Bradley Ayers and the MN/WI UFO Flap of 1979
Imagine an ex-CIA operative at work as a UFO investigator in Minnesota and Western Wisconsin during the height of the 1970s UFO flaps. Sound like a good premise for a movie or a History Channel series? Forty years ago this fall, Dr. J. Allan Hynek’s Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS), dispatched Bradley Ayers, a local field investigator, to follow up on a rash of UFO reports in Western Wisconsin and Minnesota. Before there was an Agent Cooper of Twin Peaks or Scully and Mulder of X-Files, CUFOS investigator Ayers was on the local scene doing quality investigations of some high-profile local cases.
The Stillwater native, passed away at his cabin home on Somers Lake in February 2017 at the age of 81. His obituary hints at a lifetime of adventure. At the age of 79, two years before his death, Bradley Earl Ayers (1935-2017), made his 301st parachute jump. Ayers served as a captain in the Airborne Rangers and became an insurgency trainer, hired by the CIA to create anti-Castro Cuban commandos and assassins. He took work as an undercover operative with the DEA’s South Florida Task Force. He flew as a commercial pilot and flight instructor. He found acclaim as a published author, and he worked as a real estate broker, a journalist, and a private investigator licensed with the State of Minnesota to investigate aircraft accidents. But his obituary doesn’t mention that Ayer’s also had a stint as a UFO investigator, nor does it mention his significant contributions to the field of ufology.
Ayers is most famous for his books The War that Never Was: An Insider’s Account of CIA Covert Operations Against Cuba (1976) and The Zenith Secret: The Conspiracy That Killed the Kennedy Brothers Finally Revealed by Army Ranger-CIA Veteran (2013). Those titles reveal Ayers’ secret work for the government in the 1960s, and they hint toward a web of conspiracy in which Ayers was briefly tangled. He describes his work under the CIA, training anti-Castro guerrilla fighters at hidden bases in the Caribbean and leading them on raids into Cuba. The Pentagon selected Ayers for the covert work because of his background in commando operations and, in 1963, assigned him to the CIA’s secret Cuban program. It’s an amazing tale of espionage and Cold War Era maneuvering which ultimately contributes clues to conspiracy theories orbiting the Kennedy assassinations. Obviously, Ayers was a man knee-deep in top secret government intelligence—but he was not in the loop regarding UFOs.
ENCOUNTER AT HUDSON, WI
Ayers did not believe in UFOs whatsoever—not until he had his own encounter a few years after his discharge from the army. He considered belief in UFOs so absurd that he threw away newspapers and magazines that even mentioned the subject. The experience that changed his mind occurred just outside of Hudson, WI. It happened on a November evening in 1965 when Ayers was driving home from a small airport near Lake Elmo, just east of Saint Paul. He was eastbound on I-94 coming down the hill toward the Saint Croix River (into Hudson) when, off in the distance, he spotted something in the air. He described it as a luminous mass, football-shaped, that seemed to be hovering above the earth on a shaft of yellow light. Ayers pulled over onto the edge of the highway to watch. Other cars ahead of him saw it too and pulled over to gawk as well.
Ayers found it difficult to adequately describe the object. He said the colors could not be reproduced, and, despite his years in the Airborne Rangers and his considerable experience piloting aircraft, he could not identify the strange object whatsoever. He said, “I am a licensed pilot and in 1965 I saw something when I was flying that I couldn’t explain. All the weather training that I had, all the knowledge of star positions and natural phenomena I possessed could not lead to a logical conclusion. I was provoked.”
As he watched the strange football-shaped luminous mass, it seemed to rise slowly on the shaft of light until it reached a height that Ayers estimated to be 10,000 feet. Then it darted away toward the horizon at extreme speed. Ayers said that the whole sighting lasted just 18 seconds.
CUFOS FIELD INVESTIGATOR
The encounter inspired him to look into UFO research, and that pursuit led him to J. Allen Hynek of Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS). In 1973, Hynek asked him to become a field investigator for the organization. He spent much of the rest of the decade investigating UFO reports. For his efforts, Ayers was paid mileage expenses and cost of materials: film and cassette tapes.
He took the position seriously, and he approached the subject with a sober mind. “I spend about 75 percent of my time attempting to determine the credibility of the witness,” Ayers said. “I lay my reputation on the line when I send a report.”
