If You Go Down to the Woods Tonight

John Harney
Magonia 74, April 2001

Some UFO stories have been exposed as hoaxes, and others can easily be explained as hoaxes. It is often difficult, though, to persuade most ufologists that a particular story is a hoax, because, as they want to believe the story, they fail to notice or deliberately ignore false assertions or logical contradictions in the story as it is presented to them. Sceptics, on the other hand, too often seem to take the view that the details don’t really matter, and that if the alleged witnesses had obvious motives for hoaxing then that must be the explanation.

An excellent example of a UFO event where investigators failed to get to the heart of the matter because they were too busy pursuing their own agendas was the alleged abduction of Travis Walton in the Sitgreaves National Forest, Arizona, on 5 November 1975.

This incident posed a problem for the sceptics because, at the time of his disappearance there were six other men with him.

The foregoing sentence is an example of carelessness in describing the facts of a case. However, I would bet that most readers who have heard of this case – and who hasn’t – would not have quibbled about it. Actually, no one claims to have seen Walton being abducted and Walton himself says that he was unconscious when it happened. Most sceptics believe this story to be a hoax because the men had motives, such as being “saucer buffs” who wanted to draw attention to themselves, or hoping to share a prize offered by the National Enquirer for the best flying saucer story of the year. Philip Klass devised a complicated set of arguments to the effect that Rogers hoped to benefit from an “act of God” clause in his logging contract, by causing his work to be disrupted allegedly by forces outside his control.

But surely the best way to determine whether a certain incident is a hoax or not is to try to find out what actually happened on the day in question. Most of us have seen detective films or read stories where the police investigating a murder find a man who has a set of very strong motives for committing the crime. They keep an eye on him and find evidence of suspicious words and actions. So they arrest him and he immediately produces a cast-iron alibi, and they have to start all over again. In other words, motives are not enough. We need to know what actually happened.

At this point I should make it clear that although I regard this affair as a hoax, I do so only on the basis that it seems the most rational working hypothesis. Other explanations have been suggested, apart from abduction by aliens, but they seem to me to be unpromising for anyone seeking the truth of the matter.

It is very easy to dismiss the whole business as a hoax and move on to some other case, or simply accept Walton’s story as genuine, and most ufologists have done either one or the other. However, if we consider the case a probable hoax, then we need to realise that it is by no means a simple hoax, so we should try to reconstruct an account of what happened in such a way that it makes sense. The intriguing thing about the Walton case is that this is surprisingly difficult. Examination of other cases has shown how photos or videos were faked, how other witnesses were invented by the person who told the story, or that there was never any good reason to take the story seriously in the first place.

To start with, no one who supports the hoax theory seems to have any clear idea as to who was supposed to be hoaxing whom. Philip Klass appears to have assumed that Rogers and Walton devised the story and persuaded the other five men in their gang of woodcutters to go along with it.
No one who supports the hoax theory
seems to have any clear idea as to who was supposed to be hoaxing whom

This raises obvious difficulties. The men must presumably have been intelligent enough to realise that when they reported to the police that Walton had disappeared, they would be subjected to close questioning, not only by the police but by journalists and ufologists. It is difficult to imagine how such an unlikely concocted story could stand up to such pressure. Their first test came when they they drove into Heber and phoned the police. When Deputy Sheriff Chuck Ellison met them there and was later joined by Sheriff Martin Gillespie and Undersheriff Ken Coplan. The men were said to be in a highly emotional state. At least, so far as I know, no one has denied this, although for most readers the source of this information is none other then Travis Walton himself. (1)

And he was obviously not there to witness the emotional scenes. It has been argued that they were in an emotional state because they were afraid that their story would not stand up under questioning and that they would get into trouble for wasting police time, but as we have noted they already knew what to expect anyway and were presumably prepared for the close questioning which they knew to be inevitable. This means, of course, that if they were all in on the hoax they were displaying considerable acting talent. Their performance would surely have involved much rehearsing as well as histrionic ability.

