This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of UFO Today magazine, but unfortunately the format did not allow for all the pictures used as supporting evidence, or for the three versions of the Cash-Landrum UFO illustrated by Christian Lambright. Here for the first time is the article in full.
The Cash-Landrum Incident: Getting to the True Picture
by Curtis L. Collins
I'd like to get to the bottom of the Cash-Landrum affair. The story there concerns Betty Cash, Vickie Landrum and Vickie's grandson Colby. The three were coming back from a bingo game when they saw a glowing (object) spewing flames above them in the sky. They stop the car to watch this thing, and as it moved off, they reportedly saw about twenty-three helicopters escorting it out. After they got home there were all sorts of physiological effects: Their eyes swelled, their hair fell out, they developed blisters, they were nauseated and weak. The event completely altered their lives.
Dr. J. Allen Hynek, OMNI Magazine, February 1985
The December 29, 1980 encounter near Huffman, Texas is one of best known, thoroughly documented cases in UFO history. Much of the enduring appeal of this dramatic and intricate case is due to the investigation of it by highly credentialed aerospace professionals. The image formed during their early casework permanently shaped how the case is viewed and understood. We need to look back to opening the of the case to examine how that picture was developed.
It was during Betty Cash’s second hospital stay for a mysterious illness in January 1981 that the story of the encounter began to emerge. Vickie Landrum had been making calls, desperately trying to get some help and answers. They wanted to know: what the object was, how it had injured them and who was responsible for it. When they saw the helicopters following the object, they become convinced that it was all some kind of military operation, and later reasoned that the U.S. government would have knowledge of it, and information that could help them. When Betty Cash was released from the hospital, she joined in Vickie’s efforts to reach someone who could help or provide answers. After some difficulty and delays, Betty contacted John F. Schuessler, and he began investigating the event as a UFO case.
John Schuessler worked for McDonnell Douglas at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. He had a private interest in unidentified flying objects and was a founding member of MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network), serving as its deputy director. In 1976 he founded Project VISIT (Vehicle Internal Systems Investigative Team), a Houston-based research group that chiefly consisted of aerospace engineers and other professionals who, in their spare time, applied technical expertise to the study of USVs, or Unidentified Space Vehicles.
Schuessler began by interviewing Betty Cash about the events, taking photographs of her injuries and examining her car. Vickie and Colby Landrum were interviewed one week later, followed by a trip with them the scene. By this time, Betty had moved to Alabama to be cared for by her mother and was unavailable to participate in further physical investigations. Schuessler shared his preliminary report in March 1981 with major UFO organizations, but the investigation continued.
|MUFON's John Schuessler. Left, Vickie, Colby Landrum and Betty Cash pose by Schuessler's car.|
Other members of Project VISIT participated in the search for additional witnesses and investigated the source of the helicopters. Schuessler also solicited Dr. Peter Rank, a radiologist associated with MUFON, to analyze the medical records to determine if radiation could have been involved in the encounter. The nature of the witnesses’ injuries became a controversial issue; they were cited as proof of the encounter, and yet the medical records documenting them were withheld. The unwillingness of the chief investigator to allow access to case materials has long been a topic of criticism from both UFO skeptics and proponents.
|Pre-hypnosis sketch based on witness testimony by Kathy Schuessler|
Over the next several months the media attention continued to build and formed a strange relationship with the case. The media seemed to take the lead in the production of new information and developments. Pleas in the news coverage for any additional witnesses to come forward yielded a few results- respondents claimed seeing either a UFO or some helicopters. The involvement of the television program “That’s Incredible!” led to two new developments. The witnesses were examined by doctors at Houston’s Methodist Hospital, and Vickie Landrum was questioned under hypnosis by abduction researcher Dr. R. Leo Sprinkle. Neither produced any clear solutions. While there was little progress in the case there was much activity, and it continued to look promising. The witnesses were still looking for their answers and cooperated, enduring the publicity in the hopes that it would lead to getting help.
Vickie and Betty weren’t content to let others do all the work, and in late July 1981, it seemed their efforts were beginning to show results. Senator Lloyd Bentsen replied by letter to Betty, advising her to contact Bergstrom Air Force Base to file a report and claim for damages, stating that “...they will be most willing to assist you in any way possible.” Betty took a flight to Texas, and together with Vickie and Colby, made the long drive to Austin to visit the base. Their hopes and expectations were high, perhaps unrealistically so, due to the effusive tone of the letter. Base officials merely questioned them about the events, then explained that the Air Force no longer investigated UFO cases. The witnesses were told there was nothing the Air Force could do beyond providing them with damage claim forms. They were profoundly disappointed, and it proved to be just one event in a long series of false hopes.
