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.
Next page: The sphere lives on