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The Strange Faith of Dr. Corder : He Believes That Aliens Walk Among Us and the Apocolypse Is Nigh. But Does That Mean He Isn’t a Good Doctor?

<i> Stephen Braun is a staff writer in the Times' Chicago bureau</i>

Everything was fine as long as Dr. Corder kept his strange thoughts to himself. When they finally tumbled out, there was hell to pay.

A respected country doctor with a stable practice spread through two counties, Scott Corder passed his days among the elderly and infirm of Ottawa, a town of more than 10,000 in the gently sloping farmland of eastern Kansas. Setting fractures, listening to congested chests, he was the sort of responsible physician who never went anywhere without a pager in his belt.

But the doctor was a walking Pandora’s Box.

Dizzying cosmic notions teemed inside him, an entire religion replete with space aliens and angels and warnings of Armageddon. After almost a decade of building his practice, Corder knew that telling the world about his revelations from beyond might make him a laughingstock. But there was so much to tell: that the vanguard of an alien race was already among us to pave the way for either a lasting peace or permanent darkness. That Corder himself was one of the “Chosen,” earthlings implanted with monitoring devices to prepare for the coming of the spaceships. That while Corder wolfed down a hamburger at the Sonic Drive-In one night, none other than the Apostle Peter, returned from a distant solar system to hasten Earth’s new age, had caught his eye and winked at him.

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For most of his life, Scott Corder, now 43, had been an agnostic, more familiar with Gray’s Anatomy than with the Bible. But now he had gospel to spread. The doctor told his family. He told patients. He told the Pentagon. He told the Weekly World News. Then, in December, 1988, he sat down in a Topeka conference room to tell officials of the Kansas Board of Healing Arts. From that moment on, the doctor paid dearly for his message.

Alarmed at what they perceived as a public menace, state medical authorities ordered Corder to submit to a psychiatric examination. He refused and was stripped of his physician’s license. In his practice, the doctor had shown no warning signs of impaired judgment. Yet as a private citizen, he seemed to be mouthing madness. Could a physician make life-and-death decisions while giving himself over to a belief system ruled by aliens? Did health authorities have the obligation to intervene in the affairs of such a professional, even though he showed no sign of diminished capacity?

“You don’t know what’s going on in someone’s mind,” says Richard G. Gannon, the former healing arts board executive director. “We wanted to know and he didn’t want to let us in.”

The demarcation between madness and religious beatitude is often blurry. Interviewed by six psychiatrists over a four-year period, Corder became his own Rorschach test--the inky flow from his mind allowed for any interpretation. Some saw the construct of lunacy. Others saw the odd, yet sane, flowering of religious devotion.

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Uncertainty over Corder’s fitness as a doctor led medical regulators to move quickly against him. But in their haste to weed out a doctor they saw as a public threat, Corder’s lawyers now allege, Kansas officials deprived Corder of a proper hearing.

“The whole process was so totalitarian,” says Alan V. Johnson, one of Corder’s attorneys. “They were after him because his beliefs were strange.”

In the end, they decided he was sane and restored his license. The doctor returned to a shrunken practice, still believing in UFOs and angelic visitors, awaiting vindication in a lawsuit now before the Kansas Court of Appeals.

“I’m after vengeance now,” Corder says in his cramped examining room in Ottawa. It is an old office, cluttered with used equipment and pervaded by a sense of defeat--yellowing wallpaper, wheezing air conditioners, battered files piled high with medication samples. Only Corder’s own private icons, framed photographs of UFOs and space scenes on his office wall, testify to his lingering defiance.

“I want my name in front of them for as long as possible. I want them to remember the name of Scott Corder every time they think about disciplining a doctor.”

There was a time, though, when he wished they had never seen it.

*

“THEY’RE COMING!”

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The first thing Steve French noticed was the headline. Reading on, he saw a familiar name: Dr. Scott Corder.

It was a Saturday, Dec., 3, 1988. French was shopping at a supermarket outside Topeka. An investigator for the Kansas Board of Healing Arts, French searched medical and pharmaceutical files each week for evidence to use against addicted and incompetent doctors. There were 6,800 physicians in Kansas and the push was on to get tough with them.