It has been said that the police suspected that the men’s emotional state was real and that it was because one of them had murdered Walton (with a chainsaw, presumably) and they had hastily cobbled together the flying saucer story in order to impede the investigation. However, if the police officers involved had this suspicion, then why did they not impound the men’s clothing, truck and chainsaws and have them subjected to forensic testing for bloodstains? When Sheriff Gillespie was tipped off at 2.30 a.m. on the morning of 11 November, that someone – possibly Walton – had called Walton’s brother-in-law Grant Neff from a phone booth in Heber, he sent a couple of deputies there to collect fingerprints. If he couldn’t be bothered to look for forensic evidence of Walton’s possible murder, why should he be so concerned about the circumstances of his reappearance?

Incidentally, the details of this case have confused the brains of some of ufology’s finest. Concerning the fingerprints, Jerome Clark wrote: “There were no prints at all on the phone in the third booth . . . The other two had prints, but so far as Ellison and Romo could determine in the cold and dark, none was Walton’s.” (2) Of course the deputies would have transferred the prints to sticky tape and they would later be examined by fingerprint experts.

After I had raised the question about the apparently brilliant acting by the six woodcutters (3) Karl Pflock wrote to me giving examples of highly impressive performances by people who pretended that they were victims of vandalism and hate campaigns, usually with the motive of defrauding insurance companies. He commented: “Believable behaviour by crime victims and UFO witnesses is one of the weakest elements of supporting evidence. While its absence is a warning flag, its presence should never be given any great weight. . . . That said, however, I agree it’s highly unlikely all six of Walton’s fellow woodsmen could have been in on a hoax and yet appeared so convincing, not to mention keeping their stories straight under the close scrutiny they received. If – IF – the Walton incident was a hoax, at least most of them were among the hoaxed.” (4)
It is all fairly simple, apart from the problem of having too many persons involved and none of them denying the encounter over a period of more than a quarter of a century

If all of the men were in on the hoax then we do not need an explanation for the mysterious object in the forest, because it never existed. The whole story, up to the meeting with the police officers is untrue. Perhaps the men were not in the forest at all on that day. There were no independent witnesses because there was nothing to witness. It is all fairly simple, apart from the problem of having too many persons involved and having none of them denying the encounter with the UFO over a period of more than a quarter of a century, despite considerable pressure being put on some of them to do so.

The main alternative to the hypothesis that all were involved is that Walton and Rogers devised and executed the hoax, almost certainly assisted by a person or persons unknown. We can guess at the identities of such persons, but that would merely be adding speculation to speculation.

If Rogers and Walton devised the hoax, then they must have rigged up something in the forest which they could use to fool the other men into believing that it was a flying saucer. One advantage of this interpretation of the story is that, when the men were being interviewed by the police officers, it was only Mike Rogers who was putting on an act and the others were telling the truth, and their emotions were perfectly genuine.

All hoaxes have their weak points. At some stage in the proceedings they are likely to fail, because demand too much of the hoaxers, or they demand too much credulity from the hoaxed. In our first interpretation the weak point is where the men first meet the police officers and are closely questioned. In fact, it is so difficult for many ufologists to imagine them passing this severe test that they have abandoned the hoax theory and desperately cast about for other explanations.

However, if we suppose that Walton and Rogers managed to deceive the other five men then there is no problem here. The weak point comes at an earlier stage, when a strange light is seen as the men are driving out of the forest. Assuming that something has been rigged up in the trees and suitably illuminated, then the difficult bit is in Rogers and Walton managing to fool the other five men into thinking it is a flying saucer. Also, Rogers has to ensure that the other men stay in the truck and that he does not hang around long enough for any of them to make out what the object really is.

The object is seen ahead of the truck and to the right and it just so happens that Walton is sitting on the front seat on the right. The object also has to produce a bright beam or flash of light at the right moment, so that Walton can be “zapped” and fall over backwards, apparently unconscious. This is supposed to cause the men to panic and they obligingly do so. Rogers then drives off so that they don’t get a chance to see what happens next.

