On Sept. 24, 1959, Redmond police officer Robert Dickerson spotted a flying mushroom-shaped object moving side to side in the sky. It glowed green, yellow, crimson and blue, he reported, bright enough to illuminate nearby treetops and reportedly hovered in the sky for over an hour.
The object pinged the Federal Aviation Administration's radar, and the Air Force deployed six jet interceptors from Portland Air Base to Redmond to search the skies. On Oct. 1 the FAA downplayed the incident, saying that people likely saw Venus.
The incident occurred less than two years after the launch of Sputnik, and Americans looked up at the night sky with a new sense of curiosity and anxiety. Humans have gazed at the stars since pre-history, and for the first time that gaze could be returned, be it by the Russians or the little green men.
"Do you believe in the possibility of flying saucers?" a reporter for the weekly broadcast, Space Report, asked a Redmond resident who saw the flying object.
"I believe in the possibility of almost anything in the sky these days," she said. "There's so many things that've come to pass, and the government put so many things up in the air."
The FAA and Air Force stuck with the claim that people saw Venus, never explaining the blips in the radar the object set off.
"Venus would have behaved very strangely if the people who saw it were reporting accurately," said Trish Pinkerton, a former writer for the "Redmond Spokesman" who's written about Redmond's history. "That was the FAA explanation—it must have been Venus because Venus was bright that day."
The encounter became legendary for people studying UFOs, and in 2008 Tracy Thille started the Project Blue Book Festival in Redmond, an event named after the military investigations of UFOs in the '50s and '60s to find fellow enthusiasts and shed light on the town's UFO history.
"I was thinking about how McMinnville had turned their sighting into a big festival and a gathering of people to share stories and have some fun, and I thought that Redmond should have something like that because we have our own documented sighting," Thille said.
“It's got to be some group doing some strange ritual. Human activity certainly seems possible. It is absolutely the strangest thing ever.”—Scott Duggantweet this
The Blue Book Festival, modeled after the annual McMinneville UFO Fest, had a parade, booths where people could make tinfoil hats and mashed potato sculptures and one trailer where people could detail sightings to the Mutual UFO Network, a nonprofit group of volunteers who study reported UFO sightings. MUFON is one of the oldest and largest organizations of its kind and has branches in 43 countries and all 50 states.
Investigating Oregon UFO sightings
The Oregon chapter of MUFON investigates between 100 and 150 reported sightings a year, according to Oregon State Director Tom Bowden. Investigation results are categorized as explainable, insufficient data, information-only, hoaxes and unknown.
"The last time I did an analysis of what we have for our Oregon cases I came up with somewhere in the neighborhood 40% unknowns, and then I had about a 50% rate of knowns," Bowden said of cases from Jan. 1, 2021, to the end of February 2022.
The rest were either insufficient data, or information only—as in, when information is provided but no follow-up investigation takes place. Bowden didn't have one hoax recorded in the timeframe. Labeling something unknown doesn't necessarily mean little green men have been caught, just that MUFON can't deduce an explanation for the event.
"This is not always an exact science. We're dealing with percentages. We want to be at least 80% sure that we cannot come up with a good explanation on a case before we say it's an unknown, and we feel much more comfortable for up in the 90% range, that we can rule out any known explanation before we call it unknown," Bowden said. "But you can never be 100% certain unless you're talking about a really close encounter where the person is obviously confronted with something that we can only consider to be anomalous craft of some sort."
Investigations take place after someone reports a sighting to MUFON, where they fill out a description of what they saw and provide contact information before an investigator gets in touch. Investigators then cross reference what they've learned with what's been detected on radars, astronomical information on satellites and the position of stars and planets, metadata from the photos or videos submitted, and, geographically where the sighting took place.
MUFON also takes note of who they're speaking to and considers how reliable witnesses are before making a determination.
"Once we've gone through the investigative process, we have collected all the data, we've assessed the witness quality and gotten as much fill-in detail as possible, then we start doing analysis on it and we come to a conclusion," Bowden says.
It's common to find natural causes for what people report. Bowden said every year he gets several reports that turn out to be Venus. When Starlink Satellites dotted the night sky in 2019 MUFON received almost double the number of alleged sightings. People will mistake clouds for flying saucers and drones for UFOs.
There are two investigators in the Oregon MUFON chapter. Investigators enroll in training ending in an exam that requires an 80% or higher score, followed by hands-on training with the state director. Bowden also conducts a good deal of investigations himself.