As he moved along the checkout line, French found himself drawn to a copy of the Weekly World News and its diet of Elvis sightings, Hitler clones and freak babies. Leafing through the tabloid, he paused at Page 9 to scan a story about a central Kansas woman named Donna Butts, who claimed she met with aliens every day. There was a photograph and caption with the story: “Space alien invasion only three years away, says top UFO expert.”

The expert, staring drowsily from behind thick glasses, was Dr. Scott Corder.

French knew the name and face. The investigator had been running down leads on “professional patients,” addicts and dealers who sweet-talked doctors into writing narcotics prescriptions. Scott Corder was one of the physicians allegedly duped. That Monday, French mentioned Corder’s name to his superiors. The executive director of the board, Richard G. Gannon, was intrigued.

“We already had information that he was giving out Dilaudid prescriptions improperly and Steve said, ‘Look at what he’s doing now,’ ” Gannon recalls. “We clearly had to have him in for a talk.”

A retired Democratic state senator from rural western Kansas, the silver-haired Gannon, not yet 40, was coming on like a prairie fire to rid the state of troublesome doctors whose crimes ranged from incompetence to alcoholism and cocaine addiction. A newly passed malpractice-reform law had boosted the agency’s budget and staff, and Gannon, the new executive, was expected to show results.

“The governor really wanted action,” Gannon says. “The Kansas medical society, the docs, they wanted it, too. The public demanded it. There just wasn’t any more room for bad or incompetent doctors in Kansas.”

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In Gannon’s view, Corder’s casual dispensing of prescriptions was worrisome but hardly flagrant. Rather, it was Corder’s obsession with UFOs that was the potential danger signal.

Gannon decided to order Corder to meet with him and investigators the next day. Corder was in his office in Ottawa when the telephone rang. He was alarmed at the mention of prescriptions. But when the board’s lawyer told him of their interest in his statements about UFOs, Corder grew excited. He sensed opportunity.

*

“BELIEVE nothing because it is said to be of divine origin. BELIEVE nothing because a wise man said it. BELIEVE nothing because its belief is generally held. BELIEVE nothing because it is written in ancient books. BELIEVE nothing because someone else believes it. BUT believe only what you yourself know to be true.”

The message, from the Apostle Peter himself, had been relayed through the celestial messenger’s earthly conduit, Donna Butts. Corder had called her after hearing from the board. Over the phone, she dictated Peter’s personal message to the officials.

The doctor typed it out on his medical stationery and took it and a dog-eared Bible with him to Topeka the next morning. He wore his dark-blue polyester-blend suit, the only one he owned. His hair, slightly shaggy, was combed down. He wanted to make a good impression.

There were four of them waiting for him: French, Joseph M. Furjanic, a board lawyer, and two others who, Corder later testified in court, were never identified to him. They were Dr. Glenn Swogger Jr. and Dr. Dean Collins, two psychiatrists from the Menninger Clinic, a world-renowned hospital and psychiatric training facility in Topeka. Gannon wanted Swogger and Collins in attendance that day “to figure out what we were dealing with.”

Corder’s lawyer, Johnson, would claim later that the board’s failure to identify the psychiatrists to Corder and explain their presence deprived the doctor of his right to a proper hearing. But according to Gannon, Furjanic set the agenda. Swogger understood that the doctors were present only in “an advisory role,” not to make a formal diagnosis.

The questions about Corder’s prescribing habits were cleared up quickly after Corder agreed to supply the names of patients he thought might be abusing prescriptions.

Gannon slipped into the room as the conversation wound down. He had been wondering how to subtly bring up the subject of aliens, but Corder did it for him. “I thought you wanted to talk about UFOs,” the doctor said.

They sat back as Corder explained his discovery. Handing the others the message from Peter, the doctor explained that through his own amateur investigations into the UFO phenomenon, he had stumbled upon an astounding revelation: Extraterrestrials had divine origins. And Donna Butts, a part-time cleaning woman from Russell, was their earthly link.

Corder explained that he had never seen the aliens himself. But Butts had, dozens of times. On a car trip in central Kansas in 1980, she saw a spaceship. Then, four years later, she began getting regular visits from a celestial being who called himself Cephas, but he was actually the Apostle Peter. The holy messenger had returned from M-31, a remote star in the Andromeda galaxy, to prepare Earth’s civilization for a golden age--if the world accepted the teachings he provided through Donna Butts. The alternative was a hellish apocalypse of nuclear war, disease and chaos.

