By day, Chad Lewis of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is an unassuming grant writer for a nonprofit organization. By night and weekend, he’s Chad Lewis, PI, one of a handful of paranormal investigators in the state. Lewis, 29, logged roughly 30,000 miles last year crisscrossing Wisconsin to inspect everything from alleged haunted houses and crop circles to reports of vampires, werewolves, and spaceships.

Lewis, who received his master’s degree in applied psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in 2002 after completing a thesis on paranormal perception, takes his work as seriously as Fox Mulder ever did. He’s been doing it for nearly ten years, and he has a methodology–interview witnesses, observe physical evidence, dig through archives, pore over flight data, check facts–which he calls “vigilant skepticism.” And though he’s public about his paranormal work–he hosts The Unexplained, a twice-weekly radio show in Eau Claire, and often talks to paranormal groups–he’s picky about his venues. “I won’t talk in a beer tent,” he says. Last year he declined an offer from Elmwood’s UFO Days.

Vigilant skepticism usually means debunking UFO reports. “Most UFO sightings can be explained logically,” Lewis says. “A plane. A planet. An international space station. But people at UFO fests? They like to talk up UFOs. I’m a firm believer in the paranormal, but I can’t sit by and let a dubious claim go unchallenged.”

A year and a half ago he got a typical call from a man in Lodi who claimed that, in Lewis’s words, “UFOs were flying all over the place.” After driving four and a half hours to the location and being greeted by a gathering of believers, he quickly found the explanation. “He was looking at the Madison airport,” says Lewis. “They were standard planes. If he would have described it better on the phone, we wouldn’t have come.”

Lewis has strong opinions on the UFO-capital issue. Though he spurned its beer tent, he calls Elmwood the “first legitimate capital.” Testimony, he says, is extensive. Hundreds of residents have reported sightings. “And George Wheeler was a trained observer, a solid witness. People in Elmwood don’t like to talk about this stuff. They don’t want to see UFOs–it just happened.” He’s not so certain about Belleville. “I’m skeptical of UFO capitals that benefit from the tourist industry,” he says. As for Dundee, which has reported not only UFO sightings but also crop circles and a Loch Ness-like lake monster, Lewis has serious doubts: “I’m just waiting for the vampire sighting.”

He’s also suspicious of the timing of the much-heralded UFO sighting during Dundee’s UFO Daze in 2002. “You have to ask,” he says, “is there a motive? Is the town benefiting from the UFO?” He adds a caveat: “I hate to joke about this, because Dundee could be an area of high paranormal activity.” Sightings or not, he acknowledges Dundee as the main clearinghouse for UFO-related info. “There’s no place in Belleville and Elmwood where you can go in the middle of the year and talk about UFOs.”

But the PI says it’s a mistake to focus only on the Big Three. He’s working on a book with fellow PI Rick Hendricks called “The Strange and Unique History of Wisconsin,” which covers, among other things, the mysterious lights near Crivitz, a 40-foot-tall UFO beacon near the town of Poland, the ghosts of Caryville, and werewolf sightings in Walworth County.

Several theories about the preponderance of odd Dairyland sightings exist in the paranormal community (extraterrestrials like iron ore, they need water, there’s a city under Lake Michigan), but Lewis has a more earthly hypothesis that has less to do with UFOs and more to do with Wisconsinites. Wisconsin seems to embrace its image as a weird state, he says, and so it has an infrastructure to report that weirdness. There are dozens of UFO Web sites based in Wisconsin. Lewis’s colleagues are scattered throughout the state. He runs down a list: “Todd Roll in Wausau. Linda Godfrey, who studies werewolves, in the southeast. Rick Hendricks in Madison.” The investigators share data about paranormal occurrences. It’s possible there’s more UFO action to report in Wisconsin, says Lewis, or “maybe we’re just good at it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.