Welcome to this month’s edition of The Mask Sign. This time we’ll be tackling The Lead Masks Case. I hope you enjoy. Let’s get right into it.
Unless one is somewhat well acquainted, it’s perhaps rather easy to assume that UFOs are a distinctly American phenomenon. After all, the good old USA is home to Roswell, Area 51, Betty and Barney Hill, the cattle mutilation phenomenon, the Marfa Lights, the Battle of Los Angeles, and FBI special agent Fox Mulder. All of the big hits! The reality, of course, is that UFOs are a global affair. They’ve been spotted over the UK and Saudi Arabia, they’ve crashed into harbours in my own home province of Nova Scotia, Canada, they’ve floated malevolently over the Vatican and streaked ominously across the skies of North Korea. Most pertinent to our discussion today is that, from the very outset of the phenomenon, Brazil has been positively lousy with UFOs.
Brazil was home to Antônio Vilas-Boas, the centre of one of the most famous early UFO accounts, back in the halcyon days when they were still called “flying saucers.” In 1957, Vilas-Boas claimed that he had been abducted off his tractor by extraterrestrial aliens. They coated him in a layer of some kind of clear, viscous goop, which artificially induced a sexual arousal in him, before presenting him with a surprisingly attractive female alien and allowing earth life to do what earth life does. Vilas-Boas was given to understand that the fruit of their, erm, familiarity, a human-alien hybrid, would be raised in space by the aliens. He never backtracked from his story.
So dapper even aliens wanna get with it.
Twenty years later, in 1977, a number of UFOs descended on a group of people on the Brazilian island of Colares, attacking them with energy weapons which produced radiation burns and sucked the hapless islanders’ blood. This was so distressing that the government at the time set up an investigation unit called Operação Prato (“Operation Saucer”), whose supposedly inconclusive findings were nevertheless classified until the 90’s.
These are only two of the more notable cases in the long and exciting history of UFO activity in Brazil, but they helpfully bookend a somewhat lesser-known event, which is the focus of this month’s feature: O Caso das Máscaras de Chumbo, or, in English, the Lead Masks Case. While it is without the lurid details that typify encounters like those of Antônio Vilas-Boas, or the sensationalism of the Colares UFO Flap, the weirdness lies thick on the Lead Masks Case, a bizarre event shrouded in enigma, something fascinating specifically because we’ll never know just what the hell happened up on that hill in 1966. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Our story centres on two electronics technicians: Miguel José Viana, 34, and the creepily-staring Manoel Pereira da Cruz, 32.
Natives of Campos dos Goytacazes, northeast of Rio de Janeiro, the pair departed for that city by bus on August 17, 1966. The story goes that they carried a somewhat hefty sum of cash with them, explaining that they were going to buy some electronics parts and a cheap used car. In fact, their actual destination was Niterói, just across Guanabara Bay from Rio itself. In Niterói, they purchased some raincoats at a local shop, and bought a single bottle of mineral water at a bar, taking a receipt so they could return it for the deposit later. The waitress, when questioned after the fact, claimed that Miguel seemed very nervous; he kept glancing around and checking his watch, giving the impression that the pair were running late for something. They walked out of the bar and into UFO history; this was the last time they were, with certainty, seen alive, though some accounts suggest that they were seen later in a Jeep along with some 1-3 unknown persons. As we’ll see, this type of tenuous detail is typical of the Lead Masks Case: hardly any aspect of it is indisputable, but rest assured, there’s plenty of wild speculation and unverified claims to fill in the gaps.
Three days later, a kid named Jorge de Costa Alves was flying a kite on the Morro do Vintém (Vintém Hill, or “Hill of the Penny Coin”) and came upon a rather gruesome sight. Rather than buying a car, Miguel and Manoel had instead apparently climbed the Morro and quietly shuffled off their mortal coils. The two technicians were dead, lying side by side on the hill. They were wearing matching suits and the raincoats they’d bought on the 17th. On their faces (or beside the bodies, depending on whom you ask) were the items that would give the case its name: rough, hand-fashioned chunks of lead, apparently meant to cover the eyes.
It gets weirder. When the police arrived the next day (tough terrain on the Morro prevented an immediate investigation when Jorge reported the find on the 20th), they found some strange notes stashed in a pocket. One was covered in scrawled electrical formulae, and the other seemed to be some kind of schedule or agenda:
The grammar is a problem (apparently, anyway; I don’t read Portuguese) but the most common English translation is as follows:
16:30Hrs – be at the determined place
18:30Hrs – swallow capsules, after effect protect metals wait for mask sign
There was also a plastic bag nearby, containing the empty bottle from the bar (they still had the receipt as well) and, in a nice Hitchhiker’s-Guide-esque touch, a couple of towels. They also had a small amount of cash on them – but far less than they were thought to have when they left Campos.