Butts had told Corder that both of them had been selected to apprise the world of the coming of the aliens. Their progress was being monitored by “monotrons” implanted into their bodies by the aliens at birth. Cephas and other visiting beings were “Amorcans,” benign humanoids who travel through the cosmos in pyramid-shaped vessels. They poured their heady knowledge into Donna Butts, filling her up like a wineskin.

“I was convinced she had a direct link to a phenomenon that had the answers for mankind,” Corder says . “How could you keep something like that a secret?”

When the doctor was done, Gannon leaned back in his executive chair and motioned to the fifth-floor window overlooking the state capital and the streets of Topeka. “You know, it’s a big world out there, a big universe, and there could possibly be other life out there,” he said.

But the idea that some woman in Russell was communicating with beings from M-31 was out of the question. Corder heard Gannon say that “since we are responsible for licensing physicians in Kansas, this sort of thing reflects back on us.” Then drawing close to the doctor, Gannon added: “You know, you need to be more careful about who you talk to about all this.”

It was merely a bit of paternalistic advice. “So help me, I felt sorry for the guy,” Gannon says. “He was clearly embarrassing himself.”

Corder read it another way. He shook hands with the regulators when the meeting ended. On the way to his car, he mulled over Gannon’s words.

“I didn’t want my license revoked,” Corder recalls. “They just wanted me to keep my mouth shut. So I did.”

*

It was the lights in the sky that first made him wonder. Corder had been curious about UFOs ever since his youth in Highland, Kan. At night, he and his brothers peered up from their bedroom windows. The cobalt-blue firmament was flush with stars. Airplanes and streaking meteorites were easy to pick out. But there were also objects they had never seen before--mysterious, otherworldly.

“We’d see a light in the sky and wonder what it was doing there,” recalls Mark Corder, one of Scott’s older brothers.

Maturing, the brothers put their childhood fascination aside. Like his father, a general practitioner, Scott Corder took his medical degree at the University of Kansas.

One winter day in 1978, during his senior year of residency at St. Luke’s and Mercy Hospital in Davenport, Iowa, Corder noticed an advertisement for a lecture by J. Allen Hynek, a Northwestern University astronomer who ran a UFO research organization. The name struck a chord. Corder had read Hynek’s book, “The UFO Experience,” in high school. Corder went that night for “the entertainment,” watching while the elderly Hynek debated sightings with his audience. Soon after, Corder signed on with the group. For months, Corder’s reports about alleged UFO sightings in the Kansas area were “routine, the usual questions and speculation we tend to get from our people,” says Jerome Clark, vice president of the Center for UFO Studies, located in Chicago. But then, suddenly, Corder’s letters grew long-winded, webbed with outlandish pronouncements. He had found Donna Butts.

Corder had learned about her in a letter from another UFO center official. “They said they were getting letters from a lady in Kansas who made some strange claims.” Corder says. “They were worried about her psyche.”

Butts lived on the ramshackle farm property that she and her truck driver husband rented, raising five children. Sometimes, she cleaned houses. Sometimes, she cared for elderly. Sometimes, she had visions.

Corder had a lot to lose by listening to Butts. After seven years in Ottawa, he had become a familiar fixture in its nursing homes and tiny hospital, Ransom Memorial. Aging patients prized his bedside manner. Len Daugherty, at that time Ransom’s administrator, regarded Corder as one of the “best diagnosis men in town.”

But after meeting Donna, Corder changed. He was on the phone constantly with her, recalls his former receptionist, Delma Mavity. He taped up space-themed items on his office walls. There were photographs of Earth, the space shuttle, a blurry UFO sighting. There was a sign that read: “Jesus Loves You.” Some patients gossiped about Corder’s newfound obsession, but most were willing to endure the strange office decor, even Corder’s talk of UFOs, as long as his care held up.

Word that Corder claimed to have met the Apostle Peter at the Sonic Drive-In drew a few gawkers to the hamburger stand. But most Ottawans took his pronouncements in stride. This was a county with 64 churches; one more, even with celestial origins, could be accommodated.

“Heavenly days,” says Mary Anne Whiteford, head of the Ottawa Community Arts Council and one of Corder’s patients, “this is still a free country. Everyone can believe as they wish, no matter how strange it seems to the rest of us.”

