The Believers

They are all adherents here in this small park in Kendall, getting ready for the spaceships that may arrive soon. There are seven people, mostly middle-age Hispanic women, standing in a semicircle under a tree, eyes closed and holding hands, listening to Estela Ardila, a short, dark-haired woman who claims she's received telepathic messages from the Ashtar Command and other intergalactic beings. These extraterrestrials have told her, her followers say, that spaceships will fly over Miami -- and perhaps land -- one week from now, on Saturday, April 8, in nearby Tropical Park. Today, determined and intense, she begins an invocation to make it all come true. "I am asking all my brothers in the Light to come," the woman says in Spanish. Then she begins reading from a leaflet she's produced: "As a child of the Earth, I demand that Christ come to Earth with your legions, Commandos of Light, your Brethren of the stars to open the doors for change. We ask for the descent, the physical contact with all our humanity.... Let's now welcome with open arms the knowledge and the Light."

It is, in some ways, a dry run for the big event the next week, but they know in their hearts that contact with UFOs and aliens can happen at any time. Ardila, for one, publishes approximately 200 copies of a bimonthly newsletter containing the messages she says she and others receive from extraterrestrials and holy figures, including Jesus. ("He works with the Ashtar Command," notes Coila Bega, a Peruvian-born waitress who is a loyal member of the 45-member group Ardila leads, Unidad Diamante de Las Americas, which translates loosely as the United Diamond of the Americas, a name that evokes a diamond crystal summoning celestial energies.) In their publications are messages promoting the need for greater harmony on earth in preparation for a new era of cooperation between humans and aliens. The question the Diamante members face now is whether their latest predictions will come true: Will spaceships come to Tropical Park?

Some of those here in Barnes Park today, and others in the Miami area, say they've already been visited by aliens; they claim to have seen UFOs or to have made direct contacts with the E.T.'s themselves. They are part of a growing subculture, among both Anglos and Hispanics, of buffs, spiritual seekers, and alleged contactees who have become enthralled by the labyrinthine world of UFOs, with its dark hints of government coverups, the brief but generally unproven glimpses of discs and spacemen, and the bizarre visitations that feel real to them but might just be dreams.

But among Hispanics those feelings often take on particularly fervent and religious overtones, akin to the sightings of the Virgin Mary by cultlike votaries. "They share in common a belief in the supernatural and the marvelous," notes Manuel Figueroa, a Miami-based author who studies paranormal events. For believers in both UFOs and appearances by the Virgin Mary, he points out, the sightings "are different aspects of the coming of the divinity." Many acolytes, in fact, link the two beliefs together. "For Christians who believe UFOs are here, it validates the idea that Christ is real, that heaven is up there, and that the UFOs are trying to save us," observes Robert Baker, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Kentucky who has studied UFO zealots. The UFOs are, some believe, portents of the approaching millennium that surely will transform their workaday lives. And so events such as the April 8 UFO watch in Tropical Park take on a special importance, part of an ongoing search for signs of a great change, the beginning, perhaps, of the end days, right here in Miami.

Since last fall, reported UFO sightings have increased, according to Virgilio Sanchez-Ocejo of the Miami UFO Center, a small hobbyist group the retired Cuban-born lawyer and salesman founded. But proof that will satisfy him is harder to come by. "We need physical evidence and data," he stresses.

Here in Barnes Park there is someone who claims to offer proof. A man displays clear-as-day photos of flying saucers that look just like those depicted in 1950s sci-fi movies, red and silver and circular, suspended over homes in Kendall, plus another disc photographed, he says, from an alien spaceship. With his blond hair, gold chains, and T-shirt emblazoned with stars and an alien ship, he looks more like a strip-club doorman than the metaphysical teacher he says he is. He won't disclose his name, nor will he provide the names of the witnesses he says also saw the ships, but he talks about his purported encounters with a surprisingly casual air: "They told me telepathically they were going to come to my house."