Looking back, we can now see that by the fall of 1981 the VISIT investigation had peaked, but media interest in the case had not. Schuessler presented the case for the first time at the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) conference in September. In his lecture he summarized the case, describing the events to date, offering many new details, including a fresh physical description of the mysterious object. Schuessler stated it as a “...large glowing UFO... The unusual aspect of the thing was its diamond shape. Small blue lights ringed the center and the points of the diamond seemed to be cut off. The light from the object was intense and lit the whole area.”
(Mimi Hynek, ed. The Spectrum of UFO Research. Chicago: J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies, 1988.)
When the case was featured in the November 1981 MUFON UFO Journal, it was accompanied by an illustration by Kathy Schuessler. The picture showed a clearly defined, glowing diamond-shaped UFO with a ring of lights around its center. The Schuessler description and picture served as the UFO equivalent of a police sketch, or “wanted poster,” and effectively became the face of the case.
|The post-hypnosis illustration by Kathy Schuessler with the ring of blue lights.|
The Schuessler illustration appeared next in the presentation and booklet for the 1982 MUFON Symposium in July and again later for the cover of the September 1983 MUFON Journal. The “lighted diamond” concept was repeated throughout UFO literature, and other artists’ versions of the UFO with a ring of lights began appearing. John Schuessler later started using a second painting by his wife that featured a more oval version of the UFO. This painting was used by Schuessler in his many slideshows and lectures on the case, and later as the cover illustration of his book, The Cash-Landrum UFO Incident. When the prime time television program Unsolved Mysteries featured the case, it based its depiction of the UFO on Schuessler’s report, introducing it to millions of viewers. The image of the otherworldly diamond played a defining role in the case.
Another byproduct of the media coverage was the investigation Department of the Army's Inspector General as to whether U.S. Army helicopters were involved in the incident. In the spring of 1982 Lt. Col. George C. Sarran spent several months checking the possibilities, and also traveled to Texas. There, he met with Schuessler, examined the cold leads and interviewed the available witnesses. Sarran considered the witnesses credible, but found no evidence to suggest any Army involvement.
The damage claim forms obtained at Bergstrom Air Force base finally came into play in late 1982 when Peter Gersten, the flamboyant “UFO Lawyer,” filed them on behalf of the witnesses. When the claims were denied, they then attempted to file a civil suit against the United States government, a contentious process that went on for the next several years. This proved to be another false hope, as there was never enough evidence gathered to satisfy a court. The witnesses were deeply disappointed when in August 1986 the case was dismissed without ever going to trial. Media coverage of the case faded away.
While the lawsuit developments were making headlines, UFO investigator and artist Chris Lambright tried to reach the witnesses for testimony of another sort. Lambright sought to paint technically accurate illustrations of the most credible UFO encounters. His first painting was of the classic 1964 Socorro, New Mexico sighting by police officer Lonnie Zamora. There Lambright used measurements from the official reports with the direct cooperation, testimony and feedback from the eyewitness. He wanted to apply the same methods to depict the Cash-Landrum sighting.
|Christian Lambright's array of diamond UFO shapes.|
After studying the case literature, Lambright’s first step was to draw a series of different diamond UFO shapes, which he sent to the primary case investigator, John Schuessler, asking him to indicate which was the closest match. Schuessler instead drew his own diamond shape and included a note about the midline ring labeling it as “small blue ports or lights.” With this drawing and the published descriptions as reference, Lambright sketched out a scene of the encounter, then sought out the eyewitnesses for further details.
On July 10, 1985, Chris Lambright and fellow researcher Tommy Blann paid a visit to Vickie Landrum at her home in Dayton, Texas for an interview, which they recorded for reference. Lambright opened the MUFON Journal to Schuessler’s article and asked, “Do you see this illustration? This was done by John’s wife and it looks like the whole thing is glowing and it’s got a series of lights or dots or holes or something around it.”
“I didn’t see any dots…nothing.” Vickie shook her head and explained that Schuessler must have taken the blue lights from Colby’s “Lite-Brite” picture of the object.
The Hasbro toy Lite-Brite has a screen with a grid of holes lit by a tiny light bulb, allowing simple pictures to be formed using colored translucent pegs. Betty Cash later described how Colby was preoccupied with drawing the UFO for weeks after the event: “Vickie went and bought him that Lite-Brite, to try to help him… she could not afford the notebook paper that that child was going through.”
