On January 5, 2009 a series of aerial events involving mysterious floating red lights in the sky began occurring in the Morristown County area. On that day, between the hours of 8:15 pm and 9:00 pm a formation of red lights were observed over the towns of Hanover, Morristown, Morris Plains, Madison and Florham Park. The lights would continue to be witnessed on four more nights; on January 26 and 29, and February 7 and 17.
On January 5, 2009, at 8:28 pm, the Hanover Township police department received the first of several 9-1-1 calls. Neighboring police departments also received numerous phone calls in regard to the strange lights. Morristown Police Lt. Jim Cullen alerted Morristown Airport about a possible hazard to airplanes. Airport control tower workers reported seeing the lights in the sky, but could not determine what they were. Hanover Township police also contacted the Morristown Airport to try to pick up the objects on radar, but they were unable to pick up anything.
Paul Hurley, a pilot living in Hanover Township, saw the lights and said they were not planes. The Hurley Family took video of the lights, which appeared on several news broadcasts, including cable news networks such as Fox News. Hurley stated, “I have been in the aviation industry for 20 years and have never seen anything like this, a little scary, little scary.”
A Morristown resident said that he saw an L-shaped formation oscillating in the sky. The man was interviewed by the Daily Record newspaper and stated that, what he saw “didn’t seem man-made” and, “No way this could have been weather balloons.”
Hanover Township’s health officer said that he saw the lights while walking his dog in Madison at 8:38 pm. He stated the lights did not appear to be flares because they “did not leave trails”. He also said that they sometimes appeared to move against the wind. He was quoted as saying “These things were moving fast, holding formation, and then moving in three different directions; I don’t know what it was.”
The Morristown police department had stated the lights were most likely road flares attached to helium balloons, although witnesses and many other Morris County residents did not agree with this claim. “We are reasonably certain, from what we were able to observe…that they were red flares attached to a balloon.” Morristown Police Lt. James Cullen told the Bergen Record.
Major and local news networks covered the story, and websites, including the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), posted information about the incident. Theories for the lights appearance included extraterrestrial craft, supernatural and/or spiritual phenomena, helicopters carrying cargo, a surveillance blimp, sky lanterns, a secret military project, or an elaborate hoax
The largest cluster of lights occurred on February 17. Nine red lights were reported to be traveling in formation. Shortly after that sighting, Capt. Jeff Paul, a spokesman for Morris County Prosecutor Robert A. Bianchi, said that federal authorities have expressed concern that the objects might be a threat to flights on their final approach to Newark Liberty International Airport. The Federal Aviation Administration advised Paul that they would issue an advisory to aircraft in the area. Paul said “numerous” 911 calls were received on the evening of February 17 in Morris Plains, Morristown, Morris Township, Hanover, Parsippany, Montville Denville and the Morris County Communications Dispatch center. The lights appeared to be traveling north and air traffic controllers at Morristown Airport reported that they appeared to be at an altitude of about 2,500 feet.
Dorian Vicente, 46, of Parsippany, said the lights caused traffic to slow on Route 80 in Denville at 8:40 p.m. as people watched them floating overhead. There were nine lights, she said, and they were scattered at first. Then she said they aligned in a straight line. That is when she and several other cars pulled to the side of the highway to try to capture the lights on video. “It was the weirdest thing,” she said. Ray Vargas, a witness to the lights on February 17, was interviewed by the media and stated, “If it’s a hoax, it’s a real good hoax. There were no flares, no streaks…they were almost as if they were communicating with each other.”
Officials with the Morris County prosecutor’s office called the military and determined that no military flights were in the area. The prosecutor’s office also contacted the FAA, the Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, and the New Jersey State Regional Operations Intelligence Center.
Hoaxers Joe Rudy and Chris Russo
On April 1, 2009, April Fool’s Day, two local men named Joe Rudy and Chris Russo announced publicly that they had perpetrated the hoax to fool the so-called UFO “experts” and “show everyone how unreliable eyewitness accounts are, along with investigators of UFOs.” The reveal came in the form of an article written by the two men, and published online by Skeptic Magazine. Rudy and Russo described in detail how and why they perpetrated this hoax, and provided links to videos showing their preparations, the launch, and subsequent media coverage and involvement.
Rudy and Russo had attached five flare lights to helium balloons and released them into the sky. The pair would later describe the hoax as a “social experiment” they had conducted with the ambition of exposing “ufology” as a pseudoscience and raising consciousness around unreliability of eyewitness claims.
After the initial January 5 incident, Rudy and Russo built up the media attention by repeating the hoax four more times over various parts of Morris County. They recorded several videos and still photos of the event, which were posted on news stations, websites, blogs, and YouTube. Rudy and Russo were interviewed on News 12 New Jersey, Russo stated, “We were driving on Hanover, when all of a sudden we see these lights literally zip over our car. The lights seemed to ascend and descend almost in a sequence. They would rise up slowly and dip down.”
Truth & Consequences
On April 7, 2009, Russo and Rudy pleaded guilty to municipal ordinance charges of disorderly conduct. Prosecutor Robert Bianchi used what he called a “measured approach” and filed disorderly-person charges, rather than charges of indictable offenses. Bianchi criticized the defendants for wasting police resources, posing a fire threat, and posing an aviation threat. The defendants plea-bargained and received a sentence fine of $250 each and 50 hours of community service at the Hanover Recreation Commission.
In November of 2023 Chris Russo was elected to the Morristown Council.
The preceding article is an excerpt from Weird NJ magazine, “Your Travel Guide to New Jersey’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets,” which is available on newsstands throughout the state and on the web at www.WeirdNJ.com. All contents ©Weird NJ and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.
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