Another of what are considered the “classic” mass UFO sightings in the United States that have made their way into the lore and legends of UAP studies is the event that has come to be known as the St. Clair Triangle sighting of 2000 in southwestern Illinois. It’s also referred to as “the UFO Over Illinois,” the name of a television documentary released later the same year. Other shows and books have featured it prominently. Today The Debrief will look at the lore surrounding this event and compare it to the significant amount of original source data available.
We’ll begin with a brief summary of the details frequently seen in the ufology literature. The tale begins early in the morning on a frigid January 4th, 2000, in Highland, Illinois. 66-year-old miniature golf course owner Melvern Noll was stopping by his business to ensure the pipes hadn’t frozen. Upon exiting his building he saw a brightly lit object in the skies that he would go on to describe as looking like “a flying house with windows on the top and bottom.”
The stunned Noll quickly called the police to report what he had seen. The dispatcher he spoke to forwarded the information to Police Officer Ed Barton in Lebanon, Illinois. Barton initially responded skeptically, asking if the caller had been drunk, but went to investigate as instructed. Observing a bright light in the sky as he drove his cruiser, he closed in on the object before pulling over and exiting his vehicle. He would go on to report seeing a “huge” object in the sky that was triangular, longer than it was wide, with three white lights and one red light. It accelerated away at high speed to the southwest toward Shiloh, Illinois.
Shiloh Police Officer David Martin was on the lookout for the object and reported seeing something very similar before he too claimed that the slow-moving object sped off in the same direction at amazing speed. A third officer in Millstadt, Illinois, Craig Stevens, picked it up and reported it next. He even managed to snap a picture of it with a Polaroid camera. A fourth officer in Dupo, Illinois would later report seeing ‘something’ that might be related. Other civilian witnesses would chime in with their own accounts at later dates, but the object eventually disappeared after more than an hour of confirmed sightings.
Interestingly, musician Sufjan Stevens would go on to write a song about the event:
EXAMINING THE SOURCE DATA FOR MORE DETAILS
One of the larger challenges involved in examining any of these legendary sightings is how much “legend” winds up being inserted into popular reports over the years. Television documentaries and books supporting the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) can tend to focus on the more exotic aspects of a report while downplaying or even ignoring inconvenient anomalies in the data. Similarly, skeptics and debunkers will tend to latch onto inconsistencies while failing to acknowledge some of the more credible evidence. Today The Debrief will look at both with a (hopefully) more critical eye.
Rather than being forced to rely on the potentially fading memories of witnesses or the video simulations provided by video producers, the St. Clair triangle UFO event offers substantial original evidence from the time of the sighting. This trove includes not only transcripts of conversations between dispatchers and police officers, but original recordings of radio traffic and interviews with witnesses conducted shortly after the sighting. These are included in an excellent 2014 documentary from an investigative reporter who collected and released all of the source material.
One of the first areas of evidence to examine is the collection of descriptions of the UFO as originally reported by the witnesses. Some do seem to be consistent while others demonstrate disparities that have been seized upon by skeptics.
Melvern Noll, the miniature golf course owner, described “a flying house with windows in the top and bottom.” This is starkly different than the descriptions offered by law enforcement officials. But it has been suggested that Noll only saw the object for moments with no forewarning at four in the morning in the freezing cold before rushing to contact the police.
THE TESTIMONY OF THE POLICE OFFICERS
Officer Ed Barton in Lebanon, Illinois, at 4:21 am, described a triangular object, “longer than it was wide.” Barton estimated the altitude of the object as being between 1,000 and 1,500 feet. He described seeing three white lights and one red light. The object suddenly sped away, going eight miles in three seconds in the direction of Shiloh, Illinois. It is worth noting that in the original radio traffic recording, Barton describes how he was reaching into the squad car to grab his microphone. When he emerged, the object was far away. He did not actually see it accelerate at exotic speeds.
