Gulf Breeze, Florida is a fairly sedate suburb of Pensacola, located in the western panhandle on the state. Not much ever happens there–I once knew someone from the town who confirmed this–but in the late 1980s the world of paranormal and UFO buffs was abuzz with what had supposedly gone on there: a series of flying saucer sightings, “close encounters” that were vividly documented in some of the clearest photographs ever taken of UFOs. Clearly something unusual was going on amidst the sandy beaches and suburban subdivisions of Gulf Breeze.
What the world saw was this: Ed Walters, a building contractor from Gulf Breeze, claimed that on the evening of November 11, 1987 the front yard of his house was enveloped in a strange blue light. He went outside and saw a flying saucer hovering above the street. Walters ran back into his house, grabbed a camera and took photos of the craft. The UFO reacted, shooting a blue beam at him that (according to Walters) transmitted telepathic images. Then he blacked out, waking up later on his front lawn, but when the film was developed it revealed several spectacular shots of the space vehicle that he claimed he encountered.
This was hardly the end of the incident. After telling his story to a local newspaper–which caused an immediate sensation–Ed Walters began to report and document other encounters he said he had with the mysterious craft, the obvious implication being that they were aliens of some kind. In fact, Walters said he saw one of them on December 2, 1987, a strange robot-like device or perhaps a creature wearing a spacesuit. He also took many more photographs, including a shot of one of the saucers that landed on his street.
A spaceship from another world? Or a pie plate and tinfoil? You decide.
As the media picked up the story, public interest increased, as it always does about phenomena like UFOs. Photographic experts examined Walters’s photos and couldn’t say for certain whether they were faked or not. Other people around Gulf Breeze began saying that they too had seen flying craft. Walters himself went on TV, including the popular show Hard Copy, to tell his story. I remember seeing him on one of these shows. The Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), a non-profit that investigates UFO sightings, claimed that Walters was genuine. By mid-1988 the sleepy town of Gulf Breeze was known as one of the world capitals of UFO sightings, mainly for the quality of Walters’s pictures, which far exceeded the typical grainy, indistinct and wobbly pictures taken of previous supposed flying saucers.
Walters became something of a local celebrity. His TV appearances and the interest in his story eventually led to a book deal with William Morrow, the publisher who had recently cashed in on Communion, the bizarre story of a horror writer who claimed he had been abducted by aliens. Walters sold his house and bought a new one. In 1990, however, the owner of his old house–one Robert Menzer–was mucking around in the attic when he discovered a strange object wrapped in old drafting paper. Unwrapping it, Menzer revealed a model of a flying saucer, made of foam plates, cardboard, paper and colored plastic gel.
Soon the gig was up. Walters insisted that he was framed. Someone, he claimed, had built a model of a flying saucer, broken into his empty house and hid it to discredit him. He did, however, admit that the drafting papers the model was wrapped in–which contained plans for the model–were his, but they must have been stolen from his trash. Then someone else in the town stated that he knew Ed Walters had previously been fooling around with photographic tricks, including double exposures; among those who believed the Gulf Breeze UFO photos were faked, this was the leading candidate for how it was done.
At last, Tom Smith, a local teenager, came forward and said that Ed Walters had shown him pictures of the UFO and urged him to go forward to the press with them. Smith had some of the pictures, and was able to show investigators exactly how Walters had faked the pictures–including how he had created a depression in the ground where one of the “saucers” supposedly landed. It was done with an upside-down trampoline. Thus, it was demonstrated pretty conclusively that Ed Walters had faked the incident, and that the amazing spaceship seen in his photos was in fact a cardboard and styrofoam mock-up only 9 inches long–hardly impressive for an intergalactic spaceship.
Photo fakery of UFOs has a long and cherished tradition, going back to George Adamski in the 1950s. This photo of the Gulf Breeze hoax reminds me of when Greg Brady hoaxed a UFO on “Brady Bunch.”
Over the years Ed Walters continued to insist in the authenticity of the photos and sightings, but pretty much everybody was convinced that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax. Even MUFON, realizing they’d been duped, backed off. It seems pretty likely that the other Gulf Breezers who claimed they too saw UFOs were participating rather unwittingly in a psychological experience called a “collective delusion“–not unlike the infamous 1954 windshield pitting epidemic of Seattle.
Extraterrestrial life may exist. Even skeptics of UFO phenomena have a hard time closing off the possibility that the WOW! Signal, for instance, could have come from intelligent beings beyond the earth; but whether such beings zoom around in the sky in flying saucers or talk to us on our TV sets is another question entirely. In any event it seems very clear that aliens have never actually been to Gulf Breeze, Florida. Ah, well. Maybe they prefer the hot climes of planet Vulcan instead.