Gulf Breeze UFO: An Extraterrestrial Encounter Or Elaborate Hoax?

In 1987, Edward Walters claimed to have photographed a UFO over Gulf Breeze, the claims hit headlines around the world and catapulted him to fame within the UFO field. Later, witnesses came forward claiming the incident was a hoax, however, Walters argued that these accusations were made to discredit his sighting. Opinions on this case have been split for decades.

Edward Walters, his UFO photograph, and the model reportedly found in his old home.
Edward Walters, his UFO photograph, and the model reportedly found in his old home.

On November 11, 1987, as the story had it, Edward Walters, a businessman from Gulf Breeze, Florida, had his first encounter with a UFO. At 5 pm he was working in his office when he saw something glowing behind a 30-foot pine in the front yard. Curious, he stepped outside, where he got a clearer view of the source: a top-shaped craft with a row of dark squares and smaller openings between them ("portholes") across the midsection. There was a bright, luminous ring on the bottom.

Walters stepped back into his office, grabbed an old Polaroid camera, went outside again, and snapped a picture just as the craft moved from behind the tree. He took three more pictures as the object, about 150 feet away, continued to drift in a northeasterly direction.

Walters got some more film and took another picture. Now the object was moving closer. He ran out to the street intending to snap yet more pictures. Suddenly the UFO was above him, and a blue beam hit him, paralyzing him and lifting him several feet off the ground. A foul odor enveloped him. Then a "computer-like" voice inside his head said, "We will not harm you." a female voice began to speak, and images of dogs appeared, "flashing... just as if they were turning the pages of a book," Walters would write. Then he fell hard on the pavement, the blue beam gone. He turned around on his back and looked for the UFO. It, too, was gone.

On the seventeenth, Walters went to Gulf Breeze Sentinel editor Duane Cook and showed the pictures to him. He told Cook that the photos had been given to him by Mr. X, who desired no publicity. Walters also produced a letter allegedly from X but really from Walters himself. The photographs and the letter were run in the paper two days later.

Confusion and Controversy.

Soon Walters and his family were claiming a bewildering variety of close encounters, including abduction incidents, and Ed Walters was busily producing yet more photographs of what he claimed were large UFOs cavorting in the night sky over Gulf Breeze. Other residents reported their own sightings. and some insisted that their UFOs were identical to those they had seen in the local newspaper (Walters's photographs, plus others from two anonymous correspondents, never identified; one signed his name as "Believer Bill").

By early 1988 the Gulf Breeze affair had ignited a furious dispute among ufologists. The Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), whose investigations were first on the scene, championed the case practically from its onset. The J. Allen Hynek Centre for UFO Studies (CUFOS) was harshly critical, also practically from the onset, because its investigator in the area was certain Walters was lying.

On February 18 and 23, 1988, Walters underwent polygraph examinations by Harvey W. McLaughlin, Jr., a professional with no previous involvement in UFO controversies. The tests covered both his sightings and his photographs. McLaughlin concluded that Walters was telling the truth as he saw it. In June, a prominent Florida clinical psychologist, Dan Overlade, met Walters and administered a battery of psychology tests, the result of which indicated to Overlade that Walters exhibited no psychopathologies or other mental disorders. Skeptics in the UFO community had suggested that Walters probably had a sociopathic personality, which would explain why he had passed the polygraph tests. Overlade did not think this was the case.

Though early in the affair the Walters reportedly turned down a six-figure book offer from a paperback publisher, Publishers Weekly announced in its April 7, 1989, issue that the Publisher William Morrow had paid the Walters $200,000 for a book. Meanwhile, a production company had put down $100,000 against $450,000 for mini-series rights. The book, The Gulf Breeze Sightings, was released in February 1990. A sequel, UFO Abductions at Gulf Breeze, appeared in January 1994.

Photo analysis disagreed sharply on whether the photographs depicted large objects (presumably genuine UFOs) or small models, but in due course damaging information emerged to cast doubt on Walters's veracity. For example, Zan Overall, a Californian ufologist, established that Walters's contrary assertions notwithstanding, he knew how to double-expose photographs well before he started producing UFO pictures.

