Sunday, May 28, 2006
'UFO Guy' in Spotlight
By Andrew Webb
Journal Staff Writer
Visitors to Bob Lazar's hard-to-find hilltop property are greeted by a sign that says, "Warning: Trespassers Will Be Used For Science Experiments."
Other signs along rock-lined paths through the thickly wooded East Mountains spread warn of radiation.
A plywood outbuilding serves as Lazar's laboratory and features a home-built particle accelerator he uses to make what he says are safe storage systems for hydrogen.
A two-story building next to the couple's Southwest-style stucco home serves as headquarters for United Nuclear Science Supply, a mail-order company with a handful of employees who manufacture scientific instruments and package small chemical orders the company's specialty.
Lazar, a do-it-yourself scientist who in the 1980s made Area 51 a household name, is back in the limelight.
He and his wife, Joy White, operate United Nuclear. They say the Consumer Product Safety Commission, through the Department of Justice, wants them to stop selling chemicals it says could be used to make explosives and Lazar wonders if that really is not an attempt to stifle his development of a cheap, alternative fuel supply.
The problem with the commission's list, Lazar says, is that it includes everyday chemicals used in all kinds of experiments.
"I'm going to fight this people need to know what's happening to science," he says of the commission's legal actions against his company.
In the 1980s, Lazar became an icon in the UFO and conspiracy theory communities when he claimed that he worked on alien spaceships kept by the government at a secret base called Area 51.
Today's dispute with the feds, he says, began in 2003 with a dawn raid by gun-wielding agents on his 5-acre Sandia Park property. It culminated last month with a written ultimatum from the U.S. Department of Justice: Stop selling, or go to jail.
United Nuclear Science Supply was front-and-center in an article in the June issue of Wired magazine about the federal government's crackdown on do-it-yourself science as part of efforts to stem sales of illegal fireworks. Working with the Department of Justice, the CPSC and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have led attempts to stop the sale of a wide swath of chemicals.
But, the magazine says, citing CPSC statistics, only 2 percent of fireworks accidents are caused by home-built devices, with the vast majority of injuries caused by commercially available fireworks. Furthermore, companies like United Nuclear there are dozens of them all over the country don't just sell dangerous chemicals to crackpots, the article's author says, quoting a range of researchers and experts.
"Professors and science geeks all over the country depend on United Nuclear to get stuff that they can't get anywhere else," Wired contributing editor Seth Silberman told the Journal.
Besides lab equipment such as flasks, United Nuclear sells a vast range of rare materials and chemicals, such as uranium and Aerogel a low-density, translucent solid used by NASA to trap space dust.
Lazar says he and his wife have been threatened with jail time and thousands of dollars in fines if they do not agree to a list of demands from the Department of Justice. The demands, which were included in an April plea agreement offer shown to the Journal, include ceasing the sale of a long list of chemicals, many of which Lazar says are only tangentially related to explosives. These include compounds such as sulfur, zinc and aluminum.
"I think this stems from a lack of knowledge on the government's part," he says. "They're trying to ban everything in chemistry."
Lazar says new rules aimed at stopping methamphetamine production have limited his sales of certain kinds of flasks and other equipment.
"We just sell supplies to scientists," he said.
The Justice Department sees it differently.
The DOJ has routinely shut down mail-order explosives supply firms and has even jailed individuals it says violated the 1960 Federal Hazardous Substances Act.
Henry LaHai, assistant director of the DOJ's Office of Consumer Litigation, said that he could not comment specifically on United Nuclear but that no official action has been taken against the company in either civil or criminal court.
LaHai said he "could not confirm nor deny" Lazar's assertion that federal agents raided United Nuclear in 2003, taking computers and records, which Lazar says were later returned.
"But there are other enforcements going on where we've used criminal contempt charges and civil injunctions to stop these businesses," he said, adding that the sale of such products has led to accidental deaths, suicides and accidents nationwide.
"We very definitely want to end this practice of selling chemicals, tubes, fuses, endcaps and instructions," he said.
The DOJ details on its Web site at least two dozen recent actions against such vendors taken on behalf of the CPSC.
