Morristown UFO hoax
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The Morristown UFO hoax was originally thought to be an unidentified aerial event, of mysterious floating red lights, that occurred near Morristown, New Jersey, on Monday, January 5, 2009, between 8:15 pm and 9:00 pm. The lights were later observed on 4 other days: January 26, January 29, February 7, and February 17, 2009. The events were actually a hoax, meant as a social experiment.
Five flare lights attached to helium balloons were released by Joe Rudy and Chris Russo and seen in the skies above Morris County, New Jersey. Sightings were concentrated in the towns of Hanover Township, Morristown, Morris Plains, Madison, and Florham Park.
On January 5, 2009, at 8:28 pm, the Hanover Township police department received the first of seven 9-1-1 calls. Neighboring police departments also received numerous phone calls with regard to the strange lights. Morristown Police Lt. Jim Cullen alerted Morristown Airport about a possible hazard to airplanes. Airport control tower workers reported seeing the lights in the sky, but could not determine what they were. Hanover Township police also contacted the Morristown Airport to try and pick up the objects on radar, but they were unable to pick up anything.
Major and local news networks covered the story, and Internet websites, including the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), have posted information about the incident. On April 1, 2009, Rudy and Russo came forward with video evidence proving they were the perpetrators of this hoax, demonstrating how easy it is to fool the so-called UFO "experts."
On July 18, 2009, Russo and Rudy were the guest speakers for the New York City Skeptics at a public lecture in New York City, describing how they pulled off their hoax and the reasoning behind why they performed the hoax. On August 5, 2009, Russo was asked to debate a MUFON investigator on the existence of UFOs.
Revealing the hoax
On April 1, 2009, Russo and Rudy went public announcing that they had perpetrated this hoax to "show everyone how unreliable eyewitness accounts are, along with investigators of UFOs." As at least one police report suspected, Russo and Rudy had launched flares tied to helium balloons. Russo and Rudy described in detail how and why they perpetrated this hoax, and provided links to videos showing their preparations, the launch, and subsequent media coverage and involvement.
Accounts quoted in media
Two men from the Morristown area claimed to see the lights while driving on Hanover Avenue in Morris Plains. They recorded several videos and still photos of the event, which have been posted on news stations, websites, blogs, and YouTube. Rudy and Russo were interviewed on News 12 New Jersey, where they offered what would later be revealed to be a fictitious account of their sighting. They have since come forward as the perpetrators of the hoax resulting in the Morristown sightings. In the interview, Russo stated, "We were driving on Hanover, when all of a sudden we see these lights literally zip over our car." Rudy stated, "The lights seemed to ascend and descend almost in a sequence. They would rise up slowly and dip down."
A family in Hanover Township reported seeing the lights from their home. An 11-year-old, Kristin Hurley was the first to notice the lights. Paul Hurley, a pilot, saw the lights and said they were not planes. The Hurley Family took video of the lights, which appeared on Fox News. Hurley stated, "I have been in the aviation industry for 20 years and have never seen anything like this, a little scary, little scary."
A Morristown resident said that he saw an L-shaped formation oscillating in the sky. Bender was interviewed by the Morris County newspaper Daily Record. Bender stated that, what he saw "didn't seem manmade" and, "No way this could have been weather balloons."
Hanover Township's health officer said that he saw the lights while walking his dog in Madison at 8:38 pm. In contrast to local police reports, Van Orden stated the lights did not appear to be flares because they did not leave trails. He also said that they sometimes appeared to move against the wind, "These things were moving fast, holding formation, and then moving in three different directions; I don't know what it was."
Initial explanations and hoax theories
Before Chris Russo and Joe Rudy came forward, there had been many different explanations for the lights. These included extraterrestrial craft, supernatural and/or spiritual phenomena, helicopters carrying cargo, a surveillance blimp, a secret military project, or an elaborate hoax.
The Morristown police department had stated the lights were most likely road flares attached to helium balloons, although witnesses and many other Morris County residents did not agree with this claim. "We are reasonably certain, from what we were able to observe," Morristown Police Lt. James Cullen told the Bergen Record, "that they were red flares attached to a balloon."
Reporters from News 12 NJ contacted Peter Davenport who has been director of the National UFO Reporting Center since 1994. By telephone he told News12 NJ that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires aircraft to have a single red light on the left tip of the wing. He did not believe it was an aircraft. In addition to serving as the director of the National UFO Reporting Center, Davenport has served as the director of investigations for the Washington Chapter of the Mutual UFO Network.
Chris Russo and Joe Rudy built up the media attention by repeating the hoax over various parts of Morris County on four more occasions after the January 5 incident. The subsequent hoaxes and sightings took place on January 26, January 29, February 7, and February 17.
The largest cluster of lights occurred on February 17. Nine red lights were reported to be traveling in formation. Shortly after that sighting, Capt. Jeff Paul, a spokesman for Morris County Prosecutor Robert A. Bianchi, said that federal authorities have expressed concern that the objects might be a threat to flights on their final approach to Newark Liberty International Airport. The Federal Aviation Administration advised Paul that they would issue an advisory to aircraft in the area. Paul said “numerous” 911 calls were received on the evening of February 17 in Morris Plains, Morristown, Morris Township, Hanover, Denville, Parsippany, Montville and the Morris County Communications Dispatch center. The lights appeared to be traveling north, he said, and air traffic controllers at Morristown Airport reported that they appeared to be at an altitude of about 2,500 feet (760 m).
Dorian Vicente, 46, of Parsippany, said the lights caused traffic to slow on Route 80 East in Denville at 8:40 p.m. as people watched them floating overhead. There were nine lights, she said, and they were scattered at first. Then she said they aligned in a straight line. That is when she and several other cars pulled to the side of the highway to try and capture the lights on video. “It was the weirdest thing,” she said. Ray Vargas, a witness to the lights on February 17, believed he witnessed something extraordinary. When interviewed by the media he stated, “If it's a hoax, it's a real good hoax. There were no flares, no streaks … they were almost as if they were communicating with each other."
Officials with the Morris County prosecutor's office called the military and determined that no military flights were in the area, Paul said. The prosecutor’s office also contacted the FAA, the Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, and the New Jersey State Police Regional Operations Intelligence Center.
Prosecutor Robert Bianchi used what he called a "measured approach" and filed disorderly-person charges, rather than charges of indictable offenses. Bianchi criticized the defendants for wasting police resources, posing a fire threat, and posing an aviation threat. The defendants plea-bargained and received a sentence fine of $250 each and 50 hours of community service at the Hanover Recreation Commission.
In the media
- "A couple of days ago, there were UFO sightings in New Jersey. But don’t worry, it’s not an invasion – they were just looking for a place to dump a body. The aliens were just here looking for some of that bailout money."
The Morristown UFO has been featured on the homepage of the American documentary television series UFO Hunters. Host Bill Birnes investigated the January 5, 2009, sighting and interviewed several eyewitnesses. Throughout the two-part mini-documentary, Bill Birnes and his team do not accept previous skeptic claims that the lights could have been Chinese lanterns or flares. "We know this couldn't be flares attached to a rigid structure."
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