The Believers

Local UFOlogists bring a religious zeal to their tales of alien visitations. Delusions? For real? Whatever, they watch the skies and wait.

Zimmer also has met her share of alleged abductees, including a Miami couple who said they saw a UFO hovering above them while they were on a hunting trip last year. They later discovered they had heart-shaped marks cut into their arms and a half hour of missing time. The couple photographed the marks, and the photos were included in the MUFON report filed by one of Zimmer's colleagues in the 50-member local organization.

Virgilio Sanchez-Ocejo, a tall, jovial, gray-haired researcher, has been studying UFO abductions and sightings longer than almost anyone in Miami. In 1982 he co-authored the book UFO Contact From Undersea, about the most famous abduction case in Miami history. In January 1979, Filiberto Cardenas of Hialeah was traveling with Fernando Marti, Marti's wife, and their daughter on the outskirts of Hialeah when their car engine quit. As they got out to look at the car, an object emanating a bright white light appeared overhead. Cardenas suddenly felt paralyzed and began rising in the air, shouting "Don't take me," according to accounts by Marti and Cardenas. His friends couldn't find him for two hours, and the next thing he knew he woke up nearly ten miles away on the Tamiami Trail. The policeman he flagged down reported it as a "close encounter of a third kind." Under hypnosis Cardenas told a bizarre tale of being taken to an underwater base by aliens.

There's been nothing quite so exciting for Sanchez-Ocejo to investigate since then, but he remains on the lookout for new sightings. So it isn't surprising that he, too, shows up on Saturday at Tropical Park, hoping to see a UFO. As he sits waiting in a plastic chair, he makes sure to keep his distance from the devout UFO adherents nearby, who are now listening to a long-haired middle-age man who twitches as he speaks and believes he is possessed by an alien spirit sent by the millions of extraterrestrials who live in the center of the earth. The scene seems to bear out the dictum of skeptic John Keel, who argues, "Any religion begins with a schizophrenic suffering from delusions who then finds obsessive-compulsive followers." For Sanchez-Ocejo, the spectacle of credulity unfolding nearby fills him with a more pointed disdain. "We need to professionalize UFOlogy," he says, his back turned away from the crowd. "Don't put me in with them."

A little before seven, while the sky is still light, something unusual happens. Much of the crowd has left, but there are still a few hundred people milling about, feverish with expectation. Suddenly those gathered on the hilltop begin shouting excitedly and pointing up at the sky. The cry of "UFO!" echoes throughout the park.

The rest of the crowd looks up, and some grab binoculars to see what they can. And, yes, next to some clouds is a small glowing circular object, a sign to the believers that their faith has been rewarded. "It could be a plane," says Sanchez-Ocejo, tilting his head upward with a bemused smile. "But for now, it's an Unidentified Flying Object."

On the hill, small bunches of people gather around those with telescopes to discuss the sighting with a theological intensity. Sergio Miranda, a Canadian visitor, had a good view through his telescope, and he says, gesturing with his hands, "There were a bunch of globes turning around." People near him nod in agreement. But the man with the most powerful telescope, Alberto Chavarriaga, a bald UFO buff wearing a mystical pyramid symbol around his neck, shrugs, "They were balloons, five of them." He's seen plenty of UFOs, he points out, and these didn't qualify. But his comment does not deflate the firm conviction of others that they have all just seen a UFO.

Hours later, when it is completely dark, only a few dozen people remain on the hilltop, looking up into the night sky, still waiting for the ships to arrive. Afterward, even those at the park who did not see any UFOs seem content. "We are not disappointed," says Coila Bega of Diamante, "because we know they are there.

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