Long Island's UFO plot Trial: A flying saucer true believer must answer charges that he intended to kill three people he believed were covering up alien landings.

August 04, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

RIVERHEAD, N.Y. -- Steve Iavarone, vice president of the Long Island UFO Network, sits in his second-floor den and glances at his collection of alien kitsch, his massive electronic telescope, his videotape collection that extends from "2001" to "Cocoon." Like the rest -- the friends, the former colleagues, the neighbors who haven't sold their homes and fled for less radioactive parts of Long Island -- he is steadfast.

They are the true believers, the ones who can't accept that John J. Ford, red-blooded American right down to his name, could have plotted an assassination.

"John is one of the most reasonable people I know," says Iavarone. "We're talking about a guy with a normal job, nice house. . . . This is a weird movie."

Weird, yes. Fiction? No. In a summer where movie screens have Jodie Foster receiving radio messages from distant stars and men in black scouring Manhattan for extraterrestrials, the best, most bizarre alien drama is a 100 percent true story now playing out in eastern Long Island.

Ford, a 48-year-old retired court security officer, is scheduled to go on trial here this week for conspiring to murder three otherwise forgettable Suffolk County political figures. A pedestrian enough set of charges in this tabloid era, until one examines the details. Then Long Island's "murder with radioactive elements in retaliation for UFO cover-up" case becomes, well, unique.

According to court documents, Ford hatched a plan to kill the three men by sprinkling radioactive dust into their toothpaste, over their food and in their cars. The beauty of the alleged plot was that the radium would kill so slowly -- probably with burns and cancerous growths over decades -- that their deaths would conform to actuarial tables and no one would suspect a thing.

Ford's alleged motive: He felt the county's political leadership had covered up UFO activity on Long Island, which with its state parks and flat terrain is a popular landing pad for flying objects, UFO true-believers say.

When Ford's alleged plot was exposed in June 1996, prosecutors and the intended victims had trouble taking it seriously. But as authorities investigated further, they became more and more unnerved -- not only by Ford, but by the seeming normality of it all. Ford, his friends, his neighbors, his compatriots in the UFO Network, turned out to be typical Long Islanders, with nice suburban homes, two-car garages and good jobs with solid pensions.

"This all convinces me that there is a side to humanity that defies definition," the Suffolk County prosecutor, James Catterson, said a statement worthy of a 1950s sci-fi movie. "While we may think of them as kooks and far-outs, the point is that they lead daily lives and are able to get along. But within them they harbor thoughts which seldom, but do, surface. So we must be on guard."

That, of course, is the prosecution's view. For their part, the UFO Network's 300 dues-paying members are supporting a "Free John Ford" Web site and a campaign to raise his $350,000 bail before the government sends him to prison, for a possible sentence of 25 years.

Ford is harmless, his friends say. He collected coins. He lived with his mother. It was his love of expensive toys, not any propensity for violence, that explains theguns, gas masks and mine sweeper he kept by the pool out back.

"If John wanted to take you out, he had guns and he wouldn't waste his time," says Iavarone. "But he was not that sort of fellow."

Guarded courthouse

Ford's trial will take place in the same courthouse he was once paid to guard.

A day in the Suffolk County courthouse is enough to make most people paranoid, and Ford worked here nearly 20 years. The building has more security officers than U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, where John Gotti was tried. The court clerk's offices are closed to the public. There is enough bulletproof glass to protect a shooting range.

Ford made his home a fortress, too, though no one can ever remember a serious crime on Sundial Lane, where all the lawns are green except for the one in front of No. 55. The bank recently foreclosed, and John Ford's place is now an eyesore. The windows and doors are boarded up. A tattered American flag flies at half-mast above the garage.

"It used to look a lot better," says Stan Jones, who lives across the street. "John was a good neighbor."

The best of neighbors. He made lasagna for new arrivals to the neighborhood. He brought back presents for Jones' kids from a Caribbean cruise. "When we went away, he watched our house, and vice versa," says Jones, who works for the power company. "I think the government is lying about him."

Only a few of his neighbors knew it, but Ford also had a passion for UFOs. He spoke on the topic at libraries and country clubs, where he recruited new members for the UFO Network, preferably college graduates. Iavarone, who has an engineering degree, says Ford made him present a professional resume and educational references before admitting him.

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