In December 1980, on a country road near Houston, Texas, three people had a terrifying close encounter with a large, low-flying, diamond-shaped Unidentified Flying Object that was being pursued or escorted by a large fleet of military helicopters. What would become known as the Cash-Landrum incident stands today as one of the most compelling–and also confusing–UFO cases on record; a case that resulted in significant health problems for one of the witnesses and which eventually lead to a $20 million lawsuit against the US government.
One of the world’s leading experts on the Cash-Landrum case is Curt Collins, the author behind Blue Blurry Lines, a website focused on UFO mysteries, legends, and hoaxes. In 2015, Curt was on the investigative team that exposed the BeWitness “alien” photo fiasco, the Roswell Slides Research Group; his detailed accounting of this exposé was featured in my 2017 book UFOs: Reframing the Debate. More recently, Curt launched The Saucers That Time Forgot with Claude Falkstrom, focused on unearthing “tales that UFO history has overlooked or would rather forget.” Curt has spent many years retrospectively investigating the Cash-Landrum incident. Here, Curt separates the fact from the fiction as he talks to me about this fascinating yet hugely problematic case.
RG: Summarise the Cash-Landrum incident for us.
According to the story that surfaced, Betty Cash (52) and her friend Vickie Landrum (57) were out for a drive on the evening of December 29, 1980. Along with them was Vickie’s grandson, Colby Landrum, just shy of seven years old. The location was near Houston, Texas, on a two-lane country road in a sparsely populated area on the outskirts of the little town of Huffman. They rounded a bend and found a huge, blindingly bright, unidentified flying object hovering over the road. It intermittently emitted flames downward, and the witnesses were afraid and stopped. Betty stepped out of the car in attempt to get a better look at the object, but the other two quickly returned to the car. Shortly afterwards, the object lifted up and slowly flew away. The witnesses saw helicopters following it, and they had the impression they were military helicopters trying to surround the object, either to pursue it, or perhaps escort it. Once the aircraft had passed, they continued their drive home. Betty dropped Vickie and Colby off, and went home, where she went to bed with a terrible headache, which was the beginning of a lengthy illness that resulted in her hospitalization. Vickie and Colby also had flu-like symptoms and reported similar, but milder problems than Betty’s. None of them initially connected their illness with the UFO sighting, but, due to Betty’s lingering problems, came to suspect it may have been the cause.
RG: You’ve spent many years of your life researching the Cash-Landrum incident; what is it about this case in particular that you find so compelling? Why is it so significant?
CC: I was interested in the whole of UFO history, but drawn to focus the C-L story due to its reputation for being one of the best-documented and credible cases. The reported involvement of the military made me think that there must be further evidence to be uncovered, from declassified documents or perhaps from new witnesses such as retired helicopter pilots. However, as I dug in, I learned that the real events have been obscured by misinformation and rumors to the point that the real story has begun to vanish. A great stroke of luck was finding Christian Lambright who had independently interviewed Vickie Landrum twice in 1985, uncovering important differences in the witnesses account from the way ufologists were packaging the UFO story. This fueled my desire to dig beneath the mythology to find exactly what could be documented about the case.
RG: Did the US government ever provide an official explanation for the incident?
CC: No. There has never been any tangible proof that there actually was an incident.
RG: Has it ever been satisfactorily determined what caused the witnesses to fall ill immediately following their sighting? What was the nature of their poisoning?
CC: Due to the way the events unfolded, we can’t be sure what happened. The UFO story did not surface until a month after Betty was first hospitalized, and it was about another month before any investigation began. Betty Cash’s illness was documented, but since the Landrums did not receive medical attention, there’s no evidence that they were affected by a UFO encounter. Betty had cardiac problems about two years before the events and underwent heart surgery and was taking medication, but was said to be healthy at the time. The cause of her problems was not determined, her doctors just described her ailments as alopecia areata and cellulitis. Betty’s hair loss and flu-like symptoms caused the physicians to check her for radiation exposure, but the results were negative.
RG: What was the official response to the sighting, from local authorities and from the military?
CC: It was over a month before the UFO incident was reported, and then it seems to have been informal. Vickie Landrum told her neighbor, Dayton Police Chief Tommy Waring, but the sighting had occurred out of his jurisdiction. He located a card with the phone number for the National UFO Reporting Center, and Vickie called them, which eventually led to news coverage and a civilian investigation. The military did not become involved until August 1981, after Betty Cash wrote to Texas senators, who advised her to file a complaint at Bergstrom Air Force Base near Austin, Texas. The witnesses were interviewed and given damage claims forms, and afterwards there was a brief investigation, but they found it improbable that such an event could occur undetected so close to Houston Intercontinental Airport by tower equipment, personnel or the pilots of the many aircraft in the area. In 1982 Representative Ron Wyden asked for an investigation into whether US aircraft had been involved in the incident. The Department of the Army Inspector General (DAIG) assigned Lt. Col. George Sarran the task of investigating, and, by all accounts, he did a thorough job. Sarran found the witnesses to be credible, yet found no indication to support their claims that any helicopters had been involved.
RG: What agency, if any, do you feel the helicopters belonged to? Indeed, did the helicopters exist at all?
CC: At one time, I was convinced the helicopters were part of the Army’s Task Force 158, training for a mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran. The timing, the equipment and the secrecy of the project are all tantalizing close matches, but ultimately it just doesn’t fit. After learning more about the requirements for equipment and personnel, the fleet of helicopters has become the most unbelievable aspect of the story, instead of its best lead.
