Uintah County Paid Tens of Thousands to PhenomeCon Speakers
Financial records obtained from Uintah County indicate it spent over $133,000 on the 2022 PhenomeCon while raising about $124,000 in revenue, compiling a reported debt of some $9,000 for sponsoring the paranormal-themed conference. The inaugural 2021 PhenomeCon likewise tallied over $74,000 in payouts while collecting about $59,000 in revenue, finishing some $15,000 in the hole. Expenses for the two conferences, confirmed to be sponsored by Uintah County, include tens of thousands of dollars in payments to dubious speakers and catered “VIP” meals in which unsupported rumors were spread of dangerous paranormal phenomena. Payouts also include workshops promoting such topics as Remote Viewing and payments for rental car reimbursements. During the 2022 PhenomeCon, payments issued for speaking engagements, consultation services, and appearances at events totaled over $60,000, while hotel chains were paid in excess of $10,000, according to the financial reports.
Expanding Frontiers Research (EFR) obtained the information through public records requests submitted to the Uintah County offices of the Clerk-Auditor and Travel and Tourism. The requests were submitted as part of a joint effort between this writer and EFR Director Erica Lukes, who contributed substantial research to this article.
Uintah County is home to the property in Utah known as Skinwalker Ranch, where unsubstantiated stories of spooky goings ons have been popularized by late night talk radio, cable television, and credulous books co-authored by fringe reporter George Knapp with former defense officials harboring unclear agendas. Many of the PhenomeCon speakers are associated with Skinwalker Ranch.
The records obtained contain an entry from 2021 indicating $850 was paid to a law firm, apparently for trademark search and filing services. Further research indicated a “PhenomeCon” trademark was filed in 2021 and owned by Uintah County.
Uintah County Travel and Tourism Director Lesha Coltharp confirmed during an Oct. 3 telephone call that PhenomeCon is a Uintah County-sponsored conference. Websites which advertised and collected payment to attend PhenomeCon, which carries the tagline, "We believe," did not as of this writing indicate Uintah County puts on the event. Coltharp and personnel from the Clerk-Auditor's office additionally verified interpretation of the financial records. The records indicate over $207,000 in funds were spent on the two PhenomeCon conferences at a combined loss of about $24,000. Perhaps even more significant is how the money was spent and that county government is involved at all.
Disbursements recorded by the Uintah County offices of the Clerk-Auditor and Travel and Tourism include over $6,100 to George Knapp in 2021; over $5,100 in payments were recorded to Dr. Travis Taylor in 2021 and over $5,400 in combined payouts in 2022; $5,495 in payments were made in 2021 to Skinwalker Ranch superintendent Thomas Winterton's company, Dabato, LLC, and nearly $5,000 in payments were logged to Winterton in 2022. Lesha Coltharp credited Thomas Winterton with initially planning PhenomeCon with government officials.
Additional PhenomeCon expenses include Dragon Security, also affiliated with Skinwalker Ranch, which was issued over $2,000 in payments in 2021 and over $5,000 in 2022. Scientist Erik Bard, yet another Skinwalker alumni, was issued over $2,000 in payments in 2021 and in excess of $2,700 in 2022.
At the 2022 PhenomeCon, held Sep. 7-11 at the Uintah Conference Center in the county seat of Vernal, Christopher Duncan was allocated $960 for a Remote Viewing workshop. According to additional entries, he was paid another combined $1,500. Other 2022 events include a “Voices of Believers Dinner,” for which caterers were paid $4,200. The tab for a “Behind the Scenes Dinner with Skinwalker Ranch” weighed in at $7,351, while records indicate a combined $7,000 was paid to caterers for what were termed opening and closing receptions. Miscellaneous expenses include over $2,300 for tee shirts, over $850 for “PhenomeCon Pens,” and nearly $900 for “Candy for Speakers.”
Lesha Coltharp defended the PhenomeCon financial losses and Uintah County's decision-making process, stating the conference brings some thousand tourists to the area. “It was a huge success,” she contended. “We had people attend from 38 states and four different countries and they were here for anywhere from five days to 14 days.” Attendees would praise the event, she added, saying it is above and beyond anything they get anywhere else in the country.
“We bring in high caliber speakers so that it's the real deal.”