At the point where Walton is allegedly hit by the beam from the UFO there is a rather puzzling detail in the story. Although everything happens so quickly and the lighting conditions are far from ideal, they all apparently notice that Walton lands heavily on his right shoulder. Much was made of this detail by sceptics who noted that the doctors who examined Walton six days after the incident found no bruising on his right shoulder or any other part of his body. They thought that this fact tended to discredit the story, but a medical dictionary which I consulted advises: “If a bruise does not fade after about one week . . . a doctor should be consulted.” (5)
The doctors found a red spot in the crease of Walton’s right elbow, which seemed suggestive of a needle puncture. This led the sceptics to suggest that he had been injecting himself with drugs, and that that this would account of his story of being captured by aliens. But presumably he would not do this as a one-off, and if he were in the habit of injecting himself with drugs this would surely be obvious to any doctors who examined him. Even if he had injected himself with LSD or whatever, surely this would not cause the other men to have hallucinations of a flying saucer in the forest.

Also, if Walton and Rogers were going to have any chance of pulling off their hoax they would have to remain clear-headed throughout the proceedings. Not only did Rogers have to get the other men away from the scene as quickly as possible without arousing their suspicion, but Walton had to get the apparatus used to create the illusion of a flying saucer disassembled and out of the forest before they returned to search for him. He would presumably have had a vehicle and at least one helper standing by a short distance away.

On the day of the incident there were deer hunters in the forest, so there was always the danger that some of them would see the “saucer” being rigged up. However, it seems there were no independent witnesses to anything that happened in that part of the forest on that day. Except,that is, for the mysterious independent witnesses who phoned Travis Walton shortly before the release of the film Fire in the Sky and told him that he had had been in the forest that day with his wife and had seen the UFO and the beam of light. Walton informed Paramount who made the film and they investigated. The man was subjected to a polygraph test and, it is alleged, he had been put up to this by Philip Klass in an effort to discredit the story. How the production of an independent witness could damage the credibility of the story is not clear to me, just as it is not clear how producing the witness and having him exposed as a liar could have any influence on the credibility of the story.
The competence of the polygraph experts depended not on their experience and reputations but on whether their results satisfied the believers or the sceptics

One of the strangest aspects of the affair is the obsession, by sceptics and believers alike, with polygraph tests on the witnesses and members of Walton’s family. The rule in this case was apparently that if the polygraph examiner did not produce the desired results he was no good. Thus the competence of these polygraph experts depended not on their experience and reputations but on whether their results satisfied the believers or the sceptics. Of course many people refuse to take polygraph testing seriously and accounts of the use of the technique in the Walton affair make it obvious why they do not take it seriously.

When we look at the published accounts of the case there is one curious omission. Most commentators have read the detailed reconstruction of the event given by Walton himself as to what everyone said and did. One would have thought that any experienced investigators would have quickly obtained separate accounts of the story from each witness, either in writing or on tape, and then have published them. however, I found no reference to any publication of detailed stories by the witnesses. How curious.

So which is it to be? Did Walton and Rogers rig something up in the forest which fooled the others into believing that Walton had been abducted? If so, it was so cleverly done, that although the men might have later come to suspect that they had been duped, they could not prove anything. Or did nothing unusual happen in the forest that day, except that Rogers and his gang spent their time rehearsing a brilliant performance that was to fool many people for many years? Or is there some other explanation?

Indeed, can we make any sense of it at all? Travis Walton apparently cannot. He has written: “However, what occurred inside the craft and the events surrounding my capture and return are not in the least self-explanatory. In fact, in the absence of conjecture or further data, these events do not seem to make much sense.” (6)

  1. Walton, Travis, Fire in the Sky, Marlowe & Company, New York, 1997, Chapter 4
  2. Clark, Jerome, The UFO Book: Encyclopedia of the Extraterrestrial, Visible Ink, Detroit, 1997, 634
  3. “Walton Again”, Magonia ETH Bulletin No. 7, September 1998
  4. Pflock, Karl T., letter, Magonia ETH Bulletin No. 8, October 1998
  5. Smith, Tony (ed.), The British Medical Association Complete Family Health Encyclopedia, Dorling Kindersley, London, 1996
  6. Walton, Travis, op. cit., 160.