Ken Storch and LJ Dalicandro are on a case, the case of a lifetime.
They pick an isolated booth in the corner of a suburban Denny's, light up thin cigarillos and give the restaurant the once-over before they start talking. When coffee arrives, Dalicandro whips out a buck knife to cut the top off a container of cream. Storch opens his creamer in the traditional manner.
Storch is a 21-year-veteran of a metro-Denver police force. Dalicandro, today dressed in jeans and lizard-skin cowboy boots, met Storch in 1984 on a cocaine bust at another suburban restaurant. At the time, Dalicandro was working as a "civilian undercover operative" for the DEA. The two, now both 48 and single, became fast friends and have worked investigations together ever since. But this is the biggest case they've taken on.
"What we're handling here is a criminal investigation," says Dalicandro excitedly, "because it's criminal for the government to hold this information from us."
While the stocky Dalicandro is almost manic in his enthusiasm for their current investigation, Storch is calm and composed. He leans his lanky body over the table and exhales smoke. "The only way I know how to approach this is from a law-enforcement perspective," he says. "I'm looking at it as a criminal problem, and there are steps I need to take in order get to the bottom of it. First I gather intel on these suspects. Then we put a program together to nail their asses to the wall.
"We do that by getting our data and then setting up a stakeout. For example, if I know you frequent Club J, I'll stake my ass out there until I see you. And in this case, Club J is a location in the southwest United States. And that's where my team and I will be, because all of my research has led me there."
But Storch and Dalicandro aren't going out into the field to chase down crooked DEA agents or anti-government forces. They're hunting aliens--and not the kind that immigrate illegally to find work, either. The two investigators think they'll find extraterrestrial activity at what they describe as "the new Area 51."
The original Area 51--"The Ranch," as conspiracy aficionados call it--is a high-security military base located in the Nevada desert. The base opened in the early Fifties and was the testing site for the U-2 and Stealth bombers. But many UFO hunters believe the installation also houses extraterrestrial specimens and artifacts collected from alien crash sites on Earth.
Storch and Dalicandro are convinced that the military has recently relocated covert operations to this remote base (the name of which they refuse to divulge) in order to avoid the scrutiny of people like themselves. But where the government goes, aliens will surely follow. And so these two are putting together a team that will stake out the new, top-secret base in hopes of "observing unexplained aerial phenomena and government activity."
They've already heard from dozens of potential expedition members who learned of their project through a "help wanted" classified ad and are willing to pay $100 each to go along on the stakeout. So far, candidates include an archaeologist, a preschool teacher and a Ph.D. of theology who claims that both she and her daughter have been abducted by aliens. ("She says it must be genetic," Dalicandro explains.)
In order to make the expedition a success, Storch says, he's got to have a team of open-minded people. "The purpose of our expedition is to add legitimacy to the UFO phenomenon," he says. "We're going out to gather hard scientific evidence. Look, I'm four years away from retirement and can't afford to be involved in some dog-and-pony show or hoax. I'm not going out there to take a picture of a mysterious light and pawn it off as a UFO. Of course I'd like to come upon an alien craft, put it on a trailer and haul it over to the Smithsonian. But I'm not going to fake it. I'd rather go out there and see nothing but keep the expedition legitimate. That's why we're not recruiting Billy Bob with one tooth in his head and a branch for a family tree for this expedition. We need credible professionals who can establish a chain of custody demonstrating who recorded what data if we do see a mysterious aircraft. An eyewitness account is only as good as the evidence that backs it up."
And since they plan on taking a group of twenty into the field, they'll have plenty of corroboration if they do run into something. More than two decades in law enforcement has taught Storch what will hold up both in court and in the public eye.
"The problem with individual eyewitness accounts is that they're subject to personal bias," explains Storch. "So what you do after an incident is immediately separate all the witnesses. After you interview all of them, what you end up with is a mosaic, because everyone picks up different things. One person notices that the suspect has a lazy right eye. Another sees the mole on his face. A third notices the gun he's carrying. You put all those details together and you've got something to work with. Especially if the witnesses are intellectuals with research experience."
