The last living witness
Colby Landrum: ‘If I could get some closure . . .’
We were both on the front end of things, back then –
me in newspapers, Colby Landrum as a reluctant young media celebrity.
Maybe I should’ve paid more attention to his demeanor than to his words.
It wasn’t like he was going to say anything he hadn’t already told
millions before on national TV. His grandmother and legal guardian,
Vickie, stayed in the living room, no need to coach the boy at this
I wrote that he twiddled a flyswatter between his
sat on the edge of the bed in the room he shared with his cousin. I noticed the
rims of his eyes were slightly pink, as if he’d “been swimming in chlorine.”
Nine years old, maybe a tad small for his age – Vickie said she’d had trouble
getting food in him lately.
I pressed the record button. His version of the events that forever rocked his
world along a rural stretch of highway outside Houston on Dec. 29, 1980,
spooled onto Side A of the audiocassette. Colby talked dispassionately about
the heat-spewing UFO, the flanking military helicopters, and the immediate
aftermath, the nightmares that woke him up crying. “Every night, I’d vomit a
whole buncha times,” he recalled in a monotone, “and they’d have to keep a pan
in my room.”
His eyes narrowed when I asked if he thought he’d ever learn the truth. “We’re
gonna find out what it is,” Colby vowed. “I don’t care how long it takes – we
ain’t giving up ‘til we find out what it is.”
I wondered, as we wrapped it up, if maybe I could get a few photos. I wasn’t a
shooter, the paper was getting this story on the cheap, as usual. But by now,
Colby was a pro – “You want me to hold my football or something?” I
interpreted his dutiful but unsmiling accommodation as poise. A few clicks and
we were done. September 1983.
I woke up one morning and I was 39 years older. The adults who were in the car
with Colby — grandma and driver Betty Cash — were long gone. But American
history had become unmoored from its traditions; all of a sudden, Congress was
acting serious about UFOs and national security. And I wanted to know if Colby
had any hope left.
The voice on the phone agreed to meet, but told me to lower my expectations,
that things had gone “sideways” for him lately. “It could be raining vaginas,”
he muttered, “and I’m gonna get hit with one dick right between the eyes.”
Whatever I was swallowing came spraying out my nose. But Colby wasn’t
I rummaged through some filing cabinets and discovered the negatives from
1983. I got them developed and studied the black-and-white prints as if for
the first time. Staring back was something I’d short-shrifted back then; the
face of a kid who’d been through the wringer was — for better or worse —
already toughening up. And for everything he’d said in the 20th century, his
expression back then signaled that he was also holding back.
Easter weekend, two weeks ago: In the living room at his latest address, in
Clinton, west Oklahoma, population 9,000, Colby Landrum pulled up a chair,
contemplated the image of the bullied child he once was, and began filling in
the back story.
“I didn’t tell nobody about it because everybody was saying, well, if we said
something it might go bad on us, so I didn’t wanna be telling all the kids at
school. But then,” he continued in his Lone Star drawl, “it all came out on
TV, and of course all the kids took it however their parents rolled, y’know?
People started messing with me and I took a lotta heat and eventually it just
got to the point where, when they embarrassed me, I’d jump on ‘em. I was
getting in fights left and right – I’d fight at the drop of a dime.
“People said look, it’s that alien kid, he got abducted by aliens or whatever.
They automatically went to the alien shit because the tabloids had loaded up
Bullied in school following the 1980 UFO encounter that made international
headlines, a 9-year-old Colby Landrum vowed to discover what happened back
then, “I don’t care how long it takes.”
We were nearly a month into spring, but on this day, winter hung on for dear
life, leaden skies whipping raw winds into “feels like” temps in the 40s. Down
and out, Colby had moved into this house two years ago to be with relatives.
After high school, he learned welding, became a pipefitting a supervisor, and
was pulling in $100k a year outside Houston; today, in Oklahoma, the roller
coaster was parked and he was earning subsistence wages by “laying asphalt.”
He talked about maybe someday returning to his roots in east Texas, where
suburban sprawl is swallowing the scene of the accident, or crime, or whatever
it was. For now, stability is its own reward.