Ayers conducted CUFOs investigations for Hynek’s organization across the territory of “western Wisconsin, Minnesota, the eastern Dakotas and norther Iowa” from 1975-1979. When Ayers received a UFO report, he first tried to identify the object or the source of the lights with conventional explanations. He contacted the FAA, the National Weather Service, and area airports for possible answers. If none could be quickly arrived at, he carefully interviewed the witnesses and examined the area of the sighting. “I bring the same degree of professionalism [to UFO investigations] as to an investigation of a plane crash or any other private investigation work,” he said. If the sighting could not be explained, he sent his data to the Illinois Center (CUFOS).
Ayers quickly discovered that most of the cases to which he was assigned were nothing more than misinterpreted natural or artificial phenomena. For example, in March of 1978, multiple witnesses reported a huge object with five red lights slowly passing over Washington County from Scandia to Saint Paul. More than fifty people witnessed the alleged object, but when Ayers investigated the story, he found that five US Reserve Army Helicopters with red lights had passed over the area and landed at Holman field in Saint Paul at about the same time as the sightings. Like a presage of the notorious case of the Phoenix Lights and the military flares that was to catch national attention two decades later, several of the witnesses rejected the conventional explanation and insisted that they had seen an enormous object. Ayers was not convinced.
Ayers investigated about 20 reports per month, covering some 200 cases from 1975-1979, but he found that ninety-two percent of them could easily be dismissed as misidentified natural phenomenon or conventional aircraft and balloons. Nevertheless, his case files contained several records of unexplained sightings from the Western Wisconsin area. Ayers admitted that the eight percent of cases left unexplained—strange lights, unidentified craft, and alien beings, “are as bizarre as any in a science fiction novel.” He said that some twenty cases defied explanation, and of them, nearly a dozen were “hard-core” cases, a few even involving alleged abductions.
A fascinating story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (May 8, 1979) featured Ayers’ work and documented a few of his more difficult cases.
DEPUTY VAL JOHNSON CASE, AUG 27, 1979
In the fall of 1979, Ayers investigated a rash of sightings in Minnesota and Western Wisconsin which came shortly after the dramatic and high-profile August 27 collision between a UFO and a Minnesota patrol car. That celebrated case has become ensconced in UFO lore and is still routinely recounted today, but it’s been forgotten that Ayers was one of the original investigators on the case.
Around 1:40 AM, Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson of Warren, MN was patrolling near Stephen, MN when he saw a bright light approaching from the distance. Assuming it to be a plane making an emergency landing, he sped toward the light. “The light sat there a moment,” Johnson told the CUFOS investigators, “And then—boom!—it was right on my car. I heard glass breaking, an extremely bright light lit up the inside of the car, and that’s all I remember.” It’s not clear if Ayers was directly involved in the investigation, but at the very least, he offered assistance to Allan Hendry who had been dispatched from CUFOS center in Evanston, Illinois. Ayers later remarked that, when the officer came to, he found his squad car sitting sideways in the road with a broken windshield, a broken headlamp, and two bent radio antennas. The deputy’s wristwatch and electric dashboard clock had stopped for fourteen minutes, and Johnson had suffered what doctors later referred to as “welder burns” on his eyes from exposure to an extremely bright light. Johnson had to wear eye patches for about ten hours after the incident, and it was a couple of days before his vision returned to normal.
VERMILLION, SD, AUG 29, 1979
Ayers and Hendry correlated the Val Johnson case with a similar incident that occurred two days later, 400 miles away, near Vermillion, SD. Russ Johnson (no relation to Val Johnson) told police that he was driving alone west of Vermillion when he saw a light just above the road. The light suddenly accelerated toward him and engulfed his car in a bright light. He closed his eyes as the light approached but opened them just in time to see the light speed away. Unlike Deputy Sheriff Johnson’s story, Russ Johnson suffered no injury or damage to his vehicle. One might suppose that the story of the Deputy Johnson inspired a copycat report, but Ayers dismissed that possibility, saying, “Johnson’s case hadn’t been made public at the time the South Dakota event was reported.” These two late-August incidents preceded a small UFO flap that was to keep Ayers busy through the fall of 1979.
BALSAM LAKE, WI, SEPT 3, 1979
On September 3, 1979, two middle-age couples from Minneapolis were driving together in a car to a cabin in the Balsam Lake area when they encountered “a large intensely red, glowing disc” over the road ahead of them at 9:30 PM. At that moment, the car’s electrical systems failed. The headlights and dash lights went out, and the driver hit the brakes and skidded the car to a stop. The red glowing light shot off to the southwest and the cars headlamps came back on.
