Richard Estep considers himself open-minded and and non-judgmental — useful traits for someone who grew up on family ghost stories and has spent nearly 25 years studying and writing about paranormal phenomena.
But he’s no pushover. As a paramedic, he wryly notes, he is lied to for a living. “Everybody I meet after midnight has had two beers,” he says.
So two years ago, when his publisher steered him toward writing on Colorado’s rich history with unidentified flying objects and possible extraterrestrial visitors, he approached the task with his typical curiosity but also a healthy skepticism.
In “Colorado UFOs,” Estep, who is 45 and lives in Longmont, went in search of stories from people whose lives had been changed — for better and worse — after their personal accounts of experiences with alien spacecraft, abduction and even cross-breeding with otherworldly visitors.
He kindly indulges his subjects, whose stories range from merely unusual to beyond the pale. And while he concludes his sojourn through this subculture without feeling swayed in either direction, his interactions raise philosophical, social and cultural questions as irresistible as any tales of alien contact.
Estep was born in the United Kingdom, where as a child he was told a story that made a lasting impression. Aunts and uncles spoke of a kindly woman who nightly tucked them in during the time their father — Estep’s grandfather — was away serving in World War II. But it turned out this woman was…not an actual person. Their description of the lady matched that of a woman who had previously died in the house. When they grew up, the apparition no longer appeared.
On visits to the house as a child, Estep found himself “half-terrified she might put in an appearance, but half-hoping she would.” That launched an interest in the paranormal that continues through his writing, and more recently helped him connect with subjects who say they have experienced UFO-related phenomena. The two fields, it seems, share much common ground.
Although Estep had never seen a UFO — and still hasn’t despite his best efforts — he does have personal experience with the paranormal. The Longmont home he shares with his wife, Laura, a dog named Lilith and a cat named Guen seemed also to be hosting some other mysterious, shadowy presence. It proved unnerving enough that Estep, a “card-carrying agnostic,” enlisted a Catholic priest to perform a cleansing ritual. (It worked.)
And while the house is adorned with Star Wars figures and paraphernalia — everything from life-size Storm Trooper helmets to a full-size cut-out of Princess Leia — Estep’s interest stems from his love of popular culture, not any belief (or disbelief) in alien worlds. Nonetheless, the surroundings provided a comfortable backdrop for a wide-ranging discussion about what he learned from his research.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You mention in your preface that this time your publisher was more interested in having you do a book on the UFO phenomenon than another one on the paranormal. What made you accept the challenge?
She said, “There’s plenty of talk about lights in the sky. I want you to look at the people. Get me the human element.” I find it fascinating, but I’m by no means an expert. It seemed like a great opportunity to find out more and go in with fewer preconceived notions.
A lot of recent arrivals to Colorado probably aren’t aware of the state’s history surrounding UFOs and related phenomena like cattle mutilations.
If you look at the four corners of the state, you’ve got some very interesting reports coming from all over. We have some fascinating historic connections with UFOs. Then you start looking at stories about alien bases underneath Denver International Airport…So Denver’s got all those kind of stories going back to the ‘40s and ‘50s. There was the horse, Snippy — the original livestock mutilation that took place in this state. Then you get down to the UFO Watchtower (near the town of Hooper in the San Luis Valley) as well, that area’s a hotspot, they get regular reports down there. It just seems like such a rich state for stories.
You visited the UFO Watchtower run by Judy Messoline. What struck you about that attraction?
One of the things that interested me about that is she gets a lot of military visitors, especially Air Force, who like to go out there and watch the skies. That whole area is probably Colorado’s biggest UFO hotspot. Folks who go out and camp regularly report sightings, strange aerial phenomena, strange lights in the sky. It’s undeniably a tourist business, absolutely. Does that mean there’s no validity to what’s being seen? That’s a different thing. As a paranormal investigator, I’ve seen locations where they are plainly a cash grab, inflating or outright inventing their ghost stories to make money. I’ve seen others where they charge money and it’s worth every penny to visit those locations. So just because somebody benefits financially doesn’t mean there’s not a genuine phenomenon at play.
Your book reads not like a chronology or a history, but like a personal journey. Where did you start in terms of your own beliefs?
I’m fortunate in that I’m already connected to the paranormal community, and there’s some crossover there. A lot of us believe we’re looking at similar phenomenon from different perspectives. You get a lot of UFO sightings at certain haunted locations and vice versa. I put out some feelers to the paranormal community. That’s when stories started coming in.