Snapshots proffered by devotees, however, haven't been enough to convince mainstream science to accept the reality of alien spaceships. And in recent years some of the most highly publicized cases of sightings and alien "abductions" that were supposed to give new credence to "UFOlogy" have been discredited by fraud and sloppy methodology. These include flying saucers photographed from the back porch of Ed Walters's house in Gulf Breeze, Florida (after Walters moved, new occupants found a model of a spaceship in the house's attic), and the gruesome alien contacts described in last year's book Abduction, by Harvard psychiatry professor John Mack. (Mack, it turns out, while researching alleged E.T. encounters, plied his subjects with abduction literature before hypnotizing them.) The prospects for UFOs ever being taken seriously by U.S. government authorities may be as remote as a faraway star.

And yet the interest keeps growing, and credible sounding accounts continue to be recorded by diligent researchers and authors. They point to what they say is the more than 3000 alleged worldwide UFO sightings by military and civilian pilots, and to a small group of current and former U.S. intelligence and military officials who have stated publicly that there have been government encounters with -- and research on -- alien crafts. (The name of one of these projects, Area 51 -- which involves alleged research on aliens near Las Vegas -- even has been appropriated for use by a South Beach clothing store.)

Whatever the truth about UFOs, there is no doubt in the minds of the ardent believers in Miami. In the park today, the inner circle of Diamante is ready for anything. Massage therapist Manuel Martin, a balding man who looks like a young Alan Arkin, has had powerful visions of UFOs arriving at Tropical Park. He says with quiet expectation, "We hope to see something visible there." He adds with a knowing smile, "There will be surprises."

What follows are the stories of some local UFO believers. For the sake of readability, such journalistic qualifiers as "alleged" and "he claims" often have been omitted, but all comments by these people should be read with that caveat in mind.

The pouring rains begin in the early afternoon and continue intermittently throughout the day, but they do not deter the faithful who have come to Tropical Park on this Saturday in April to see the UFOs for themselves. Shortly after a group of about 40 loyalists have finished their morning meditation designed to raise the vibrations in the park, a youthful looking 45-year-old Puerto Rican woman takes shelter from the rain under a small picnic pavilion and looks out at the storm with satisfaction. "This is cleansing the earth for their arrival," she pronounces.

The woman, Gloria -- who won't disclose her full name -- knows what it is to see aliens and UFOs. She's viewed them a few times since she was a teenager, with the latest encounter occurring along Hammocks Boulevard in Kendall a couple of years ago while she was driving her then-eight-year-old son to school for a field trip. It was 4:30 a.m., and they both saw a spaceship hovering overhead in the darkness; it even followed the boy later on his bus trip, although for some reason no one else saw the spacecraft. Now looking at a hilltop in the park filling up with people, she says, "I hope the UFOs come, but I'm not sure they will."

By the time the welcoming rally for the UFOs officially starts at 3:00 p.m., that hope is palpable here on this hill overlooking a lake. The Spanish-speaking crowd has swelled to about 150 people, with hundreds more arriving over the next few hours, many dressed in white, symbolic of their purity and their faith in the divine powers above. Although rain pelts them, most endure it to listen to a man with short-cropped, graying hair who raises his arms to the heavens and tells his listeners about what awaits them. "The skies will be filled with ships in the coming years," he says in Spanish, the fervent cadences making him sound like an Old Testament prophet. "You will be able to ride in them.... Don't be afraid of cataclysms, earthquakes, giants who will come here, men with heads of gold and chests of silver; these are all premonitions that the Bible speaks of." Turning his head skyward, he says, "Thank God for this rain." Then he leads his audience in a chant of "Om," followed by a prayer asking for the presence of the Virgin Mary. "Mother of God," he intones, "fly with us."

By late afternoon, 500 or more people have assembled at the base of the hill, holding hands and listening to Estela Ardila, dressed entirely in white except for a floppy orange hat, as she "channels" messages about healing the earth. There's a slight undercurrent of frustration that no ships have arrived yet, although the sense of expectation continues to mount.

Later the spiritual frenzy that has been building all day explodes. A woman on the hilltop who has been talking about a type of alien visitation known as a "walk-in," in which the spirit of an extraterrestrial being supposedly inhabits a human body, suddenly says, "If you want to know about a real walk-in, there's one here now!" -- and points to a six-foot-ten man. The man, Tony Diaz, is suddenly surrounded by a crush of people, and when he works his way down the hill and lumbers across the lawn, about 70 people move with him, eager to talk to an alien at last. There is a crazed certainty in the crowd that he is indeed from another planet, and their belief is suffused with a deep and intense hunger, bordering on mania.