Coltharp was advised EFR does not share her assessment of the caliber of speakers. She was further informed EFR has concerns when a county government facilitates spreading unverified claims about purported paranormal activity as perpetrated by PhenomeCon and speakers it pays and promotes.
Dr. Travis Taylor is a consultant in the intelligence community and is employed at Radiance Technologies. He is also a cast member of the cable television show The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch. He publicly asserts mysterious and serious harm is subject to come to people associated with the property. At an event labeled a VIP lunch conducted during the 2022 PhenomeCon, Taylor stated a woman “ended up with a very dangerous form of cancer” as a result of an orb passing through her. He claimed the orb was linked to the ranch through the purported “hitchhiker phenomenon.”
The hitchhiker phenomenon is an entirely unverified speculation that suggests people who encounter select paranormal phenomena become enmeshed with the phenomena, which accompanies them across potentially long distances and transfers to others with whom they interact. It should be noted the alleged paranormal phenomena to which Taylor refers has yet to be established to so much as exist, much less its associated hitchhiker effect. Nonetheless, Taylor further asserted during the PhenomeCon VIP lunch that former ranch owner Robert Bigelow “got rid of the place” because “he was convinced it killed his wife.”
Multiple requests sent to Dr. Taylor to field questions for this article did not receive responses.
Lesha Coltharp was advised of Taylor's statements and asked how it squares with tourism when a PhenomeCon speaker suggests Robert Bigelow's wife died as a result of Skinwalker Ranch.
“I'm not sure of that and I didn't hear Dr. Taylor speak, so if I wasn't there and he had that claim, I don't know,” Coltharp responded.
It was pointed out to the Travel and Tourism Director there are obvious concerns and breakdowns in logic when the ranch personnel and associates chronically assert the existence of some type of harmful contagion or toxic radiation, yet ignore responsibilities to report such circumstances to proper authorities. Such authorities might include environmental agencies or the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Environmental agencies would potentially conduct an investigation and subsequently implement a series of protocols if reports were deemed valid. While that is the case, rather than involve agencies and more effectively ensure public and personal safety, the narrative is used to promote tourism, up to advertising a PhenomeCon escorted trip to the ranch and using the story as a means to create income for speakers. Can she empathize with the concerns?
“I guess that's not Tourism, that's not anything that we have a part of,” Coltharp offered in response. “Does that make sense? We're in it because we have over a thousand people who come here and stay in our hotels and eat in our restaurants, shop in our stores and buy our gas. That's why Tourism's involved – our economic impact of it – that's why we help facilitate the conference. That's why we're involved. We're not involved in any of the science part of it or anything like that.”
It might be reasonably surmised Uintah County officials do not believe anyone is in danger from phenomena purported to menace Skinwalker Ranch or cause alleged hitchhiker horrors. One would otherwise have to account for why decisions are made by county government to financially sponsor the event. Specifically, it results in a reported thousand people per year visiting an area of Utah in which George Knapp and others who were paid to attend and speak maintain that poltergeist-like energies attach themselves to human beings, accompany them home, spread to others like a virus and – according to Travis Taylor – cause cancer. If government officials and community leaders sincerely believe those tales, they are arguably acting with substantial negligence to exploit the circumstances as a means to boost the local economy and create financial opportunities for PhenomeCon speakers and consultants. In contrast, if PhenomeCon sponsors and participants do not believe the tales, that raises a different - yet arguably equally important - series of ethical questions.
Requests for comment were sent to the Uintah County Commissioners, seeking statements on their stances either opposing or supporting the County's policies on conducting and financially sponsoring PhenomeCon. A voicemail message was left for Commission Chairman Bart Haslem, requesting he clarify his position on PhenomeCon, as well as offer a statement on the safety of conference attendees and Uintah County tourists in general, given the assertions of Dr. Taylor and his fellow Secret of Skinwalker cast members and conference speakers. No responses were received from the County Commission as of this writing.
Coltharp described how PhenomeCon began. “We were working with Skinwalker Ranch,” she explained. “So many people go over there to their ranch, over there to their gate, you know? And they wanted people to have some kind of experience - for guests - but they can't let anybody on the ranch because of their paranormal activity, right? So they kind of came up with an idea, 'Hey, what if we call it some kind of a conference where we, you know, are there and help support it?', and then, they had met with our City Manager and our Economic Development Director at the time and they came up with this idea, PhenomeCon. In the process of that, Blind Frog Ranch got involved, and then Russ with Expedition Bigfoot.”
