RIVERHEAD, N.Y. — RIVERHEAD, N.Y. -- Steve Iavarone, vice president of the Long Island UFO Network, sits in his second-floor den and glances at his collection of alien kitsch, his massive electronic telescope, his videotape collection that extends from "2001" to "Cocoon." Like the rest -- the friends, the former colleagues, the neighbors who haven't sold their homes and fled for less radioactive parts of Long Island -- he is steadfast.
They are the true believers, the ones who can't accept that John J. Ford, red-blooded American right down to his name, could have plotted an assassination.
"John is one of the most reasonable people I know," says Iavarone. "We're talking about a guy with a normal job, nice house. . . . This is a weird movie."
Weird, yes. Fiction? No. In a summer where movie screens have Jodie Foster receiving radio messages from distant stars and men in black scouring Manhattan for extraterrestrials, the best, most bizarre alien drama is a 100 percent true story now playing out in eastern Long Island.
Ford, a 48-year-old retired court security officer, is scheduled to go on trial here this week for conspiring to murder three otherwise forgettable Suffolk County political figures. A pedestrian enough set of charges in this tabloid era, until one examines the details. Then Long Island's "murder with radioactive elements in retaliation for UFO cover-up" case becomes, well, unique.
According to court documents, Ford hatched a plan to kill the three men by sprinkling radioactive dust into their toothpaste, over their food and in their cars. The beauty of the alleged plot was that the radium would kill so slowly -- probably with burns and cancerous growths over decades -- that their deaths would conform to actuarial tables and no one would suspect a thing.
Ford's alleged motive: He felt the county's political leadership had covered up UFO activity on Long Island, which with its state parks and flat terrain is a popular landing pad for flying objects, UFO true-believers say.
When Ford's alleged plot was exposed in June 1996, prosecutors and the intended victims had trouble taking it seriously. But as authorities investigated further, they became more and more unnerved -- not only by Ford, but by the seeming normality of it all. Ford, his friends, his neighbors, his compatriots in the UFO Network, turned out to be typical Long Islanders, with nice suburban homes, two-car garages and good jobs with solid pensions.
"This all convinces me that there is a side to humanity that defies definition," the Suffolk County prosecutor, James Catterson, said a statement worthy of a 1950s sci-fi movie. "While we may think of them as kooks and far-outs, the point is that they lead daily lives and are able to get along. But within them they harbor thoughts which seldom, but do, surface. So we must be on guard."
That, of course, is the prosecution's view. For their part, the UFO Network's 300 dues-paying members are supporting a "Free John Ford" Web site and a campaign to raise his $350,000 bail before the government sends him to prison, for a possible sentence of 25 years.
Ford is harmless, his friends say. He collected coins. He lived with his mother. It was his love of expensive toys, not any propensity for violence, that explains theguns, gas masks and mine sweeper he kept by the pool out back.
"If John wanted to take you out, he had guns and he wouldn't waste his time," says Iavarone. "But he was not that sort of fellow."
Ford's trial will take place in the same courthouse he was once paid to guard.
A day in the Suffolk County courthouse is enough to make most people paranoid, and Ford worked here nearly 20 years. The building has more security officers than U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, where John Gotti was tried. The court clerk's offices are closed to the public. There is enough bulletproof glass to protect a shooting range.
Ford made his home a fortress, too, though no one can ever remember a serious crime on Sundial Lane, where all the lawns are green except for the one in front of No. 55. The bank recently foreclosed, and John Ford's place is now an eyesore. The windows and doors are boarded up. A tattered American flag flies at half-mast above the garage.
"It used to look a lot better," says Stan Jones, who lives across the street. "John was a good neighbor."
The best of neighbors. He made lasagna for new arrivals to the neighborhood. He brought back presents for Jones' kids from a Caribbean cruise. "When we went away, he watched our house, and vice versa," says Jones, who works for the power company. "I think the government is lying about him."
Only a few of his neighbors knew it, but Ford also had a passion for UFOs. He spoke on the topic at libraries and country clubs, where he recruited new members for the UFO Network, preferably college graduates. Iavarone, who has an engineering degree, says Ford made him present a professional resume and educational references before admitting him.
"Investigators," like Iavarone, interviewed people who reported alien abductions and urged them to submit to polygraph examinations. When the public called a hot line to report a UFO crash, members took Geiger counters to the alleged site to probe for evidence of an alien presence. Sometimes members )) gathered on Moriches Bay for "night watches" of the sky.
