PROVIDENCE — As a boy, Eric Smith had a fervent interest in all things UFO, Bigfoot, and ghosts. He devoured books about them, but eventually lost interest.
Until a few years ago, when he dove into stories about unexplained phenomena on the internet. The Providence man went back to the library and pulled the old books on flying saucers off the shelf again. He started collecting new volumes and listening to podcasts.
The Rhode Island College graduate, who now runs a blog called “Strange Observer” in his spare time, turned his interest into a part-time volunteer career and spent five years working as a field investigator for the Mutual UFO Network, a US-based nonprofit group that studies reported UFO sightings. He looked into hundreds of cases in Rhode Island.
He retold the story about a close encounter two Rhode Island fishermen had with about 20 bluish glowing humanoid figures on Smith and Sayles Reservoir 25 years ago.
Around 11 p.m. on a July evening in 1992, the men were fishing in the dark a stone’s throw from the rocky shore of a peninsula. They saw a faint light and an object come down a narrow path to the shore, then a tall figure around 7 feet tall coming to the water’s edge. The humanoid body, which looked illuminated from within, appeared to be searching for something, Smith wrote.
The men became horrified when the company of alien figures faced them and began to float over the surface of the water toward them. The fishermen fumbled to get their boat started before racing away and frantically pulling the vessel from the water and driving away to the howling sound of dogs around the lake.
The friends made a pact not to speak about the incident, but years later the event was reported to the Mutual UFO Network. Smith said he attempted to interview neighbors about the incident but they refused to discuss the incident. They did not tell him why.
The fishermen’s story is among hundreds of unexplained phenomena that have occurred in the Ocean State, including murmurings and a black wing-shaped object at the shore on Block Island; an object that looked like a floating tuna can looming over the woods near the Pine Swamp Reservoir at the southern end of Brandy Brook Road in Scituate; and a floating cigar-shaped object and a mysterious girl near Johnston in 1974.
Smith, who now volunteers for the National UFO Reporting Center, talked to the Globe after a list produced by the gambling site, Great Lakes Stakes, named Rhode Island one of the least likely places to find UFOs and paranormal activity. The study used National UFO Reporting Center and Ghost of America data to reveal the odds of seeing supernatural activity.
Smith said the study has no scientific value but shows immensely under-reported numbers of unusual events in Rhode Island.
He began working with the Mutual UFO Network in 2015 after his interest in UFOs was rekindled. For four years he conducted phone interviews, home visits, and went to the sites of reported unexplained phenomena. Smith said his full-time job is at a day program for adults with disabilities.
The Mutual UFO Network has field investigators around the world. After he left, he joined the National UFO Reporting Center, founded in 1974 by UFO investigator Robert Gribble, to “receive, record, and to the greatest degree possible corroborate and document reports of individuals who have been witness to unusual, possibly UFO-related events.”
The National UFO Reporting Center has taken 150,000 reports and distributed information to thousands of individuals, according to its website. The cases are made available to the public.
Reports taken by the Mutual UFO Network can only be obtained if you are a member.
Both groups make every attempt to avoid errant reporting by training field investigators on how to identify and interview witnesses.
That means no reports of the more than 2,000 Starlink satellites launched for SpaceX’s internet service, which line up like caterpillars in the night sky, or planet sightings that appear colorful. Hoax reports are not tolerated and ignored by the groups.
Becoming a volunteer field investigator for the Mutual UFO Network requires reading the more than 300-page long training manual and taking a 100-question open-book multiple-choice test. Eric Hartwig, director of the Massachusetts bureau of the Mutual UFO Network, said it is loaded with trick questions. He took two days to complete it.
Investigators are trained to understand a range of sightings, including abduction, and discerning weather and astronomical events from unexplained phenomena. You must also pass a background check and abide by privacy rules to become an investigator.
The Mutual UFO Network does not reveal the identity of individuals to maintain their anonymity.
UFOs, also referred to by US intelligence officials as Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, are most commonly mistaken for weather balloons, satellites, and rocket launches.
Smith said the low number of UFO reports in Rhode Island can be attributed to the small state population and also cloudy weather in the northern hemisphere. The states with some of the lowest UFO reporting numbers are located in the northern US.
Smith and Hartwig both said they volunteered because of their interest and the thrill of investigating mysterious events. They said looking people in the eye when they talk about their strange encounters helps them determine if the case is real or fake.
“I had a pretty good idea, I wasn’t talking to a lunatic,” Smith said of the people he had to interview. “They were scary and creepy stories.”
While The Mutual UFO Network and National UFO Reporting Center have been around for a half-century, most people don’t know where to report UFO sightings. There are government reports of Unexplained Aerial Phenomena — some that have been declassified recently — but no official database.
The National UFO Reporting Center data, which represents reports taken since the group was founded, shows the highest number of reports in the US comes from California — the state with the largest population. Massachusetts has the most sightings in New England. The events submitted go back as far as 1944 to 2021.
Smith said underreporting occurs because of people “not wanting to be ridiculed” for talking about UFOs.
But the stigma behind believing in extraterrestrial life is fading, and life outside our solar system is becoming more imaginable, thanks to stunning photos from the Hubble Space Telescope.
The passing Oumuamua — a Hawaiian word meaning “scout” — an interstellar asteroid discovered in 2017 by the Pan-STARRS observatory, showed many properties allowing for the possibility that it was manufactured artificially by alien technology, according to commentary published by Avi Loeb, former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University. He is the author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.”
Loeb is the head of The Galileo Project, a search for extraterrestrial signatures of Extraterrestrial Technological Civilizations, according to the project’s homepage. The program is complementary to the program Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
Oumuamua caught the attention of researchers who tried to monitor it for signs of radio signals, but nothing was detected. Researchers said in December 2017 that it appeared to be a naturally formed, icy object covered with a dry crust.
Journalist Leslie Kean published reports in 2000, including one in the Globe, that is credited with opening the door to understanding UFOs. And in 2017, she co-authored a report revealing that the US Department of Defense spent $22.5 million on a secret program that investigated UFOs. The program was hidden in US Defense budgets.
And in June, US Intelligence officials released a nine-page report that found 143 incidents of reported UAPs between 2004 and 2021 that still cannot be explained, and at least 18 cases showed “some unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics.”
Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said the incidents are a “real national security issue” that needs to be examined.
Another Rhode Island senator, Claiborne Pell, who served from 1961 to 1997, also spoke publicly about UFOs and extrasensory perception. Pell was best known for work on educational opportunity grants but was criticized for his fascination with alien life.
Smith says the belief in alien life comes down to whether or not you’re willing to accept the idea of it existing or not.
“I just know among my circle of friends, and people I’ve talked to over the years, I’ve known more people who have seen UFOs than the ghost phenomenon,” Smith said. “That’s pretty anecdotal.”
In comparison, Ghosts of America has documented hundreds of cases of sightings and posted the encounters online with evidence.
“It’s a viewpoint of a lot of people, there is just so much we don’t know about the universe and how it works,” Smith said. “It’s really arrogant to think that UFOs can’t exist because we can’t discover them by now. ... I think that if you truly think there is no place in the universe for any of this to be possible, I just think you have no imagination.”