Even more damaging was a revelation in the June 10, 1990, issue of the Pensacola News Journal. The opening sentence reported, "A model spaceship resembling the UFOs reportedly seen above Gulf Breeze has been found in a house once occupied by the man whose photographs started a UFO craze that has focused worldwide attention on this community." The model was found in the house the Walters had occupied during the alleged UFO visitations. The house had been unoccupied for 11 months before another family, the Manzer's, moved in. Sometime after the move, Robert Menzer told Craig Myers of the News Journal, "I was going to install an icemaker, and I needed to turn off the water. I was fooling around in the attic, and I was moving insulation aside when I saw it. I never would have found it if I hadn't been looking for the pipe."

Ed Walters original photograph compared to that created by Pensacola News using the reportedly discovered model
Ed Walters original photograph compared to that created by Pensacola News using the reportedly discovered model

The model was nine inches long across the top and five inches deep. It was made of, Myers wrote, "two nine-inch foam plates attached to two six-inch foam plates; a six-inch square blue-color gel (plastic film) and one six-inch round orange paper ring; a 3.5-inch long plastic tube; and a two-inch wide paper ring between the nine-inch plates." Drawn and punched-out "windows" surrounded a rim two-thirds of the way around the model. They were done on drafting paper, on the reverse side of which were dimensions for a house in Walters's handwriting.

When confronted. Walters denied knowing anything about the model and remarked that if he were a hoaxer he would have been crazy to leave behind such damaging evidence. He declined to take a polygraph test, pointing out that he had already taken two others that had specifically asked him if he had faked his photographs and that, moreover, this fact hadn't seemed to stop anyone from calling him a liar. Later, Walters would travel to New Orleans to undergo a voice-stress-psychological-stress evaluation (PSE) in a controversial lie-detection method that works on the premise that measurable tension in the voice indicates the speaker is not telling the truth.

Soon afterward a local man confirmed that the house depicted in Walters's writing on the draught paper was one that Walters had designed for him (it was never built) in September 1989, more than a year after the supposed UFO events had ceased. Walters and his supporters argued that the model had been planted by enemies who wanted to discredit the case and that the draft paper had been stolen from the garbage at his new home.

That, however, was not the end of the affair. Exactly one week later, on June 17, the News Journal was reporting the confession of a 22-year-old former Gulf Breeze resident, later identified as Tom Smith, Jr. In a 30-minute phone interview with Mayor Ed Grey, Police Chief Jerry Brown (both long-time vocal skeptics of Walters's claims, which had divided Gulf Breezites as much as they had ufologists), and two reporters, Smith said he had watched Walters fake UFO pictures using double exposures. He alleged that in November 1987 he saw Walters take a photograph of a saucer model, which he illuminated with a flashlight. Then he took the camera outside, pointed it at the sky, and snapped a second exposure on the same frame of film. The result was a "UFO" apparently flying through the air above them.

Smith further charged that not long afterward, Walters asked him to take five photos Walters had faked to the Gulf Breeze Sentinel (which had supported the case from the beginning) and to say Smith had snapped them. "He wanted to use me as another witness," Smith said. "I had about a day to think about it, and I talked it over with Ed, and I just said it was fraud, it wasn't real smart. I can understand a practical joke. But when I realized that he was going to go all the way through with it, I just didn't want to hurt my father's reputation, and I didn't want to get in the middle of a court case."

Smith's father and mother backed up their son's testimony and said they urged him to come forward. They had known of the hoax for a long time, they asserted. Young Smith charged that the entire Walters family were in on the hoax and that alleged landing traces found behind the house were manufactured with an overturned trampoline.

The confession, however, did not end the controversy. Bruce Maccabee, one of the premier photo analysts in ufology, continued to argue for the authenticity of Walters's pictures. In 1997 he and Walters co-authorized UFOs Are Real... Here's the Proof, with Walters providing the photos and videos and Maccabee an analysis of each.

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