"I'm not from this earth," he announces. Towering over them, a paunchy guy with a mustache, plaid shirt, and dark slacks, he moves about so awkwardly that it is possible for a moment to believe that he is different from other humans. All of the attention seems to daze him.

"Do you people believe in God?" a man shouts from the rear of the horde.
"Yes, we do," says Diaz, who also goes by the alien name Akal.
"Do you have a mission here?" someone else asks.

"I'm programmed to do certain things," he responds, then goes on to explain why. Earlier in the day, he notes, a white pigeon flew peacefully from a nearby tree to land on the hilltop. It was a portent that many saw as a sign of a miraculous presence. "I sent the pigeon to...show people that we do exist," he says. The crowd shushes each other in excitement so they can hang on his every word.

Diaz throws in references to "hyperspace," the 1947 Roswell case (cited by UFOlogists as a massive U.S. government coverup of the crash of an alien spacecraft in New Mexico), and Area 51, but he halts for a moment in confusion. "It's hard," he says. "They're blocking my thoughts. They don't want me to tell you." While he continues, saying, "There's a lot of masters who are going to come here..." a woman whispers, "Ask him what the six numbers are going to be in the lottery tonight."

Although Diaz may come from another planet, he's attentive to earthbound realities. When a New Times reporter asks him for an interview, he first demands to see credentials, then gives out his business card from a heavy-equipment company; it reads, "Tony Diaz, rental department." The crowd is awestruck when, like a rock star after a concert, he begins signing some slips of paper, although in his case the autographs are odd hieroglyphs. In a reporter's notebook, Diaz inscribes the symbols, then writes the translation underneath: "Life is a God creation." Next to those symbols, he draws an additional one that includes two dots representing the two suns from his planet, Elion, in another galaxy; he also wears this figure on a gold chain around his neck.

Diaz starts walking away when he's confronted by a fundamentalist Christian who shouts at him in Spanish, "I'm a man of God -- and this meeting is not something from God." The crowd shouts down the interloper and follows Diaz -- virtually clinging to him -- as he moves slowly toward a tree and takes refuge next to it. As they encircle him, he looks out over them with an almost wounded look in his eyes, caged by forces that he inadvertently has unleashed --Miami's man who fell to Earth.

In a Coconut Grove Pollo Tropical a few days later, Tony Diaz comes across as a sincere, goodhearted 41-year-old man with all the signposts of normality: married; holds down a regular job as an equipment rental agent; once owned his own auto repair company; drives a Mercedes (bought from his prosperous father). He also happens to believe that since he was five years old, his body has been invaded by alien intelligences on twenty-eight occasions, and that he's been aboard flying saucers a few times.

Diaz is just one of several seemingly rational people among local UFO believers who tell stories that medical authorities would consider either delusions or fantasies. (Others are more outwardly unhinged, but you never know when any of these people is telling the literal truth.)

He claims he doesn't remember much about the bedlam he triggered on that Saturday in Tropical Park. After all, he points out, "I share this body with a walk-in." When the walk-in finally walked out on Sunday, Diaz checked his watch and it was shortly after 10:00 p.m.; at that point he realized his body had been inhabited by an alien.

Diaz first saw extraterrestrials as a child, he says, when they visited him in his bedroom in Cuba just before he fell asleep. They were ghostlike images, he recalls, and, pointing to a thick book about UFOs he's brought along with him, says they looked like the big-headed, almond-eyed creatures UFO devotees call "the greys," generally portrayed as heartless bad guys who abduct humans for breeding experiments. He doesn't recall any abductions occurring, but he's convinced they took over his body.

Young Tony caused a bit of a family crisis when he told his parents he was from another galaxy. "I kept telling them they weren't my parents, and I wasn't from here," he says now. His parents' response to all this? "They thought I was crazy."

After his family moved to Florida when Diaz was seven, he was sent to a psychiatric facility, but he ran away to stay with a nearby uncle for several hours. He kept insisting that he wasn't insane, and his parents relented, taking him back in. But the alien visitations continued, he claims.

Diaz and a friend named Jose were driving along a deserted stretch of road near Krome Avenue and the Tamiami Trail in West Dade around midnight when they saw a craft hovering above them. It soon landed in a nearby picnic area, and eventually Diaz was invited onboard by four-foot-tall aliens with rough grayish skin. (He says Jose doesn't remember anything about the incident, adding that he since has lost touch with his old friend.)