And especially if the witnesses see not felons with weapons but aliens with--who knows what?
If their expedition later this month is successful, Storch and Dalicandro hope to attract a sponsor who might fund a more elaborate research project. Storch says he's already been approached by a few potential backers.
"The fact is that the point has been reached where the public needs to get this kind of information from the private sector," says Storch. "I think that over the past couple decades the U.S. government has lost a lot of credibility with the public. There's an undercurrent of skepticism out there now, so that I think that if the government came out with a study, the data would be perceived as suspect. I'd rather a private entity sponsor an extensive expedition after this one to give the study credibility and objectivity in the public's eyes."
But Storch admits this case has become personal.
"When it comes right down to it, I'd just like to answer the question for us," he says, motioning toward Dalicandro with his cigar. "I'd like to be able to sit down in the backyard with LJ 25 years from now over some Jack Daniel's and cigars and look him in the eye, knowing that we saw something special. I don't give a damn if anyone else believes us."
By now, Storch is considered a professional "ufologist." An episode of the A&E series The Unexplained, set to air July 9, follows him to Texas, where he investigates a 1980 incident involving two women who suffered severe health problems after an alleged run-in with a mysterious diamond-shaped aircraft.
The producer of that episode, titled "Close Encounters," is Kevin Barry. He met Storch four years ago when Barry was working on the television show Cops. "Ken instantly raises the level of the program's credibility," says Barry from his office in L.A. "He's passionate, but he's not a wacko. And his law-enforcement experience allows him to approach subjects like this from a different point of view than most other people. I had no interest in UFOs until I met Ken."
Storch's passion for the subject dates back to his days in the Air Force, monitoring communications in a Strategic Air Command installation. Although Storch is unable to divulge specific details about his first brush with unexplained phenomena--he signed a waiver before returning to civilian life, he says--it occurred at a time when tensions were already high due to the 1967 war between Egypt and Israel.
"I was down in the war room when we picked up five inbound aircraft over the Northwest traveling at tremendous speeds," says Storch. "At first we thought it was a Soviet submarine nuclear launch, but pretty soon we realized they weren't ICBMs, because they made course corrections--and at this time, cruise missiles didn't exist. We scrambled our bombers and went to DefCon Four [one step before a counter-launch], but these objects went right over Canada and into Russia. We came within a cunt hair of nuclear war, and there wasn't a word about it in the papers. That was the experience that capped my interest. I've never seen a UFO, but I've seen the aftereffects they cause.
"People ask me how I can experience something like that and still be a skeptic," Storch continues. "But I am. I feel very strongly that something is going on that the public knows very little about. Hell, I still don't know what those objects were. They could've been part of an Air Force test to see if we'd pick them up."
After leaving the Air Force, Storch became a police officer. Although he remained interested in UFOs, he kept his research, which included several trips into the desert to watch the skies, to himself. It was only after he met Dalicandro during a Littleton drug bust fourteen years ago that he started talking openly about what was becoming an obsession.
"I kept it private for a long time," says Storch. "There's an incredible stigma attached to it. A lot of people have been chastised in the past because the mainstream media did a lot of UFO-bashing. Whether it was by design or not, I don't know. But more than a few people were labeled 'kooks' because they believed in the possibility of extraterrestrial aircraft."
Being associated with UFO research can be devastating to a person's career, especially a police officer's. (His union representative went so far as to request that Storch not reveal publicly which metro force he works for, which Westword agreed to after verifying employment.) Storch still remembers an incident that occurred when he was working for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department back in 1976.
A Jeffco deputy responded to a call from a rancher who said that a strange aircraft was trying to burn his barn down. When the officer arrived on the scene, the rancher said that the thing had just taken off down the road. The deputy pursued it.
