On an unseasonably warm fall evening seven years ago, Stan Romanek was closing up Lakewood’s Bicycle Village. Aside from the balmy air, it was an ordinary night— until several panicked people ran through the shop’s front door. Something, they said, was hovering in the night sky.

Romanek, along with the others, went outside to take a look. What they saw—a large blinking light—could only be described as an unidentified flying object: It made no sound and clearly wasn’t an airplane or a helicopter. The UFO hovered for a few seemingly interminable minutes as Romanek and the others looked on, and then it simply flew away into the darkening sky.

Minutes later, as a shaken Romanek climbed into his car to drive home, the UFO returned. Romanek wound his way through Lakewood’s streets, and, for the entire 20-minute drive, the UFO shadowed his car. When Romanek arrived at his apartment building, the large blinking light still hovered above him. He ran into his home to get a camcorder, but by the time he came back outside the UFO was again disappearing into the dark, as if it were playing some extraterrestrial game of cat and mouse.

It became clear later that night that Romanek was the mouse in this particular scenario: In the early hours of the morning, Romanek found three aliens standing in the hallway of his apartment. Except for their pale skin, they looked like the kind of aliens you’d see in a Hollywood movie: Each was about four and a half feet tall, had an oversized head with roughly human features, and was skinny to the point of emaciation. Romanek recalls seeing blue veins running under their skin.

One of the beings grabbed Romanek by the wrist and led him to the balcony of the second-floor apartment; then he felt a light tap on the back of his head and fell unconscious. Romanek came to pinned against the wall of a room that contained a bright light. After that, Romanek says, things start to get fuzzy.

They used to call them “star people.” Dating back centuries, Navajo and Ute tribes in Colorado described UFO sightings and alien encounters using this gentle, almost mystical descriptor in their legends. The earliest documented Colorado sighting occurred sometime around 1777, when Juan Bautista de Anza, the Spanish governor of New Mexico, chased a Comanche chief north into the San Luis Valley and reported seeing strange lights flying around 14,345-foot Blanca Peak.

Since de Anza’s sighting, people have continued to report strange aerial phenomena around the state, but the San Luis Valley has become the de facto ground zero for all things alien in Colorado. This month, dozens of people gather in the blink-or-you’ll-miss-it valley town of Hooper to attend the UFOlympics conference at the UFO Watchtower, a tourist trap erected by a onetime rancher named Judy Messoline.

Given its hokey name, one might expect the UFOlympics to resemble a Star Trek or Star Wars convention—an eclectic group of people dressed in costumes, speaking Klingon, and invoking the Force. When I attended the conference last year, however, I found serious, levelheaded people—teachers, scientists, former airline pilots, ex-military, businesspersons—with a passionate and objective interest in UFOs. The conference is structured around a series of talks inside a building built expressly for the purpose; sessions had titles like “Colorado Ufology: Updates from 2006-2007,” “Revisiting Roswell,” and “Exopolitics: The Political Implications of Extraterrestrial Presence.” During breaks between sessions, and before and after the start of each day’s events, people splintered into smaller groups, talking about their varied personal experiences.

The nature of the encounters and sightings vary—strange lights, flying saucers, flight patterns that defy the capability of conventional modern-day aircraft—but they all point to one inevitable, off-putting fact: From the plains to the Front Range to the Western Slope, Coloradans are seeing weird things in the Rocky Mountain sky.

It wasn’t Romanek’s experience or UFOlympics, though, that put Colorado on the national and international UFO map. Rather, it was one very high-profile and controversial study, officially titled the “Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects,” (also known as the Colorado Project or the Condon Report) that put the Centennial State squarely at the center of the debate over UFOs and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

Starting in 1947, the United States Air Force received more than 10,000 reports of UFOs. By 1966, the federal government and the Air Force considered the sightings too numerous, too credible, and too serious to ignore. The Air Force awarded the University of Colorado at Boulder a contract to study UFOs from November 1966 through January 1968 in what would become the most well-known systematic and scientific study of UFOs ever conducted. Researchers analyzed eyewitness testimony, radar data, photographic evidence, and other physical evidence in an exhaustive report that totaled nearly 1,500 pages. Edward Condon, a CU physics professor and the project director in charge of the team of researchers, wrote the conclusion to the report, and dismissed the entire phenomenon with a single, damning sentence: “Careful consideration of the record…leads us to conclude that further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified.”

When the study was released, people who believed in UFOs—or at least thought there was ample evidence that warranted further study—cried foul. These “believers” argued that Condon had warped or disregarded information and drawn inaccurate conclusions. The National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena—a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization dedicated to the scientific study of UFOs, later absorbed into the Center for UFO Studies—published its own evisceration of the report, which highlighted glaring discrepancies between its content and recommendations.