NEW RICHMOND, WI, SEPT 4, 1979
The next day, Tuesday, September 4, three young men from Hudson had an encounter near New Richmond. Ayers interviewed them and conducted an investigation. He says they were driving home in a pickup after an evening of scuba diving. Around 7:45 PM, they were on County A near New Richmond, when “a small, silvery dome-like or disc-shaped” object in the sky caught their attention. The driver of the truck pulled over to the side of County Road A near the Doboy turkey farm. The object appeared to be “shining brightly” as if made of “polished stainless steel,” and it appeared to be solid in form, 2-3 feet in diameter. They watched the object hover 10-20 feet over a field. It seemed to display a “wobbling motion.”
One of the passengers, still wearing a scuba diving suit, leapt out of the truck and crossed the ditch. He tried to clear a small fence in order to get closer to the object. As the man approached the field on foot, the object suddenly rose higher into the air. With a wobbling motion, it started moving east toward Highway 65. By then, two other vehicles had arrived and stopped as well to watch, but unfortunately (and to Ayer’s frustration) the young men did not speak with the additional witnesses or get their names. Ayers said the three Hudson men were “so captivated” by what they were seeing that they didn’t pay any attention to the other two vehicles.
As the object moved off to the east, the men hurriedly jumped back into the truck and set off in pursuit down a gravel road near the turkey farm, but they quickly lost sight of the object. All three men, who chose to remain anonymous, were employees at Andersen Windows in Bayport. Ayers vouched for their character, describing them as “responsible, ordinary people, not kooks.” The three young men did not report the sighting until they read a Polk County newspaper account about the September 5 sighting in Dresser. One of the three men contacted Ayers on September 17. Ayers conducted a thorough investigation, even renting a plane to fly over the area where the sighting was made.
Hoping to find the additional witnesses, Ayers gave the story to the New Richmond News, and they published it in the September 27, 1979 edition under the headline, “Other witnesses sought in UFO sighting near NR.” The article contained contact information for Ayers.
(UPDATE 9/8/2019: “Additional Witness to New Richmond UFO.”)
So far as we know, the New Richmond News article did not produce those additional witnesses for which Ayers hoped, but it did bring another September 4 New Richmond sighting to attention. An elderly New Richmond couple immediately contacted Ayers to report that they had their own encounter with an unknown flying object around 7:30 PM, near the same time as the three men from Hudson had seen the UFO.
The man and woman, who asked not to be identified, reported that, while driving southeast of Boardman in St. Croix County on a town road near a former Dittman farm, they saw a “brilliant, globe-shaped metallic-appearing object” which seemed to be moving toward their car. After briefly losing sight of the object, it seemed to pass over their vehicle with “a tremendous roaring noise … like a dozen freight trains” that shook the car violently. Ayers noted that this description was unusual for UFO reports. Most witnesses reported no sound at all from the phenomena.
The man and woman were extremely shaken by the encounter and returned home at once. They told no one about the experience until reading Ayers’ request for additional witnesses in their local paper.
DRESSER, WI, SEPT. 5, 1979
The morning after the New Richmond sighting, a 25-year-old army veteran working as an employee at Trollhaugen Ski Area was driving his Chevrolet Blazer on Highway MM, two miles east of Dresser in Polk County. About 10:45 a.m. he saw a small, dark object above the tree line on the horizon about a half mile ahead. Within a few seconds, the object was directly ahead of him some fifty feet above the ground. The driver pulled over and exited the vehicle for a better look. He described the object as 6-8 feet in diameter and 2-4 feet in height. Ayers recounted, “As he was watching this thing, it moved across the road and descended in a bean field to his right, where it finally came to a stop and hovered about 10 feet above the vegetation.” A passing trucker pulled over and joined the observation. Together, they watched the object ascend to about 200 feet and move over nearby East Lake. The same trucker told Ayers that he saw the disk again, later in the day, above a nearby gravel pit where he worked. “He and three others watched it come over the gravel pit and ascend into clear sky at about an 85-degree angle,” Ayers said. The additional witnesses estimated the silver disk to be 10 feet across and 3-4 feet deep. The story, which under Hynek’s classification system Ayers labeled as a “close encounter,” made national news.
Ayers followed up on the story a few weeks later and discovered a new puzzle. The man told Ayers that since his September 5 encounter, he, his wife, and his two daughters had been troubled by what they called “a strange beeping sound” emanating from the wooded area near their home. At times the beeping became so intense, it woke the man from sleep at night. Even the family dog was troubled by the “Morse Code like” sound that faded from strong to soft. The family had searched the wooded area and found nothing which might account for the sound. Ayers himself searched the woods but found nothing. Nevertheless, he said, “I have no reason to doubt the man’s story.”
