.

“I know damn well I wasn’t chasing a satellite,” Spaur, a former Air Force gunner, says.

As the interview formally ends, Weitzel, the UFO investigator, is let back into the room. With the tape still rolling, Weitzel, a Pittsburgher who nine months earlier investigated a UFO sighting in Brighton Township, implores Quintanilla to reconsider the evidence.

“You seem to be skeptical about the physical reality of unidentified flying objects,” Weitzel says.

“I’m not skeptical about anything,” Quintanilla says. “I look at peoples’ statements and the information that is given to me.”

Quintanilla revealed that Project Blue Book listed more than 10,200 cases of “misinterpretations of conventional objects and natural phenomena” dating to 1947.

“Do you think there is a common denominator among the reports?” Weitzel asks.

“No, there isn’t,” Quintanilla replies. “There is no parallel whatsoever.”

As Weitzel continues his pointed questioning, Quintanilla says, “Look, young fella, I’m finished with you,” before leaving the room.

“It is incredible to me that anyone familiar with the details of the sighting could believe Maj. Quintanilla’s explanation,” Weitzel, a philosophy instructor at the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford, later wrote in his NICAP report. “He either rejected or ignored portions of the testimony, which make a satellite-Venus explanation ridiculous.”

Weitzel’s report included testimony from Northwestern University astronomer J. Allen Hynek, who said Venus had risen at 3:35 a.m. that day and thus would have been too high in the sky to have been mistaken for a flying saucer.

Hynek, the founder of the Center for UFO studies and the man who coined the phrase “close encounters of the third kind” to describe human contact with space aliens, was hired in 1977 by filmmaker Steven Spielberg to be the technical adviser for the same-named movie that includes an Indiana-to-Ohio police chase said to have been inspired by the Ohio-to-Conway chase 11 years earlier.

Meanwhile, Spaur and Neff bristled at Quintanilla’s ruling.

“He seemed to have his mind made up before he got here,” Spaur said after the interview. “I don’t believe for an instant that I was following Venus.”

But the deputies soon piped down, as did the other witnesses.

Their lives would never be the same  

Aftermath

Six months after the April 17, 1966, sighting, the Akron Beacon Journal published a story showing the heavy emotional toll suffered by the Ohio witnesses as public support turned to skepticism and then ridicule.

Portage County Sheriff Deputy Neff refused to be interviewed. His wife said he had stopped talking about the incident because he was tired of people poking fun at him.

Also reluctant to talk was Buchert, the Mantua police chief, who tried to play down the incident to the Akron reporter.

Shortly after the UFO sighting, Wayne Huston, a seven-year veteran of the East Palestine police force, turned in his badge, changed his name to Harold Huston and moved to Seattle to drive a bus. 

“Sure I quit because of that,” Huston said. “People laughed at me, and there was pressure. … You couldn’t put your finger on it, but the pressure was there. The city officials didn’t like police officers chasing flying saucers.”

No one was more emotionally damaged than Portage County Sheriff’s Deputy Spaur, the driver of the lead chase car, whose marriage and career crumbled.

Two months after the sighting, Spaur was on another routine patrol when he looked up into the nighttime sky and saw it again. Radioing the dispatcher, he whispered, “Floyd’s here with me.”

Floyd was the code name the sheriff’s department had come up with if someone saw a UFO again, but didn’t want to alarm citizens listening to police scanners.

Feeling Floyd’s presence above his patrol car, Spaur pulled over and lit a cigarette. He stared at the floorboard, reluctant to look out his window. After 15 minutes, he warily looked skyward, concluded the UFO was gone, and drove away, this time not in pursuit.

Four months after that second sighting, newspapers nationwide published the Akron article written by John de Groot, a future Pulitzer Prize winner for his coverage of the Kent State shootings. De Groot described Spaur as alone and bitter, subsiding on cereal and sandwiches in a Solon, Ohio, motel. Having left the police force, Spaur had lost 40 pounds and had to walk three miles to his painter’s job.

Spaur said he often awoke in a sweat, reeling from nightmares that relived that April 17 morning.

“My entire life came crashing down,” Spaur said. “Everything changed. I still don’t really know what happened, but suddenly it was as though everybody owned me.”

Unsolicited letters from around the world arrived at his house. Some offered advice on what to do if space aliens tried to contact him; others urged him to stay away from flying saucers.

Spaur’s wife, Daneise, a waitress, said he was never the same after the sighting and chase.

“He came home that day, and I never saw him more frightened,” she told the Akron newspaper. “He acted strange, listless. He just sat around. He was very pale. Then later, he got nervous. And he started to run away. He’d just disappear for days and days. I wouldn’t see him.

