The Portage County, Ohio UFO Chase/Incident
chase by police of an unidentified flying object on the
April 17, 1966, started in Portage
County, Ohio and ended in
Pennsylvania 30 minutes later.
The encounter earned significant
mainstream publicity and was the inspiration for a scene in “Close
Encounters of the Third Kind” where three Indiana police cruisers are
depicted chasing a number of UFOs across state lines and into
After an investigation (of sorts) Project
Blue Book (the official UFO investigative arm of the United States Air
stated they believed that those involved had chased a communications
satellite, then the planet Venus. This conclusion was rejected as
ludicrous by police and civilians alike, contributing to the widely
held belief that Blue Book was an inferior investigative mechanism
engaged in disseminating false information and coverup. Its flawed
handling of the Portage County UFO chase was later a factor in the
creation of the Condon Committee (the University of Colorado UFO
Project), considered by many to be a more fair and balanced approach to
understanding and dealing with the UFO phenomenon.
County Deputy Sheriff Dale Spaur and auxiliary Deputy Wilbur “Barney”
Neff the incident began at about 5:00 a.m. while checking out a car
purportedly (according to a local newspaper report) filled with radio
gear, a mysterious logo and the words “Seven Steps to Hell” painted on
its side, parked on Route 224 near Ravenna. 
about their business a large oval shaped object emerged from behind a
nearby hill, moved closer, and then while hovering at a height of
between 50 and a
100 feet (15 to 30 meters) turned suddenly and shone a light
on the startled officers.
Retiring to their cruiser the
policemen radioed their office and informed them of the UFO. They were
told to remain where they were until backup with a camera could arrive
(it never did, the backup sent to the wrong location).
to wait (the object after rising to 300 feet was moving away in a
southeasterly direction) the officers followed. At one point they were
told by their dispatcher Deputy Robert D. Wilson to try and bring it
down, but while
they were weighing their options Sergeant Henry Shoenfelt a senior
(thinking it might be a weather balloon) advised against it.
they entered into Mahoning County, and though traveling along U.S.
Route 224 at speeds of up to a 100 miles (160 km) an hour they managed
to remain both in visual contact with the UFO and radio contact with
their home base. Studying the object, Spaur and Neff described it as
metallic, silver in color the top a flattened dome. An antenna like
protrusion was affixed center back.
When they slowed, a furthur curiosity, as if waiting for them so did
been listening to the interchange on the radio, and realizing that
Spaur and Neff were heading his way, Patrolman H. Wayne Huston (of East
Palestine, Ohio), seeing what he later described as a flattened ice
creme cone, joined the pursuit.
The three crossed into
Pennsylvania, near Rochester and quickly became mired in traffic. At
about 5:30 Spaur and Neff were told to abandon the chase.
out of gas and far from their jurisdiction they complied.
Frank Panzanella of the Conway, Pennsylvania police became involved at
around 5:20 when he observed a large shiny object seemingly floating
In a statement he later submitted to Blue Book,
Panzanella wrote that while he was standing in a parking lot, watching
the object, two other police cruisers pulled up and officers Neff,
Spaur and Huston climbed out and asked if he saw it. He pointed at the
object and told them he had been watching it for ten minutes. The
object looking like a half football, was very bright and around 25 to
35 feet in diameter. The Moon was visible above
it, the planet Venus,
later described as a bright star, nearby.
While on the radio
with Rochester police dispatcher John Beighey, Panzanella was informed
that jets had been scrambled (something Beighey later denied saying).
Seconds later the UFO shot upward and disappeared at high speed,
everything (supposedly) observed on radar by air traffic control at
Greater Pittsburgh Airport.
A few minutes later, Beighey
also informed Panzanella of a request by officials who wanted to
interview those who had witnessed the UFO. The information was passed
on to Spaur, Neff and Huston who prior to heading home made a side trip
to police headquarters in Rochester.
arrival Spaur especially seemed ill at ease, his hands trembling as he
smoked a cigarette. He spoke on the phone to an unidentified colonel
who, after first trying to persuade him that the trio had misidentified
some earthly object as otherworldly, told him he would forward their
observations to Project Blue Book at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
The officers were then dismissed and headed home.
On the day of
the chase a number of other police and civilians were apparently
witness to the same or a different UFO, with many reporting to various
news agencies. Members of NICAP (the National Investigations Committee
on Aerial Phenomena) interviewed some of them; none, as far as is
known, were interviewed by the U.S.A.F.
In the following days claims, counterclaims and denials became the norm
all in the glare of the mass media.