WABASHA COUNTY, MN, SEPT 16, 1979
On September 16, Curtis Olson, a farmer in Wabasha County, discovered two large circles of downed field corn on his farm which he could not explain. Crop circles had not yet come to enjoy the widespread publicity, attention, and hoaxing they would achieve in the early 1980s. It was still an obscure phenomenon referred to by some UFO researchers as “saucer nests.” Corn stalks in a circle about 50 feet in diameter were flattened. In the center, some corn was missing and other stalks were charred. Paths led from the circle to another circle about 18 feet away. The second circle was about 30 feet in diameter but contained no charred or bare areas. The farmer reported the damage to the Wabasha County Sheriff’s Department. Someone at some point suggested flying saucers might have landed in the field, and that’s when Ayers was called in to investigate. Ayers took soil samples and submitted them to the Center for UFO Studies, but the analysis found no evidence for or against UFO involvement.
(Update: Ayers’ reluctance to declare the crop circles to be UFO activity proved prudent. Twenty-three years later, a prankster admitted to the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he had created the circles on his uncle’s farm as a practical joke.)
BALDWIN, WI, OCT 19, 1979
Ninth-grade Scott Sieracki was passing through the kitchen at 10:30 PM, Oct. 19, at his home eight miles south of Baldwin, WI, when a light shining above the pasture outside the window caught his attention. He described two shining lights, one a little larger than the other, bright and uncolored, hovering above the ground about 1000 feet from the house at the corner of an unharvested sunflower field. The lights flashed on and off as if they pivoted around an axis, but the teenager said he did not perceive anything attached to the lights.
Sieracki opened the door but heard only the sound of crickets chirping. He noticed the lights cast beams, like spotlights, as they went around, illuminating the granary in the yard. The lights lit up the yard nearly as bright as daylight. The family collie dog became agitated and wanted to go outside, but the boy restrained the dog. Subsequent to the encounter that night, the dog continued to act skittish, as if spooked.
Now frightened, Sieracki went back inside and locked the door. A few minutes later, the lights seemed to “turn in upon themselves” and disappear. When Sieracki told his mother about it, she encouraged him to report what he had seen. (She herself had seen an unusual craft five years earlier when driving home in her pickup. She described seeing a light above the horizon which she first mistook as a helicopter. As the object came closer, she discerned a crescent shaped craft with a beam of light projecting from the front and a spectrum of colors in the rear. She watched the object pass into the distance.)
When Ayers arrived on the scene outside Baldwin, he investigated the area over which the object had appeared to hover. Vegetation seemed dryer in the location than it did elsewhere in the field, but Ayers was reluctant to make a correlation. He took samples and had them sent for analysis.
HALF MOON LAKE, WI, OCT 25, 1979
The next encounter took place at Half Moon Lake, north of Amery and New Richmond and just adjacent to Balsam Lake where the local flap had begun. Around 6:30 AM on Thursday, October 25, Richard Breault and his wife, farmers from Apple River, were driving in a pickup on their way to a deer hunting encampment. The sun had not yet risen. Less than two miles from the Half Moon store, Mrs. Breault noticed a particularly bright star in the sky. “My wife thought it was a bright star and I said it looked more like a weather balloon,” Mr. Breault reported. Suddenly the bright light descended on their vehicle, just past the store.
“My wife thought we were going to smash into it and screamed at me to hit the brakes!” The object swooped at the car, flying about 80 feet above the ground, and then dropped straight down until it hovered about 20 feet above the surface of the road. Breault described it as 40 feet in length with a hump in the middle. One end of the craft was squared off, but the other end sloped to a curve. About three quarters of the object glowed red in color, but the top quarter seemed to be a combination of red, green, yellow, and orange. In about six seconds time, the object shot out across Half Moon lake and disappeared from sight. “I’ve never seen such speed in all my life,” Breault said, estimating the speed at 4,000 – 5,000 miles per hour.
The encounter happened so fast that Breault never had an opportunity to use either the binoculars or the camera that sat beside him on the pickup seat. The experience left the couple “with a good case of the jitters.” Breault said, “We had butterflies in the stomach and we couldn’t swallow.”
Initially, the couple told no one about their frightening experience except for their children “because you know what people think when something like this happens.” After two weeks of sleepless nights, Breault told the Amery Free Press about the incident.
