The Terrifying True Story Of The Cash-Landrum UFO Incident

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Their story has all the elements of a classic episode of The X-Files: a frightening encounter with a UFO on a lonely back road, inexplicable illnesses, government denials, and accusations of a cover-up. Yet, the disturbing circumstances that befell Betty Cash, Vickie Landrum, and Landrum's seven-year-old grandson Colby on the night of December 29, 1980, were no made-for-television, sci-fi fantasy. Their encounter with a glowing, diamond-shaped object in the Pineywoods region of East Texas would leave them physically scarred and emotionally traumatized for life.

Known as the Cash-Landrum UFO incident, the sighting has fascinated and baffled researchers and UFO enthusiasts for three decades. A textbook example of a close encounter of the second kind, as defined by ufology pioneer Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the Cash-Landrum incident left its three primary witnesses with physical evidence of their encounter in the form of blistered skin, sores, nausea, and, in the case of Betty Cash, a life of deteriorating health and cancer.

However, the most disturbing aspect of the case may be the witnesses' insistence that scores of United States military helicopters escorted the mysterious and possibly malfunctioning craft from the scene. Ufologists have theorized that the object may have been everything from a distressed alien spacecraft to an experimental, atomic-powered plane. Others have insisted that the entire event was an elaborate hoax. Nevertheless, Betty Cash and Vickie Landrum maintained their version of the events until their deaths. This is the terrifying true story of the Cash-Landrum UFO incident.

A frightening encounter

As recounted by author and UFO expert John M. Schuessler, on the evening of December 29, 1980, diner owner Betty Cash, 52, her friend and employee Vickie Landrum, 60, and Vickie's seven-year-old grandson Colby ventured out in Cash's Oldsmobile Cutlass for their regular Monday-night bingo game. However, Cash and Landrum's weekly outing of fun and fellowship was cut short. The game was cancelled for the Christmas and New Year's holidays. Instead, they would settle for dinner out before returning home.

Heading for Dayton, Texas, a small town on the outskirts of Houston, Betty Cash steered onto State Road 1485, a secluded, tree-lined, two-lane road. Although the road cut through dense and dark pine forest, it was a familiar route to Cash and Landrum. The friends made small talk as they made their way home.

From the back seat, young Colby Landrum was the first to notice that something was amiss in the night sky. Spotting a bright light above the treetops, he pointed it out to his grandmother. Just 35 miles from Houston International Airport, Vickie Landrum logically assumed it was just another large passenger jet coming in for a landing — a little low, perhaps, but nothing out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, as they drew within a mile of the object, they soon realized that they were not looking at any sort of aircraft they had seen before. "We didn't know what it was," Betty Cash told Unsolved Mysteries in 1991. "But, we knew that there was something that was lighting up the sky."

The object

As Betty Cash drove closer to the glowing, reddish object floating just yards over the road, Vickie Landrum became panicked and insisted that Cash stop the car. Emitting an intermittent burst of flame, the object generated intense heat. The interior of the car was like an oven when Cash slammed on her breaks. Bracing herself, Vickie Landrum placed her hands on the dashboard. Cash would later discover that the dash's vinyl had become so softened by the heat that Landrum's fingers made permanent impressions.

Cash exited the vehicle to get a better look while Landrum stayed behind to console a terrified Colby, who was cowering in the passenger-side floorboard. "It was a diamond-shaped object — four points, but the one at the top was rounded and so were the sides," Betty Cash said in an interview with Unsolved Mysteries. "Then at the bottom, flames were shooting out. The heat was tremendous. It just felt like I was burning from the inside out. I was horrified. ... The only thing I was thinking was, 'Are we going to get out of here alive?'"

In September 1981, Vickie Landrum gave her description of the object to The Houston Chronicle. "It was diamond-shaped and as tall as a water tower," Landrum told staff writer Cindy Horswell. "It was a dull, gray metallic color, and it just floated there. ... It made a roaring sound like a flame thrower and then high-pitched beeps. It had a flammable smell, like lighter fluid."