“Our marriage fell apart. All sorts of people came to the house; investigators, reporters. They kept him up all night. They kept after him, hounding him, and he changed,” she said.

Spaur reached his emotional breaking point on another night soon after, when he returned home after an unannounced absence and allegedly grabbed Deneise and began shaking her, deeply bruising her arms. She filed assault-and-battery charges, and Spaur was thrown into jail, which became a big story in their small town.

The day he entered jail, Spaur turned in his badge.

In one of his last-known interviews, with de Groot, Spaur expressed regret about the morning of April 17, 1966.

“I have done in my life. To everyone I am Dale Spaur, the nut who chased a flying saucer,” he said.

A few months after the sighting, Spaur’s father ended years of silence between the two feuding men by telephoning his son.

“Do you think he called me to ask how I was?” Spaur said. “To say, I love you son? To see if I wanted to go fishing or something? Hell no. He wanted to know if I’d seen any more flying saucers.”

Spaur tried finding solace by going to a new church.

“The minister introduced me to the congregation (by saying), ‘We have the man who chased a flying saucer with us today,'” Spaur said.

Reflecting on the troubled path his life had taken after the UFO sighting, Spaur said, “I would change just one thing, and that would be the night we chased that damn thing. That saucer.”

40 years later

Spaur lived reclusively in subsequent decades.

A great-nephew, Jody Spaur of Portage County, confirmed two months ago that Dale Spaur moved to West Virginia a few years ago and dropped out of contact with family members.

“He is in poor health,” said Michael Nelson, a former Portage County sheriff’s deputy writing a book on the incident.

“Dale will not speak directly with the media,” Nelson said. “He was not dealt a kind hand by newspapers in the past.”

If Dale Spaur wanted to vanish from public life, he achieved his goal.

Neff, too, keeps a low profile in northern Florida.

“He’s out in the pasture right now,” said his wife who answered the phone a few months ago. “I’ll tell him you called, but he probably won’t want to talk about that,” she said of the UFO incident. “When that came out, he went through a lot of ridicule.”

Indeed, Neff never returned a phone message.

The Cleveland Scene, an alternative weekly, also failed two years ago to contact Spaur or to get Neff and Huston to share their thoughts on the UFO sighting.

“When I left Ohio, I just got away from it all,” Neff told The Scene. “I just want to forget.”

Huston, the East Palestine officer, said “The chief of police and I didn’t get along (and the incident) didn’t help. I really don’t want to go further than that.”

Huston has since died.

Quintanilla, the lead Air Force investigator, died in 1997 after a golf cart accident.

Buchert was still the Mantua police chief in 1986 when he died from a brain aneurysm. His son, Harry, took over the post, and keeps a scrapbook of accounts from that April 17, 1966, incident.

“He believed he saw a UFO, and always claimed that he did,” Harry said. “But he was glad when the incident was over.”

That leaves just the two Beaver County police witnesses who don’t mind sharing their memories.

They’ll talk

“I remember it pretty clearly,” said Kwiatanowski, 62, the former Economy policeman. “I saw a jet plane and something behind it that was shiny.”

For  Kwiatanowski, whose name didn’t make the initial newspaper accounts, the matter soon died down, though not until he endured several weeks of razzing.

“There were some people there who were a little sarcastic who thought you were a nut when that first came out,”  said Kwiatanowski, who later left police work for a railroad job, from which he’s semiretired. 

Forty years later, he still isn’t sure what he saw in the sky.

“You could have told me it was anything. It could have been another plane, I don’t know,” Kwiatanowski said.

Yes, he said, it could have been a UFO.

“We’ve always wondered that,” Kwiatanowski said. “Everybody has wondered about that.”

With amazement and a touch of amusement, Panzanella, the former Conway policeman, has thought a lot about the incident lately, now that his granddaughter Sarah is mesmerized by the story.

Now 73 years old and a shuttle driver for Friendship Ridge nursing home, Panzanella said a UFO remains the best possible explanation.

“I still think it was something from out there,” he said. “It’s got to be.

“Unless one of the other countries has something we didn’t know about,” he said. “We weren’t sitting too good with Russia then.”

The weeks after the incident were chaotic, Panzanella recalled.

Strangers relentlessly tracked him down, even calling his unlisted phone number to ask him about the UFO. Two nuns from Philadelphia mailed him a pin bearing a message that the Lord would take care of him. He wore it inside his police jacket.

Air Force investigators came to his home in Ambridge twice to interview him. The second visit occurred unannounced at 2 a.m., with uniformed Air Force officials pounding on the door.

“I said, ‘Why did you come here to ask me these questions again?’ said Panzanella, who by that time felt the government owed him some answers.