They were straight arrows, says Iavarone. But in recent years, Ford's choices of at least two new members raised questions about his judgment. Both would figure into the alleged murder scheme.
Joe Mazzuchelli, a wiry, tattooed former junkyard worker, turned out to have a criminal record dating back to 1973. And Ed Zabo, a U.S. government inspector stationed at defense contractor Northrop Grumman, had serious financial trouble, documents show.
Joe Hunt, a retiree who is a longtime friend, says Zabo quarreled with his wife over money. And when police arrested him for driving while intoxicated in the spring of 1996, he told them he could not pay a fine because he owed too much money to the IRS.
"No matter how hard he worked, he couldn't get ahead," Hunt says. "The only reason he did the crime was for the money."
Three years ago, Ford experienced three cataclysmic events. He injured himself on the job and had to retire. The Pine Barrens fire, a blaze so big its smoke could be seen in Manhattan, 70 miles west, swept away 5,500 acres of Long Island forest. And his mother died.
"Something happened to John when she died," says Iavarone. "He changed. He became more withdrawn, angrier."
The fire became Ford's consuming passion. He sent a newsletter to Network members reporting that it had been caused by a UFO crash, which federal agents covered up by starting other fires away from the crash site. He deluged the local government and media with phone calls.
County fire commissioner David Fischler had to deny Ford's claims publicly ("Yes," he said, "UFOs have been ruled out") but admits the true cause may never be determined.
Prosecutors say Ford grew steadily angrier about a county government that he felt was covering up the incident. No one is sure how he picked his alleged targets, but authorities say Ford focused on eliminating three men: John Powell, the chairman of the Suffolk County Republican Committee; Fred Towle, a Suffolk County legislator; and Tony Gazzola, an investigator for the Brookhaven town attorney.
For help, he turned to Mazzuchelli and Zabo. The plot was this, authorities say: Ford had diligently compiled the schedules of the intended victims. Mazzuchelli agreed to do the break-ins, placing the radium in food, homes and cars. And Zabo, desperate for cash to pay the IRS, supplied five canisters of radium, which he probably stole while on the job at Northrop Grumman.
But the threesome's luck was bad. In the course of an unrelated investigation of illegal gun trades, authorities heard about the plan, then secretly taped a meeting at Ford's house on June 11, 1996.
On the tape, Ford says: "Once they find this stuff, on, let's say in Tony [Gazzola]'s car, front seat . . ."
"Nasty bastard glowing in the dark," Mazzuchelli interjects.
"With this isotope," Ford replies, "he'll start glowing in 24 hours."
Ford and Mazzuchelli were never able to place the radium; by the end of June they had been arrested. Brookhaven laboratory officials, armed with their own Geiger counters, arrived at Ford's home. No radium had leaked from the canisters, but several unnerved neighbors decided to sell their homes anyway.
Fred Towle, the county legislator who was one of the intended targets, had a hard time believing the plot was more than a joke before he heard the tape of Ford talking about putting radium in his coffee.
A year later, Towle has little piece of mind. He says he's been terrorized by "kooks" set off by the case. There was a break-in at his county office. His car tires were slashed and a window smashed. He gets prank calls in the middle of the night.
His public schedule is confidential now. His staff members are not allowed to remain in the office alone. His home and office are heavily alarmed, and he carries a cellular phone everywhere he goes.
"This has changed my life totally," he says. "I will never think of Long Island and Suffolk County in the same way again."
UFO Network members feel the same way. Ford was their leader, and they miss him.
His deputy, Steve Iavarone, is funny and well-grounded. He has a successful electrical contracting business. He speaks dispassionately about the three times he has spotted UFOs: At age 14 while he was shooting off model rockets in a state park. In 1987 while trying to land a small airplane at a Long Island airport. And four years ago, when a UFO passed 1,000 feet
above him while he rested in a park.
"I tried to call John on my car phone," he recalls. "But the object blocked my reception."
The news about Ford is bad. Both Mazzuchelli and Zabo have pleaded guilty to lesser crimes in exchange for their testimony against him. Ford's lawyer, John Rouse, who initially said the plot was a misunderstood joke, has filed papers suggesting Ford will admit to the conspiracy but plead insanity.
The news about the UFO Network is not good, either. With their leader in jail, members have turned off their Geiger counters. The network's files have been moved to a secret location. All investigations of reported crashes and abductions have been suspended.
"There's an unusual amount of UFO activity on Long Island," says Iavarone, shaking his head. "And we're no longer documenting it."
Pub Date: 8/04/97