Lazar has two theories to explain the CPSC's recent actions against his 5-year-old company.
One is that increasing paranoia over terrorism has driven an agency that should be monitoring baby seats and window blinds to wage war on hobbyists, amateur scientists and harmless geeks.
Dave Thomas, president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, said he had not heard of Lazar's situation, but he could see how someone might think the government is stifling science.
"At first blush, I can sympathize," he said. "Laws against meth shouldn't be used to deter training young people to appreciate science."
Lazar's other theory is more sinister: The threats are part of a larger effort to suppress technology he developed that he says could turn tap water into free fuel for every car on the road.
Lazar has created a solar-powered device that, he says, cracks water molecules and puts the hydrogen in a row of tanks in the back of his 1992 Corvette. With a few adjustments, any vehicle can easily switch back and forth from hydrogen to gasoline power, he says. Lazar says he and his wife have driven two hydrogen vehicles for a total of 50,000 miles.
The couple had planned to market the hydrogen system as a kit but depended on United Nuclear's income to cover manufacturing costs.
Lazar says he thinks there could be a connection between the threats to his business and his fuel-industry threatening technology.
"I am inferring that," he says.
"I hope that's not the case. But everything was always OK; then we went into development on a hydrogen fuel system. Now, in one fell swoop, they're trying to shut down both businesses."
The corporate attack is the focus of the Wired article. What that story doesn't mention is Lazar's past connection to conspiracy theories.
In the 1980s, Lazar claimed he had contracts to help reverse-engineer propulsion systems in alien spacecraft at the secretive Area 51, a southern Nevada airstrip used, ostensibly, to test military aircraft.
Appearing on a Las Vegas, Nev., television news program in 1989, he outlined, in detail, the use of time- and space-warping antigravity engines, made with elements not found on Earth. He has also said he may have seen alien beings at Area 51 and has described government flight testing of disk-shaped UFOs.
Lazar ran a one-hour photo shop in Las Vegas, Nev., during the years he said he was occasionally spirited off by an Area 51 defense contractor to the remote facility to work on classified projects.
After the television program, he was a regular on televised UFO specials and the radio program Coast to Coast AM, a late-night call-in show where people discuss government conspiracies, ghosts and other phenomenon.
His claims drew the first public attention to Area 51, made Lazar a central figure in UFO mythology, and have led to considerable controversy about the veracity of his claims that rages to this day.
Critics cast doubt
Critics say Lazar, a propulsion aficionado who has built several jet-powered cars and motorcycles, never did have a senior position at Los Alamos National Laboratory, as he has claimed. Nor, critics and journalists have said, did he have advanced engineering degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology.
Lazar has maintained that the government may have tried to discredit him by destroying records from his past.
Renowned "UFOlogist" Stanton Friedman has called Lazar an articulate con man and theorized he was seeking investments for various inventions as a motive for the Area 51 stories.
For a man who has claimed the government was erasing his existence, Lazar, now 47, comes across as a pretty regular guy, eloquent, funny and fashionable.
Today, he says he would like to leave the events "of two decades ago" behind him.
"It's impossible to be a scientist and do serious work when you're known as the 'UFO Guy,' '' he said.
Gary Purrington, whose Idaho pyrotechnic supply company, Firefox Enterprises, was sued by the DOJ a year and a half ago in a Boise civil court, says many companies like his have little money to mount a defense against the government. In Purrington's case, the DOJ is seeking a permanent injunction, banning the sale of certain materials.
"It includes virtually every chemical available," Purrington says of the injunction, which he also plans to fight. "In my opinion, they know damn well a small businessman doesn't have the money to fight a lawsuit against them. They count on that."
Lazar and White estimate they've already spent $10,000 to hire a former lawyer for Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee. An Internet plea for donations has raked in about $2,500 to help defray legal costs, White says.
Unless he speaks out against this latest assault on amateur science, Lazar says, the home chemistry sets and high school classroom demonstrations that inspire the physicists of tomorrow will disappear.
"It's just really silly," he says. "I never thought I'd have to sit here and defend science."