Not surprisingly, since the report’s publication in 1968, UFO sightings—in Colorado, as elsewhere—have continued unabated. Meanwhile, public opinion is shifting: The television series UFO Hunters airs on the History Channel, not the SciFi Channel. (The SciFi Channel now has its own reality show with the same name.) A 2002 Roper poll commissioned by the SciFi Channel found that 67 percent of Americans believe intelligent beings exist elsewhere in the universe, 56 percent believe that UFOs are real, and one in five believe that humans have been abducted by aliens. Whether one believes him or not, no one has been more polarizing—and no one has provided more evidence to true believers and skeptics alike—than Stan Romanek.

Ten days after his first alien encounter, Stan Romanek was driving south on Estes Street through Lakewood, en route to a park where he was meeting friends for an evening of stargazing, when the mysterious blinking light once again appeared in the sky over his van. This time, Romanek and a few others weren’t the only ones to see it: Over the course of that evening, at least 50 people in Lakewood, and likely many more, saw the UFO.

At the intersection of Estes Street and Yale Avenue around 8 p.m., Romanek sat at a traffic light while the UFO hovered directly overhead, blinking a bright orange-red color with a patch of green light on the underside. They’re targeting me, he thought. Other drivers stopped their cars in the middle of the road and stuck their heads out of their car windows as a beam of light shot out of the bottom of the UFO, striking the ground next to Romanek’s van. The beam “scanned” his vehicle before retracting up into the craft.

A husband and wife witnessed the scene. The man, the CEO of a major distribution company in Denver, later reported the episode, in detail, to the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC), although he chose to remain anonymous for fear of being ridiculed. “This thing was following the van,” he wrote to NUFORC. “[It] scared me to the point of panicking.”

Romanek drove to the Stone House, part of Lakewood’s Bear Creek Greenbelt, with the UFO still overhead. By then, Romanek had pulled out a video camera he had in the van and was filming the UFO. He wasn’t the only one recording what was happening: A woman who was hosting a birthday party at the park for her 10-year-old daughter trained her camcorder on the UFO, too. Everyone at the party watched as the craft silently hovered and then rocketed skyward. Each time it passed through a cloud, the cloud flashed as bright as lightning, without the accompanying thunder. Minutes later, the UFO was gone.

The Denver affiliate of FOX News covered the sighting, and NUFORC eventually received four reports about the incident, and referred the case to the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) for further investigation.

MUFON is a Colorado-based international nonprofit organization, funded primarily through memberships, donations, and volunteers, dedicated to the scientific study of UFO sightings. The organization’s goal is to expose hoaxes and to debunk sightings that have ordinary explanations: Stars, planets, airplanes, and weather balloons are all frequently confused as UFOs. In any given year, MUFON will receive more than 100 UFO reports in Colorado. Only the most credible—about 5 percent—will be referred for investigation. Of those, some 75 percent remain unexplained.

George Zeiler was the MUFON investigator assigned to the Romanek case. Zeiler interviewed Romanek, the couple that reported the sighting, and the partygoers. He sent the video footage to a friend in Los Angeles, who passed it on to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. The researchers at Caltech couldn’t say what the UFO was exactly, but they could say what it did. Comparing the video footage with the location of fixed objects in the scene (trees and buildings), eyewitness accounts, and meteorological data (the height of cloud bases), it was determined that the UFO went from a stationary location 500 feet above the ground to an altitude of more than 10,000 feet in just 1.8 seconds—meaning it would have been flying at more than 3,500 mph. A typical military jet, such as the F-16 fighter, maxes out at speeds of 1,500 mph.

Stan Romanek, a Colorado native, was raised in a devoutly Christian household, and spent his early adulthood as a strong skeptic of UFOs. That all changed, he says, after the sightings and abductions started. Looking at him—5 feet 10 inches with a stocky build—you’d be hard-pressed to guess that Romanek, 45, has been through all he claims to have experienced. But then, in between his bushy goatee and a mop of graying brown hair, you notice the almost-blank stare of someone who’s experienced a disturbing event and just might be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. He speaks with an eerily calm voice. Romanek openly admits to having issues with depression, and since his first abduction he’s moved a lot, mostly up and down the Front Range, but also to Nebraska and back. He’s also bounced from odd job to odd job, and currently runs a home-based computer repair business.