I consider myself an open-minded skeptic. You’re making extraordinary claims, so you need some pretty extraordinary proof to meet the bar for scientific evidence. And it rarely does. But then you look at reams of very compelling eyewitness testimony. Of the literally hundreds of thousands of accounts, if you say 99 percent are fantasy, mistakes, errors of observation, sightings of Venus, DIA landing patterns…once you get rid of that 99 percent, all you need is this small kernel of truth. If you can’t explain it, you have something that bears further investigation.
To be clear, your purpose in writing this book was not to confirm or refute the subjects’ claims. You present their stories with a fairly uncritical tone.
I’m more interested in the human aspects. As I talk to people for any book, I’m interested in details of the personal experience. When I began as a paranormal investigator 25 years ago, I was very evidence-based. If you couldn’t record it or measure it or reproduce it, I threw it out. And then I had some interesting paranormal experiences myself, or at least experiences I couldn’t explain. It got me thinking. It’s so easy to be looking down at the (camera) screen and miss the human experiential side of what’s going on. As I started to be more of a nonfiction storyteller, I became interested in the personalities, the motivations and the experiences. Because a lot of what people told me frankly makes absolutely no sense whatsoever in terms of our current-day physics. Yet if there is no UFO phenomenon, there is still a human phenomenon at work, based on the fact that this many people believe they’re experiencing this many things.
Indeed, the book takes a turn from UFOs toward humans and what they claim to have experienced. One subject, under the pseudonym “Al,” claims to have been repeatedly abducted by extraterrestrials. How did you process a story like that?
If I had just read that story, it sounds like science fiction, or an episode of The Twilight Zone. Yet I know his background and he’s a very credible witness. If he were an isolated case I think you’d frankly have to question his sanity. But if you start talking to people who are involved with the UFO contactee subculture, he’s one of thousands who tell similar stories.
You know “Al” personally and professionally. Does that make his account seem all the more credible?
I’m wary of bias. We’re inherently less likely to call out people we know. I’m always aware of that. But paramedics are trained to be critical thinkers, paramedicine is a science. If this stuff did not happen to him, did he hallucinate? Is he deluded? People have tells when they’re lying. I didn’t get anything from him at all that he’s not telling the truth. I will say that he believes it. One hundred percent he’s convinced this is happening to him.
It seems most of the folks you encountered were familiar with sci-fi pop culture and books. Did you get a sense that this phenomenon has an element of life imitating art or vice versa?
Interesting you bring that up. One thing that struck me reading about the UFO phenomenon — and I’m far from the first to make this observation — is that in the earliest reports of alien contact, the aliens were always from Mars or Venus or somewhere close within the solar system. As our technology developed and we started sending probes to those planets and finding nobody there, they started to come from further out. And then as we started to send probes further out, they came from neighboring stars. Its interesting how claims of some contactees, they’ve always placed these extraterrestrials just one leap beyond our ability to look there.
In pop culture, we started seeing invasions from Mars and those kind of things, and now, and I hate to say it, but Mars is no big deal to us. I mean, we’ll be living there in 25-30 years if all goes according to plan. We’ll be sending probes further out, colonizing the solar system, hopefully. It makes me wonder, 100-200 years from now, what are the UFO stories going to be saying then?
The book takes an abrupt turn when you introduce us to a woman named Tashina, who claims to be an Arcturian — an extraterrestrial voluntarily roaming Earth working for good. You spoke to her via phone while she was helping Native Americans protest the oil pipeline at Standing Rock. How did you approach an interview with an extraterrestrial?
When I approached the subject of Tashina, I immediately gave her benefit of the doubt. If I wanted to start poking and prodding and tearing holes in her story, I think that would have been possible, but to what end? I think it’s far more interesting to pick her brain in the limited time I had and go with the blanket assumption she was what she said she was. And to be clear, I’m not claiming either way that she is or she isn’t. I wanted to seize the small amount of time I had and just go to town with the questions.
I got fascinated by the global perspective — or as she put it, the “intergalactic perspective.” She put great emphasis on talking about the way we relate to one another and our environment as a species and the spiritual aspects of things. It was a lot like being schooled — not in a negative way — by a parent or a teacher, but not academically, spiritually.
Some of the people you spoke to make their claims of alien contact based on regression therapy, or basically recovering repressed memories. How did you regard those stories?