At home, Corder’s wife, Barbara, a schoolteacher, also tolerated his increasingly strange beliefs. “I like to read about the different sightings and all the stories,” she says. “But I wouldn’t give my job up for it.”

Other family members were less forgiving. Corder had married and divorced twice before he met Barbara, and his new beliefs seemed to further alienate him from his families. An older daughter from Corder’s first marriage stopped speaking to him. And his second wife told brother Mark Corder that she wanted Scott to stay away from their son, in part because of his new beliefs.

Yet Scott Corder had a new family of sorts. Each time he made the nearly four-hour drive to Russell, he found people who validated his growing belief in UFOs. A small coterie of schoolteachers and farmers’ wives began showing up at Butts’ home. They, too, claimed to have seen the spaceships.

In Russell, there were rumors of an impending exodus to the spaceships in advance of Armageddon. It was like the story of Noah’s Ark, only this time, it seemed that the deluge would last only a week. The chosen were told by Butts to pack seven pairs of cotton socks, seven pairs of underwear, seven shirts.

There was no exodus, and the doubters eventually wore Donna Butts down. Claiming harassment and death threats, she and her family moved to Georgia in early 1992. These days, she keeps her miracles to herself. When telephoned recently at a Georgia number supplied by her mother-in-law, Butts at first expressed interest in Corder’s plight, then abruptly insisted that she was another Donna Butts. “She doesn’t want to talk about it anymore,” June Butts explains.

But back on a warm day--May 13, 1987--Corder cast away his own last shreds of doubt. He knew Butts’ tales sounded crazy. But after weeks of interviews, after his own medical examinations of the woman, he was convinced her fantastic talk of Armageddon was accurate.

That day, surrounded by UFO tomes and scrapbooks thick with his correspondence, Corder gave in to the rapture. It swept over him with the electric shudder of a born-again conversion. Ecstatic with joy, he wept for hours.

“I had found out the answer to the UFO mystery and I was elated,” Corder says. “UFOs were spiritual things. They existed in faith. From that point on, it was my duty to tell the world.”

*

Not even three months after Corder told Richard Gannon he would keep his beliefs to himself, Corder was in deep trouble.

The doctor had sent a letter to federal officials at the Pentagon. Dated Feb. 15, 1989, it warned of a new prediction from Peter, relayed through Butts. President Bush was in danger of assassination. “This is a prediction and NOT a threat,” Corder wrote.

The Secret Service was called in anyway. It found no threat but handed the matter over to the healing arts board. Alarmed at Corder’s indiscretion, Gannon ordered him to meet with Glenn Swogger at Menninger’s. Failure to comply, Gannon said curtly, would lead to immediate suspension of his license.

Swogger began to probe gently after Corder settled himself into an office armchair. Suspicious, Corder parried with terse answers. Corder found Swogger “aloof, doubting. You could tell by his expressions he was down on what I said. And I was very defensive. My career and my life were on the line.”

As the session progressed, Swogger found himself concluding that Corder showed evidence of a “florid” delusional system, a web of fantasy, but at that time, it did not appear to affect Corder’s daily working life. “People can have delusions while the rest of their personality is intact,” Swogger says. But what he saw in Corder worried him. Swogger felt that he “was seeing signs of leakage” in Corder’s obsessions, possibly affecting his work.

The next day, in a follow-up meeting between Corder and another Menninger psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph Hyland, Swogger’s fears appeared to be confirmed. Corder, convinced he was about to committed involuntarily to the clinic, stormed out of the interview after only a few minutes. “I had done my part to explain myself to them,” Corder says. “It went downhill from the moment I walked in. At one point, he said: ‘We want to help you get rid of your bizarre beliefs, but you’ll be able to keep your Christian beliefs. You have a bizarre thinking disorder.’ I knew what that meant, all right. That I was crazy.”

Hyland, who has since died, jotted down in his notes that the doctor would require “inpatient hospitalization.” If he refused, Hyland had told Corder before he left, “he could expect to have his license suspended.”

But both Swogger and Hyland based part of their analysis on unverified rumors that called into question Corder’s ability to function as a doctor. According to one report relayed to the investigators by Corder’s brother Mark, a lawyer in nearby Olathe, the doctor had approached a worker at an Ottawa nursing home and asked her to look into his ear.

“He wanted to know if she could see a monitor in his head,” Mark Corder says.