Bowden said Central Oregon is a pretty active area for UFO sightings. In 2021 three "unknown" objects reportedly flew over Bend, two over Culver, one over Redmond and one over La Pine. MUFON's bread and butter is UFO investigations, but it dips its toes into other unexplained phenomena as well, including one that's perplexed Central Oregon ranchers for decades: cattle mutilation.
Mysterious cattle mutilations
There's often a pattern to the cattle mutilations that have occurred in the western United States since the '60s: Cattle drop with no sign of distress, more tend to die over a two-week period within a 50-mile radius, the animals had some type of surgical removal of body parts, no tracks surround the carcass and blood is mysteriously absent from the site. In the thousands of reported mutilations, nobody's ever been caught in the act.
Every year there are reports of mutilated cattle in Oregon. In February several mutilated bulls were found in Eastern Oregon. In 2021 farmers outside of Prineville discovered their cows had died and had odd incisions. But one of the most shocking examples happened in the spring and summer of 1989 in La Pine, when local ranchers reported over 35 dead and mutilated cows.
At least 15 of those cows belonged to La Pine Rancher Gordon Wanek, with Wanek claiming portions appeared to have been removed with a sharp tool.
"They cut the udder completely out, then they take the sex organs and cut that out," Wanek told reporters at the time. "It's done surgically."
Then-Deschutes County District Attorney Mike Dugan formed a task force to look into the matter. Wanek believed his cattle had been ritually mutilated, and Dugan investigated whether cult activity led to the deaths. A report from the DA said the task force had not "found anything of evidentiary value indicating cult responsibility for the deaths," according to The Oregonian.
A local veterinarian, Martin Warbington, suspected poisoned grain killed most of the cows, but a forensic report suggested otherwise. MUFON's position on cattle mutilations is that if connected to a sighting, it's considered among the highest priority of cases.
"In cases where someone's actually injured, or in some rare cases, actually killed or an animal is killed, then we classify that as the most severe level of encounter," Bowden said. "Those are fairly rare, fortunately."
A skeptic will claim UFOs are the result of misidentified technology or natural phenomena at best, or going further, that they're outright lies and hysteria. There are reasonable explanations for cattle mutilations: the areas most frequently missing from cows, including the lips, tongue, eyes and sexual organs, are what scavengers would naturally target. However, cattle mutilations often puzzle experts after they exhaust all other possible causes of death.
"I'd be a liar if I didn't say it had us all pretty stumped," Scott Duggan, a livestock extension agent for Oregon State University Extension Service, told the Source in 2019. "It's got to be some group doing some strange ritual. Human activity certainly seems possible. It is absolutely the strangest thing ever."
Similarly, in 2021 the United States government released a report to congress on UFOs, called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, after denying their existence for decades. The report acknowledged that aviators have seen things in the sky that defy explanation.
"In 18 incidents, described in 21 reports, observers reported unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics. Some UAP appeared to remain stationary in winds aloft, move against the wind, maneuver abruptly, or move at considerable speed, without discernable means of propulsion. In a small number of cases, military aircraft systems processed radio frequency (RF) energy associated with UAP sightings," the report said.
MUFON doesn't have an official position on what UFOs are or what's dissecting cows. Bowden says there are a number of hypotheses about what UFOs are, including aliens, interdimensional beings or humans from the future. But he stresses that these are just hypotheses, things to be tested with the most up-to-date information.
"Skepticism is a healthy, normal attitude. And people shouldn't be dissuaded or persuaded by less than good evidence for things," Bowden said. "What often happens in discussions of this, if you get someone who's already made up their mind, they're beyond skepticism."
Identifying these objects is a tall task, and it's likely there will never be a good answer for what flew over Redmond in 1959, what killed Gordon Wanek's cattle in 1989 or the many hundreds of unexplained cases in MUFON's database.
In any case, the American people are growing less sure of what to believe. Between 2019 and 2021, 41% of American's believed some UFOs have been alien spacecraft, an 8% increase, while the number believing it's all naturally explainable dipped from 60% to 50%. With more believers and more cameras, Bowden hopes that more people will get in touch if they see something odd in the night sky.
"Our appeal to people is, please, if you think you see a UFO, report it to MUFON because we want to know, and we want to follow up," Bowden said.