Lambright moved on to other details of the craft’s flight and physical characteristics. Vickie described how they originally saw just a light at a distance through the trees. When it came down to hover over the road, they saw flames spewing downward, apparently in some kind of mechanical distress. The object would rise above the trees on a jet of fire, and when the flames diminished, it would lower.
Lambright sought clarification, “When the thing went out (flames decreased), I think most people think the thing was still glowing like a light bulb.”
“No, no, no! It was hanging there,” Vickie explained.
Shortly afterwards Lambright interviewed Betty Cash by phone. He asked Betty similar questions about the UFO and how it had been depicted.
“... they showed several small blue…it looked like portholes or lights around the middle of the object...but you don’t recall seeing anything like that on the object itself?”
“No sir!” Betty had either not seen or noticed the illustration. “I can’t imagine what picture it was that John put in the blue lights.” She went on to explain that the early case drawing she had seen was an accurate depiction.
Lambright asked, “In other words, it was a dark object with fire coming out of the bottom?”
“Right,” Betty answered.
The witnesses were not technically sophisticated, and they had difficulty describing just what they’d seen during their terrifying ordeal. The fiery light coming from the bottom of the object was blinding, and the witnesses had some trouble expressing the difference between the light and the object producing it. Vickie said, “Colby swore it looked like a big diamond. I couldn’t tell for I was so scared about him... It lifted and I knew it was at least half a mile or more across the main part of the light. It was bigger than a water tower.” (Schuessler, John F. The Cash-Landrum UFO Incident. La Porte: Geo Graphics, 1998, pp.42-43.) It seems that the original investigators were confused by this and reported the UFO itself as gigantic and glowing.
How and why the “ring of blue lights” became accepted is a bit more puzzling. Vickie had explained that Schuessler photographed Colby’s Lite-Brite picture, and it seems he interpreted the colored pegs illustrating the UFO’s center as a ring of lights. There was yet another ingredient for the blue lights that Vickie didn’t seem to remember; something revealed when she had been put under hypnosis.
On July 11, 1981 Dr. R. Leo Sprinkle put Vickie Landrum under regressive hypnosis for the coverage by National Enquirer magazine (and again later for the ABC network television program That’s Incredible!). The purpose of the hypnosis was to attempt the recovery of additional details about the sighting. During the session, two new details were produced: the scent of lighter fluid and the first mention of blue lights. Vickie is reported to have said, “It had some blue on it... Looked like little lights.” (Schuessler, 1998, p.134)
John Schuessler accepted the hypnosis material as genuine evidence, incorporating it into the case as additional witness testimony. He interpreted the lighter fluid smell to be the odor of helicopter fuel and the blue lights as a ring around the fuselage of the UFO. The hypnosis story was combined with the Lite-Brite picture and the mistaken glow to form a composite image. A new picture of the UFO was born - not of what the witnesses saw or described, but of a colorful, gigantic gleaming Unidentified Space Vehicle similar to those in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
There were no public statements from the original witnesses of a glowing UFO with blue lights, either before or after the hypnosis. It is worth reviewing the earliest testimony to examine what they were able to describe.
Betty Cash, early February 1981: “We could not get up close enough to detect what the figure was. Or I couldn’t at least, the lights were too bright in my eyesight.” She later added, “...this bright object that made the sky just split up and it looked like the world was coming to an end. It was a very bright red... (Vickie) looked out the glass but she said the light was to bright for her to see very much of the figure...”, (Schuessler, 1998, pp. 39, 253).
Vickie Landrum : (Vickie told the reporter) Colby insisted that it was “diamond-shaped,” and that “The light from it was just like someone was up in your eye shining a flashlight at 'em. Maybe he could see better from in the car or something, but we couldn't tell no shape to it. The light from it was glowing, lighting up the whole road like it would set it on fire.”
Gordon, C. (1981, February 22). “Two women share terror of mysterious encounter,” The Courier, p.1A.)
In the original published reports there was no mention of any specific markings or lights on the UFO. There were, however, a few UFO reports in Texas and other areas both before and after the incident, some of which involved UFOs with lights. VISIT sought comparisons and connections between the Cash-Landrum sighting and some of the other incidents, most notably the separate sightings of Glenda and Jerry McDonald also of Dayton; Frank Chinn of Echols, KY. (Schuessler, 1998, pp. 74, 75, 314, and Brookesmith, Peter, ed. The Age of the UFO. Orbis Publishing, London, 1984, pp. 160-161.)