In the summer of 2002, Romanek decided he wanted some answers, so he visited the Fort Collins office of hypnotherapist Deborah Lindemann. As part of hypnotic regression therapy, Lindemann guided Romanek into a trance, walked him through a series of questions, and then offered him a pen and paper. Romanek, who professes to have dyslexia and the mathematical ability of a fifth-grader, began writing complex equations and diagrams. He scribbled the proper electron configuration for Element 115, which at that point in time had been only theorized by scientists and popularized in UFO circles by physicist Bob Lazar. Romanek also wrote the Drake Equation, a formula that aims to arrive at a best-guess calculation for the number of intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy that would be capable of communicating with us. Depending on the input values, estimates can vary wildly, from as many as 10,000 civilizations or more, to just one.

Over the next several years, Romanek’s UFO encounters and abductions continued. The hypnosis sessions continued, too, initially with Lindemann, and then with Dr. R. Leo Sprinkle, a counseling psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Wyoming. “My initial impression was that Stan was sincere and reliable,” Sprinkle says. “In the vernacular, he’s the real deal. He’s a normal person having very abnormal experiences.” And Romanek kept writing—sometimes in his sleep in the presence of witnesses, sometimes in hypnosis sessions. There were more equations, star charts, and diagrams.

Speculation was rampant in the UFO community. Could Romanek have simply memorized and regurgitated the formulas? The simple answer is yes. But Romanek’s new abduction experiences and new formulas caused many scientists studying Romanek’s case to doubt the likelihood that it was all an elaborate hoax. “This is one of the strongest cases I’ve seen in terms of evidence,” Lindemann, the hypnotherapist, says.

In fact, some observers went as far as suggesting that Romanek’s writings were a guide to new technologies that would permit interstellar space travel. The unimaginably vast distances required of such travel mean that we need a faster way to get from here to there. Einstein’s theory of relativity and other laws of physics place limitations on just how fast we can travel through space-time; however, they don’t place limitations on warping space-time itself. If we can’t go faster from “here” to “there,” why not reduce the distance between the locations by warping, or compressing, space-time? Or what about traveling through hypothetical wormholes that connect distant locales, the interstellar sci-fi equivalent of taking the Eisenhower Tunnel instead of Loveland Pass? UFO buffs thought Romanek’s equations might open the door to new technologies that could allow us to do just that.

Dr. Jack Kasher, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the Nebraska state director for MUFON, was one of the first serious academics to examine the equations. Kasher points out that although Romanek’s diagrams seem to imply certain alien technologies, the equations offer little new insight into our present understanding of physics. In Kasher’s view, the complexity and accuracy of the equations, coupled with their mathematical and scientific validity, are meant to catch our attention. “It’s an incomplete picture right now,” Kasher says. “It’s premature to be making claims of wormholes and propulsion systems, but the equations make remarkable sense. There’s some guided intelligence beyond Stan that is causing it to happen.” In short, the equations are breadcrumbs. Now that the aliens have us watching, they’ll send us new insights—ostensibly using Romanek as the vessel for that information.

Yet for every Jack Kasher, Leo Sprinkle, and George Zeiler who believes there’s something to Stan Romanek’s experiences, there are just as many or more vehement critics. Some suggest he’s after fame or fortune, though more than one researcher has noted that there are much easier ways to make a buck. Others simply call him a fraud perpetrating an intricate hoax. One particularly harsh detractor—Vincent Bridges, an author on UFOs and unconventional spirituality—noted that Romanek is “important only because he became involved,” and that he “stubbornly clings to a certain folksy ignorance while shrewdly promoting his experience.”

Dr. Sprinkle, the Wyoming psychologist and hypnotherapist, argues that in UFO cases the reality ends up being one of three possible truths: A person can deliberately stage a hoax, a person can be genuinely sincere but wrong about the nature of their experience, or a person can be sincere and absolutely right. Of the serious researchers closest to Romanek, all agree on one thing: Putting their professional reputations on the line, they assert the fundamental legitimacy of Stan Romanek’s experiences. “There’s no question they were real,” MUFON investigator George Zeiler says of Romanek’s encounters. “But there are so many unanswered questions.”

The details of exactly what happened have been clouded by Romanek himself. He’s been described as a showman who loves the spotlight. There’s no doubt he’s an excellent storyteller and that he may be prone to embellishment for the point of effect—which is unfortunate, because it undermines his credibility in what is otherwise a very compelling case with evidence that is hard to ignore. Based on that evidence—and their preconceived notions—people are sure to come to wildly different conclusions about Stan Romanek’s case. In fact, Romanek himself invites people to come to their own educated opinions. “I’m not trying to convince anyone,” he says. “Look at the data and evidence for yourself. Don’t take my word for it.”

Peter Bronski is a frequent contributor to 5280 and is the author of At the Mercy of the Mountains: True Stories of Survival and Tragedy in New York’s Adirondacks (Lyons Press), which was published in February. E-mail him at letters@5280.com.