Twin-rotor helicopters point to military involvement

As recounted in the transcript of an interview conducted by officials at Bergstrom Air Force Base in August 1981, Betty Cash observed the object for several minutes before the light and heat became too much to bear. Using her leather jacket to shield her hand from the superheated door handle, she returned to the vehicle. Cash made several attempts to start the Oldsmobile's engine, to no avail. Meanwhile, the floating, oblong object continued to bob at treetop level, gaining and losing altitude with each spray of reddish-yellow flame.

A religious woman, Vicki Landrum was convinced she was witnessing the opening moments of the apocalypse. In an attempt to console her frightened and crying grandson, she explained that they were about to meet their savior and he would do them no harm. "I [said], 'Colby, don't be afraid,'" Landrum said. "I said, 'If you see a man, it'll be Jesus.' And I said, '[He's] come to carry us to a better place.'"

According to the witnesses, the fiery object's beeping and whooshing was soon replaced by the thunder of helicopter engines as 23 twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook military transport choppers arrived on the scene. Clearing the treetops, the UFO rose higher, with the choppers surrounding it in tight formation. As the object receded in the distance, Cash was finally able to start the car. Making their way home, the Cash and the Landrums continued to glimpse the object and the helicopters through the trees.

Burns and hair loss raise the specter of radiation

Frightened and perplexed by their harrowing encounter, Cash and the Landrums returned home. To their horror, the worst of their baffling experience was yet to come. Approximately six hours later, all three witnesses began experiencing intense nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. To varying degrees, each exhibited symptoms consistent with severe sunburn, with blisters and sores erupting on their skin. Betty Cash, who had the longest direct exposure to the object, suffered the most extreme aftereffects.

Betty Cash's 20-year-old son, Toby, begged her to go to the emergency room, but when she discovered that there had been no media coverage of the object, she decided to wait. "I was so sick all night," Cash told the producers of A&E's The Unexplained. "The next morning I woke up, and there were big gobs of hair on my pillow. And I had blisters just all over my face."

Fearing ridicule, the women avoided seeking medical attention, but, as Betty Cash's condition worsened, they at last went to the hospital. Cash remained hospitalized for a month. According to her physician, Dr. Bryan McClelland, the cause of her injuries seemed obvious. "The illness that she suffered three weeks after her exposure was an absolute classic radiation injury," McClelland said. In 2009, Cash's daughter, Mickey Geisinger, fueled speculation regarding her mother's alleged radiation exposure when she revealed to UFO investigator Pat Uskert of the History Channel's UFO Hunters that she had been isolated in a hospital room marked with a hazardous materials symbol.

The evasive chopper pilot

For months after the incident, seven year-old Colby Landrum remained frightened and emotionally traumatized. The appearance of a twin-rotor, military helicopter over Dayton, Texas, the following April nearly sent him over the edge. Hoping to calm her grandson's fears, Vickie Landrum took Colby to see the CH-47 Chinook, the same type of helicopter they had seen escorting the UFO months earlier, as it landed for a public exhibition.

According to UFO investigator John M. Schuessler, as Vickie and Colby waited in line to board the chopper, Landrum and another witness overheard the pilot tell a visitor that he had recently been on a mission to check on a UFO in trouble near Huffman, Texas. When Landrum expressed her happiness at meeting him because she had been one of the people injured by the UFO, the pilot refused to speak with her further.

UFO investigators from Vehicle Internal Systems Investigative Team (VISIT) later located the pilot and approached him for comment. Although he admitted that he was aware of the Cash-Landrum incident, he denied participating in an operation in East Texas on the night of December 29, 1980. According to the Pentagon report by Lieutenant Colonel George Sarran, the pilot was Chief Warrant Officer 3 Culberson. The report states, "In conversation with the aircraft pilot, CW3 Culberson, Mrs. Landrum heard him to say that he was flying the evening of the incident. ... When pressed for more details, the pilot responded that he was prohibited from adding more information because of national security."

