In 2015 I was really hyped about the release of my second book, Monster Hunters: On the Trail with Ghost Hunters, Bigfooters, Ufologists, and Other Paranormal Investigators (Chicago Review Press). Writing the book had been a blast– I had travelled around to meet investigators and go on Lake Monster and Bigfoot expeditions, went to a UFO conference, and spent several long nights trying to detect evidence of ghosts, among other adventures.
As I was thinking of book promotion, I had this light bulb moment– why not create an event that would showcase my work, fill a niche, and be hella fun? I could invite some of the people I had met while working on the book as guest speakers! I knew a ton of cool artists that could be vendors! I found a venue– the Irish Heritage and Cultural Center, located in an old (probably haunted) church that didn’t cost an insane amount to rent out. I was all in.
I started to assemble a line-up of speakers and turned to people I had met in my research like Noah Leigh (founder of the Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee) and Allison Jornlin (founder of American Ghost Walks) for suggestions on potential guest speakers. We had a good line-up of speakers on cryptozoology as well as ghost experts– but I wanted some UFO talks. Two of the suggestions were Donald R. Schmitt and Mark O’ Connell.
While doing research for Monster Hunters, I had encountered Schmitt– I had seen him give a talk at the International UFO Congress in Arizona and realized I had probably read one of his books about the Roswell UFO crash in the 90s– as a teen I had been on a kick reading about UFOs, as teens tend to do. You might call Don “The Roswell Guy” as he’s written several books on the subject. I had no idea Schmitt was from Wisconsin and thought, wow, that’s cool, so I contacted him and he agreed to give a talk about Roswell.
I was also told that Wisconsin was home (at the time) to a writer named Mark O’ Connell, who had penned scripts for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine and was working on a biography of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, astronomer and pioneer of UFO studies. I thought, wow, that’s also cool, and I contacted him and he agreed to give a presentation on Wisconsin UFO cases. So now I had a great conference lineup of ghost researchers, Bigfooters, a Goatman expert, a panel that I was going to moderate, and the UFO talks and I started to post info about them online.
I got a polite email from Mark saying that he saw that Don was going to be at the event and that he did not really get along with him, so he wanted to prevent an awkward situation– for example putting them on a panel together. I didn’t find this to be too unusual– while working on Monster Hunters I had encountered many paranormal beefs. I spoke to a member of a ghost investigation group almost entirely composed of ex-members of a different group. I learned about Bigfooters who hated each other with a big, hairy passion. There are many rivalries in all the paranormal fields. I responded to Mark and told him that they would not cross paths. I still don’t know exactly what their dispute was about, but it had something to do with the J. Allen Hynek research (I think, don’t quote me on it).
The day of the conference was exhilarating and all kind of a blur. I was (at times literally) running around making sure things were running smoothly. We had a good crowd. There had not been any sort of paranormal themed conference in Milwaukee for over ten years and we got a good reception. Don was the last speaker of the day, and by this point I could take a breath and grab a beer (this is Wisconsin, where people drink anywhere and everywhere and the Irish Center’s bar was busy all day). I walked into the main room of the Irish Center to see how Don’s talk was going over. I looked up at the second floor balcony of the room, and noticed that Mark and his wife were sitting there, watching Don. Well, well, I thought. Keep your friends close but your enemies closer. Or something like that.
The after party was at Shaker’s Cigar Bar (probably haunted) and I sat down and had a drink with Mike Huberty, Allison Jornlin’s brother and organizer of American Ghost Walks. Mike had really saved my ass that day, as I am all thumbs with technology, but he is a mix-master, so he got things up and running on the main stage. We somehow got on the topic of Don and Mark and Mike made the joke that they should get up on stage and debate each other. We laughed about it.
Inspired by the success of the 2015 event I decided to do the conference again and to GO BIG in 2016. I’m not ashamed now to say that I got in over my head. Too big, too fast. I decided to do a 2-day event, switching the location to facilities at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. There was so much going on– 2 speaker rooms, a workshop room, a vendor floor, a livestreamed media table, a paranormal sound booth, there were guests like Loren Coleman and Katrina Weidman being flown in, a VIP dinner party, a film screening session. I knew the enormity of the task and began planning in September 2015, a bit over a year from the October 2016 event.
The 2016 conference took over my life, I lost a shit ton of money that I didn’t have, and afterward I sank into a depression that stretched through the rest of that fall and winter. But I’m getting off track. I started lining up guests and emailed Don about returning as a guest speaker. His reply was quite intriguing and included this sentence: “I would be willing if it could also include a debate between me and Mark O’ Connell over Roswell.”
Of course I was into the idea. Conference programming can sometimes be dry and dull, so this was an exciting proposal. I also really believe that debate is a valuable skill and that society would be better off if more people learned how to think critically and present arguments. I emailed Mark and he said he was “very interested” as long as acceptable terms were established. Game on! Now I just needed to figure out how to properly run a debate.
After some searching I found David Henning, Director of Debate and Forensics at Lakeland College in Plymouth, Wisconsin. His credentials were impeccable and he was not involved at all in the world of paranormal research and as such was an impartial moderator.
David received, as many innocent people have over the years, a very strange email from me requesting help. I was thrilled when he replied that he was willing to establish debate rules and moderate. David gave me a couple of debate formats that might work and we agreed on one that would total 60 minutes with an additional 15 minutes for questions from the audience. Each speaker would have a 3-minute opening statement, followed by six topic questions with each speaker given 2-3 minutes response and alternating debaters given a 1 minute rebuttal.
