Montana’s Greatest Unsolved Mystery
A Former Teton County Sheriff’s Investigation of the Unexplained
BY PAT HILL
Retired Sheriff John “Pete” Howard of Choteau. Mont., served as Teton County’s chief law enforcement officer in the 1970s. He now serves as Justice of the Peace in that small town northwest of Great Falls on the Rocky Mountain Front. His unusual story, an account of bizarre events that took place on his watch as sheriff, and which he investigated, recently resurfaced on late night radio through a report by investi-gative journalist Linda Moulton Howe, who won a regional Emmy award for her television documentary Strange Harvest in 1981.
We recently spoke with Justice of the Peace Howard, and he recounted to us what he saw, experienced and investigated in the vast open spaces surrounding Choteau and Great Falls, an area that over the years has seen its share of strange phenomena. Before Howard stepped forward though, reports had come out in recent years about the unusual events, which began in the 1960s and continued into the '70s near Malmstrom Air Force Base, according to former Air Force personnel, and with a related investi-gation by the Cascade County Sheriffs Department (along with more recent civilian reports), events chronicled by former military and law enforcement sources that confound conventional thinking and challenge official explanations. Pete Howard’s participation in the events of those days, and the fact that as a former county sheriff and presiding Justice of the Peace he has gone on the record, serves to corroborate the other sources, no matter how strange the implications.
“I was born and raised right here in metropolitan Choteau,” the 74-year-old Howard told the Pioneer on Dec. 20. “I was elected [Sheriff] in November of 1974. In August of '98 I migrated from the Sheriff’s office over here to the Courthouse.” Howard is also a licensed commercial pilot who flew a number of years for the U.S. Forest Service.
“Most of my time [flying] was agricultural spraying...about 5,000 hours,” said Howard. “When you spend a lot of time in the air, you end up hearing about all this… ‘stuff.’ I never saw a thing while I was flying.” But Howard did witness unusual activity on the ground.
Howard was attending the Law Enforcement Academy in Bozeman when he became involved in his first encounter with the unexplained in the spring of 1975. That first encounter involved mutilated cattle. Howard had been home in Choteau for Memorial Day weekend, and was headed back to Bozeman that Memorial Day Monday when his office got a call from a Choteau area rancher regarding the death of one of his Black Angus heifers.
“He had seen the animal across the creek from the house earlier that morning, and it was alive and well,” Howard said. “A couple of hours later, he went across the creek and there lies the animal dead, and there were some things missing.” These missing parts included the ears, the face plate (from the eye to the cheek and jaw area on one side), and part of the vaginal area. A local veterinarian was called in, pictures were taken, and a record was compiled regarding the inci-dent. It was a classic case of an unexplained cattle mutilation of the type taking place across the world in the mid-’70s (and reports of which continue in Montana), where livestock were found dead with no blood or tracks, and signs of high tech surgery having been performed.
Howard said his office contacted him in Bozeman that night to inform him of the situation. Howard told them he had no idea what was going on.
“We had never heard of cattle mutilations,” he said. “When I got home the next weekend, I spoke with both the rancher and the veterinarian, both of whom I knew very well. The vet told me he had never seen anything like it.” Howard said the vet discovered that there was no blood in the animal anywhere, and the female organs had been removed so precisely that the vet said it was a procedure he could not replicate with a scalpel.
“That [first] case was also the best, in terms of being discovered so quickly...very little deterioration had occurred,” Howard said. Subsequent to that, the former sheriff told us, many mutilated cattle turned up, though the carcasses had often deteriorated to some degree.
Howard said that the cattle mutilation phenomena occurred across several Montana counties (including Fergus, Cascade, Teton, Pondera, Chouteau, Judith Basin) from 1975 to early '77, from the Rocky Mountain Front over to the Judith Basin and beyond, with reports continuing in 2006—in Pondera County, for example where multiple incidents were investigated by the county sheriff.
In early fall 1975, simul-taneously, Teton County and other sheriff’s departments began to get calls about unidentified aerial phenomena, Howard told us. “What was happening was that the sheriffs from these several Montana counties had got together and we created a task force.” The task force was a team trained to investigate all major criminal activities in the region. A photo lab, polygraph equipment, and even hypnosis were added to the sheriffs’ arsenal, and some of the tools proved useful in Howard’s investigations of the unexplained.