I asked if he had heard about the roughly 1,500 pages of documents just
released by the Defense Intelligence Agency, or the secret AAWSAP/AATIP
initiatives in the Pentagon, or the new congressional language legislating UFO
accountability from an insulting Defense Department acronym called AOIMSG
(Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group). It was
all news to Colby. I asked if he’d read the landmark New York Times story in
2017, or if he’d seen the accompanying F-18 jet fighter videos.
“I’m almost embarrassed I ain’t followed this shit,” he said. “It’s almost
like I’m afraid to, like if I do, things might start coming back up on me.
It’s like – OK, I been here for two years now, knowing these people, and you
don’t want ‘em to look you up on the Internet and … you know? The people I
kinda like and trust, I say, hey, just so you know? If you look up my name,
you might kinda freak out.”
I showed him the lengthy Defense Intelligence Reference Document (DIRD) titled
“Anomalous Acute and Subacute Field Effects on Human Biological Tissues,”
produced in 2009 but only now released through FOIA. It was commissioned to
analyze “evidence of unintended injury to human observers by anomalous
advanced aerospace systems.” It argued that continued work on such injuries
“can inform (e.g., reverse engineer), through clinical diagnoses, certain
physical characteristics of possible future advanced aerospace systems from
unknown provenance that may be a threat to the United States interests.”
In other words, according to the 31-page report prepared by former CIA
forensic scientist Dr. Christopher “Kit” Green, a complete analysis of those
injuries might yield enough details to produce the schematics for replicating
whatever it was that created those injuries in the first place. Colby didn’t
say much. “I’m listening,” he said.
I pointed out the DIRD’s specific references to the “Cash-Landrum Incident,”
as well as the report’s mention of the 1996 “Schuessler Catalog of UFO-Related
Human Physiological Effects.” John Schuessler, co-founder of the Mutual UFO
Network, had compiled a list of 356 worldwide close-encounter cases, dating
back to 1873, in which observers’ health had been altered by exposure to high
strangeness. And Schuessler was a name Colby knew well.
An aerospace engineer at Johnson Space Center, John Schuessler was the first
researcher to take the story seriously back in early 1981. Thanks to the
outstanding archival work of Curt Collins, a virtual library of what happened
available at Blue Blurry Lines. It’s packed with primary-source material, handwritten notes, niche-journal
articles and a mixed bag of medical opinions, some of which blamed radiation
for the injuries, others citing exposure to chemicals.
On file are photocopies of Betty Cash’s scalp visible through clusters of
ragged hair that hadn’t yet fallen out, Vickie’s ghastly skin lesions, letters
from Texas senators John Tower and Lloyd Bentsen directing the victims to
contact the Judge Advocate Claims Officer at Bergstrom AFB. Also included are
links to contemporaneous media coverage, from the lowbrow Weekly World News
(“3 Survive UFO Attack”) and The National Enquirer (“UFO Terrorizes and Burns
Three in Car”) to local splashes in the Monroe Courier, the Houston Chronicle,
Bits and pieces of the mystery – ABC’s “That’s Incredible!” and “Good Morning
America,” HBO’s Undercover America, “Sightings” on Fox, NBC’s “Unsolved
Mysteries” – were heavily popularized during the Reagan years. Betty’s story
was the most gruesome. She told of being sequestered in a room at Houston’s
Parkway Hospital where attendants initially wore hazmat gear. Her daughter
described seeing her unrecognizable mother in the hospital for the first time,
raw skin peeling from her swollen face and arms, boils and bursting watery
blisters, everywhere, inside her nostrils, inside mom’s eyelids. Betty never
recovered. She gave up the diner she owned, moved back to Alabama to be with
relatives, and spent the rest of her life getting bad medical news. She died
in 1998 at 69.
By 1982, the story had generated enough buzz to prod an investigation from the
Department of the Army’s Inspector General. That’s because the witnesses
reported the UFO was accompanied by double-rotor helicopters, CH-47 Chinooks,
possessed only by the Army.
The paper trail includes a buzz-off note from the DAIG to then-freshman
congressman Ron Wyden – now on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence –
assuring him that no Army assets were involved in the incident. The three-page
results of the IG’s official query (with redactions) state the witnesses were
“credible,” and that there was “no perception that anyone was trying to
exaggerate the truth.” Furthermore, “the medical evidence of deterioration of
health seems almost irrefutable.”
