Santa Rosa County Commissioner John Broxson was always a skeptical person.

He never believed the stories of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster or unidentified flying objects.

But something happened nearly 20 years ago to make him change his mind on at least one of those phenomena.

"Frankly, I saw something that blew my mind," Broxson said. "It's a mystery to me. It just looked like something I wasn't expecting to see.

©Ed Walters
Ed Walters took this photograph of a purported UFO hovering over County Road 191-B east of Gulf Breeze in January 1988. Walters provided the photo to the Daily News in 1990 to coincide with the publication of his first book, "The Gulf Breeze Sightings."

"I didn't want to see one and have people thinking I was weird. That's the only time I can recall seeing something that weird."

Broxson was entertaining friends at his home in the Villa Venyce subdivision when something outside caught his attention. He went out for a closer look.

Something bright was hovering above his home: a parade of lights of different colors and intensity. He quickly had his wife, Christina, and their friends come out to see it for themselves. No one knew what they were watching.

The unidentified flying object hovered for several moments before quickly flying straight up until it was out of sight.

Broxson was not alone in having an unexplained sighting. Today marks the 20th anniversary of when former Gulf Breeze resident Edward Walters first saw a UFO flying above his yard, launching a period of sightings, seekers and fame for the area.

Walters has said his Nov. 11, 1987, sighting was the first of more than 100 sightings and abductions he experienced over a six-year period. He wrote three books on UFOs and the Gulf Breeze sightings, but has since moved to Pensacola and no longer speaks to the media.

The truth is out there

While Walters was the most outspoken person at the time to report seeing UFOs in Gulf Breeze, he was by no means the only person. People from around the world visited in hopes of seeing something unexplained after The Gulf Breeze Sentinel ran a story and photo about Walters.

Many of those people were not disappointed, said Don Ware, eastern regional director of the Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON.

MUFON is a national UFO investigative organization founded in 1969 in Illinois. Ware, a Fort Walton Beach resident who retired from the Air Force in 1982, has spent much of the past 25 years investigating UFO activity.

Between 1987 and the end of 1993, when most of the sightings ended, Ware said hundreds of people reported seeing UFOs in Gulf Breeze. Walters and others took more than 125 photographs of supposed UFOs just between Nov. 11, 1987, and May 1, 1988, Ware said.

"I think probably over half the people in America have seen something in the sky that they didn't know what it was," Ware said. "Most of those people have probably seen an alien vehicle. I know I have seen alien vehicles."

Ware became fascinated by UFOs after a series of sightings over Washington, D.C., in July 1952. He said he saw his first UFO on Sept. 12, 1989.

The Gulf Breeze sightings set off a media frenzy, and the community of about 6,000 residents became one of the country's UFO capitals.

"These phenomenons happened so often that Gulf Breeze became the center for these E.T. observations," Broxson said. "I thought (the Gulf Breeze sightings) had been a hoax all this time. Just some people seeing something with very active imaginations."

After his own sighting, Broxson became less skeptical.

The hoax

Questions over the validity of the UFO sightings started almost as soon as the sightings themselves.

Phillip Klass, an investigator for what is now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, studied the Gulf Breeze sightings and wrote his own book declaring them a massive hoax.

Klass passed away a couple years ago, but CSI executive director Barry Karr said he believes the accuracy of his former colleague's work.

"I really don't think there's any question the Gulf Breeze sightings were a hoax," Karr said. "There are things in the sky that can't be identified, especially near an air base. Just because it can't be identified doesn't mean it's a visitor from another planet."

The biggest piece of evidence pointing to a hoax was a UFO model constructed from drafting paper and paper plates reportedly discovered in Walters' former home after he had moved out.

Ware said he believes CSI workers planted the model and then informed the media of its location to debunk the validity of Walters' sightings.

"They try to debunk all the things that people see that they don't want understood too well," Ware said.

Karr laughed at the idea his organization planted the model to debunk the UFO stories.

"That's just hilarious," Karr said. "No, our organization did not plant the model. We're not that large of an organization."

Karr said he believes after word of the UFO sightings in Gulf Breeze started to break, everyone wanted to see one so much that they let their imagination get carried away.

One video he has seen of a "Gulf Breeze UFO" ended up being a flare shot into the air. Karr said pieces of the flare are clearly visible falling away from the larger flare in the tape.

The legacy

During the late '80s and early '90s, UFOs became synonymous with Gulf Breeze. Businesses up and down the Emerald Coast took advantage of the UFO sightings to profit off the experience.

Club 51, the adult entertainment club on U.S. Highway 98 in Wynnhaven Beach, was originally called Area 51 after the supposed hidden military base in Roswell, New Mexico. UFO Motors was a used car dealership that operated in Midway for several years. A 1993 Associated Press article reported that Gulf Breeze restaurants sold a four-scoop UFO Sundae and a UFO Vegetarian Pizza. Stores also sold UFO jewelry, watches and books.

Nearby Pensacola even hosted the International UFO Symposium in 1990.

While it's been about 14 years since the period of the Gulf Breeze sightings ended, people still look to the sky and occasionally see something unexplained.

Cedric Cadow of Okaloosa Island never believed in UFOs. That changed after he said he saw two last month after leaving his home.

Cadow saw two bright orange oval discs hovering above Fort Walton Beach. The two discs emerged from behind the clouds and one hovered stationary while the other descended toward the ground, eventually going out of sight before coming back up.

The two UFOs then sped away, one to the east and the other to the north, in a flash of light that did not make any sound. It all lasted about 12 seconds, Cadow said.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "I almost fell to the ground. I had never seen anything like it before. I thought it was all B.S. before. It's not."