“The activity in our area seemed to be concentrated around bodies of water,” Howard said, “from a small ditch, pond, or lake, to the Sun, Teton and Dearborn Rivers. We received reports of UFOs coming out of the mountains following watercourses, particularly the Sun River.”
Howard said he took several reports from people describing what they saw, including large craft and smaller disk-shaped flying objects.
“I interviewed two families that I knew very, very well,” he said. “I have no reason whatever to disbelieve anything they said they saw. At the same time, there’s no pictures, there’s no other substanti-ation other than their oral relation of what they saw.” Howard said one case involved a mother, father, and three children aged 8 to 14. It occurred about 9:30 or 10:00 on a summer night near Choteau.
“The family had just been to the fair in Great Falls,” said Howard. “They did some shopping in town, went to the fair and did all the rides, and when they got home that night, this thing was sitting right over the end of his driveway. They saw it as they were approaching and slowed down.”
Howard described the object hovering over the end of the family’s driveway as a very large craft. He said the family told him that smaller disks were coming and going in and out of the bottom of the larger object. Howard remembered that the family seemed more fascinated than frightened by the activity in the night sky.
“So they go in the house…and they all stood and watched it awhile, and the father decided to go outside and see if he could get closer to it,” said Howard. “As he would get within a certain distance of it, it would back off...it would only let him come so close.” Howard said that the father decided to keep up that approach and see what happened.
“He told me, ‘Hell, if they would have stopped and let me get in, I would have taken a look around,’” Howard remembered. The family’s driveway (about 300 yards long) led to the highway; the distance from the highway south to the edge of the Sun River valley spans one-half to three-quarters of a mile, varying from crop to pasture land. As the man continued to approach the craft, it continued to back off, and finally dropped into the Sun River valley and out of the man’s view.
“By the time he got to where he could see the valley, it was gone,” said Howard. “But his descriptions, and his wife’s, and their three kids’, was so vivid, it was just unreal.” Howard said he asked the family if they would take polygraph tests “to put some weight behind their story,” and the family agreed. He said that the father and one of the children were tested, and passed the polygraph with “no problem.”
The other eye-witness case that helped to convince Howard that the family’s report was credible involved a man and a woman who lived about four miles south of Choteau.
“Nice nice people—fabrication isn’t part of their lifestyle,” Howard said. “It’s pretty graphic, as to what they said they saw.”
Howard recalled that the wife used to get up early in the morning (5:00 a.m.) on a regular basis, to prepare breakfast for her husband before he went to work. One morning something caught her eye. She ended up watching a large craft for 15 to 20 minutes before she went in and got her husband.
“They both stood together in the kitchen and watched this thing, which hung stationary in the sky,” said Howard. And as in the previous incident he investigated, “the saucers, were coming and going.” The couple watched the seemingly other-worldly activity for almost an hour before they called the sheriff.
“That was about 7 in the morning,” Howard remembered. “She asked if I could come out, and to 'hurry a little.’ Well, I didn’t get to hurrying too much, and by the time I got out there, the sun was coming up and the thing had moved away from there.” Howard took their statements, and said he has no reason to doubt their story.
“As for myself...I would give my you-know-what to see a UFO...I spent lots and lots of hours looking,” Howard said. “Do I believe there are such things as UFOs? I don’t have anything to substantiate that myself... But I sure don’t discount what was told to me by those two families in particular.”
Howard, though, told us that he did see aerial phenomena that he could not explain, an event that led to government confiscation of hard evidence that something highly unusual had taken place in the big skies of Montana.
While serving as Teton County Sheriff, Howard met a commander associated with a radar installation at a U.S. Air Force bomb scoring range, at a quarterly law enforcement luncheon hosted by the brass at Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls. Howard said that at the base, near Pendroy in Teton County, B-1 bombers would approach from the east, begin their electronic bombing runs, go almost all the way to the mountains, then make a big swing south, and make their outrun over the end of Freezeout Lake and back east toward Malmstrom.
“The commander told me, 'If you’re ever up around Pendroy, stop in and I’ll show you around,’” said Howard. “So I made a point of doing that.” During his visit, the commander (Howard recalls that he was a colonel) told the sheriff that, other than during bombing runs, his staff didn’t have much to do.
“He said that 'There are days that go by, and we sit here monitoring things, but there’s really nothing going on,’” Howard remembered. The colonel told Howard that if he ever got a call about strange events in the sky, to “call us...I’d like to see what we can find.”