But the IG’s job was to get the Army off the hook, not to identify the UFO or
the cause of the injuries, which included “blackened fingernails, constant
diarrhea, and diminished eyesight.” Concluded IG Lt. Col. George Sarran,
“There was no evidence presented that would indicate that Army, National
Guard, or Army Reserve helicopters were involved.” In 1985, a federal judge
tossed a Cash-Landrum bid to sue Uncle Sam for damages, citing lack of
There’s a remarkable link to a UFO Hunters episode from 2009, two years after
Vickie died at 84. The producers arranged for the first face-to-face meeting
between Sarran and the sole survivor, Colby Landrum.
On the show, the retired Sarran restated the findings from his ‘82 verdict.
“Twenty-three helicopters would be a real logistical operation, being so close
to a major international airport,” he told UFO Hunters. Houston International,
located less than 30 miles from the Dayton area, could offer no corroborating
radar evidence of the event. Nor did flight records from any regional
Army-connected facilities indicate they had birds in the air that evening.
When UFO Hunters confronted Sarran with his own handwritten notes, acquired
through FOIA, which stated “100 helicopters – Robert Grey (sic) airfield, came
in, for effect,” Sarran had no answer. “I …” he paused. “I have no idea why I
might have wrote that down.”
Thirteen years after that History channel episode aired, Colby still chafes at
the colonel’s response: “I wanted to whip (Sarran’s) ass.”
Robert Gray Army Airfield is adjacent to Fort Hood, home to the Army’s 1st Air
Cavalry Division, just under 200 miles from Houston Intercontinental.
Researchers agreed that only Fort Hood could’ve mobilized enough hardware to
stage an operation of the magnitude described by Cash-Landrum. But they
weren’t the only ones reporting military helos in the vicinity on the evening
of 12/29/80. A handful of Dayton-area residents, including a police officer,
stated they’d seen double-rotor helicopters in the mix as well, lights
blinking, flying low, as if hunting for something.
On a living room wall rests a small shrine to Colby’s late grandfather Ernest.
The shelf hosts a folded American flag, a portrait of the aging Army veteran,
an old watch, and a Purple Heart from World War II. “That man up there, he
almost give his life for this country,” Colby says. “Yet, he had to sit there
and watch my grandmother go through everything she went through. And the
government he fought for calls us liars.”
Details dim in the fog of memory, but the spectacle lingers: Around 9 p.m. on
12/29/80, Colby was wedged between Betty and Vickie in the front seat of
Betty’s new Cutlass Supreme. Vickie worked for Betty as a waitress at Betty’s
diner, and the two were in futile search of a bingo game in the shuttered
space between Christmas and New Year’s. As they headed for home on two-lane
1465 cutting through a pine forest, Colby was the first to see it.
“It looked like just a big ball of fire coming over the trees, and the trees
on both sides of the road were about 100 foot tall, so it was clearing that
and then some, maybe 80 feet, I don’t know.”
Betty hit the brakes as the thing began to cross above the opening in the
straightaway ahead, illuminating the woods below. But Colby had his eyes on
“As a kid, I was obsessed with Army-type things, so that’s what I’m focusing
on. Betty and grandma were talking about the object, but I didn’t think it was
scary because the helicopters were there. And when they seen the helicopters
they pulled up a little bit farther.”
Betty nudged the Olds maybe 100 yards ahead before stopping the car again amid
a blaze of heat. Betty said she had to turn on the air conditioner “to keep
from burning up.” Vickie would leave her left handprint in the dashboard.
Colby remembers the object on a leisurely course, “like a blimp,” but he kept
watching the choppers. “I counted 23 of ‘em, double-rotor deals,” Colby said.
“And they were in formation, like they were rounding up cattle or something.”
Afraid to go farther due to the heat, Betty opened the door to get out for a
better look. Vickie climbed halfway out the passenger side. Both women
described a diamond-shaped object making beeping noises and belching flames
from its belly, seeming to right itself with each “whooshing” blast, as if
experiencing stability problems. Colby said he never got that good a look
because “my grandma started hollering ‘Jesus is coming back!’ and told me to
get down on the floorboard. And that’s what scared me.” The women watched for
what seemed an eternity to Colby – 10 minutes? 15? Longer, maybe?
