16 Mar 2015
Investigation of Maury Island UFO ‘Incident’ haunted by coincidence
Earlier this year, I set out to do a simple follow up to a 2013 story about a couple of local guys and their UFO movie called “The Maury Island Incident.” But soon after my first interview with the moviemakers, I found myself on a little trip through the looking glass into a world where coincidence spawns suspicion, and fact and myth get all tangled up.
Example of the UFO frenzy that gripped the country and our region post WW2. (Image is part of the front page of the Seattle Times, July 27, 1947)
First, though, the movie. It is about a UFO sighting that itself got all tangled up in lies, manipulation, recantation, 1947 FBI memos, a B-25 plane crash and, possibly, the first encounter with the infamous and mysterious “Men in Black.” We first wrote about it under the headline: ‘The Maury Island Incident’ movie revisits UFO frenzy, rumors of a coverup.
Since then, moviemakers Scott Schaefer and Steve Edmiston have had some success with “The Maury Island Incident.” The 30-minute movie is a moody deep-dive into the June 21, 1947, UFO sighting from a boat in the Puget Sound just off the island. It mainly revolves around the interaction between the boat’s pilot, Harold Dahl, and a dark-suited man who knows more than he should and wants Dahl to clam up about the UFO.
The short version of Dahl’s story is that he, his teenage son and others on the boat saw six doughnut-shaped disks over Puget Sound. One of the disks was in trouble and rained burning fragments that killed his dog and injured his kid.
After a few weeks of intense scrutiny over the story, Dahl said it was a hoax — but the moviemakers wonder if the real hoax was that Dahl said it was a hoax. They’ve found declassified FBI documents that state variously: Dahl “did not admit to (name blacked out) that his story was a hoax but only stated that if questioned by authorities he was going to say it was a hoax because he did not want any further trouble in the matter.”
“As a lawyer,” says the movie’s writer and Seattle lawyer Edmiston, “I’m thinking: That’s my case. And that case is: This is a hoax only because of the convenience of somebody trying to make this horrible event go away. And I think that’s interesting, really interesting.”
But more on that later … right now, we’ll just note that the duo got a grant from Washington Filmworks, have shown it at many film festivals (named “Best UFO Short Film of the Year” at the biggest UFO-focused one), made a deal with Seattle’s IndieFlix to publish it in shorts as a web series and then got their series picked up by Hulu. They’re working on creating a TV series.
Enter the FBI memos and Jack B Wilcox
But, when I settled in to do a brief story on the movie’s latest successes … a simple question derailed me for a spell: Did the FBI agent who wrote the declassified FBI memos central to the movie even exist?
I can’t delve into the ‘truth’ of whether Dahl’s story was a hoax or his claiming it was a hoax was the real hoax, because while the truth may be out there, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to find it. But I hit the internet to simply find out if the author of those 1947 memos — FBI agent “Jack B Wilcox” — even existed.
After about 20 minutes, I ran into an obituary for an FBI agent named Jack Billings Wilcox, who joined the FBI in 1938 and eventually ended up in Seattle with his FBI-employed wife. Could that be my man? How would I know? While there can’t be too many FBI agents of his age with Seattle ties with that name … it’s still not a direct link.
But then a haunting feeling started to seep in as I looked through the looking glass at the first line in the obituary: “Jack Billings Wilcox died Monday, February 2, 2004, in Kennewick, WA.”
First, I was born in Kennewick. And, I was raised in Billings, Mont. Okay, not that big a deal … but wait!
Mr. Wilcox signed his famous UFO report (below) “J B Wilcox.” My initials and my father’s initials (which he had painted on his trucks) are … “J B”!
Fine, still nothing to put aluminum foil over my head about, but I couldn’t help but feel I was on the right track, what track exactly I couldn’t say or why or to what end … but I had to keep following the breadcrumbs … if that’s what they were.
Then the obit said Wilcox had built a house on Brown Island near Friday Harbor … My aunt owned a restaurant in Friday Harbor a few decades ago. Geez. I put the story away for a few days. But then came back to it to see if I could answer that one other question: How can I tie this Jack B Wilcox with the signatory on that FBI document?
The most secretive man you’d ever meet
The obit also listed Wilcox’s surviving family members. I went internet hunting and eventually found his surviving kids. His daughter (she’s a nurse and my aunt is a nurse!) didn’t follow up with me for the story after our first conversation, so I’m leaving her out of it.
But Wilcox’ son, Mark Wilcox lives in Woodinville and had this to say almost immediately when I called: “My father and mother were probably the most secretive, closed-mouth people that you would ever know.”
Consequently, he didn’t really know much about his parents’ service years. He wasn’t even sure his mother was in the FBI. However, could he link the obit, his father and the Maury Island incident? (As an aside, Mark noted that his godfather was a top manager at the Seattle Times … Man, enough with the coincidences, I thought.)
