Twenty-five years ago this month, the author opened the door on Area 51. The story could hardly have been stranger had he found the aliens
A buzz was building inside the Kulturhuset, a community center built on Islands Brygge, the historic property on the waterfront of Copenhagen’s harbor. Inside the hall, an audience of more than 120 Danes, Norwegians, Germans and Brits were waiting to hear about a mystery that first surfaced on Las Vegas television 25 years ago. What’s the latest about Area 51, they wanted me to tell them — and whatever happened to that flying-saucer guy Bob Lazar?
Few people know better than I do how outlandish the Lazar story sounded when his tale of a secret Nevada base housing UFOs exploded onto the scene back in November 1989. To this day, it is still a bit befuddling to me that educated professionals, artists, musicians and retirees from all around Europe would gather to hear the latest scuttlebutt about the flying saucers supposedly housed in a secretive facility in the Nevada desert.
The Exopolitics Denmark conference, a two-day gathering in October, wasn’t the first to focus on the subject, and it won’t be the last. Area 51 is known around the world. Every day I receive letters, emails or phone calls from curious people in Ecuador, Iceland, Hong Kong, Russia or other far-flung places asking about Area 51 or the bookish whistleblower who put it on the map.
And that’s exactly what Lazar did. Today, Area 51 is an oxymoron of the highest order — the world’s best-known secret base. It has been mentioned in such blockbusters as The Da Vinci Code, National Treasure, an Indiana Jones sequel and Independence Day, in which Earthlings used the base to fight off an alien invasion. It’s been featured in “X-Files” episodes, inspired dozens of books, hundreds of magazine articles, songs, cartoons, poems and business enterprises.
Earlier this year, former President Clinton talked about his interest in aliens and Area 51 on the Jimmy Kimmel show. President Obama became the first sitting president to mention the name of the base — during a ceremony honoring Shirley MacLaine.
Heck, even the Kardashians visited the outskirts of the base for their reality show.
There are several businesses named after Area 51 — a rock ’n’ roll band, a couple of bars, a video game, a fireworks company, jerky stores, inflatable love dolls, a dance troupe, art exhibits and the Las Vegas triple A-baseball team. After my first televised interview with Lazar, the most prominent business in Rachel, Nev., wisely changed its name from the Rachel Bar and Grill to the Little A’Le’Inn, selling T-shirts, posters, Groom Lake wine and Bob Lazar Christmas tree ornaments, along with “Beam Me Up, Scotty” drinks at the bar and Alien Burgers in the kitchen.
The story as told by Lazar has not only persisted but has blossomed, despite overtly hostile treatment by major media outlets and some of the best-known honchos of Ufology. Many of my journalism colleagues have worked their ink-stained panties into pretzel-thick bunches by fretting about the story. Nonetheless, since the saucer stuff burst into the public consciousness, every major media organization, program and paper in the world has, sometimes reluctantly, beaten a path to Area 51’s once-obscure door. The attention has irritated some of my fellow reporters to the breaking point.
The nonexistent military base
"Sometimes I really do regret it.” On the media screen inside the Denmark hall, attendees are intently watching an edited clip of an interview with Lazar. “I almost feel like apologizing to them, saying, ‘I’m sorry. Can I have my job back?’”
It’s far too late for that — assuming he ever had a job out there in the first place. Whatever anonymity Area 51 enjoyed evaporated forever the moment Lazar spoke into a TV camera.
That first interview was broadcast in May 1989. Lazar’s face was hidden and he used a pseudonym, Dennis. He claimed he worked intermittently at a location called S-4, south of Groom Lake, the main facility of Area 51. He said nine aircraft hangars had been built into the side of a mountain, adjacent to Papoose dry lake, disguised to look like the desert floor. Inside were nine flying saucers of alien origin. “Dennis” said the program was controlled by the U.S. Navy and that he and other scientists were taking the saucers apart to figure out how they worked — “reverse engineering,” he called it.
Eight months later, on Nov. 10, KLAS-TV identified Lazar by name and showed his face as part of a series called “UFOs: The Best Evidence.” To this day, it ranks as the highest rated, most-watched local news program ever produced here. Within days, Lazar’s claims had spread to Europe and Japan. TV crews and tabloid outfits flocked to Nevada. Tour buses filled with UFO enthusiasts staked out the deserts of the Tikaboo Valley. The guards, nicknamed “camo dudes,” who patrol the perimeter of Area 51 were overwhelmed by all the attention, and ticked off, too.
Before that first broadcast, the only people familiar with the name of the base were folks who worked there or at the Nevada Test Site, or who lived in one of the remote communities of central Nevada. A few journalists had written bits and pieces about the base in the ’60s and ’70s. Aviation magazines speculated about spy planes that might be flying out of Groom Lake: the sleek SR-71 Blackbird, the gangly and magnificent U-2 and a strange craft rumored to be nearly invisible to radar. Among the handful of Nevada journalists with an interest in the base were two Las Vegas muckrakers, Bob Stoldal and Ned Day, who years later would become my bosses.