Shiloh Officer David Martin offered a roughly similar description at 4:23 am. He described it as being an “arrow shape, triangular-shaped object… floating in this sky over this field… with three big bright lights, lighting up the entire sky just beneath the flying object.” He put the altitude at 1,000 to 1,500 feet before the object moved to the far end of the fields “in the snap of a finger, the wink of an eye.” He heard no sound from the object despite having the windows of his cruiser down.
At 4:39 am Millstadt Police Officer Craig Stevens reports that he has an object in sight. “It’s huge.” He describes it as an “arrowhead-shaped object.” Stevens describes the craft as having “three lights to the rear, one in the center and two to either side.” Stevens adds an additional detail, saying that it is “concaved in the rear” rather than a pure triangle. But he also says “in the concave section” there is a strobing white light going side to side. His drawing makes it clear it’s the rear of the craft, not the bottom. He further describes a “red blinking light” that is on the bottom. He estimates that the object is between 500 and 2,000 feet in altitude. The object then “banked” and headed toward Dupo, Illinois.
At that point, Stevens grabbed a Polaroid camera out of his car and took a picture as it flew away. That should have been the most compelling piece of evidence, but sadly it’s not a very good photograph, showing only some blurry lights against a dark background.
Perhaps significantly, Officer Stevens says that he could hear a “low frequency buzzing noise” that seemed to be related to the craft.
At 5:03 am the final purported sighting by a law enforcement official is recorded. Officer Matt Jany is located in Dupo, Illinois, and has been on the lookout for the craft after following the radio traffic generated by the previous sightings. He claims to have spotted the object, but reports that it is “pretty far off” and he was looking at it through binoculars. He thought the lights looked “pretty bright” but it was “hard to tell.”
Officer Stevens is still on the radio and reiterates that the object was “about 500 feet above me and it was huge.” Jany responds, saying that “it’s usually where planes are. It’s not low at all.”
This discrepancy in the perceived altitude ties in with Jany’s description of the lights, at one point mentioning a blinking green light. The other reports only mentioned white and red lights. Green blinking lights (along with red ones) are typical of commercial airliners and are required by the FAA. These factors have led many analysts to conclude that Officer Jany did not see the same craft the other officer described and instead was simply seeing a conventional aircraft flying over the area. This would not be unusual since Dupo is located between the international airports in St. Louis and Chicago and also not far from an Air Force base.
At that point, Jany reports that dispatch told him that Lambert Airport is on the phone saying there is nothing in the area on their radar. This was a reference to Lambert International Airport in St. Louis.
THE AIR FORCE CONNECTION AND RADAR DATA
Some analysts seeking explanations for this event have put forth suggestions that nearby Scott Air Force Base might be involved, launching either misidentified conventional craft or experimental classified aerial vehicles. This is where the source data becomes highly intriguing and may suggest a governmental or military coverup. Two conflicting descriptions of Scott Air Force Base have emerged in previous analyses. One theory describes the base as having a 24-hour, fully staffed control tower, but claims that it was not online due to “an unexplained suspension of operations.” The other says that it’s primarily a hospital base with a small airfield and had no operations at 4 am. The original sources suggest that both of these descriptions miss the mark.
In the documentary linked above, the St. Clair Police radio dispatcher claims to have called Scott Air Force Base and was told they could see nothing on the radar. But later, Scott AFB personnel told a reporter from the Lebanon Advertiser that “Scott Air Force Base has denied any knowledge of the sighting, reporting that it “no longer has radar on the field and that control tower personnel were not on duty at that hour.”
The information supplied to both the police and journalists by Scott Air Force Base is not only contradictory but highly suspicious, to say the least. Also, the claims about the base in previous documentaries are frequently inaccurate, leading to many justifiable questions. First of all, the idea that the base is a small medical facility with limited airfield capability is flatly wrong.
Scott Air Force base has been in continuous operation since shortly after World War 2. It’s true that they have an impressive medical facility there (the 375th Medical Group), including a fleet of Learjet C-21 twin turbofan-engine aircraft used for medical transport and evacuations which can take place at any hour of the day. They also host a fleet of KC-135 Stratotankers used for in-flight refueling of other aviation assets at any time. These massive planes require a sizable airfield. On top of that, Scott Air Force Base boasts a group of C-40 B/C transports that ferry dignitaries around the globe and are the size of Air Force 1.
