Congress met in Fountain Hills, Arizona, last week, taking over the posh We-Ko-Pa Resort with their usual displays of space alien paraphernalia, panels about extraterrestrial abductions and occasional close encounters with tourists who dared to mix it up with cowboy boots, flying saucer earrings and “I Don’t Believe in Humans” T-shirts.
At the International UFO Congress — the world’s largest convention dedicated to unidentified flying objects — it doesn’t matter what political party you’re from, or, for that matter, what species.
Anyone is welcome at the week-long event, even skeptics, providing that they leave their snarky comments and tin foil hats at home.
“While the Roswell UFO Festival may be better known to the general public, the UFO Congress occupies a very special place in the hearts of UFO researchers and enthusiasts,” says Noe Torres, author of The Real Cowboys and Aliens: UFO Encounters of the Old West, who was one of this year’s convention speakers.
“There are no alien parades, alien dog costume contests or other gimmicks,” Torres, of Edinburg, Texas, tells PEOPLE. “It’s about exploring the history of UFO research and examining some of the most outstanding cases of the past and present.”
This month marks the 26th year that hundreds of UFO enthusiasts worldwide descended upon the pretty desert town of Fountain Hills, with a population of 23,235, to celebrate starry skies and strange lights, spaceships, crop circles and alien life forms of all kinds at the conference sponsored by the paranormal research organization, Open Minds.
Although there were plenty of booths selling E.T.-themed merchandise (alien lawn statues, little green men necklaces, Fifty Shades of Greys books), most of the 2,000-plus conference goers came for the latest research on UFO sightings and crashes, speeches about government cover-ups and conspiracies, a popular UFO film festival and “experiencer” sessions featuring people who claim to have been abducted by aliens.
News reporters were not allowed to attend sessions featuring “abductees,” but people who claim to have been visited or whisked away by small creatures with large dark eyes were not in short supply.
Audrey Starborn Hewins, 43, came to the conference to offer support therapy to alien “experiencers” after claiming several close encounters of her own since age 5.
Hewins, of Oxford, Maine, says that she and her identical twin, Debbie, were visited frequently by grey aliens as girls growing up in Athens, Ohio.
“We’d tell our parents, ‘We don’t want to go to bed — the bald men are coming,'” she tells PEOPLE. “They started doing all kinds of experiments on us when we were 12.”
In later years, Hewins says she was saved from drowning in the ocean by an alien being.
“It was then that I decided to dedicate my life to helping others who have also had encounters,” she says. “I won’t want them to feel alone. It’s hard for people to come forward because they’re afraid that everyone will think they’re crazy. Only another experiencer can fully understand.”
Although Hewins has spent a lifetime dealing with skeptics, she found a believer in Robert Davis, a neuroscientist from North Port, Florida, who delivered a keynote address about a research project he worked on involving more than 2,300 people who claim they’ve had alien encounters.
“Despite initial feelings of confusion and anxiety, many UFO ‘contact experiencers’ manage to reach a place of integration and healing,” Davis tells PEOPLE, “but for some, it can be a difficult, long-term struggle. They often find that speaking of their experience can be traumatic to their psychological well-being and have devastating consequences. For many, it’s frightening to accept that this experience is valid.”
Abductees’ needs are not properly addressed by the psychological community, says Davis, even though their experiences are “shared by many thousands, if not millions, worldwide.”
“It’s unreasonable to think that they all would be lying or reporting dreams and fantasies,” he tells PEOPLE. “These events are consistently reported and should be taken seriously by everyone, in spite of their uniqueness.”
Ken Johnston knows the feeling of not being taken seriously, but that’s never stopped him from speaking out about what he calls a government conspiracy to cover up evidence of an alien base on the moon.
The retired aerospace engineer and astronaut trainer says one of his duties was to take care of photos from five lunar missions and provide them to scientists from around the world who were studying moon samples.
After the Apollo 15 mission in 1971, Johnston was told to destroy everything in his files, he tells PEOPLE. But he instead kept a set of the photos for himself and released them to the public in 2015, before donating his collection to the Roswell International UFO Research Center and Museum. One of the photos, he says, shows what looks like a base on the moon, with visible lights and structures.
“The United States, Canada and the U.K. have attempted to debunk any person who tries to provide information that might prove ETs exist and that they may have just messed with our DNA to make us who we are,” says Johnston, who now lives in Belen, New Mexico, and gave a presentation at the International UFO Congress about his findings.
“But now that the whole world has access to my personal archive, more anomalies are being discovered by people from all over the world, including Mexico, Europe and Africa,” he says. “Researchers worldwide now use my archives to help discover evidence of extraterrestrial life, past and present, on the moon.”
Closer to home in Arizona, thousands of people will soon be marking the 20th anniversary of the state’s most famous UFO sighting — the “Phoenix Lights” incident of March 13, 1997, when police phone lines were clogged with calls from residents reporting a triangular formation of lights in the night sky.
Dozens of those witnesses were at the International UFO Congress, including several who took to the stage to share what they saw that night.
Phoenix physician Lynne Kitei, 69, counts herself among more than 10,000 people who reported seeing bright orange lights in the shape of a boomerang, floating silently over the city 20 years ago.
“It was such a wondrous sight,” she tells PEOPLE, “that it sent me on a journey to try and find a logical source of meaning behind what I’d seen. Twenty years later, though, I’ve yet to find it.”
Kitei wrote a book about her experience, The Phoenix Lights, and is now a familiar face every year at the International UFO Congress.
“What I saw that night is the most documented mass UFO sighting in modern history,” she says. “You can choose to believe or you can choose not to believe. Ever since that night, I’ve been a believer. We are not alone.”