David explained to me that “this format forces debaters to focus on word economy and clear, concise issue analysis.” (gavel cracks) Sounds good to me. The questions were to be shared ahead of time so the debaters could prepare. I’ve done a lot of non-fiction writing, everything from short blurbs to books, and a key ingredient is usually asking the right people the right questions, so I racked my brain on topics. But I had time, after discussion with all parties we determined it would fair to give the debaters questions one month before the debate to prepare. I put the debate aside and worked on the hundreds of other details of the conference that needed to be attended to.
Fast forward to September 2016, a month before the conference. I assemble the questions, like “Is it time for UFOlogy to move on from the Roswell event?” and “What impact has the Roswell Slides had on UFOlogy? Has it damaged credibility in the UFO field?” To explain that last question, Don had been involved in revealing photos that had been found on slides in a case that had been sitting in an attic for decades. One appeared to show an extra-terrestrial corpse, and the photo date was 1947, the same years as the alleged Roswell crash. Upon being revealed, researchers were able to deblur a placard in the image and discovered that the photo was of the mummified remains of a child that were on display at a museum.
Don replied that he felt the questions were “slanted” against him. I replied that I was glad to talk to him about suggestions on changes to the wording, but he replied “Let’s go with what you have. No problems.” At this point I didn’t have time to ask twice– I was being bombarded with questions about the conference day and night.
My next message from Don said that in lieu of his 3-minute opening statement, he wants to show a video instead. This new twist was unusual, so I turned to David Henning for his opinion– he was the expert after all. David was inclined to reject the video idea entirely, but after some discussion was agreeable to it if all parties involved can view the video. Don wasn’t happy. When I told him David’s determination, he replied:
“Why don’t I send you all my answers as well? Is this a debate or a scripted reality show? I have participated in many debates through the years and have never been asked to provide my playbook before the game.”
This made me wonder what the hell does he have on video that was so secretive and important? Did he hire a private eye to tail Mark and capture some salacious indiscretion? Did he have actual film of the Roswell aliens? In any case, I had a sinking feeling that the debate was probably off.
After several days of back and forth, Don relented and sent me his video opening statement. I paused what I was working on to check out the video and it was… a clip from a George Carlin stand-up routine?! One of the classics where Carlin is angry and speaking out against the club we’re not a part of– the corporations, the fucking government. I use the F-bomb here because George uses a variation of it six times in this clip, but in the video Don gives me all the profanities are muted out. (Remember that detail.) You can see the exact clip right here (and yes I did title it “George Carlin Reveals the Secret Plot to Cover Up the Roswell UFO Crash.”)
I was quite baffled. This is what all the drama was about? I guess the video message was that “they” were covering up Roswell and that Mark was complicit in it? I can only speculate, but I think Don thought if he could surprise everyone with this clip that Carlin’s ranting would throw Mark off, unnerving him. Maybe in the same way chess master Bobby Fisher would try to throw his stoic Russian opponents off by demanding the room be rearranged, the lighting changed, and by making erratic movements on the chessboard.
As moderator, David was not happy with this twist as he thought Don was just trying to turn the debate into a “farce.” Mark was puzzled, but ok with the video, except for his concern that Don would swap the video out at the last second with something else and wondered if we had a killswitch in the event this happened. I assured him that we would be playing the video Don sent and wouldn’t allow him to switch it out.
As it turns out, Mark’s suspicion wasn’t unfounded. Right before the debate, Don approached Mike Huberty, who once again was helping us with A/V stuff, and handed him a jumpdrive, asking him to play the video on it as his opening statement. Mike knew something was up, and already had the original video cued up and ready to go, so he just played that. Afterward, Mike handed me the jumpdrive and explained what happened. The evidence sat in my pocket over the hectic weekend, but when it was all over, I popped the drive into my laptop to see what Don had intended to swap his ringer with. And it was…the exact same video, uncensored. It looked like Don’s secret plan was to try to rattle Mark with colorful fucking language.
The debate itself went well, I thought. After the strange video open, Mark and Don were both well-spoken, interesting, and followed David’s format, ceding to his gavel when time was up. After answering questions submitted by the audience, they shook hands and parted ways.
But you can make the determination of who had a better argument for yourself. Here’s an audio recording of the entire debate. It starts right after the two debaters were introduced: Tea‘s Weird Week Special: The Roswell Debate, Milwaukee Paranormal Conference, 2016 (podbean.com)
It took me 5 years to write about this, I think, because I needed some distance from it. Personally, 2016 was a pretty bad, painful year for me. The whole conference was stressful, and trying to negotiate the Roswell Debate was part of that stress. I’m having a really good year in 2021, so I think that now I can reflect. Here’s my thoughts on the Roswell Debate years later…what a goddamn strange thing that was, from beginning to end! But I’m so glad it happened. It was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a debate between two guys who have made really interesting writing careers related to the topic of UFOs, so thank you Don and Mark for participating, and to David for answering my weird invitation to moderate. I will always remember it, fondly now, as a wild and crazy chapter of my life.
Post-script: Mark O’Connell’s book, The Close Encounters Man: How One Man Made the World Believe in UFOs came out in 2017. Donald Schmitt’s latest title in Roswell: The Ultimate Cold Case (co-authored with Thomas J. Carey).
The Milwaukee Paranormal Conference is happening Sept. 24-26 at various locations. There are no debates planned this year. More info can be found here: Milwaukee Paranormal Conference Returns Sept. 24-26, 2021 | Milwaukee Paranormal Conference (milwaukeeparacon.com)
The Tea’s Weird Week podcast returns with Season 3 next week! We’re kicking things off with an interview with Lyle Blackburn– author, musician, lecturer and narrator of the new documentary Skinwalker: Howl of the Rougarou.
Apocalypse Any Day Now: Deep Underground with America’s Doomsday Preppers (2019, Chicago Review Press)
Wisconsin Legends & Lore (2020, History Press)