"The ship was about 60 feet in diameter, round-shaped, but I didn't see any landing gear or nothing like that," he recalls. He was taken into a large room, where he learned that "they're from 45,000 years in the future, and it takes them about fifteen minutes to get here."

While he was in the room, the greys began to conduct experiments, inserting needles in his tongue, navel, and ears, as well as implanting a communications device behind his left ear and cutting a triangular shape into his body. "This really hurt me," he remarks. Why had they done this to him? "You are one of the chosen ones," an alien supposedly told him.

Amazingly, all the probings and cuttings during that first meeting left no permanent marks on his body, certainly nothing he could show anyone after the ordeal was over. All he had was his improbable tale, which he recounted to his family and, later, to UFO believers at meetings. (His family and wife declined to speak to New Times.)

Diaz has had several shipboard encounters since then with more benign creatures, but again he offers no evidence that could back up his contentions. The last one took place in February. As Diaz tells it, he was lying in his bed sleeping when he was whisked away to the Tamiami Trail again, where he was hustled aboard a craft that took him -- in fifteen seconds -- to an underground base in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. There he saw E.T.'s and government scientists.

That trip to the subterranean base wasn't the first time he met with government officials. About a year and a half ago, two Air Force agents quizzed him about high-tech aeronautic issues, he asserts. With the future of U.S. aviation at stake, he declined to answer because his walk-in instructed him not to cooperate. (Once again, though, he is unable to locate a friend who supposedly witnessed the meeting.)

Besides allegedly being sought after as a consultant to the U.S. Air Force, in recent months Diaz claims he has cured people of heart disease and other ailments, using the healing energies his various entities have sent him. Still, he says he wishes the entities would stop walking in on him so often. "My mission," he says, "is to do more healing."

Diaz's tale -- strange as it may seem -- is hardly unique in the Miami area, and, surprisingly, the narratives he and some others tell differ markedly from the national pattern in abduction reports. These local residents' vivid, conscious recollections of the alleged abductions are quite unlike many of the cases popularized in the mass media, in which people generally suffer from mysterious problems and bouts of missing time, then "remember" through hypnosis that they've been abducted by intrusive aliens. The absence of lingering trauma in some people is particularly striking. With Ann (not her real name), for instance, it's hard to tell which is weirder: the fantastic nature of her tale, or the fact that such a plain-spoken, pleasant woman is recounting this story at all.

On a recent night, Ann, a real estate property manager who works for several communities, sits in her neat, spare living room in a North Dade townhouse, explaining how she became firmly convinced she'd been abducted by aliens after her boyfriend spotted two puncture marks behind her right ear. She began reading heavily on the subject of UFOs and abductions. But nothing actually happened until she went on a retreat for UFO believers in New Hampshire last Labor Day weekend. On a Saturday night, she was taking part in a relaxation exercise led by a self-proclaimed walk-in, Zera. There were about twenty people in the room, and they were all lying down on the carpet. The leader began making unusual dolphinlike "toning" sounds when suddenly Ann felt herself being lifted up. "I was afraid to open my eyes," she says now. But when she did, she could hardly believe what she saw.

She found herself in a bucket chair that moved forward and stopped in front of a table with about a dozen aliens. "One looked like a lizard, another one looked like a bird, another one, the most human of them, had no mouth, two holes for a nose, eyes, and sort of a big round head," she says. To show what he looked like, she points to a maroon-colored rock she has lying on her living room table; etched somehow into the middle of the rock is a light gray outline of a large-skulled creature with two long slits for eyes. She found it on the beach the day after her supposed encounter, and she sometimes cradles it as a memento of her experience.

"My first reaction was: What the hell is going on here?" she says in a no-nonsense voice tinged with a Spanish accent. "I am freaking out. I looked at my body, and then I looked back up at them. I kept saying to myself, 'This is a dream and I need to wake up, like, right now.' When I looked up, he said telepathically, 'You're not imagining this. This is not a dream, this is reality.'"