Expedition Bigfoot is another cable television show. It features Russell Acord, who Lesha Coltharp was apparently referencing. The Uintah County financial records pertaining to the 2021 PhenomeCon indicate Lorraine Acord was issued $1200. In 2022, records show she received seven payments of $500 each, totaling $3,500, between January and July. Russell Acord was paid eight installments of $500 each during the same period, plus additional payments totaling at least $2,585, bringing his personal grand total for 2022 PhenomeCon to no less than $6,585. He hunts Bigfoot on television.
Requests for comment were sent to the office of Vernal City Manager Quinn Bennion. He was asked to comment on if he supports Uintah County sponsoring PhenomeCon. The City Manager was also asked to clarify his position on the safety of conference attendees, given the statements of PhenomeCon speakers pertaining to alleged head injuries and the purported "hitchhiker phenomena" associated with supposed mysterious energies at Skinwalker Ranch.
"I am on the organizing committee and assist with conference arrangements. I support the conference occurring in Vernal," Bennion wrote in an Oct. 19 email. He echoed points expressed by Coltharp about a thousand participants from 38 states and four countries, adding, "Phenomecon is a boost to the Vernal economy and tourism."
"The conference does not facilitate or transport participants onto private property including Skinwalker Ranch," the City Manager continued, apparently implying tourists are guaranteed to remain out of harm's way as long as they don't go on the real estate parcel. "The add-on tour turns around at the gate."
Bennion was asked in a follow-up email if it was fair to say he does not believe tourists are in any danger associated with alleged Skinwalker Ranch paranormal phenomena or "hitchhiker phenomena" as described at the 2022 PhenomeCon by Dr. Travis Taylor. He was provided a link to Taylor's related statements.
Bennion was also asked, as a member of the organizing committee, to please summarize the process of how speakers and their amounts of compensation are selected. Some speakers were reportedly paid $300 while others received thousands for attendance at various events. Is there a call for proposals for potential speakers? Who makes these decisions and what are the decisions based on?
"I am not qualified to respond about 'hitchhiker phenomena,'" Vernal City Manager Bennion emailed in response. He added that he was the committee host at the VIP lunch and did not hear Taylor's statements, which might be considered beside the point, given he was provided a link to a video clip containing the doctor's claims.
"The organizing committee makes the decisions on speakers and compensation," Bennion briefly wrote, apparently opting to decline summarizing the process as was requested. He concluded he would not respond further to emails "unless you have an open records request to Vernal City."
Lesha Coltharp explained the Skinwalker Ranch “casting crew” wanted to do some kind of conference, “so they could interact with the community.” She was asked, when she stated “they” wanted people to have some kind of experience and met with the City Manager and an economic developer, who specifically was she referencing?
“Thomas Winterton. So he's from the Uintah Basin and so, yeah, he wanted to do something to help have an economic impact for the community.”
As cited above, records indicate over $10,000 in combined payments were made from Uintah County offices to Thomas Winterton and his LLC for the 2021 and 2022 PhenomeCon conferences. This apparently includes payment in 2022 for appearances at the Behind the Scenes Dinner with Skinwalker Ranch and a VIP breakfast, as well as his involvement with an “Escorted Trip to Skinwalker Ranch.”
Winterton publicly claims he sustained repeated head injuries, spanning many years, associated with inexplicable energies at the ranch. In spite of that being the case, he remarkably continues to apparently spend significant amounts of time at Skinwalker Ranch and encourages people to visit the surrounding area, seemingly including taking an escorted trip, or "add-on tour," as City Manager Bennion put it.
Speculation about Havana Syndrome and its relationship to Uintah County is fueled by figures such as Dr. Garry Nolan of Stanford University. During a 2021 interview with Motherboard, Nolan directly described a victim of what he labeled Havana Syndrome at Skinwalker Ranch. The immunologist further asserted he and colleagues "can actually estimate the amount of energy required in the electromagnetic wave someone aimed at them." Researchers, presumably including Kit Green and he, think the alleged case at Skinwalker was perpetrated by some sort of state actor, Nolan explained.