“It wasn’t three or four days later that very thing happened,” Howard said. “I had a good friend who was a schoolteacher here [in Choteau]...he came into my office and asked me to come outside...it was about 8:30 in the evening.”
Howard said they walked out behind the sheriff’s office and looked to the southeast, where there was an unusual bright light hanging low in the sky.
“I’ll tell ya what...let’s get in my hotrod car and we’ll go south and then east and see what we can find,” Howard told his friend. He also told his dispatcher to call the radar station at Pendroy “and tell them we’ve got a sighting south of Choteau.”
“We got in the car and away we went,” said Howard, “and I’m breezin’ down the highway goin’ about a hundred miles and hour.” He took a turn onto an improved gravel road, slowing his progress considerably, and they headed toward the light.
“We got to within...oh...I don’t know how many miles, and the bright light we’re watching slowly starts drifting to the north and east,” Howard said. “We were having trouble getting as close to the light as we would have liked. In the meantime, we’re talking to my office, and they’re relaying messages for me to the radar sight.” Then the light suddenly went out.
“But, my dispatcher had called me and said, 'Well, they (the radar station) still have contact...they can see something on their screen,’” Howard said. He got an approximate location of the object on the radar screen, and headed toward it. He also learned that the colonel at Pendroy was “really excited” about what was happening. The colonel asked if Howard could come to Pendroy straightaway. Howard complied.
“In the meantime, all my good [law enforcement] friends in Cascade County are monitoring the radio traffic, and a few of them headed my way wanting to see what we were chasing,” Howard remembered. Howard asked them to come to Pendroy with him.
“We all got to the complex, and the colonel addresses me and takes me over to see this machine,” Howard said. “He was so impressed by what had gone on that he had called an extra crew in.” The colonel showed Howard a scroll graph recording where the object was in relation to the radar sight, as well as its altitude and airspeed. He also showed Howard the portion of the graph recording when the sheriff reported that the light went out.
“The object they were tracking went vertical all of a sudden, from about 2,000 feet up to 10 or 12 thousand,” said Howard, “makes an instantaneous stop, and starts drifting again. The colonel looked over at me and said, 'Sheriff, we don’t have a machine that I know of that can do that.’”
Howard said that after about ten or fifteen minutes at the site, three individuals in black coveralls came into the installation to speak with the colonel. The men in black were carrying steel map cases with them. The colonel approached Howard after talking with the men, and said, “I’m sorry, Sheriff, but I’ve been ordered to ask you to leave, and you’ve got to do that.” Howard said he went outside with the Cascade County deputies who had followed him to Pendroy, and two or three minutes later, “out came those three gentlemen with their steel cases, get into a Suburban, and off they go.”
The colonel came out and informed Howard that the men had taken the scrolls off the machine and put them into the map cases. Howard and the deputies headed home after that, but the very next day he said he got a very compelling call from the colonel at Pendroy.
“He wanted to know if I could be available for a phone call from Cheyenne Mountain (site of Air Force Space Command and NORAD’s nuclear bunker built into a mountain near Colorado Springs, Colo.),” Howard said. “I agreed to it, but the [appointed] day came and passed, and no phone call.” The colonel called Howard to apologize, and set up another phone meeting for the next day, from yet another military base.
“I did not get the call from them, however, and I did not get another call from the colonel, either,” said Howard. “Nor did I get a call from the command at Malmstrom.” But Howard said he knew the base commander at Malmstrom well enough to leave a message asking him to call.
“And he did call," said Howard, “and he told me, 'Well, everything is just kinda hush-hush. I’m not supposed to be talking about it, and you probably shouldn’t expect to get a call from any other military installation. And that was the end of it.”
Howard said similar events have taken place “all over the world...not just here [in Montana]....The pictures [of unidentified aircraft elsewhere] are similar to what we had here...the stories are the same.” But he added that trying to explain the unexplained activity in the sky and on the ground that he investigated in the 1970s has been frustrating, “because there’s been no resolve.” But Howard said that his investigation of UFOs and cattle mutilations “was a very interesting tour in his career.”
“Scientific evidence, the truth, whatever you want to call it, we’re just not able to substantiate it,” said Howard. “As far as I know, that may be true all over the world. It is an interesting phenomena, whatever it’s all about. To this day, I would love to see one of those things. If one stopped and wanted to give me a ride, I’m goin’...damn right I am.”