Originally created 06/18/97

Roswell braces for tourist invasion 50 years after `alien crash'



ROSWELL, N.M. (AP) - "I'll tell you one thing. They didn't have big eyes or long, stringy fingers," 80-year-old Frank Kaufmann says of the aliens. "No, ma'am. These were trim, good-looking people."

In 1947, Kaufmann and a handful of other men stationed at the Roswell Army Air Field stumbled onto what they say was wreckage of a spaceship northwest of town.

This year, the 50th anniversary of the story, Roswell is cashing in.

"Something happened here and it's probably the most credible UFO event in the world," said Mayor Tom Jennings. "We've taken that and developed it into a whole new industry - tourism."

Roswell, which sits on the plains east of the Sierra Blanca mountain range in southeastern New Mexico, expects its 48,000 population to double as UFO believers, researchers and the curious flock to town for a July 1-6 golden anniversary of the alleged crash.

Although the Army air field is long gone, replaced with an industrial park and municipal airport, what allegedly happened here lives on.

Kaufmann, a retired government intelligence agent, said he watched soldiers put five dead aliens into body bags and haul a damaged spaceship onto a flatbed truck to the post.

Glenn Dennis, a mortician at a Roswell funeral home, said he got a call from the Army post to send out several small, medically sealed caskets.

Army Lt. Walter Haut, then the post's public information officer, issued a press release that a "flying disc" had been recovered. The next day a new statement went out saying it was only a weather balloon.

"I guess they changed their mind," said Haut, 75.

Others didn't. The story spawned numerous books and is considered by UFO buffs to be the biggest cover-up in U.S. history. It was mentioned in the movie blockbuster "Independence Day," which featured a super-secret government lab where scientists had studied alien cadavers for decades.

In real life, people usually drove right through Roswell, a center of the state's oil and gas industry surrounded by dry grass, high plains hills and cattle ranches.

The antiquated courthouse on Main Street, the tree-lined neighborhoods, the quiet parks - all made Roswell a nice place to live, but a dull one to visit.

While no aliens have been spotted lately, strange phenomena have occurred.

The historic Plains movie theater at First and Main streets is now a UFO museum - one of two in town - with a big flying saucer on the roof.

The snow cone stand is selling "Alien Juice." A country-western band of alien figures cut out of plywood - "The Pleiadians" - is jamming in the storefront window of Gingsberg Music Co.

Michelle Watts, owner of the Quilt Talk fabric store, is doling out her newly designed fabric with aliens and spaceships.

"This boon could go on indefinitely. People just can't get enough of it," said Randhi Hesse as she rang up sales of alien T-shirts and mock spaceship crashes at the Star Child gift shop.

Anniversary contributions dried up for a bit when members of the Heaven's Gate cult killed themselves in March, claiming they were headed for a UFO.

"That's all but forgotten now," said Stan Crosby, the anniversary organizer. "We're booming."

Planned events include daily tours to the alleged crash sites, a Crash and Burn Extravaganza derby on Main Street, and UFO lectures.

Aliens are hot. "The X-Files" television show, in which FBI agents track the paranormal and extraterrestrial, is part of America's pop culture. "Star Trek" seems indefatigable, "Independence Day" made megabucks, and wasn't that Michael Jordan shooting hoops with aliens in the "Space Jam" movie?

"We don't get a lot of kooks," said Deon Crosby, director of the International UFO Museum & Research Center museum and Crosby's wife.

"OK, there's this old man who comes in and he claims to be an alien," she said, "but we see a lot of learned people, professors, doctors, professionals interested in researching this phenomena."