Acting on a tip from a former CIA pilot and Area 51 watcher named John Lear, Day and Stoldal broke a big story about the existence of the stealth fighter, which, they reported, had been developed and tested at Area 51. Federal lawmen hauled Day in for questioning about the source of his information. Stoldal was nabbed by military security on the outskirts of the base. In the early ’80s, when they hired me to work at KLAS-TV, they told me intriguing stories about the ominous military base known by many names — The Ranch, The Box, The Watertown Strip and, best of all, Dreamland. By then the base had vanished from maps of the Test Site. The government began to pretend it didn’t exist, even though it had been acknowledged by the military as early as 1955 and had been photographed by Russian satellites. It became readily apparent that intelligence agencies and the military were flat out lying to the public, and, as lies go, it wasn’t very convincing.
'There is no delusion'
In Copenhagen, I told the audience that it no longer matters to me whether anyone believes Lazar’s wild tale. (That’s almost true.) For years after the story broke, it was a burning priority for me to try to convince the public — and my skeptical colleagues — that the story was legitimate and true. Not anymore.
These days, I focus on explaining why we took the story seriously in the first place, why we put our credibility on the line and how the tale subsequently took on a life that no one could have imagined. Like it or not, the Lazar meme is alive and well.
“Look, I’m not out there giving UFO lectures or producing tapes. I’m not in the UFO business,” Lazar told me in an interview recorded this year at my home. “I’m trying to run a scientific business, and if I’m The UFO Guy it makes it really difficult for me. It is to my benefit that people don’t believe the story. So when somebody says that they don’t believe my story, I say, ‘Great. Pass it around. I don’t want you to believe it because it makes life difficult for me.’”
These days, he owns a scientific supply company in Michigan. He doesn’t grant interviews and has done his best to put the whole episode behind him. He makes an occasional exception for me, mostly because of the strange road we have traveled together and the wars that have been fought in the odd little universe of Ufology.
“Look, I know what happened is true,” Lazar says. “There is no doubt. Period. There is no delusion.”
“Bob wouldn’t go to the trouble to make up a story to lie to people and then perpetuate that lie,” adds his close friend Gene Huff, a Las Vegas real-estate appraiser. “I mean, he lives in his own world and doesn’t care what people think. Bob has no idea who won the Super Bowl last year, or the World Series. He’s busy doing scientific stuff in Bob Lazar World and would not waste his time perpetuating a lie about UFOs.”
When KLAS decided to pursue Lazar’s claims, we spent eight months looking into his background and the larger story about UFOs at Area 51. On the surface, Lazar seemed an unlikely person to bring into such a sensitive program, assuming such a program exists. He likes machine guns and hookers, builds jet-powered cars, operated an outlaw fireworks spectacular and flies a skull-and-crossbones flag over his house. Hardly the profile of a stuffy government scientist. What’s more, the claims he made about places he worked and the school he attended could not be verified.
But instead of scaring us away from the story, the lack of records is what hooked us. Lazar said that prior to S-4, he had worked as a physicist on classified projects at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. The lab told me it had no record whatsoever of Lazar. After I found a lab phone book listing his name, and a front-page Los Alamos newspaper article that named him as a lab physicist, Los Alamos still denied having any records. A headhunting company confirmed to me that it had hired Lazar to work at the lab and would send me copies of his records — but then clammed up, refusing to return phone calls or respond to letters, later denying it ever told me that it had the records.
I interviewed four people who had personal knowledge of Lazar working at Los Alamos on classified projects, and I even took a tour of the lab with Lazar as my guide. Something was clearly wrong with this picture. Later, after Lazar got into legal hot water, I asked Nevada Rep. Jim Bilbray for help tracking down Lazar’s employment records. The congressman’s office said it was stonewalled by several agencies and had never seen anything like it.
The second thing that hooked us was Lazar’s knowledge of how things worked at Groom Lake. He says he spent very little time at Groom itself, but he knew, for instance, that a company called EG&G handled hiring. (Lazar claimed he had been sent to EG&G on a recommendation from physicist Edward Teller, whom he had met at Los Alamos.) Lazar knew that employees were flown to the base in unmarked planes or driven to Groom on buses with blacked-out windows — all true. He told us he had been interviewed by a guy who might have worked for the FBI as part of a background check for his security clearance. The agent’s name was Mike Thigpen. As it turned out, Thigpen was a real person, but he worked for something called the Office of Federal Investigation, which conducts background checks on people hired to work at the former Test Site. That part of Lazar’s story turned out to be true.
We also confirmed the existence of a location called S-4 on the Nellis range. There had been no references anywhere to such a place, but the public affairs office at Nellis confirmed to me that S-4 was a location at which the Air Force “tested certain equipment.” (If you ask them today, they will tell you they are “unable to find any such designation on any maps” of the range.) How did Lazar know it existed?