EXCITING AND SCARY AS HELL
There may have been more sightings in the 1979 UFO flap that did not make the papers. Ayers observed that the rash of sightings in the fall of 1979 were not a matter of hysteria or hype. “We haven’t found any of the sightings related to each other and the people we have talked with have seen them independently,” he said. “None of them except the four persons in the same car, are related in any way.” He observed that a lot of his cases occurred in a geographic area bounded from Anoka, MN, west to Grantsburg, WI on the northern edge and from River Falls to Menomonie, WI on the southern edge.
Ayers said, “People in this part of the country tend to be more conservative and skeptical. They simply aren’t the type to conjure up this kind of fantasy. If anything, they’d be the kind who’d have scoffed at UFOs—before their sightings, of course.” When asked what people are seeing, Ayers replied, “I don’t buy any one theory any more than another. All I know is it’s exciting and scary as hell.”
In a November 15 interview with the Hudson Star Observer, Ayers said, “I’m more mystified today than I was ten years ago or five years ago.” He admitted that he had no preconceived ideas of what the phenomena might be, and he said that CUFOS investigations had yet to establish any type of cohesive pattern that might help explain the mystery. “There is no evidence yet that UFOs are nuts-and-bolts or physical things,” Ayers said. He observed that, if the phenomenon is the result of mechanical processes, it represents a technology that “boggles the mind.”
“The appearance of a UFO cannot be predicted,” Ayers said. “If one is seen at a given location and moving in a certain direction, its next appearance cannot be calculated like a plane’s course could be. Persons cannot go ‘UFO-hunting.’” He remarked that the objects move at unrealistic speeds, seem to materialize and dematerialize at will, change direct instantaneously and at 90 degree angles, “not banking as airplanes do.”
A RELIGIOUS PROBLEM
Ayers wryly noted even leading Christian personalities, who agreed that the phenomena was spiritual, divided over the origin. Apocalypse guru Hal Lindsey identified the phenomena as demonic in origin; evangelist Billy Graham suggested the UFOs might be angels such as the divine chariot of Ezekiel 1.
In 1980, Ayers earned an honorary doctorate in Life Science from Heed University of Florida and California. His dissertation was titled The UFO Experience and its Effect Upon Human Consciousness. The January 1981 CUFOS newsletter announced, “The university is conferring the degree in recognition of Mrs. Ayers’ achievements in the study and investigation of unexplained phenomena in connection with his forthcoming non-fiction book, ‘Myths or Messages.’ The author’s research, for the past several years, has concentrated upon the relationship between the display of unexplained phenomena such as the UFO experience and human consciousness and awareness.” Ayers’ manuscript Myths or Messages does not seem to have ever been published, neither have we been able to obtain a copy of his dissertation. After earning the decree, Ayers seems to have left the ufology field. Nevertheless, the premise of the book and dissertation can be derived from his interview with the Hudson Star Observer, in which he describes his thesis:
The sighting of a UFO has a psychological impact on the witness. The impact has “ripple effect,” spreading to the observer’s family and to the community … Value systems of the witnesses are often changed … and the experience has a broadening or mellowing effect. UFO witnesses get a willingness to accept new experiences beyond their current background … There is an intellectual uplifting … persons who were quick to scoff at the possibility of UFOs suddenly become interested in scientific literature and discussions after a UFO experience. Witnesses seem to get a “renewed awe” at the potential of life … Perhaps a “higher intelligence” is “nudging” man in a subtle form of behavior modification. “Although we’re a scientific community,” Ayers said in regard to CUFOS and other investigators, “It may well be a religious problem.”
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 Des Moines Tribune Jul 7, 1975.
 Eau Claire Leader-Telegram Nov 2, 1979.
 Des Moines Tribune Jul 7, 1975.
 Des Moines Tribune Jul 7, 1975.
 Hudson Star-Observer Nov 15, 1979.
 The Apro Bulletin, Vol. 26, No. 12, Jun 1978.
 Eau Claire Leader-Telegram Nov 2, 1979.
 The Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY, Sep 12, 1979.
 The New Richmond News, Sep. 27, 1979.
 The New Richmond News, Sep. 27, 1979.
 Star Tribune Nov 30, 1979; Winona Daily News, Sept 21, 1979.
 Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, Oct 31, 1979.
 New Richmond News, November 15, reprinted from The Amery Free Press, Nov 7, 1979.
 Eau Clair Leader-Telegram Oct 17, 1979.
 The Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY, Sep 12, 1979.
 CUFOS Center for UFO Studies Associate Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 1, Jan 1981.
 Hudson Star-Observer Nov 15, 1979.