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Getting the ball rolling

Terry Betz with the “Betz sphere” from the Acron Beacon-Journal. Image courtesy of WJCT.

Sometime in March or April 1974 - fittingly, the accounts aren’t consistent - three members of the Betz family, parents Gerri and Antoine and their oldest son Terry, were walking in the woods around their property on Jacksonville’s Fort George Island when Terry found something that would impact their lives for years: a strange metallic sphere, about the size of a bowling ball. Thinking it odd enough to make a good souvenir, Terry, then a 21-year old pre-med student, took the ball home.

The Betzes didn’t think much about the orb until one day when Terry started strumming his guitar near it. According to Gerri, who became the family spokesman on sphere-related matters, something strange happened: the ball started humming back. Soon it started displaying other unusual properties - it would roll around seemingly on its own volition, changing directions and halting abruptly. It even vibrated and emitted a high-pitched sound that would send dogs whining and covering their ears.

Theories, studies and tall tales

12-year-old Wayne Betz with the sphere, from the Jacksonville Journal. Image courtesy of WJCT.

Shortly, the “Betz sphere,” also called the “mystery sphere” or simply the “Odd Ball,” started attracting attention. Ron Kivett, the host of local radio show on paranormal phenomena, was one of the first to inspect it. Kivett, who also has a place in local lore as one of the writers of the locally produced cult monster movie Zaat, confirmed the Betz family’s claims that the sphere moved and behaved strangely. He, like many others after him, was convinced that the orb was of extraterrestrial origin, a device created by some cosmic intelligence for an opaque purpose.

By mid-April the Betz sphere had also drawn the attention of the news. It’s not clear whether the Betzes contacted the media or if reporters caught wind of it around town, but Jacksonville’s local papers, the Jacksonville Journal and the Florida Times-Union, began covering the sphere and interviewing Gerri about it. According to Lindsey Kilbride, a reporter for The Jaxson’s partner WJCT and host of a podcast about the sphere - more on that in a bit - the sphere captured people’s curiosity. “Around that time, UFOs were really popular,” said Kilbride. The story only got bigger from there.

Some of the many news stories on the sphere from the Florida Times-Union archives. Image courtesy of WJCT.

“Within one or two weeks of it making headlines locally, it was a national story, and there were even international publications that picked it up as well,” said Kilbride. In the spring of 1974, reporters from around the world were asking, what is this crazy thing down in Jacksonville, and where did it come from?

With curiosity at a fever pitch, even the U.S. Navy wanted a look at the Betz sphere. A shrewd businesswoman, Gerri wrote up a contract that gave the Navy two weeks to inspect the orb at Naval Station Mayport, and committed them to returning it if it turned out not to be government property. In contemporary news reports, the Navy spokesman stated that they’d found only that the ball was stainless steel, was not their property, and that while they couldn’t determine what it was for, it was certainly constructed on Earth. The Navy suggested that its tendency to move around was due to a small triangular chip in the surface that threw off its otherwise perfect balance, and the fact that the Betz’s floors were uneven. But of course they’d say that.

Gerri Betz from the Florida Times-Union archive. Image courtesy of WJCT.

Scientists were the next to take a crack at the mystery. As it happened, shortly after the Betz sphere story had broken, the National Enquirer was convening a panel of five UFO investigators in New Orleans. Despite the disreputable sponsor and subject, each of the members was a scientist or engineer in their own right. Among them was J. Allen Hynek, a Northwestern University astronomy professor and the best known ufologist of the time. The Enquirer flew Terry Betz and the sphere out so it could be investigated by the panel. Evidently, Hynek and his colleagues were unimpressed with the ball and agreed with the Navy that it was man-made.

These conclusions did nothing to tamp down interest in the sphere, and eventually, the Betz family had had enough. A year and half or so after the orb became national news, the family simply stopped talking about the sphere. “I have recorded interviews with her at the time, and this is just extremely overwhelming for her family,” said Kilbride. “[Gerri Betz] was getting calls 24 hours a day, the phone was just constantly ringing. People were just showing up at her house. It drastically changed their lives. This is kind of what they became known for.” With the Betzes no longer taking sphere-related inquiries, it was never definitively proven what the thing was or how it had gotten on Fort George Island.

The sphere lives on

The former Betz house on Fort George Island. Image courtesy of Abandoned Florida.

The sphere fell out of the general zeitgeist shortly after, and the Betz family returned to their normal lives. Though out of the media spotlight, they certainly didn’t stay quiet. Gerri was a business owner involved in real estate and trucking, and Antoine was a marine biologist. Gerri continued to be active in the community and was willing to talk about pretty much anything but the sphere.

However, a small core of people - UFO enthusiasts, Jacksonville history buffs, and lovers of crazy stories - have kept its memory alive. Despite the lack of any news about the object or comment from the family for over 40 years, the sphere has continued to show up in books, shows and websites about aliens and unexplained mysteries. In 2017, it got its own episode of Ancient Aliens, the uncritical if amusing History Channel show about, well, ancient aliens. The sphere’s supposed attributes have grown in direct contrast to actual information about it. Today, websites will tell you that it’s made of elements heavier than anything found on Earth, and that were it to be drilled into, it would explode with the power of an atomic bomb.

Skeptical takes have also come about. The podcast Skeptoid covered the Betz sphere in 2012. In 2016, Jacksonville writer Tim Gilmore wrote about the sphere on his website JaxPsychoGeo.com. Following the findings of some of the more skeptical news articles, these offer more prosaic explanations for the sphere’s origins. In particular, the sphere’s specifications fit very closely with the balls in industrial ball check valves, such as those decommissioned at a Northside paper mill 15 years before the Betz sphere was found.

Podcasting the “Odd Ball”

In September 2019, Lindsey Kilbride and WJCT Public Media launched the podcast Odd Ball, which is emerging as the most complete and comprehensive account of the Betz sphere ever made. Kilbride first encountered the story in, of all things, Ancient Aliens. “They don’t go very deep in the episode. They just sort of lay out what’s already on the internet. And they basically say, ‘this is a UFO.’” The story inspired her to do her own digging.

So far Kilbride has combed through newspaper archives and old recorded interviews, interviewed people knowledgeable about the sphere and the Betz family, and answered a number of intriguing questions about the sphere. She has also raised even more. Did the Navy try to keep the ball? Did J. Allen Hynek quietly visit the Betz house and swap out the real sphere for a decoy? And where is the sphere today?

But while Kilbride has uncovered enough new and old information on the orb to put her in the running for the most knowledgeable mystery sphere researcher in history, she is equally interested in human element - the lives of the Betz family and how the clamor surrounding the sphere affected them. “It’s a really good Jacksonville story,” she said.

Odd Ball is produced by WJCT. The podcast is ongoing, and is a must listen for anyone interested in the Betz sphere. Tune in at wjct.org.

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Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at wdelaney@moderncities.com.