"He drives down the road," says Storch, "and the goddamn thing is hovering there right over the trees. The guy damn near wrecks his squad car, but he keeps on chasing it for a couple minutes before the thing disappears. But when it comes time to report the incident, he got totally chastised by his department and the media. When they got done with him he couldn't shit for a week, they reamed him so bad. It took me two years of working with this guy to get him to tell me his story.
"I'll admit that I catch a lot of flak from other officers in my department. They put tinfoil around my mailbox at work. Anytime calls come in about possible sightings, they'll say, 'Send Storch.' Some of the officers keep me at arm's length because of my quest. One guy even went so far as to say that if I continue to pursue this course, I'll be consumed by the dark forces and their false prophecy. But I'm thick-skinned. And if you're going to attack me, you'd better have your ducks in a row and your facts straight.
"I've opened up about the subject because I truly believe that something's going on. Is it E.T. coming? I don't know. I think it's just as likely that sightings can be chalked up to secret operations by our government or somebody else's government. But my question is: Why cover it up?"
Dalicandro admits that he was skeptical when Storch first broached the subject of UFOs. "Storch brought it up while we were hunting a couple years after we met," says Dalicandro, "and I was like, 'C'mon, Storch, pull it together.' But he challenged me to prove him wrong, and I couldn't. I guess the critical issue involved is to keep an open mind and stay objective. And that's why I don't have a problem with skeptics. Hell, I'm one of them. Because during an investigation you may have to change directions several times. If you have a bias, you can screw it all up.
"But unlike traditional police work, our UFO investigation is a release," Dalicandro continues. "It's a case you can work without all the political bullshit and red tape. Just a couple of jamooks out there doing something we enjoy. But then again, I figure if we get too close, the government will come knocking on our door."
Over the years, Storch and Dalicandro have spent countless hours out in the bush, gathering information and searching for hard evidence of UFOs. They tell a story about getting buzzed by black helicopters when they got a little too close to a high-security military base. Sometimes they outfit themselves in camouflage fatigues and face paint for night missions.
"One time we're out in the field," says Storch, "and we're pretty covert. Then we see this dust cloud coming our way and we're thinking, 'Oh great, here comes the contact with the Men in Black.' So we come out of this wash and a guy pulls up to us in a brand-new truck, and LJ, being the intel guy he is, asks him if he's seen anything strange out here.
"The driver goes, 'Just you two guys.'"
Storch and Dalicandro aren't the only ones searching the skies. On Monday, Stanford University physicist Peter Sturrock released a headline-grabbing fifty-page report on UFOs that he'd co-authored--the first scientific review of the topic in almost thirty years. That report seems to validate assertions by Storch and Dalicandro that the scientific community hasn't been able to debunk many sightings. "It may be valuable," Sturrock notes, "to carefully evaluate UFO reports to extract information about unusual phenomena currently unknown to science."
Last week's national convention of Mutual UFO Network members at Denver's Renaissance Hotel drew several hundred people, all of them looking for answers to unexplained phenomena. Taking a break from a seminar on livestock mutilations in southern Colorado, Michael Curta, the head of MUFON's Colorado chapter, discussed the challenges of ufology.
"We're not all a bunch of nuts," says Curta. "But the problem is, there really hasn't been a lot of substantial evidence to point me one way or another. And that's what we're all looking for. Ninety percent of all UFO sightings can be explained. One percent are outright hoaxes. The other nine percent is what we're interested in. That's why sites such as Area 51 have drawn a lot of attention."
According to Curta, the rumors about alien activity at the Nevada installation got started when Bob Lazar, a physicist working at the base, relayed stories about nine alien spacecraft stored in a hangar at Area 51. "Lazar claims that the government was trying to reverse-engineer the vehicles," says Curta. "Other people said that they have aliens in glass tubes out there as well. I don't buy that one, but Lazar seems pretty credible. Ever since then, the old installation has turned into the vacation spot of America. And the fact that the base is guarded by a private security force wearing uniforms with no insignias and the staff is flown in from Vegas on special 727s only heightens suspicions that something big is going on out there."