The witnesses search for answers

After the incident, the witnesses went on a desperate search for answers. They called a number of government agencies, to no avail. Although Landrum adamantly believed that the object she and Betty Cash saw was strictly an Earthly phenomenon, she contacted NASA in hopes that someone at the space agency could find some answers. Eventually, she was put in contact with NASA aerospace engineer John Schuessler. An avid UFO researcher and investigator, Schuessler immediately began an in-depth investigation of the Cash-Landrum incident.

Initially, Schuessler was skeptical of the story. However, upon meeting the women, it was obvious to him that they had experienced life-altering trauma. As detailed in UFOs and the Alien Presence: Six Viewpoints, Schuessler visited the scene of the incident seven weeks after Cash and Landrum's frightening encounter with the diamond-shaped craft. Unaware of what he might find, he was shocked to discover a large area of scorched pavement in precisely the area described by the witnesses. Days after Schuessler's discovery, that section of State Road 1485 was repaved.

Schuessler also met other possible witnesses, including Lamar Walker, a Dayton police officer, who observed a formation of twin-rotor military helicopters on the night of the incident. "They all had their ground search landing lights on," Walker told UFO Hunters in 2009. "They was definitely for sure looking for something." Another witness, Jerry McDonald, claimed that he saw an object that glowed with the intensity of an acetylene torch traverse the skies over Dayton minutes before the Cash-Landrum encounter.

Lingering health problems plague the witnesses

Vickie and Colby Landrum and Betty Cash's health problems following the 1980 incident would linger for decades. Although tests performed at the time of the incident would prove inconclusive, Cash and Landrum were convinced that the long-term illnesses they experienced throughout their remaining years were caused by radiation exposure. Soon after the encounter, Betty Cash's condition deteriorated to the point that she could no longer work.

Cash's physician, Bryan McClelland, is adamant in his assertion that his patient was exposed to a brief but intense dose of ionizing radiation. "You'd have to estimate her getting somewhere between one and two grays of radiation," McClelland told The History Channel's UFO Hunters. "... So it's not a lethal dose, but it's enough to hurt you." McClelland treated the impoverished Cash for free for the final 18 years of her life, during which she developed breast cancer. Prior to the incident, Cash claimed that she had no personal or family history of the disease.

For nearly two decades, McClelland attempted to retrieve Cash's medical records from her initial hospitalization at Houston's Parkway Hospital, only to be inexplicably ignored. "We sent them at least 20 or 30 releases over time," McClelland said. "I would speculate that they wouldn't release it because it was blocked. It had to be blocked by military or legal means."

Until her death in 2007, Vickie Landrum claimed she was plagued with diminishing eyesight and a compromised immune system, both of which she attributed to the incident.

Legal challenges and dead ends

With deteriorating health and mounting medical bills, Betty Cash and Vickie Landrum were determined to get to the bottom of what had happened to them on the evening of December 29, 1980. Surely, they thought, someone else had seen the UFO and the helicopters. Certain that the government was somehow involved because of the presence of military aircraft at the scene, they contacted Texas senators Lloyd Bentsen and John Tower. At the senators' suggestion, Cash and Landrum filed a complaint with the Judge Advocate Claims office at Bergstrom Air Force Base. Betty Cash and Vickie and Colby Landrum were summoned to the facility near Austin, Texas, for interviews. After taking depositions in which the witnesses related the details of the night of December 29, 1980, Air Force officials suggested that they retain the services of a civilian attorney in filing a claim against the military.

Cash and Landrum filed suit against the United States government in 1982. Seeking $20 million in damages, the witnesses claimed that the military was responsible for their injuries and continuing health issues. In 1986, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed the case due to lack of evidence. Citing a military investigation by Lieutenant Colonel George Sarran, the court determined that official records could not corroborate that the Army had deployed CH-47s on December 20, or that any branch of the military was in possession of an experimental aircraft matching Cash and Landrum's description.