Already the questions start swirling in. Was this a suicide? Certainly some kind of chemical seems to have been ingested; ‘swallow capsules’ is pretty unambiguous. However, the coroner who presided over the autopsy (a man with the hilarious name of “Toledo Pizza”) reported no poison in their bodies, nor anything else unusual. There were also no injuries and no signs of a struggle. The deaths were ruled to be from unexplained cardiac arrest; it seems that Miguel and Manoel had simply laid down peacefully and died. The ‘determined place’ is generally thought to be the Morro, but this too is up for debate. According to the waitress, they had left the bar at about 2:30PM; this gave them two hours to ‘be at the determined place’; if that place was the nearby Morro, why were they so concerned about the time? This opens the possibility that they’d planned to go somewhere else first. The fact that they’d held on to the receipt indicates to many that they weren’t expecting to die on that hill. Further, what happened to the ‘metals’ they were protecting? What about the rest of their cash? And what was the ‘mask sign’ (aside from the name of this blog)?
The masks themselves also raise questions, which I think are usually not given enough consideration. I find it interesting that in many cases, especially those where the sources are in a foreign language, certain phrases and expressions are copied in nearly every source, in a sort of half-conscious plagiarism, probably caused by the paucity of variant translations. For instance, nearly every English account of the Lead Masks Case refers to the technicians’ raincoats as “impermeable”, an awkward word in English when “waterproof” would do just fine. Similarly, when describing the masks, most sources say they are “of a kind used for protection against radiation” or “of the kind used for welding”. The sheer prevalence of these phrases has, I think, caused a lot of people to overlook something very obvious: there’s no damn way that’s what these masks were for.
If you don’t believe me, look around the internet right now for radiation masks and / or welding masks and see if you turn up anything that looks even slightly similar to the above. Welding masks generally cover the whole face, and in any case, they’re designed to protect the cornea from the bright light of a welding torch, meaning that they’re essentially extremely thick, dark sunglasses. You still have to be able to see something through them. Otherwise you wouldn’t need a mask at all; you could just close your eyes. And as for radiation equipment, well, yes, lead works well for that, but there’s no kind of radiation I know of that only goes in through your eyes. You can confirm this with anybody who’s felt that uneasy feeling you get when the dentist puts on a full-body lead vest with matching face shield just before he blasts your squishy, totally-unprotected head with radiation to get an X-ray. So, if the masks weren’t meant for radiation or welding, what the hell were they for?
The prominent ufologist Jacques Vallee travelled to Niterói to inspect the scene in 1980, 14 years after the bizarre deaths. In the prologue of his book Confrontations, he reported that grass and other plants refused to grow, even then, in the spot where the bodies were found. People he questioned reported that while the bodies had decayed somewhat by the time they were found, they had no unpleasant smell, and they had not been scavenged by the local animals, who seemed to give them a wide berth. Vallee also provided a helpful diagram of the scene:
Perhaps most importantly, Vallee reports on the testimony of one Gracinda Barbosa Coutinho de Souza, a respected lady of the upper class:
She told officer Béttencourt that as she was driving along Alameda São Boaventura in Fonseca with three of her children on Wednesday evening [the 17th], her daughter Denise, then seven, told her to look up in the sky over the Morro do Vintem. She saw an oval object, orange in color, with a line of fire around its edges, “sending out rays in all directions,” while it hovered over the hill. She had time to stop the car and to observe it carefully as it rose and fell vertically for three or four minutes, giving off a well-defined “blue ray.”
It was considered somewhat uncouth to discuss UFOs in Brazil at the time, but after this well-regarded lady was willing to put her name to such a testimony, further reports started coming in. Ms. de Souza was not the only person who had seen an oval, orange-coloured shape emitting blue ‘rays’ above the Morro; the sight was confirmed by a “large number” of witnesses, and all of them agreed on the time, which appeared to coincide closely with the deaths of Miguel and Manoel. In fact, the Morro was apparently a pretty common place to witness unexplained lights and similar bizarre phenomena. When the locals were questioned as to why they hadn’t come forward with this information sooner, their response was guileless: well, they hadn’t mentioned these things because they had assumed they were extraterrestrial UFOs, and they didn’t want to get caught up in that dangerous business. Perhaps Miguel and Manoel could have benefited from a similar healthy apprehension. Perhaps I could too, come to think of it. Anyway, aside from these reports, the physical evidence found at the scene furnished nothing but more questions. However, a routine police investigation into the lives of the unfortunate technicians was soon to yield some very strange information indeed.