Panzanella thinks they picked a time when he would be asleep, hoping he would groggily change his statement, which he never did.

And while he long ago stopped being bitter about the government’s skepticism, he said, “I wish the heck I could have found out more.”  

Like the Ohio deputies, Panzanella endured teasing, primarily from fellow policemen. But they also told him they believed him.

Weeks after the incident, Panzanella tried to contact Spaur at the Portage County Sheriff’s Office, but the sergeant there sounded reluctant to leave the message, so Panzanella gave up, and never spoke again to Spaur.

But he still thinks about Spaur and feels sorry for him.

“He cracked up,” said Panzanella, who many years ago refused to be interviewed for a book about the incident because the author didn’t plan to give any proceeds to Spaur.

“I said if you can’t give him some of the money, then I’m not going to do it,” Panzanella said.

Panzanella speculates that the razzing became too much for Spaur to handle.

“Some people can’t take it,” Panzanella said. “They take it to heart, and in his case, he cracked.”

So what happened?

As far as the federal government is concerned, the incident is over and done.

“The case was closed and never reopened,” said Brian Seese, a paranormal researcher from Hopewell Township, who includes the incident in his new book, “Unexplained Events in Beaver County.”

In late 1966, Weitzel, the NICAP investigator assigned to the case, delivered his final report to his Washington, D.C., supervisor, Richard Hall.

“I personally hand-carried a copy of Weitzel’s very thick and extremely well-documented report to Dr. Edward Condon,” Hall recalled last month.

Condon, a scientist, was in charge of a UFO study conducted by the University of Colorado under the sponsorship of the Air Force.

“Years later, I learned to my astonishment that he never turned over the case to his staff, and it gathered dust in his personal files,” Hall said.

And so when the Air Force turned the Colorado report over to Congress, the Ohio-to-Conway incident wasn’t mentioned.

“Maj. Hector Quintanilla tried to pass it off as a sighting of the planet Venus and an Earth satellite, which was quite preposterous,” said Hall, who wrote “The UFO Evidence, Vol. II; a Thirty-Year Report,” published in 2001. “I think he may have changed it to an unexplained case later on.”

According to the files of a leading UFO researcher, Brian Sparks, the Air Force ultimately did categorize the case as “unexplained” and probably left it at that, Hall said.

Project Blue Book files would show the final status of the incident, Hall said.

But trying to get someone to share Project Blue Book details isn’t easy.

The feds closed Project Blue Book in 1972, ending at least publicly the Air Force’s role as a UFO investigation agency. 

Representatives of the U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency contacted last month said documents from Project Blue Book are kept at the National Archives and Records Agency, though two representatives at that agency said they couldn’t confirm the status of the case, ultimately transferring a reporter’s phone call to a third person who never returned the call.

“Getting someone from the government to talk is almost impossible,” said Leslie Kean, an investigative reporter who backed by cable’s Sci-Fi Channel, sued NASA under the Freedom of Information Act to see files on a UFO sighting Dec. 9, 1965, in Mount Pleasant, Westmoreland County.

NASA maintains the “fireball” that dozens of witnesses spotted that night was a remnant of a Russian satellite that disintegrated after re-entering the atmosphere. But official documents from that investigation were lost in the 1990s, NASA claims.

As for the Conway sighting, Kean speculated the Air Force proclaimed that matter dead after Quintanilla’s ruling, or once the University of Colorado-Air Force report didn’t list it.

UFO investigators claim that Air Force report “was a totally bogus thing” anyway, designed from the onset to debunk UFO theories, Kean said.

In the first few years after Project Blue Book ceased, UFO sightings continued to crop up nationally, including a six-month span from 1973 to 1974 that included separate sightings in Center Township, Ohioville and West Mifflin. Gradually, the phenomenon faded away, and recent years have been devoid of similar sightings.

“The UFO sightings may have appeared to slow down,” Seese said, “but these may only be reported sightings. As a general rule, most people do not report what they observe.

“According to veteran UFO researcher Paul Johnson, the internet changed the way people report their sightings,” Seese said.

“Instead of contacting the state police or local researchers, they can now send their report directly to the internet and remain anonymous and not have to deal face to face with an investigator initially.”

The internet certainly has kept the Portage-to-Conway incident alive.

Dozens of sites, many suspecting a government cover-up, recount the morning of April 17, 1966.

Meanwhile, the men who saw the flying object are left with their own unique perspectives.

“I don’t know what I would have done if it had landed,” Panzanella said. “I don’t know if I would have run or not.” 

Scott Tady is the local Entertainment Reporter for The Beaver County Times and Ellwood City Ledger. He’s easy to reach at stady@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @scotttady 



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