As they were asked to repeat the story for the public, media and investigators, Betty and Vickie gradually accepted Colby’s “diamond-shaped” description and began using it themselves in talking about what they had encountered.
Witness testimony summarized from the first VISIT report:
“Betty described the object as just an extremely bright light with no distinct shape, Vickie said it was oblong with a rounded top and a point on the bottom, while Colby said it was totally diamond-shaped." (Lorenzen, C. (September 1981) Burns Follow UFO Incident. The APRO Bulletin Vol. 29, No. 8, p. 2.)
Vickie Landrum: “It was diamond-shaped and as tall as a water tower. It was a dull metallic color, and it just floated there.” (Horswell, C. (1981, September 25) State, private agencies probing claims of UFO encounter. The Houston Chronicle, p.1A.)
Colby made many pictures of the UFO, and one he drew with Vickie from March 1981 was reproduced in Schuessler’s book (page 237). It shows a featureless diamond-shaped object spewing flames downward. Betty Cash also drew the UFO during the interview at Bergstrom Air Force Base. It also depicts a featureless diamond-shaped object spewing flames downward. Vickie signed the drawing, agreeing that it was accurate.
With the legal case lost, the story of the witnesses was absorbed into the body of UFO lore, becoming little more than a parable about the evils of a cover-up by the U.S. government. Along the way, a crucial question went unasked: How did something as basic as the description of the UFO get so distorted and then become recorded inaccurately in the case history?
As personal computers became more prevalent, the Computer UFO Network developed. Originally conceived as an online bulletin board; Chris Lambright joined them and led the implementation of the CUFON website. The site collected and archived important UFO material, including Cash-Landrum case documents. In 1994 Betty Cash provided them with a tape of the pivotal 1981 Bergstrom AFB interview, which documented lengthy testimony from the witnesses to U.S. military officers. CUFON published a transcription of the interview online, making it public for the first time.
Also in 1994 Lambright briefly discussed his interviews with Vickie and Betty on a UFO Internet forum. He mentioned the discrepancy of the UFO picture and details as an indication that there might be other problems in the original investigation of the case. In 2003, Rebecca Keith shared Lambright’s message on the forum by UK researcher James Easton, where it could find a wider audience. Ten years later, I came across Lambright’s comments there, and tracked him down to get the details. We’ve continued to correspond on the case, and he recently told me:
“I never did finish the oil painting I originally showed to Vickie Landrum, though I think it's still in storage somewhere... more recently I tried my hand at a rendition using a 3D program...and you get a great idea of how light effects the entire scene. It's still a guess on how bright the flames really were, and how reddish they were, etc. What really becomes obvious is how dark a dark grey object would have been in the sky, and brings home what Vickie said that if it hadn't been for the flames they might not have seen it at all.”
Lambright completed two variations of the scene, showing different degrees of illumination from the flames. This is is a unique effort by Lambright, finally a realistic representation of the scene as described by the witnesses themselves.
Illustrations copyright Christian P. Lambright
|Version 1: All illumination comes from the downward flames, shown here almost dormant.|
|Version 2: The flames become more powerful as the object rises.|
|Version 3: Another view, depicting the blinding light that lit up the whole woods.|
With the documentation that the circulated UFO description was in error, doubts arise about how other data was gathered, evaluated and represented. There was no police or Air Force investigation at the beginning of this case, and the only the documentation was the elusive medical records of Betty Cash. About all we have to work with is the media coverage, and the parts of the VISIT investigation that John Schuessler chose to share. The Cash-Landrum case deserves a fresh look and should be reopened.
The passage of time closes some doors, but others may open. Betty Cash died in 1998, and Vickie in 2007, leaving only Colby Landrum remaining as a primary witness. The helicopter personnel who participated in the operation are nearing retirement age and could now discuss this case without the fear of risk to their military careers. Others who were involved may still be alive, and it is possible that once-secret government documents could now be available. The VISIT case file also needs to be opened for whatever cold leads it may provide. There is yet hope that the curtain of secrecy can be parted to provide what the witnesses have fought so hard to find - answers.
Update: The original VISIT report by John Schuessler has since become available, along with many other documents on the case. See:
A special thanks to Christian P. Lambright whose input into was invaluable. Chris' interviews with the witnesses, artwork, investigation and insight provided the foundation for this article. Chris has a website http://www.xdeskpublishing.com/, where more information can be found on his book, X Descending.