I've written before about the little red flag in a case that can't be reconciled with witness statements being true. Once that nugget of truth is forgotten, and the hoax is given free rein, laziness sets in. The original research and documentation are forgotten in favor of the re-re-repeated myth.
What if the answer was back there at the start all along?
When the nugget comes to light, the case falls apart. When the gods are smiling, that nugget is also hilarious.
The Balwyn Bell (1966) is already a laughably stupid case, so finding a nugget that makes it even funnier is sublime.
Melbourne businessman James Kibel (1940-2021) worked in the family import company and hobnobbed with PMs. ASIO has files on him, thanks to his dealings in China. His family lived in Balwyn, a wealthy suburb a few miles east of Melbourne. According to him, he was in his mother’s backyard on April 2, 1966, intending to take pictures of her flower garden to send to her in England. He had two shots left in his polaroid instant camera. The first one didn't work out, so he threw it away.
He changed the camera settings and was about to use the last shot on the flowers when a tremendous flash of light made him look up. He smashed his nose in his rush to raise the camera, and took one shot of a shiny metal bell-shaped UFO which then turned and shot off. The sighting lasted about 6 seconds.
Kibel tells James MacDonald in 1967 that there were "Two pictures left in the camera" [he spent one on the flowers, the other on the UFO], and minutes later seems to forget this, saying: "I realized that I couldn’t take another photograph. The thing takes 60 seconds to come out..."
Inability-to-keep-his-story-straight aside, his photo was published in one of Melbourne's major newspapers, the Herald, on April 12. Kibel filed a report with NICAP on April 19. Despite being in the middle of suburbia, there were no other witnesses to this extraordinary sunny Saturday afternoon sighting.
Kibel stubbornly would not let researchers take the polaroid for examination so they had to work with low-resolution scans. Some "experts" think it's real, some have problems with various aspects of it. (This short video shows how photo experts who believe silly things about flying saucers are rather bad at their job when applying their knowledge to this subject.)
Then his house was broken into and the precious photo was the ONLY THING STOLEN! You may call this a red flag, and you'd be right, but it's not the nugget we're after.
Fortunately, the photo inexplicably showed up in Kibel's mailbox just in time for his interview with UFO filmmaker James Fox around 2018. Fox handled the polaroid in person, and Kibel sent him a scan. This scan is presumably what is shown in the Phenomenon movie (2020), from which I created the image below. The resolution is higher than anything available online and includes what appears to be a wire, hair, or scratch hanging from the bottom of the UFO and going across the chimney. That's not the nugget either: until the polaroid is examined, we can't know if this line is on the original or was introduced during scanning.
Out of the mouths of babes...
As a little experiment, without any context I showed Kibel’s UFO photo to a preteen and said: What’s this? She said: “It’s a bell. It’s a bell thrown in the air.”
I think it's most likely a pram hubcap, an idea that occasionally turns up online in relation to this photo but hasn't been well explored. The first image below is a 1960s pram for sale on Gumtree and the shape is a reasonable but not exact match (I found several different shapes of hubcap so one might speculate there are more I haven't yet found, one of which may match). It may also be a desk bell or bike bell, but the "stalk" more closely resembles the hubcap.
In 1967, James MacDonald interviewed Kibel about his sighting. They discussed how the highly polished UFO appeared to be reflecting Kibel's roof, which is visible along the bottom of the photo.
But Kibel said the UFO was 150ft up, 350-400ft away, and 20-35ft diameter. This map shows the actual house, with the camera and UFO positions approximately to scale. There's no reason to think the UFO would be reflecting his roof.
Preceded Westall... or inspired by?
Kibel says he took the photo on April 2, four days before, and 10 miles from, the Westall school sighting. The photo wasn’t published until April 12 so we don't actually know when it was taken. The Westall school sighting made the nightly news on April 6 and was reported in a small local paper on April 14 although a detailed description wasn't published until until April 21.
So how could Kibel's photo have been inspired by Westall, if he probably didn't know much about the Westall UFO until April 21?
Westall witness Joy (age 12) filed her sighting report to the Victorian Flying Saucer Research Society (VFSRS) on April 7. Kibel was a member of VFSRS, and its president Peter Norris knew him personally and vouched for him. [Herald, Apr 12, 1966]
Joy's UFO is bell-like and “turned edge and disappeared fast.” Just like Kibel’s UFO, when his photo showed up several days later. Note the lump on top of Joy's sketch is probably just a mistake as she was going over the shape repeatedly, but if Kibel saw this report he perhaps thought it was supposed to be there, and so he chose a machined object that also had this "button" on top.
