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Space potatoes, a suspicious van and a farcical task force: Behind the scenes of Colorado’s mystery drone investigation

Drones (Pete/Flickr)

Chasing drones through a Nebraska field, deputies discovered odd brown cylinders wrapped in green meshing nestled in the dirt.

They were slightly bigger than a man’s shoe, and deputies described them as “space potatoes.”

Field tests for meth were conducted. Bulletins were issued to sheriff’s offices in two states. Could the drones have dropped them?

These space potatoes “were found being dropped from the drones in Nebraska,” Kit Carson County Sheriff Tom Ridnour wrote on Jan. 2 to neighboring sheriffs. “They have no idea what it is … The FBI does not think whatever it is is dangerous.”

The next morning, Ridnour sent a follow-up message.

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The space potatoes weren’t nefarious packages dropped from mysterious drones. They were SOILPAM Tracklogs used in farming to fill irrigation ruts in fields.

But when there was no explanation of what was happening in a multi-state, month-long hunt for mysterious drones, even space potatoes became clues.

Reports of drones with six-foot wingspans flying in grid patterns over eastern Colorado and into Nebraska — first reported by The Denver Post before Christmas — inspired a cacophony of theories. So far, authorities have not verified their existence, and reports of sightings have dwindled. A trove of internal emails from local sheriff’s offices obtained by The Post shows officials grasping at straws — and gamely playing along with comedic instigators — as they tried to figure out what was flying above them at night.

There was a van sighting at a gas station in Sterling that led to an erroneous search for a drone command vehicle. A Durango man demanded a polygraph test to prove his credibility as the drone commander. A Yuma County sheriff’s deputy made a tongue-in-cheek offer to create a task force, “Team Alpha Warhawk,” dedicated to “liberating the skies from those that wish to bother our peaceful way of life.”

Federal, state and local authorities received more than 100 tips about drones, but a multi-agency task force investigation came up empty. They have stopped searching.

“We have not received any information that enabled us to determine what exactly it was that people were seeing and, if they were drones, who was flying them,” said Ian Gregor, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

At least one national media outlet declared the drones never existed and that eastern Coloradans and western Nebraskans were swept into mass hysteria.

Still, people who saw something fly in formation above their homes insist the phenomenon was real.

“I know what I saw,” Michael Yowell, a Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office captain told The Post. “The reports that these were planets and commercial aircraft? No. Am I certain they were drones? I am.”

Sifting through theories

As drone sightings and media attention crescendoed at the start of 2020, local and federal authorities batted around all sorts of leads — both credible and far-fetched.

On the same morning Ridnour blasted out his space potato email, an FBI special agent emailed Phillips County Sheriff Thomas Elliott.

“Have there been any updates on getting an lD for the van or its occupants?” Special Agent Ryan Butler asked regarding a van sighting at a Sterling gas station.

There was no response to the email included in messages obtained by The Post, but on Jan. 6, the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office posted on its Facebook page, asking for the public’s help locating a “command vehicle” with a closed-box trailer and antennas.

Two days later, the sheriff’s office backtracked, saying locating the command vehicle was “no longer pertinent or relevant.”

But the tips and hot takes didn’t stop with federal law enforcement.

“Greetings from Germany,” read one email addressed to Lincoln County Sheriff Tom Nestor. “Check ‘Starlink’ on … YouTube. Most likely you’re seeing low orbit satellites, not drones.”

A business development manager from Virginia told Nestor that his company could track the drones and shoot them down with an electromagnetic pulse.

The Yuma County Sheriff’s Office went back and forth with a Durango man who claimed responsibility for the drones. He offered to take a polygraph.

“This isn’t a normal investigation with a normal answer for Mom and Pop down the road who I can understand and apologize for their lost sleep,” Michael Spicer wrote on Jan. 2 to Yuma County officials. “You are opening Pandora’s box.

His claims were dismissed.

Throughout the investigation, local law enforcement expressed bewilderment and concern. But in private they had a little fun.

“I, Detention Deputy Austin Clapper would like to form a special task force dedicated to the clandestine monitoring, capturing and prosecution of those responsible for the recent public panic,” Yuma County detention deputy Austin Clapper wrote in an email to Sheriff Todd Combs.

His team: an errand runner who makes a mean pot of coffee, a talent acquisitions guy who doubles as “the most charming man I’ve ever met,” and another member who was not allowed to describe his prowess.

Combs, playing along, offered to get the team security clearances from the feds.

“I think a good cover story would be windmill repairman, which would allow you to move freely throughout the area,” Combs wrote.

No verified sightings

Comedy aside, over the course of multiple missions in early January, investigators were unable to verify a single drone sighting, despite using a plane flights, investigators on the ground, radar and high-resolution cameras.

Of the 128 reports the agency received between Nov. 23 and Jan. 29, none were confirmed to be large wingspan drones flying in groups, according to a list of sightings obtained through an open records request. Instead, investigators identified commercial planes, smaller hobbyist drones, planets, stars, the reflection of the sun and even a car’s tail lights.

In at least four reports, law enforcement confirmed something was flying but weren’t able to tell what.

Drone sightings dropped off around the time the task force organized in early January, Morgan County Sheriff Dave Martin said in an interview. There is “no big, deep, dark secret.”

“If anyone said, ‘Hey, you can’t talk about it,’ I’d tell you that,” he said. “But nobody, from the military to the state office of emergency management has said, ‘Hey, quit talking about this.’ No one has given me any direction on that. We don’t know who is responsible for it.”

In Phillips County, where the drama began after Sheriff Thomas Elliott alerted the community about drone sightings on his office’s Facebook page, Elliot said he was done answering questions.

“This was not a crime in this county and my office has moved onto bigger things,” he told The Post in an email.

Real drones or mass hysteria?

As investigations have turned up empty, some have wondered: Have we been duped?

Apryl Alexander, a psychology professor at the University of Denver, said people naturally enjoy finding new things to follow and investigate, so it’s not surprising the drone sightings gained so much attention.

“Is it big brother? Is it the government?” Alexander said. “When we don’t have answers, we’re going to develop conspiracy theories.”

Dave Dusdal, a longtime pilot asked by Lincoln County officials to help with the mystery, went out on New Year’s Eve to hunt drones, equipped with software which could monitor commercial airliners.

“Everything we saw, we identified as commercials airliners,” Dusdal said.

Still, Dusdal said, “I do believe they are verified. With the detail people were able to provide, it did definitely sound like they identified a drone.”

Vic Moss, a Denver-based drone pilot and co-owner of an online school called Drone U, said he believes the initial reports of drones flying gridlike patterns were credible.

“Someone was probably doing something flying at night, information, testing or mapping or any number of legal things that could happen,” he said. “And then a lot of people just took that and went off the face of the earth with it. It got nuts.”

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© 2020 The Denver Post