The most important information Lazar had was the location and time of test flights of the saucerlike craft. Three weeks in a row, he escorted a group of people out to the desert east of the Papoose range, and they witnessed a glowing saucer-shaped object rise above the mountains and perform dramatic maneuvers. One of the sightings was captured on videotape. I interviewed each of the people who went along, and they told me the same story. Again, how did Lazar know? There had been no reports of aerial activity at Papoose. To this day, the official story is that the government has never had a facility at that location (even though satellite maps show a road leading from Groom Lake to the spot where Lazar says the hangars were located). As an aside, earlier this year, a UFO researcher found images on Google Earth that appear to show the outline of what could be nine hangar doors on the side of Papoose dry lake.
After an inconclusive result on one polygraph test — the examiner thought Lazar was too frightened — he easily passed a second test, administered an ex-cop named Terry Tavernetti, who quizzed him about his core claims. No attempt at deception was detected. Not long after we reported Tavernetti’s findings, his office was burglarized and the charts from Lazar’s test were stolen.
Yet another reason we gave Lazar the benefit of the doubt is that we found witnesses to back up at least parts of his story. I’ve interviewed more than two dozen people who worked at Groom Lake at various times from the 1950s through the ’80s who have told me they saw saucerlike craft being tested or stored or taken apart in the vicinity of Area 51.
Most telling of all are those witnesses who were subsequently visited and threatened by various Men In Black types. Six people who offered to tell me their stories say they were visited immediately afterward and ordered to keep their mouths shut. If it had happened only once, I wouldn’t think much about it. But these six people were solid citizens, not UFO nuts. One woman says she her life was threatened. Another man says he was warned about imprisonment if he talked. What this told me was that someone was listening to my phone calls. In the days before Edward Snowden’s revelations, before we took for granted that the government is listening to every call and reading every email, this knowledge really pissed us off. Years after the story broke, I spoke to two former spooks who admitted that their job was to follow me, Lazar, Lear and Huff to see who we met or spoke to, at our workplaces, homes or bars. If Lazar’s tale was baloney, why were we being followed?
Nonetheless, my approach to the Lazar material changed in the mid-’90s, for a couple of reasons. One is that I was concerned that I had crossed into advocacy instead of merely reporting on it. The fact is, it became personal. So many weird things happened during those first few years, things that are hard to explain if you weren’t there.
Second, I reluctantly came to realize that I would never be able to prove Lazar’s claims, no matter how many witnesses came forward to verify parts of his story. The folks who run Area 51 are simply better at this stuff than I am, and were always able to deflect stories about what goes on there. So I changed my focus to merely explaining how the story played out and why I remained interested over the years.
Amazing and ridiculous
In the years since the stories broke, I’ve read the most amazing and ridiculous things about Area 51 and the saucer stories in local and national publications. Quite a few articles have poked fun at the story or at me. I’ve been the subject of at least three terrifically funny editorial cartoons in the Review Journal — all three now hang on my bathroom wall. The RJ media critic speculated that people were “rushing home at night to see my UFO reports” because they wanted to see the moment when I finally went “bull-goose loony on the air.” One columnist bestowed on me the title of “grand mullah in the church of cosmic proctology.”
Some of this stuff was pretty funny, but it bothered me that so many journalists had made up their minds about the Area 51 stories without ever doing a bit of work on it or without interviewing any witnesses. They seemed to know ahead of time, perhaps through psychic visions, that the story was bunk. To my mind, that isn’t how journalism is supposed to work.
The most troubling failures by my colleagues has been their willingness to accept whatever stories are promulgated by the Air Force or CIA, as long as the end result is to poke fun at crazy UFO buffs.
In the years since the Lazar story broke, I’ve met scores of men who worked at Groom Lake on classified projects who have told me they never saw any saucers, and I believe them. But those same men have told me they would see co-workers in the chow line every day and never know what they were working on because they couldn’t talk about it. They were reportedly ordered to lie about their work to their own spouses.
The other explanation that has been swallowed by those who don’t want the story to be true is that maybe the tale told by Lazar is part of a disinformation plot, devised by the CIA or Air Force, as a way to distract attention away from something else flying around out there.
If that was the plan, it was a miserable failure.
As a result of the saucer tales, tens of thousands of people have made the trek out into the desert to watch the skies. Media crews are out there every week. Congressional investigators have asked tough questions. No one at Groom Lake ever wanted this much attention, regardless of what they are doing these days.
Critics of the story, or of Lazar, are welcome to laugh at it all they want. But the fact is, the debate is effectively over. Area 51 is now permanently carved into the public consciousness. Area 51 is now the yin to Roswell’s yang, and the UFO stories are never going to be divorced from the base itself.
The UFO crazies won the battle. Long live Area 51.