At 4:00 a.m. on Wednesday, September 7, 1977 a peculiar thing happened in the sky over La Mesa.
Witnesses talk of flashing colored lights, loud humming and beeping sounds, and an upside down saucer in a white cloud which hovered above Grossmont Hospital for at least 50 minutes. Birds screeched and dogs yelped.
Awakened by the noise, Kathleen Canterino, a waitress at a local restaurant, got up and quickly stepped to her bedroom window. She looked out at the wide, sweeping southeast view of Grossmont Hospital, the shopping center, and Mount Helix.
Oh my God, Kathleen said.
The whole shopping center was covered with white light, Canterino recalls breathlessly, reliving the excitement.
It was beautiful. I tried to see what was making the lights. There were two small ones blinking that seemed like stars. Then I noticed the large, pulsating light floating just above the roof of Grossmont Hospital. It looked like a white, oblong blur, and it made a humming sound.
A nurse and a patient in the hospital would later report noticing something odd outside at about that time, as would Ira Klarr, a security guard at the shopping center. He says he saw a red light in the sky and heard a humming noise. Assuming it was a sheriffs helicopter, however, Klarr dismissed the oddity and went about his business. It would subsequently be noted that all sheriffs helicopters were grounded that morning.
Mrs. Canterino grabbed her telephone and began to call people. She called her friend Marna Azar first:
Look out your window, Kathleen urged. Tell me if you see anything weird.
Marna was frightened and had to be coaxed into parting the curtains to peek outside. It was the same thing she had seen exactly one week before from outside her apartment building. It was the lights.
Marna, a bright woman, a reader of Carl Sagan, had dashed inside that first time and locked the door. She had then gone to bed and the lights went away.
The following day, when Marna told her employer about the experience, he kidded her about drinking.
Canterino notes that when the saucer was getting ready to leave it started glowing, I could see all the colors. Now, here were more lights, here she was looking at them again, and once more she felt that fear in the pit of her stomach.
I looked for about 20 minutes while we talked, and then I decided I didn’t want to look anymore. Marna was scared.
Scary or not, real or not, UFO sightings occur more often than most people realize. More than fifteen million Americans, including President Carter, claim to have seen UFOs. Reports stream in daily from all over the world, many from scientists, policemen, pilots, and even astronauts. Moreover, evidence suggests that for every UFO report made, there are at least ten that go unreported. It may not come as a surprise, then, that a 1973 Gallup poll revealed that a 51% of Americans surveyed believed UFOs to be real.
22 year old Robert Garis is one of the believers. Garis is San Diego County’s field investigator for the Center for UFO Studies, CUFOS. Headquartered in Evanston, IL, is a privately financed, international organization of volunteers, academicians, physicists, astronomers, and other experts who have taken up the challenge of finding the solution to the UFO mystery.
Garis is a senior at UCSD majoring in political science. He is a calm, affable, level headed young man with the confident air of someone who knows what he’s talking about. Though he has been involved in UFO research since age 18, he has been with CUFOS only nine months. For such a steady and placid sort, Garis says some pretty unsettling things. He talks of his skepticism of the government’s secretive attitude regarding UFOs.
The government claims they don’t investigate UFOs anymore, he states evenly, yet if there’s really a hot sighting, they’re there before us. And we now have information that NORAD logs a couple of hundred sightings a month over the air space of the United States. If the majority of the American people were aware of the amount of evidence that we have, I feel they would be on the verge of demanding official government recognition of UFOs as intelligently controlled craft. After all, Garis adds, the possibility that other beings have evolved billions of years ahead of us is very feasible.
Shaking his head, he says:
If the public knew half of what we know, they’d really be jumping.
As a field investigator, part of Garis’s job is to go out and get information directly from the people who have experienced the sighting. He interviews the witnesses, scouts around for physical traces of a visit, and administers UFO Sighting Questionnaires. He also screens phonies, hoaxes, and simple mistakes. About 80% of the reported sightings Garis receives have simple explanations:
Aerial advertising, planes, helicopters or other aircraft, meteors, satellites, planets, tower lights, and even birds. The remaining 20% are usually a bit more difficult to figure.
According to Garis, Southern California is one of the best sighting areas in the country. The region, he says:
Has been above average in sightings for the past 20 years. Here in San Diego County, he gets dozens of UFO related calls per month, though most are simply requests for general information. We get a good sighting that warrants investigation maybe every six months, Garis states.
In the past year and a half there have been good sightings at Fortuna Mountain, near Miramar, the SDSU area, Burkhardt Hill in Winter Gardens, and another at Mount Helix. There was a suspected landing in Lemon Grove in 1973 with two young boys the only witnesses. On October, 17, 1976 independent witnesses saw a triangular shaped object with 6 amber lights gliding, at various times over Lakeside, San Diego State, Clairemont, & Miramar. Four people watched it through binoculars for 15 minutes. The object, Garis says, was definitely not a conventional aircraft.
But of all the local sightings in the recent past, Garis is most fascinated with Mrs. Canterino’s at Grossmont.