Although Curta is unfamiliar with Storch and Dalicandro, he, too, suspects the government has relocated many of its secret operations to another base because of all the attention focused on Area 51. But he warns that any expedition should be cautious about getting too close to the new installation.
"They operate by their own rules out there," says Curta. "They could drag you in and you'd never be seen again. I'm curious about what's going on out there, but I can't advocate storming the main gate, because not only does it make us all look stupid, but it could also be dangerous to your health."
Storch and Dalicandro aren't taking any chances on their expedition. They plan to run everything strictly by the law-enforcement book.
"LJ and I complement each other real well," says Storch. "While I'm a little more research-oriented, Bob is a bird dog. You turn him loose and he'll produce intel. I've seen him build cases in fifteen minutes. And when we've blended our personalities together on cases over the years, it's produced results."
But while their partnership has produced results when it comes to busting drug dealers and white supremacists--Dalicandro says he's been shot three times and had his throat slit--they're quick to admit that they need technical people with research backgrounds to make this expedition work. To find the right candidates, they've set up interviews with the people who responded to their ad.
Sitting outside a Starbucks coffee shop on a hot afternoon, the two scan the crowded parking lot, trying to "make" the guy they're supposed to meet in a few minutes. They look like they're waiting for a drug bust to go down.
Storch picks their guy out right off the bat. The applicant, Gene Romanski, is walking into the store when Storch intercepts him. An archaeologist in his mid-thirties with long hair and a mustache, Romanski sits between the two for his interview. He shifts in his seat as Storch and Dalicandro start asking him questions, their eyes concealed behind sunglasses while Romanski squints in the sunlight. Dalicandro talks excitedly, leaning into Romanski. Storch's questions are asked softly. Good cop, bad cop.
But after a few minutes the interview lightens up and the three men start swapping UFO stories and theories. UFOs playing cat and mouse with commercial airliners taking off from La Guardia airport in New York. Flying-saucer sightings during the Korean War. Animal mutilations in the San Luis Valley, with livestock cut up with surgical precision.
"They're very passionate about what they're doing," Romanski says after the interview ends. "And I've got to say that the fact that they're cops is an interesting angle. I was a little uncomfortable at first, but it didn't take long for them to put me at ease. I think that their law-enforcement and military backgrounds gives them a much better way to get this kind of information and promote it as a legitimate enterprise. After talking to them for a couple hours, I'm very interested in going along with them on this expedition."
And he's not the only one. Although the preschool teacher was also a bit leery at first, now she's hooked. "I was afraid that maybe they were a cult or something and they were going to get us out in the backcountry and brainwash us," she says. "But I met with them for three hours, and it didn't take me long to figure out they were on the up-and-up. The biggest draw for me is that they're putting together a really diverse group, and I think it's going to be mentally stimulating."
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Storch and Dalicandro take these interviews very seriously; they believe the makeup of the team is crucial to their expedition's success. This is professional business, not some star-gazing camping trip.
"As a person who's conducted criminal investigations," says Storch, "I know that if I'm going after something or someone, I need people with me who can do the job. It's just like when I was working on the SWAT team. I don't want to breach a house with some guy behind me with an automatic weapon and an itchy trigger finger. I won't go into a situation like that if I'm not comfortable with a guy who I feel is eager to take a life. If there's a member on the SWAT team like that who'll jeopardize the mission, I'll get them off. And I approach the expedition the same way."
Dalicandro's job will be to ensure that security is maintained. "I don't want someone out there who's infiltrated the group calling people up on a cell phone and feeding them our intel," he says. "If I don't know who they're talking to, it'll get my hairs up. It would be like if some guy on the SWAT team is calling ahead to the target house and telling them we're coming. And at the same time, we can't have a UFO come around and have the person on watch toking up and too stoned to turn on the camcorder.
"But let me tell you one thing," Dalicandro continues. "It's gonna come off. And when it does, people are going to say to themselves, 'That LJ wasn't such a wacko after all.'