Vickie ducked back inside first. Betty tried opening the door handle but
burned her hand, and had to use her coat for a grip. As the weird fleet moved
on – “They looked to be in no great hurry,” Colby said – he, Betty and Vickie
drove ahead and kept watching until they turned toward home and the air show
disappeared over the horizon. End of encounter. Within hours, he and grandma
began experiencing varying signs of trauma. They checked Betty, immobilized on
her bed, into the hospital a day or two later.
As the news found a mass audience, speculation flourished in the vacuum,
ranging from space aliens to a secret nuclear propulsion experiment that
jumped the rails. Hacks like Aviation Week reporter Philip Klass
weighed in: “I believe the story is a hoax. There is absolutely no evidence.
The women’s story is supported only by the claim of Betty Cash that she had
serious health problems after the alleged incident.” For fellow debunker James
McGaha, the Army’s final word was good enough: “The military, in my
experience, does not lie.”
And then there were peculiar parallels with the so-called
Rendlesham Forest Incident, which unfolded at a U.S. air base in southeast England just days, perhaps
even hours, before the Cash-Landrum encounter. Over consecutive evenings
between Christmas and New Year’s 1980, officers and NCOs alike reported
interactions with glowing UFOs in the woods near the installation, which
warehoused tactical nukes. Some witnesses experienced radiation-related health
problems; former Air Force MP
John Burroughs, for instance, is unable to look at his own service-connected medical
records because they’ve been classified for 42 years.
All of which begs the question: Did Colby have health concerns he could
connect with 12/29/80?
“Well, right afterwards I was pretty sick, I mean, I was itching a lot, I felt
like a poisoned rat, like I was burning up inside. My whole body was feverish
and cold all at once. It’s hard to explain,” he said. “But remember, I was
down in the floorboard for most of it, so I was kinda protected.”
Colby’s had dental issues and kidney stones, and there are a couple of bumps
on the back of his head “I need to get to.” But nothing he’s willing to blame
on the encounter. “Anything long-term, it would’ve killed me by now, right?”
So far as he can remember, no one ever drew blood samples – “I was afraid of
needles, I think I would’ve remembered that” – but he suspects he was tested
for radiation. Decades ago, some strangers came out to the house “and they had
these little black bags that you stick your hand in or something, it was weird
… All I remember is a metal box and a black deal that went over your hand
when you stuck it in there. Like a shiny silver metal box.”
But then, some things never crop up in lab results, things he’d rather keep to
himself, guilt over things he can never recover. He thinks about Misty, his
wife, killed in a car wreck in 2009, and fatherhood has been a challenge. The
what-ifs don’t really matter anymore, but he’d stand a better chance of losing
his own shadow.
“Had that (UFO) encounter not happened? Maybe I would’ve lived a normal life
without being set up as this crazy kid at 6 years old. Maybe it affected the
choices I made, I don’t know, maybe I would’ve had a little different life.”
He paused. “Probably not.” Shrug. “We live by the choices we make, right, so
it’s all pretty much on me.
“Did it mess my head up along the way, though? Yeah, I’m sure it did. But one
thing you better learn early on is, you better fix it yourself or else it
ain’t gonna get fixed. If I could get some closure, that might make it
There’s a plaque on the wall, words arranged in the shape of a cross: “Amazing
Grace, How Sweet the Sound.” Colby lights a cigarette and looks off into the
At home in Clinton, Oklahoma, 48-year-old Colby Landrum, says Uncle Sam owes
him an apology for making him look like a liar.
“I don’t believe in —look, I’m sure they’re out there. But unless it affects
my life right now at this moment, I’m not gonna read into it. But whatever
hurt me didn’t have little green men in it. Whatever it was, was being
controlled by our people. It was not out of control. And there’s a record of
it somewhere. There’s records on everything.”
“Apologize. Say, ‘Look man, this is what happened. We couldn’t tell the whole
world but we had something going on that would’ve probably freaked everybody
out, but you’re not crazy.’
“That’s what I want to hear. I don’t need no money. The money ain’t gonna do
me no good. Make right by my family and tell us what the hell’s going on.”
The future? An ideal situation?
“I don’t set goals anymore. It’s hard to set two weeks in advance, to be
honest with you. I just go day to day and try not to look back.”
Without hesitation: “I’d like to work with the homeless, to be honest with
you. There’s people out there that don’t have any options at all. I’d like to
see what I could do to help people like that.”