The possibility of false memories being introduced during regression therapy is always going to be there, and makes it questionable 100 percent of the time. It’s not a reliable source of information. But it’s interesting how many of those memories are consistent in the broad scope of things. It reminds me of a near-death experience, which is a little nearer to my area of expertise.
I’ve been working on my second book about hauntings that involve health care, and talked to a lot of palliative care providers. While these patients are having these strange experiences as they die, (the care providers) will report themselves experiencing things around those patients. If you delve deeper into that phenomenon there are elements that can’t be casually dismissed. I think the same is true of this UFO regression therapy. I don’t like the idea of taking it at face value, but I also don’t like the idea of throwing the baby out with the bath water. There’s a definite consistency to many of those accounts.
You took a field trip to a clearing near a wooded mountain area with some people who’d claimed to have made contact with extraterrestrials earlier. Tell me about that experience and your conclusions.
I love getting out in the field, so that was my golden opportunity, to get out there and see if they could commune with extraterrestrial craft, if they could bring one in. I did see some odd stuff going on with my infrared camera, but it’s not definitive. A lot of the claims that were made about there being an extraterrestrial ship in the area, I couldn’t prove it. When you can’t prove it, all you have is somebody’s word for it. And frankly, you have to kind of throw it out. I was really, really hoping we’d see some kind of lights in the sky that I couldn’t explain. And we didn’t. I was hoping we’d have an opportunity to encounter one of these extraterrestrials first-hand, and we didn’t. I’m glad that I tried, but I have nothing that I could truly call evidence from that encounter.
Some of your subjects speak in spiritual terms and “state of mind” more so than sensory experience. We’re getting farther removed from spaceships. How would you describe that shift?
One thing that struck me, if you look at Al’s story, it had a very negative impact on his life. During our interviews I saw him in tears several times, I saw him upset several times. And there is a big element of fear associated with him, of unpleasantness. Then I look at other people, and to them it was overwhelmingly positive. They seem to delight in their experiences in this realm. They seem to find it very, very beneficial and fulfilling, for the most part.
I’ve heard a number of people say that to a degree, our approach to this phenomenon dictates what kind of experience you’ll have. They all said that when it comes down to contact with extraterrestrials, there was a degree of spiritual qualification required. They wanted to deal with people who had an interest on a spiritual level — you almost had to be spiritually evolved to a certain point. Maybe that’s why I never had an experience in the wooden clearing.
Environmental concerns among those who claim to be in contact with aliens are prominent and recurring. On some level, does the experience with UFOs and extraterrestrials shift into a belief system rather than just an experience?
I think it does. I think there is an entire philosophy at play there. If you leave the details aside, if you leave the specific belief in Extraterrestrial A from Planet B and Star System C and look at the core philosophies, they all seem to speak of us being in a very dangerous space as a species. Many people that I talked to said that the Earth has been “embargoed,” as if we were those unruly children who’ve been sent to their room, that we’re not fit yet to be members of a greater galactic community. If you just read our headlines, I’d believe that 100 percent. We have a lot of growing up to do, and I think our science far outstrips our maturity at this point.
That’s basically the plot of “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
It is, absolutely. I’m always interested to know, did these people like science fiction movies, do they like scary movies? Because it colors our belief system. If you talk to some people in this community, they’ll say those movies, and “E.T.” and “Close Encounters,” that look at initially a scary side of alien contact and then make it warm and friendly and approachable, they’ll say that those are actually part of a slow-release attempt on the part of the government to get us all used to the idea that extraterrestrials are friendly and real. Again, do I believe that? I really couldn’t tell you.
The pop culture aspect does fascinate me, too. Whitley Strieber’s “Communion” was when the Greys (an alien race) first came into the social mainstream. It’s interesting that’s when the abductee experience really became ubiquitous. “Communion” was a massive best-seller. The Greys kind of came into the social consciousness then, to the point now where you could draw that face with those eyes and anyone would know it. It’s on my PC. It’s become the logo of a computer gaming company. It’s everywhere, it’s become embedded in the mass consciousness. So I think there is a big cultural phenomenon at play as well. How much of that is shading these experiences? Somebody should get a Ph.D. out of that, if they haven’t already.
What else would you like to say about your journey?
It’s still ongoing. I met some wonderful people, heard some incredible perspectives. It broadened my horizons, made me look at things in an entirely different way. I’m still not sure what I believe. Some of what I was told sounds very plausible, some of what I was told sounds very implausible. When people read the book they have to come to their own conclusions.
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