This is the best case we’ve ever had in San Diego, he says proudly. There’s never been a case around here like this. He is happy with the amount and quality of witness corroboration. Though the two smaller, distant objects have now been identified as Jupiter and Mars, the larger, close object, the saucer, remains unidentified.
We try very hard to explain these sightings as natural phenomena, says Garis. We keep a low profile, and when something really breaks we investigate the facts. We thoroughly examine a case, and if it is not explainable, it goes into the report to the scientific staff at the center.
Concerning Grossmont, Garis has checked all possible leads in his attempt to account for the incident. He has sought further astrophysical answers; he has contacted the FAA, all local military and police agencies, and all local airfields, he has publicly asked for absolutely anyone to come forward who can resolve the mystery.
The report on this one, this inexplicable case, has been sent on to the center. At this point, says Garis simply:
We feel we have a UFO.
There is little doubt in Kathleen Canterino’s mind about her UFO. Recalling her spirited telethon on that September morning, she says:
I was waking up everybody I could. I said to myself people are just not going to believe this, but they have to believe it because it's real. I was on the phone and standing there looking at this thing. It was almost like I could reach out and grab it. I could make out every single color of light and could even see the heat rising off the top of it.
She called the La Mesa Police Department.
They were very negative, Kathleen says, and didn’t want to be bothered. The lady who answered acted like it was nothing. I remember her laughing. I know other people called, but they didn’t send one car out. It just didn’t seem right to me.
The La Mesa police have no record of Mrs. Canterino’s call that morning, the taped incoming calls are on file for only 30 days.
We did not dispatch any units, says a courteous Captain Pleasance, because they were all being utilized. There was a high speed chase throughout La Mesa on the morning of September 7, according to the captain, and it involved every available squad car. It was checked on, he notes recalling some general conversation in the watch commander’s office at the time. The call was that they had streaked across the sky, and it was put out. As a follow up, the watch commander went on the radio and asked if any officers had observed anything, any UFOs, in the field. The response, Pleasance says, was negative.
So Canterino heard no sirens nor saw any badges. They didn’t want anything to do with it, she says.
What the La Mesa police dispatcher did do was to refer her to the San Diego UFO Research Organization, an independent group not affiliated with Garis’s CUFOS. She dialed. The weary voice on the informative end of the line told her that the disk like object floating out there was the Jupiter/Venus phenomenon. The man signed off abruptly, explaining that he had to get up early the next day.
Canterino stared at her saucer.
It was very still, she says, and it was in a white cloud which surrounded the whole thing. It was stationary for a long time, and then green, blue, and red lights started blinking. At the right of it, the two smaller lights that seemed like stars were almost blinking their lights together. The big one started to hum, and then it had a high pitched peeping sound. It seemed that the thing was trying to get the energy from the lights below. It was almost like on a dimmer.
Dissatisfied with her luck on the telephone, Mrs. Canterino decided to go outside and down the block to get closer to her UFO. Her daughter Sherry handed her the family’s instamatic camera on the way out the door. A concerned Mama refused to venture beyond her own locked screen door. I was afraid they were going to swoop her up, she says of Kathleen’s bravado. What about your children if they take you? she shouted as her neighbor dashed by.
Take care of them, came the reply from Mrs. Canterino. Mrs. Canterino found a vantage point and started snapping pictures.
I felt a very peaceful, inner calm, she says. I was trying to get as close as I could to communicate with the ship. It sounds silly, but I felt that if I could communicate with them, I would somehow be doing people a favor. I tried to talk telepathically, but I wasn’t strong enough. I’m not that educated. She laughs. Sherry was afraid I was gonna go with them.
She notes that when the saucer was getting ready to leave it started glowing...
I could see all the colors. Then it shot straight up and was gone.
It was almost a full hour since Kathleen Canterino had begun observing the UFO. Now it was gone, and she was left standing alone in the chilly September dawn. She walked back to her apartment.
I was so excited that I had no fear, Kathleen says. After I left I felt drained of energy. For a long 40 minutes it was an effort to move around.
More than two months after the sighting. Mama Azar would still prefer to believe the whole thing never happened, but it is difficult.
If the government could prove to me that it was something else. I'd go for it, I really would. But so far no one has come forth with any explanation.
Robert Garis says it is just such sightings which have helped the credibility of UFO research.
The phenomenon is now being accepted by a majority of citizens, he remarks, and scientists in every capacity are becoming seriously concerned. Major publications are beginning to treat the topic in a more accurate way. Even the police and military agencies are a little more free with their information. We have a lot of proof. We have a lot of hard evidence that is researchable from a scientific standpoint. Dreams don’t photograph and fantasy doesn't pick up on radar. They are here.
The questions are:
Where are they from and what do they want?
We have almost enough data now to draw those conclusions. Soon, in this decade, perhaps, we’ll have the answer. Kathleen Canterino does not need to wait for an answer. She has one now.
Before, I never knew anything about them, she says. You might see these stories in magazines and think Yeah, that's a possibility, that could happen. Well, it did. Her eyes shine with conviction, she is dead certain. I know what I saw, she declares. And until somebody can prove to me that it was anything different, I mean with cold, hard facts, I know that I saw a flying saucer.