Nolan has to this point failed to adequately establish an electromagnetic wave was involved in the case at all, much less positively and intentionally aimed by anyone, state actor or otherwise. It should nonetheless not escape consideration that government officials and Skinwalker personnel apparently proceed with plans for conferences and activities while presumably aware of Nolan's allegations. It could be interpreted as difficult to think they believe there is danger, for whatever reasons.
In addition to claims of mysterious injuries, Winterton, Taylor, and their fellow Secret of Skinwalker cast members, along with George Knapp and his co-authors, persist in suggesting the presence of some type of potentially toxic or harmful phenomena. The television show itself is widely known for its claims of measuring radiation levels which cast members identify as alarming. EFR filed several records requests with Utah and federal environmental agencies, namely, multiple offices of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency. As of this writing, no evidence has been obtained that indicates such circumstances as asserted by promoters of the Skinwalker narrative were ever reported to proper authorities. As a matter of fact, in certain instances, it is evident they were not.
EFR notified the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) of dates of injuries reportedly occurring in the vicinity of Skinwalker Ranch via a records request seeking material pertaining to the events and geographic location. The DEQ Division of Water Quality responded in an Oct. 14 email a search was conducted for incidents occurring on and within a mile-and-a-half of the property. One “environmental incident” was identified, a 2019 circumstance in which a truck hauling crude oil leaked an unknown quantity onto the surface of the road where the oil reportedly solidified in place with no waterways or soil impacted. A map of reported incidents, or primary lack thereof, on and surrounding Skinwalker Ranch as provided by the Department of Environmental Quality, Division of Water Quality:
In addition to the Division of Water Quality, EFR queried the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality for records that might reflect incidents that populate the sensational Skinwalker Ranch narrative. A recently received response advised EFR of an allegation filed in 2020 to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that was subsequently forwarded to the Utah DEQ in 2021.
The allegation was authored by someone describing them self as a “concerned citizen” who believed there to be a uranium deposit on Skinwalker Ranch, causing “the majority of the health dangers that people are experiencing there.” The author of the message somewhat erratically went on to suggest an investigation should be secret, include people on the ranch, and findings should not be made public for national security reasons.
“Unfortunately,” the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control explained in its Oct. 18 email response to EFR, “because the property is held by a private entity which has not sought the Division’s assistance for any incidents that may have occurred on-site, the Division has been unable to follow up on the allegation at this time.”
It is clear that Skinwalker Ranch personnel, television show cast members, production crew employees, public officials nor anyone else directly or indirectly promoting claims of harmful phenomena inherent to the property have notified Waste Management and Radiation Control. A number of salient, yet unanswered, questions revolve around that fact. At a bare minimum, the concerns expressed in the allegation submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission do not reflect well on the people promoting the story for a living and for various financially motivated reasons, particularly if those people in actuality doubt the authenticity of the narrative.
The allegation submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is shown below. The personal information of the submitter was withheld by the DEQ as stipulated in applicable Utah public records laws. A Freedom of Information Act request was submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the circumstances and remains open as of this writing.
The apparent lack of ranch personnel documenting purported incidents with applicable agencies might be considered even more questionable in light of the fact Sen. Ronald Winterton, the reported father of Thomas Winterton, chaired the 2020 Utah House Health and Human Services Committee. A March 2020 memo to Committee members from the office of Sen. Winterton demonstrates the group explored legislation concerning health and human services, emergency medical services, and fatalities, among other issues, just apparently none that have anything to do with cancer-inducing contagions originating from Skinwalker Ranch and Uintah County.
Thomas Winterton did not respond to several invitations to discuss his involvement with PhenomeCon for inclusion in this article.
Prof. William F. Hall is a former Field Office Director at the Department of Justice, Community Relations Service Division. His professional career includes serving as a special assistant in the U.S. Senate to Sen. John Danforth (R-MO); in the Office of the Mayor in New York for Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Paul Gibson, Jr. (D-NYC); and as a member of the Chicago Mayoral Transition Team for Mayor-Elect, Harold L. Washington (D-IL). He earned degrees and conducted studies in political science, public policy, and social welfare. Prof. Hall is a longtime educator, currently serving Webster University and Washington University. He agreed to speak by phone about government ethics on Oct. 17.
