The Portage County, Ohio UFO Chase/Incident

The chase by police of an unidentified flying object on the morning of 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 Ohio.  

After an investigation (of sorts) Project Blue Book (the official UFO investigative arm of the United States Air Force) 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.

For Portage 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. [1]

As they went 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).

Unwilling 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 officer (thinking it might be a weather balloon) advised against it.

Soon 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 the UFO.

Having 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. Almost out of gas and far from their jurisdiction they complied.

Patrolman Frank Panzanella of the Conway, Pennsylvania police became involved at around 5:20 when he observed a large shiny object seemingly floating far above.

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.

Upon 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.

Though 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 following:

May 17, 1966

To whom it may concern— 

I 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.

I 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

P.S. 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

On 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 travel.

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. [2] 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 to 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:

Neff 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.

It 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.

Upon 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 day.

"I 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.

[1] 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 Spaur) misrepresented in a local news article by an overzealous reporter.

[2] 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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