Skeptics challenge the narrative

The Cash-Landrum UFO incident is not without its detractors. Many skeptics have pointed out inconsistencies in the witnesses' accounts of the event. Others question the inconclusive medical evidence regarding the alleged exposure to radioactive materials. The harshest critics claim that the entirety of the encounter is an elaborately constructed hoax.

Writer Robert Sheaffer cited a number of suspicious elements in the case's narrative in a 2014 article for The Skeptical Inquirer. Among his assertions are the possibilities that investigator John Schuessler judiciously omitted evidence contrary to the witnesses' statements, including the location of the incident. The lack of photographs of the alleged burn marks on the asphalt at the encounter site that Schuessler says he saw on his first visit to the location raises other questions. Most disturbingly, Scheaffer quotes an email from Dr. Gary Posner, M.D., in which the physician states that from his observance of photographs of Betty Cash's burns, the pattern of the wounds suggest that they may have been self-inflicted. He also suggests that the secrecy surrounding Cash's medical records is rooted in keeping contradictory evidence and the possibility that Cash suffered from Münchausen syndrome, a psychological condition in which the diagnosed feigns illness or inflicts injuries to gain attention, sympathy, or gratification, out of the public eye.

A connection to Britain's most famous UFO case

An often overlooked aspect of the Cash-Landrum incident is that it virtually coincided with Great Britain's most famous UFO incident, the Rendlesham Forest sightings. On the night of December 26, 1980, a security team on patrol at RAF Woodbridge in Suffolk, England, a British air base then in use by the United States Air Force, witnessed what they believed to be a burning aircraft descend into nearby Rendlesham Forest. As detailed in Encounter in Rendlesham Forest: The Inside Story of the World's Best-Documented UFO Incident by Nick Pope, Sergeant Jim Penniston and Airman John Burroughs were dispatched to the scene. Deep in the woods, the men discovered a roughly triangular object floating in a clearing. There was evidence that the UFO had broken tree branches on its way. Later investigation revealed an increase in radioactivity in the area, as well as scorch marks and indentations in the ground.

On December 28, the night before the Cash-Landrum encounter, Woodbridge personnel watched a bright red object project beams of light at the ground as it passed over the base. Witnesses reported feeling the atmosphere heat up as the UFO flew by.

Life after the incident

Vickie Landrum and Betty Cash's lives were permanently altered by their strange experience in December 1980. Facing devastating medical debt and no longer physically capable of caring for herself, Cash left Texas to live with her mother in Alabama. Attention from both the tabloid and mainstream press made the women minor celebrities. They made numerous TV appearances throughout the 1980s and early '90s.

Fame, however, was never their aim. Above all, Cash and Landrum wanted answers and justice from a government they felt had abandoned them. Ostracized and ridiculed by her community, Landrum told Fox's Sightings that the experience had left her unable to work. Abandoned by her friends, she claimed to have become a virtual hermit in her hometown.

On December 29, 1998, exactly 18 years to the day of the encounter, Betty Cash passed away at age 69. Vickie Landrum died on September 12, 2007. She was 83.

The last surviving witness speaks

For most of his life, Colby Landrum has kept out of the spotlight. A child at the time of the incident, he's largely chosen not to speak about the experience. In 2009, however, Landrum broke his silence. Appearing on UFO Hunters, Landrum confronted Lieutenant Colonel Sarran about the government's involvement. Like his grandmother and Betty Cash, he walked away with no answers.

In 2013, Colby Landrum gave his first in-depth interview. Appearing on Podcast UFO, Landrum told the story of the encounter and expressed his frustration with the government's denials. He also revealed frightening details about the event's aftermath. "I can remember ... them coming out to the house several times. I don't know who they were — whether they were government officials or what — they would come out and test us for radiation every so often," Landrum said. "I was told to be careful because somebody could scoop me up and take me away."