“The only reason that I am even familiar with the issue you’re discussing,” he progressed, “is my son was on the internet trying to find something out about his grandfather, because I couldn’t tell him, and he found something …” about some UFO sighting.
First, Mark connected his father with the obit … so, that’s one. And, then the kicker: Could he have been the agent who signed a 14-page memo recounting the entire incident and his interviews with Dahl and others? Mark and I agreed there couldn’t be very many agents with that name, for sure. But that’s not a direct link.
Then it hit me … I sent him a copy of the famous memo and … “That’s his signature.”
What we know about Jack
“When it came to what they did and what they knew,” Mark said, “it was almost like when they left the bureau they maybe signed something that said, I won’t talk about anything that I did. So, I just don’t know. I wish I knew. I know that they had to have lived really interesting lives. I thought my mother was a clerk or something. To be perfectly honest, I do not know.”
Caption provided with photo: WGY announcer Bob Hanes (left) interviews agent Jack Wilcox of the FBI for WGY’s The FBI in Action program. In the late 1940s, Wilcox wrote a report for the FBI regarding the alleged sightings of UFOs in Washington State. This photograph was taken in 1943.
(Photo and caption is courtesy of MiSci Schenectady NY and Rick Kelly and John Gabriel)
His father loved the outdoors, loved to sail, was an “incredible woodworker” (Mark has several pieces of furniture his father made) and could be very focused. He started getting into shape when he was 60 years old in order to build that house on Brown Island.
“I mean this guy was really something,” Mark said. “I mean very determined, very focused, a very talented guy when it came to building stuff. … He was just the very focused kind of person you could imaging being somebody who could run the FBI for the region.”
What kind of a father was he?
“He was a great dad. Taught me how to play baseball, how to fish, how to do brick work, how to frame. Basically, everything I know how to do he taught me.”
When I asked if Mark had any photos of his dad, he said he had one fore sure. I told him I’d zoom to Woodinville and make a copy of it. But he called me back soon afterwards and said the photo must have been lost in a fire that had destroyed much of his belongings years earlier.
Wow. So, I was back to square one for a photo, but then found the one above, which Mark said was of his father. I sent it to him, and he thanked me for bringing at least that much of his father back to him. (Oh, and, a great deal of my own family history was lost in a flood!)
Wilcox the taskmaster
Below is a little tidbit from a 2007 interview for the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI with a retired agent that I unearthed just after talking with Mark. It sheds a little light on how our agent was perceived by his fellow agents:
To back up just a minute, during training we had a continuing reference made to the Seattle Office, warning us that it could be a difficult place to work. The SAC (Special Agent in Charge) at the time was known to be a stickler for performance and the rules and regulations.
His name was Jack Wilcox. Mr. Wilcox, I believe, was an accountant, and later became a banker. But they had a limerick that they kept repeating in training class.
“Jack be nimble,
Jack be quick,
Jack Wilcox is a –“
Put your own words.
Back to reality … such as it is
I had a lot of fun with my little trip through the looking glass. Of course, all those coincidences don’t mean anything … unless … somehow they do. But, you can lose your mind and years of your life trying to get to the bottom of this kind of thing.
Just ask “Maury Island Incident” director/producer Scott Schaefer.
“I was a director on a show in the ’90s called ‘Sightings,’ “ a paranormal television series that was originally called “The UFO Report: Sightings.”
When he started working the show, he assumed he’d meet wackos as well as some interesting people. Then, while on an episode in Alabama about cow mutilations and living in a dumpy hotel, he became convinced that the mutilations were … well … special. A veterinarian had explained how whatever laser or high-heat tool that had been used on the cows wasn’t readily available technology, to say the least.
He also camped out at Area 51.
“I went down the rabbit hole of Ufology,” he said. “I started falling into this, which a lot of people do, where I became obsessed with it. This was before the internet, so I’m one of the early users of CompuServe. I’d bring my phone, PowerBook 140 and dial up at night and go onto CompuServe forums on UFOs.
“Anyway, it took my life over for two years.”
What about now, what about the whole Maury Island UFO deal?
“I think something happened,” Schaefer said. “I don’t know if it was aliens or a military test, but something did happen because it was a pretty detailed description that didn’t change. And it was unusual in that it happened at 2 p.m., so it was not a misidentified aircraft.”
And about Dahl’s insistence that it was a hoax?
“If it is a hoax, we’re dealing with some of the best story tellers of the 20th Century, because they created the mythology of the ‘man in black’ with this hoax. Until then, there had never been a ‘man in black’ associated with any kind of unusual sightings, flying discs. This is the first one. So they (Dahl and his cohorts on the boat) created one of the most fantastic antagonists in science fiction history.”
Edmiston chimed in:
“I don’t have an opinion about what happened, but something happened that caused them to come up with a fantastic story. I think the people that just make stuff up say, ‘Uh, well we were in the woods and we saw this thing.’ This is not that story. They came up with an incredibly complex detailed story.”
Now it’s your turn. Do you look to the skies? Do you scour the documents?
… or, just enjoy the film!