RG: Why was the witnesses’ court case against the government dismissed?
CC: The lawsuit is a very unfortunate aspect of the case, and a true instance where the witnesses were victims. In my opinion, they were used as pawns by ufologists. Their absentee attorney Peter Gersten had been involved with several lawsuits to disclose UFO documents, and part of the things he asked for in interrogatories were to probe other UFO rumors. Based on Gersten’s statements, the lawsuit was at best a ploy, hoping the government would settle out of court. He stated that the chances of winning were “slim and none.” Judge Ross Sterling dismissed the case Aug. 21, 1986 without it going to trial due to lack of evidence. The complainants had failed to prove that US aircraft were involved in the incident or that it was responsible for causing the alleged injuries.
RG: How was the incident depicted in the media at the time, and to what extent, if any, did this contribute to any popular misconceptions about the case?
CC: The first coverage of the story was in the tabloid press, followed by local news, then national exposure on ABC’s Good Morning America. Some of the coverage was lurid and sensationalized things, but it stuck generally close to the events the witnesses described. The problem was that it received attention only because it was a UFO story, perhaps diminishing the chance for a proper investigation. Another thorny issue is that the witnesses originally each told a piece of the story from their own point of view, but the press presented a simplified narrative. It caused a feedback loop, and, before long, the witnesses were telling a homogenized version based on what they’d read about their own story. A related problem about the press coverage is that it produced a few additional alleged witnesses to a UFO or helicopters, but none of them had reported anything before the story was in the news. Those kind of witnesses are admissible evidence in ufology, but not something that would hold up in court.
RG: What role did the UFO research community play in investigating the Cash-Landrum incident; who were the key investigators; and to what extent have the efforts of UFOlogists helped to elucidate the complexities of this strange and disturbing case?
CC: Ufology got off to a bad start with the Cash-Landrum case, and it’s possibly a more complicated story than the UFO incident itself. The Aerial Research Phenomena Organization (APRO) had the first crack at things, but a rogue intercepted the report and sold it to the tabloids instead of investigating. Weeks later John F. Schuessler, the deputy director of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), was contacted by Betty Cash, and he became the primary investigator for the case and became a “rabbi” for the witnesses, an advisor, confidante, their de facto press agent, and part of the story. Schuessler certainly seems to have had good intentions, but in trying to present the witnesses in the best light, did much to transform the story into a legend. Meanwhile, the dark side of ufology was on the rise, the nutty sinister conspiracy stuff that later made its way into The X-Files, and many of the players such as William Moore and Richard Doty tried to reframe the Cash-Landrum story to promote their own agenda.
RG: Does the Cash-Landrum incident have parallels with any other cases in UFOlogical history, and what, if anything, can we learn from these parallels?
CC: The helicopter involvement is different from most cases, but other incidents do have some strong similarities, and I have dug through UFO history looking for comparable events. A few recognizable ones are the 1957 Levelland Texas case, which had a gigantic bright UFO, and the next year at the Loch Raven Reservoir in Maryland there was a large glowing egg-shaped object reported to have left the witnesses with “sunburn.” Other cases match in ways, but the most worthy of mention are two other UFO injury cases. In 1967 Stefan Michalak encountered a landed flying saucer in at Falcon Lake in Manitoba, Canada, and it left him with mysterious burns and some lingering health problems. There’s also the 1979 close encounter of Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson, who was driving along a lonely Minnesota road at night, when he saw a blindingly brilliant UFO above the road ahead. Unlike the C-L case, he didn’t stop, and his vehicle collided with the (much smaller) UFO. The car was damaged, and he suffered injuries including “welder’s burns” to his eyes. As with all UFO cases, there’s probably some mistakes and hoaxes in the mix, but the witnesses to these type of cases don’t generally follow the pattern of behavior of attention-seeking phonies.
RG: Vicki Landrum interpreted the incident at the time as a divine event, remarking as she observed the UFO something to the effect of: “That’s Jesus. He will not hurt us.” Some scholars have suggested that UFOlogy, or the UFO subculture, has clear religious aspects. Do you see any parallels between the pursuit of UFOs and the pursuit of God?
CC: That quote comes from Vickie attempting to comfort her grandson, Colby, during encounter. In the C-L case, I don’t think religious beliefs play much of a role, beyond the fleeting first impression the witnesses had about what they described. The UFO culture absolutely has religious beliefs, but they predate saucers and reach back into mysticism and Theosophy. When UFOs became a big news story in 1947, these believers were the first promoters of the extraterrestrial origin. The Contactees of the 1950s were an offshoot of this, and, directly or indirectly, a lot of that message of god-like aliens has become a fundamental UFO belief. We should not waste time hoping for parents from space to come down and solve our problems.
RG: Is there any more to be learned about the Cash-Landrum case in 2019 and beyond, or will the mystery remain unsolved?
CC: I have been surprised as more information has surfaced over the years from government documents to researchers’ archived files and correspondence, and there’s probably more to come. New information frequently requires a review of what you thought you knew about something, and, sometimes, it’s a challenge to discard beliefs built on bad information and falsehoods. We may never know exactly what happened on that Texas roadway the night of Dec. 29, 1980, but it’s a fascinating UFO puzzle, and demonstrates the worth of finding the facts beneath the fiction.
For more of Curt Collins’ work, especially on the Cash-Landrum case, visit his website, Blue Blurry Lines.