They identified themselves as members of the Intergalactic Command Council, and their purpose in meeting with her was to let people know they exist. They told her that their goal is to promote a more peaceful planet. They also used scientific terminology to explain how they could change into human form. "I don't know diddlysquat about physics," she says. "Why tell me? I'm no scholar, I'm just a property manager."

Toward the end of the meeting, the humanoid alien told her to go to the beach, where he would leave an object for her to find. The rock she picked up is her proof to herself that she did not make it all up.

But she feels they're not finished with her. About two months ago, she woke up with two puncture marks on her thigh. And just a few weeks ago, she was undergoing a hypnotic session about other personal issues when one of the spaceship entities began speaking through her, according to Marcy Roban, the metaphysical healer who hypnotized Ann. The being allegedly told Roban, "We're using Ann as a transmitter," then went on to chat for an hour about the need for planetary cooperation. Ann is not scared by her intense encounters, and feels she's grown spiritually: "I no longer fear anything," she says, "not even death."

Others are more haunted by their alleged contact with aliens. For example, Janet (not her real name), a saleswoman in Broward County, hauls out two scrapbooks filled with her drawings and diary notations about her visitations by beings from other worlds. She's been troubled by many of them. "I'm tired of what they're doing to us," she says with a hint of frenetic desperation. She's recently begun publishing a small newsletter that mixes born-again Christianity with musings about the often nefarious contacts between E.T.'s and humans. Accordingly, she offers a symptom checklist for those who either have been visited by aliens or originally come from outer space themselves. As for herself, she complains about such problems as high-pitched whining noises in her brain and a feeling that a square plate sits atop her head, although she places part of the blame for those physical vexations on a car accident she had many years ago; additionally, she claims that slivers of her tongue have been cut off as part of E.T. experiments.

Oddest of all, she believes she was impregnated by an E.T., recalling in detail an incident in the spring of 1993 when extraterrestrials supposedly took her aboard a ship, placed her in stirrups, and stuck a silverish probe up her vagina. A short while later, she missed her period for a month. (Although she won't disclose her age, she looks to be in her early fifties.) Janet didn't get a home pregnancy test, she insists, because "they didn't want me to be able to prove it, and I didn't have the ten dollars." Her only "proof" of all of this are the drawings she's made of flying saucers, transparent humanoids, and other creatures that fill her books and her life. She never knows when they might come again. "I know I'm not bananas," she offers. "I know all about them."

In the realm of UFOlogy, you can't reliably separate fact from fantasy. Cheryl Landy, a South Miami psychologist who has worked with about a dozen self-styled contactees, admits, "There's no way of being 100 percent sure that these incidents really happened." But as a therapist who often uses hypnosis to do "past-lives regressions," she's quite open to the possibility that her clients have had genuine E.T. experiences. During hypnosis, she notes, "It's emerged quite unexpectedly with vivid details."

When they first began telling these stories, Landy elaborates, "It shocked them and even me." To Landy, one hallmark of veracity is that such incidents have happened over a few generations to different family members. Unless patients demonstrate severe mental problems at work or in their personal lives, Landy generally assumes they're telling the truth during their sessions.

There are others in Miami, though, who try for more independent verification in their search for the truth about UFOs. They're the intrepid seekers after evidence, the eager amateur researchers who say they want to make UFOlogy more of a science and less of a religion, even as skeptics ignore or deride such efforts. But the impulse to look skyward for beings who might have answers to our problems is, after all, a kind of spiritual quest. (And one skeptic, New York City-based author John Keel, argues, "UFOlogists like to pretend that they're scientific, but it's actually all religious." Keel cites their pilgrimages to revered sites such as Roswell and their general ignorance about science.) Still, one of the dogged pursuers who is trying to bring some empirical rigor to the study of UFOs is retired schoolteacher Mary Margaret Zimmer of Kendall, the local "section director" for the Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON, a national organization of mostly lay investigators. "I tend to be very nuts-and-bolts," she says. "I'm not into the New Age." She was trained by MUFON as a field investigator, and one of her latest MUFON reports is the December sighting by Dan and Thais Austin in Kendall of a glowing red-orange object that zipped past their balcony twice. The second time Dan caught it on videotape, and some of his neighbors also said they saw it. The video footage aired on a Channel 6 news broadcast in late December. Dan Austin relates, "This made no sound, and you knew it was a UFO."

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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