Neff, Spaur, Huston and Panzanella all claimed to have heard radio
confirmation of the UFO being tracked by GPA radar, officials at the
airport denied it vehemently as per the
May 17, 1966
To whom it may concern—
was on duty as a Watch supervisor in the Greater Pittsburgh Tower
during the period of 0000-0800 EDST on the day of April 17, 1966.
received a report from some local police agencies that an unidentified
flying object had been sighted in Ohio and had been followed into our
area of which I had radar surveillance. I observed nothing on the radar
presentation that coincided with the reported object nor did I observe
any other radar return.
William L. Aker
Since this statement is being submitted to the military representative
at my home on my regular scheduled day off duty and not through the
channels of the Federal Aviation Agency, I would request that my name
be withheld from public use.
William L. Aker
April 22 Major Hector Quintanilla (the head of Blue Book) announced it
was Blue Book's opinion that the police officers had first chased an
Echo communications satellite, then mistakenly the planet Venus
believing it was the same object as the satellite. According to
Quintanilla what the officers thought was the object maneuvering was an
optical illusion caused by their excitement and high speed of
Hearing Blue Book's assessment, Portage
County Sheriff Ross Dustman said he “laughed out loud” later telling
UPI: “I go along with my men. It was not a satellite and it was not
Venus. I’ve seen Venus many times, but I never saw Venus 50 feet above
the road and moving from side to side.” Pretty much everyone else
involved also rejected the Air Force's conclusion.  To paraphrase
Spaur, I didn't think we had satellites that went that low, nor that
Venus could run amok wildly over the countryside.
While it was
Quintanilla who made the case for the Echo satellite, it was William T
Powers of Northwestern University who initially proposed the Venus part
of the theory only to later backpedal and apologize for adding
the controversy. In a letter to Spaur and Neff, he wrote that he along
with Dr. J. Allen Hynek (scientific adviser to Blue Book) didn't agree
with Quintanilla vis-a-vis the Echo satellite and that following
further research he was now aware that they (Spaur and Neff) along with
other witnesses saw Venus and the Moon, and the object in motion
relative to them. In fact shortly after Powers wrote the letter, Hynek
publicly disagreed with Blue Book and suggested that the Portage County
UFO should be reclassified as an “unknown.”
In typical fashion
Blue Book refused to blink, however, and the Echo/Venus theory remained
the “official” explanation for the chase.
For those directly involved in the chase, the aftermath was as life
changing as the encounter:
probably handled it best; with people making fun of him he adopted a
policy of silence on the subject. Once telling his wife, “If that thing
landed in the back yard, I wouldn't tell a soul.”
Huston quit the force and to escape the jokes moved to Washington state
where he became a bus driver.
Panzanella became somewhat of a recluse, even, according to friends,
having his phone disconnected.
was Spaur, however, that suffered the most his role in
the encounter out front and open to the greatest ridicule. (Quintanilla's final
report mentioned only Spaur by name, his wording giving the impression
that their were few other witnesses.) His life became awash in
reporters in search of a story, investigators in search of the
truth, strange letters asking about little
green men and claims by himself that the UFO was stalking him. After
an uncharacteristic fit of rage, in which he violently shook his wife,
he was charged and jailed.
While in jail a newspaper reported on his meltdown.
being released, his life a shambles, and unable to cope further he
fled took a low paying job as a painter and for awhile lived a
solitary life holed up in a downscale motel.
Found six moths
later, by a reporter following up on the story, Spaur was
nearly destitute living on a bowl of cereal and a sandwich a
have become a freak," he said in an interview. "I'm so damn lonely.
Look at me . . . 34 years old, and what do I have? Nothing. Who knows
me? To everyone I'm Dale Spaur, the nut who chased a flying saucer."
Shortly after the interview Spaur moved. His mail was forwarded to a
postal box in West Virginia.
Backtracking the “chase,” William Weitzel of NICAP discovered the car
still parked where it had all started on Route 224, but there Spaur's
alleged description of the vehicle and its contents, and what was found
by Weitzel diverged. Weitzel wrote, “It had some tapes, a cheap
Japanese transistor toy tape recorder with a tape of hillbilly music on
it, some miscellaneous electrical gear in the back seat. Trunk full of
old tires.” “The 'Seven Steps to Hell' insignia was not on the car,
only in witness Dale Spaur's subsequent nightmares.”
Some believe that the mysterious automobile, now part of
“chase” folklore, was switched with another prior to Weitzel's
arrival, while others, perhaps more realistically, maintain the car
had nothing to do with the UFO, the insignia part of a delusion (by
misrepresented in a local news article by an overzealous
 Ohio Congressman William Stanton, who had taken
an interest in the chase, wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert
S. McNamara in which he complained about Blue Book's handling of the
matter. Later, frustrated with the lack of response, he visited the
Pentagon in person eventually securing a promise from Air Force Lt.
Colonel John Spaulding (community relations) that an investigator would
be dispatched to look into things in depth.
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