The idea that a base such as Scott would have “removed their radar” or not had anyone manning the control tower is implausible in the extreme. So the answers provided to both police dispatchers and local media outlets seem dubious. The responses were also contradictory in two regards. If you had no radar, why would you bother staffing an air control tower? And why would they say they had “nothing on the radar” if there was no radar? The Debrief reached out to the Public Affairs Office of Scott Airfield for comment but received no answer prior to publication.
THE SKEPTICS HAVE THEIR SAY
Debunkers have made spirited attempts to shoot down this story, raising some interesting possibilities. The most common of these is that all of the witnesses actually misidentified a blimp. It’s true that the location of the sightings was not far from the base of the American Blimp Company, later bought out by the Van Wagner Airship Group. Blimps are large and very quiet, often equipped with a variety of different types and colors of lights for advertising purposes. Also, the top speed of these blimps is roughly 45 mph depending on the wind, so a blimp could have made it from Lebanon to Dupo in the one-hour and three-minute period when the live reports were recorded.
The main problem with this avenue of debunking is that it’s entirely speculative. As already noted, a blimp could have made that journey and displayed lights that would be considered unusual. Some have spoken with people in the airship industry who agree that it’s plausible. But investigators checked with the American Blimp Company and later Van Wagner and none was able to produce a record of a flight by one of those ships on that date, though one would imagine that all trips by such an expensive aircraft would be recorded.
Further, a blimp could have made the trip in the time allowed if it flew directly to Dupo. But the various witnesses described the craft as slowing, stopping, and changing directions. Also, unless we are to dismiss the testimony of the officers in Lebanon and Shiloh, the craft they observed not only hovered but shot away at a stunning velocity. Blimps are simply not capable of that type of behavior.
As we have discovered, there are complicated aspects to the St. Clair Triangle sighting, and the legends that have grown around it in books and television programs do not always match the record. For one thing, such shows frequently depicted the “classic” triangle, with one bright white light on each corner of the craft fixed to the bottom and a red light in the center. None of the witnesses described the lights in that fashion. And the original witness, Melvern Noll, described something that sounded entirely different, so some level of skepticism may be warranted.
With that said, the descriptions provided by all but one of the law enforcement witnesses (who likely saw a conventional aircraft) are similar enough in terms of its physical appearance and curious flight characteristics that they are difficult to ignore. Their stories remained unchanged over the years.
The baffling responses from Scott Air Force base do little to discredit the witnesses. While it seems unlikely that such a base would be home to highly classified, exotic aircraft programs, they should have been able to provide corroborating radar data or at least a confirmation that they recorded no targets in the subject area. It is not inconceivable that they had standing orders to never comment on anything UFO-related. This is a pattern the Air Force has adhered to ever since the days of Project Blue Book.
The poor quality of the photograph taken by Officer Stevens is disappointing to researchers, but the fact that it was taken at night on a dated Polaroid Instamatic pointing up at the night sky makes it understandable. Additional electronic data would make the case much stronger, but the inexplicable responses from Scott Air Force Base at least suggest that such may have existed at one point.
In conclusion, the viability of this case rests heavily on the credibility of multiple professional witnesses from different locations who would seem unlikely in the extreme to have cooked up a tale of this sort as a hoax. The lack of electronic signature data is disappointing but perhaps understandable as we already discussed. And the alternative options offered by skeptics do little to explain away the recorded, original observations as misidentified mundane phenomena. As with most of these famous, multiple-witness sightings, the final determination remains in the eye of the beholder. But the available source evidence is compelling and none of the alternate explanations are very satisfying.
Follow and connect with author Jazz Shaw on Twitter:@JazzShaw
Analysis, conclusions, and some alternate explanations included in this article are the opinions of the author and not the official position of The Debrief.