Should government sponsorship of a public event be overt and clearly posted?
“Yes, it should,” Prof. Hall responded, adding that he recommends for further reference on such issues the National Association of Counties and the American Society for Public Administration. These organizations set industry standards and spell out specific guidelines on government ethics and transparency.
Any citizen is entitled to information about the purposes, speakers employed, and other aspects of government activities. Information is made available to people who pay for the activities, Prof. Hall explained, which, in this case, is the taxpayer.
“The National Association of Counties and the American Society for Public Administration both have codes of ethics and one of the most important components is the need to have business conducted in the public eye,” he continued.
What responsibilities does a county government have in the validity of the stances the speakers take at the events it sponsors?
There is typically a request for proposals in which a government body will seek services or, in this instance, speakers. The request for proposals should outline the parameters, the expectations, the qualifications – all of the things that you really need to have – to make an informed and intelligent decision on such matters, the professor explained. The process must of course be within the limits of the law, but sometimes ethical conflicts may be present that do not rise to the level of criminal culpability, yet could violate standards of morality or ethics, or some other benchmark, that governments should attempt to respect and observe. In a best-case scenario, public officials do not settle for mere compliance or trying to avoid breaking the law, but conduct their activities in ways that instill confidence in the public they serve.
“In terms of speakers and their views,” Prof. Hall continued, “as far as I'm aware, there is no general prohibition against government agencies contracting with services or speakers that they may not necessarily agree with. I think part of the value of conferences often is being able to expose attendees to views that may be out of the box. Now, having said that, certainly I think there are lines that may be beyond the bounds or beyond the pale of reasonability, and that's when you get into a gray area.”
Hall explained the National Association of Counties website references with its code of ethics a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.” That speaks volumes, the professor emphasized. Something that may not necessarily violate the letter of the law, reasonable minds could ascertain violates the spirit of the law. That's where ethics come into play. Without seeing the specific calls for proposals and the specific county guidelines that dictate how speakers and service providers may be contracted, it would be impossible to offer an informed opinion, but the importance of the process can indeed be explored.
It was explained to Hall that one of the compensated speakers was reportedly involved in the initial planning stages with county and city officials of what led to the two conferences. Was the professor suggesting a key aspect of the process was the procedure in which the county selected speakers and arrived at amounts of compensation?
“I think that is the crux of the issue,” Prof. Hall replied. “Almost any code of ethics that I am familiar with, and I am familiar with many – in the codes of ethics of the National Association of Counties and American Society for Public Administration, for instances - a major component is there needs to be clear showing that no participant, no one who would vote or select a contractor, would have any 'skin in the game,' or benefit. A big red flag always flies when there is evidence that someone who is deciding also has some stake in the decision, either a monetary one or some other way that ultimately they may value. That is always a red flag, so in the process of selection there should be some evidence that great pains were taken to make sure that no one would be involved in the process that stands to gain anything of value.”
Relevant questions might include 'Who were the stakeholders?' and 'Did anyone have a chance to influence the selection that might benefit through personal gain?'. “It doesn't necessarily have to mean money,” Prof. Hall continued, “it could also mean setting the stage for something down the road.”
Is it different when a county government gets involved in the Bigfoot and UFO business as compared to a for-profit entity or an entertainment-based company?
“I think that's a fair statement,” Prof. Hall responded, while emphasizing the importance of process and procedures. The specific wording of policies and codes adopted by a government administration must be reviewed to determine the extent its actions adhered to or varied from its guidelines. It's all about the process.
“A major component of any code of ethics, particularly those that are on point with this particular situation, is the need to demonstrate integrity of the organization, agency or government,” he explained, “the need to adhere to the highest forms of conduct to inspire confidence and trust in public service. Any actions, behavior or decisions that do not enhance or support that integrity diminish the role of government and tend to make the public hesitant to feel their interests are being held to the highest standards. You get into the gray areas at your own peril because, after all, the main issue and goal in a federal system of government, where we disperse power among many different governments, is to advance the public interest.”
That's the beauty and the strength of America, Prof. Hall emphasized and concluded. We don't have an authoritarian government at the top that makes all the decisions. We have many different governments with levels of responsibility, but the one constant in democracy, from federal to state to county and townships, is the need for government to advance the public interest.