It’s 5 a.m. April 17, 1966, when two Portage County, Ohio, sheriff deputies stop to investigate an abandoned vehicle along a road near Ravenna.
Deputy Dale Spaur gets out of his car, while Wilbur “Barney” Neff remains in his.
“He hears this strange humming noise, so he turns around and sees this giant UFO,” said Brian Seech, co-founder of the Center for Unexplained Events. The unidentified flying object rises from behind the trees and hovers above them, the ground drenched in bright light.
What transpires next will be an 86-mile chase at speeds of more than 100 mph that will take the deputies — and a few more — on a harrowing ride from Ohio to Pennsylvania.
For law enforcement officers, the bizarre trek won’t end in Conway, Pa. It will follow them for the rest of their lives. This close encounter marks the fourth installment of The Times video series, The Parajournal, by award-winning videographer Gwen Titley.
Initially instructed by their dispatcher to shoot the object, Spaur and Neff are told to stand down by Sgt. Henry Shoenfelt who wonders if the two have found a government weather balloon. About the same time, police Chief Gerald Buchert, who was on patrol in nearby Mantua, hears the deputies’ call about lights in the sky. He races home to get his camera and snaps three photos of what he describes as “two table saucers put together.”
When the UFO zips away toward the east, Spaur and Neff give chase.
Spaur later would say that from the ground, the object looked like the head of a flashlight, about 40 feet wide and 20 feet tall.
“The lines of the object were very distinct,” he told reporters. “Somebody had control over it. It wasn’t just floating around. It can maneuver.”
Seech said the chase slowed down near Rochester. The cars got “tangled up in a mess of bridges,” according to Spaur.
Spaur would later explain, “When I came out from under the bridge, it came down and waited for us. Just as though it knew these two cars were following it.”
Seech said as soon as Spaur and Neff — now low on gas — got close to it, the object would speed up.
“It was almost as if it was playing cat-and-mouse with them,” Seech said.
Their vehicles were running on fumes, their tires were balding, he said, so they pulled into an Atlantic service station where they were met by Conway Patrolman Frank Panzanella.
By 6:15 a.m., Spaur had alerted dispatch about the three fighter jets in pursuit of the aircraft. The officers could pick up chatter from the pilots on their police radios.
“The object hovered,” Seech said, “then shot straight out of sight.”
Spaur recounted, “We were close, closer than I ever want to be again.”
Hundreds of people also reported seeing the shiny saucer in the sky and heard the steady, faint humming sound.
It didn’t take long for Maj. Hector Quintanilla, director of Project Blue Book, a government-funded project that investigates UFO sightings, to come knocking. Headquartered out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Project Blue Book also determined whether or not UFOs were a threat to national security.
“He interviewed Spaur and Neff, and it was a rather terse interview,” Seech said, adding that Quintanilla easily explained away the sighting — and the photos.
First, it was a satellite they saw, Quintanilla said, then the planet Venus. Officers were chasing a stationary object. Radar didn’t indicate anything peculiar, and no fighter jets were dispatched.
And Buchert’s photos? Those were “severely fogged,” Quintanilla reported, had processing defects and proved nothing.
“I know nobody’s ever going to believe it, but it’s true,” Spaur said.
Over time, the officers would back down from their original reports, some refusing to talk about it. Spaur never discounted his experience, though it did cost him his marriage and livelihood.
“People generally don’t want to be different. They don’t want to stick out,” Seech noted. “As Dale even said, they’re going to remember me as that nut who saw a flying saucer. They chased something. We don’t know what it was, but they chased it.”
People still remember the incident and its lasting impression, especially on a young filmmaker named Steven Spielberg. He had used the police chase and other details in his blockbuster movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
“I think that is a pretty cool fact that maybe a lot of people don’t know,” Seech said.
As Spaur later said, “If I could change all that I have done in my life, I would change just one thing. And that would be the night we chased that damn thing. That saucer.”
Future Parajournal topics and release dates include: Summit Cut Bridge, Oct. 23; the Pig Lady of Cannelton, Oct. 25; and Exquisite Styles in Center Township, Oct. 30.
This content was originally published here.