Keith Basterfield and Paul Dean published lots of excellent research on this “cold case” in 2016. These links provide scans and transcripts of the original documents I've cited and used here:
The carpenter's tale
There was a witness to Kibel's UFO encounter, and I strongly suspect the man was set up to bolster Kibel's case.
While the above points shed light here and there on the case, the nugget that tears it all down comes from the carpenter, David English, who was working on a kitchen renovation at the house (presumably over the course of several days or weeks).
An aside: English confirms the date of the incident was April 2, but his statement wasn't written until May 2. If Kibel based his UFO on the VFSRS report by Joy, and then asked English to corroborate the incident with a signed statement, it's possible he also told English the [wrong] date and English accepted it without checking.
While I've seen it reported that English saw Kibel take the photograph, this is not true. English testifies that he saw Kibel "apparently preparing to take a photograph." English says he was inside the house at the time, but Kibel drew English's position on his map outside in another part of the garden, and told MacDonald that English was outside. This not insubstantial contradiction is probably not something that can ever be resolved now. Even if we go with Kibel's map of the property, showing English outside, Kibel is not in his line of sight.
So, English didn't see the UFO, or Kibel taking the shot, although both heard an unidentified "boom like a plan[e] breaking the sound barrier." Assuming English was not part of the hoax (or, at least, that he was uninfluenced by Kibel in writing his statement) and that Kibel did not set up something to go boom a few seconds after taking the shot, this was presumably a fortuitously coincidental car backfiring or similar.
Kibel rushed in and invited English to watch the polaroid developing. English reports that Kibel said "something to the effect of":
“I have photographed something peculiar in the air. It may have been a bird but let us see what comes out on the film.”
Bear in mind Kibel will later describe the UFO as huge, metallic, bell-shaped object that bounced in like a yo-yo, rotated, and shot off “like a bullet”.
He manages to snap this object, and before seeing the photograph he wonders aloud if it was… a bird??
Who could mistake a metal bell that flies like a bullet for a bird? How do we explain Kibel's nugget of a comment?
In those seconds while the polaroid was developing, Kibel had no idea how the shot would turn out. Remember, he had already taken one "completely unsuccessful" shot, reportedly of flowers. He told MacDonald that the out-of-date film must've "slowed down", so he adjusted the camera to compensate. I have a sneaking suspicion that first photo (and perhaps four more before it - the film had six shots on the roll), which never saw the light of day, was a previous attempt(s) to photograph the "UFO", a small object chucked in the air. The result was blurred, and he expected this final attempt to be blurred too, but better, he hoped, than the first attempt(s) - something that could plausibly be mistaken for a bird.
But the photo turned out great. Very UFO-like. Not at all bird-like. Kibel created a story to match the clear bell-like object and its movements, and the bird story was forgotten… by all but the carpenter, who wrote his statement a few weeks later not realizing that little detail would give the game away.
It seems mean to call a nice old gentleman a liar, especially one who's no longer around, but what I'm really doing is calling a 20-something-year-old kid a prankster who chucked some junk in the air and successfully fooled a few UFO afficionados (not hard to do) and then a few more, to the point where the myth grew so large nobody wanted to question this beautifully clear flying saucer photo amid the sea of crappy blurry photos that ufology is renowned for. As the days, weeks, and years passed, and interest in the photograph waned while Kibel's standing in the business world increased, and then interest in the photograph was renewed in recent years, at each step along the way he made the choice not to reveal the truth. He had nothing in particular to gain by maintaining the lie, but he had something to lose by confessing to the hoax.
(I wrote about this feature of hoaxes, as I see it, here in a Twitter thread.)
When liars lie, they tend to volunteer unnecessary detail. In those breathless moments as the photograph was developing, it seems Kibel felt the need to announce a teaser to ensure that when finally revealed, the photo - even though it would probably be blurry - would impress the carpenter who was half-expecting to see nothing more than a bird.
The resulting clear image made a lie of Kibel's sales pitch, but it was too late to take back that teaser.
This case is regularly trotted out as a classic. Fox thinks he's doing research because he got a scoop - an interview with the reclusive witness fifty years later - and Fox makes another dollar. But he never looked at the evidence. He just repeats the myth.
And what a myth it is. I would call it a fable, specifically a fable about an emperor parading naked through town. The Balwyn bell is self-evidently a photo of a small near object, machined in a human factory, a photo that grown adults who should know better laud and that, for the most part, only a child has the guileless audacity to point out how it's a monumentally unimpressive piece of hoaxed trash with no clothes.
The Balwyn bell photo is an embarrassment to my hometown*.
*oft-voted Most Livable City in the world
I'm blogging about the Three-Dollar Kit.