Mark urged Scott to see a psychiatrist and secretly asked a local judge about the possibility of committing Scott to a psychiatric ward. But no one from the board called the nursing home or Ransom Memorial Hospital to decide whether the doctor had ever acted inappropriately. “There was never any attempt by the board to do what it is supposed to do: determine whether Scott’s beliefs affected his ability to practice medicine,” says his lawyer, Alan Johnson. “If they did, this case would never have gone forward.”

In fact, before Corder lost his license, Len Daugherty, Ransom’s administrator, grew so worried about the hospital’s liability that he ordered an internal review of Corder’s work.

“We went back over his charts. We spent 20 days going over his cases,” Daugherty says. “There was not a single problem. He did everything any conscientious doctor would do. And his patients loved him.”

Richard Gannon insists that he had no obligation to research Corder’s record as a doctor. The psychiatrists’ concerns, he says, were sufficient to cause alarm. It was Corder’s future actions, not his past performance, that concerned Gannon.

But the opinions of Glenn Swogger and Joseph Hyland were not the only psychiatric views of Scott Corder. Mark Corder had persuaded his brother to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Nash, and a psychologist, Dr. Fowler C. Jones. After a battery of mental tests, Jones concluded that Scott Corder was “preoccupied by his UFO interest but there was no evidence . . . to conclude he is a danger to his patients.”

Two years after being examined by Swogger, Corder was interviewed by another psychiatrist, John Wisner, who is also a Roman Catholic priest. Wisner concurred with Jones’ finding.

“The failure here was the failure of a secular society,” Wisner says. “Wouldn’t it seem sensible to assess his performance as a doctor? That didn’t happen, I think, because many psychiatrists today are reluctant to accept people’s beliefs for what they are--beliefs.”

Misguided as some might think Corder’s beliefs are, he is clearly not alone; millions of Americans believe that some of their countrymen have had encounters with aliens. Whitley Strieber’s book, “Communion,” was a bestseller and a popular film. Harvard psychiatrist John E. Mack has gained more fame in the past year for his acceptance of UFO encounter claims than he did for two decades of less controversial psychiatric work. And UFO encounters are becoming a popular theme of junk culture. Two new TV shows, “Encounters: The Hidden Truth” and “The X-Files,” have used UFO reports as grist for their story mills.

Within this culture, an enduring subculture has come to attach religious significance to aliens. Blending biblical citations and UFO cant, some claim to channel messages from aliens while others make a career of describing frequent UFO contacts.

In recent years, says Jerome Clark of the Center for UFO Studies, the contactee movement has become a self-sustaining entity, churning out “hundreds of books and monographs and newsletters. Most of these people live in isolation, and they feed on each other.” They can’t talk to their family or neighbors about it, because that would bring the possibility of doubt, so they prop each other’s beliefs up in letters and phone calls.”

“Sure, some of them are charlatans,” says Robert Fuller, professor of religious studies at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., “but there’s a tremendous excitement in thinking of yourself as a prophet.”

As John Wisner listened to Corder, the doctor’s epiphany was clearly evident. As a priest, Wisner had heard it before; it was the “kind of thing you see at a Youth for Christ rally every weekend.” All Corder seemed to be doing was interpreting “a lot of everyday occurrences and relating them to the beliefs that had been revealed to him.”

Wisner’s finding, like those of the other psychiatrists, was itself only interpretation. But the conclusions of the Menninger analysts had the authority of the state behind them.

Three days after his disastrous meeting with Hyland, Corder’s fate was sealed. Steve French and a woman from an impaired-physicians’ counseling group, arrived at Corder’s office with the notice of suspension. Corder asked if he could finish out the day with his patients. French shook his head and said no.

Turning red, Corder grabbed the suspension notice and waved it in French’s face. “This,” he said, “is an injustice.”

*

Without his profession, Corder was a man adrift. Living only on Barbara’s teaching salary, the couple lost their house. They moved with her two children into cheaper accommodations, a trailer outside of town.

Corder became a gentleman farmer. He grew turnips, beets, cabbages sunflowers. He erected a henhouse, filling it with shrieking chickens. He lost 15 pounds digging an underground shelter for the coming Armageddon and equipped it with solar power and a month’s worth of supplies.

Legally, Corder was baffled. He tried to file his own lawsuit in federal court in Topeka, charging that his suspension was unconstitutional. But the judge threw it out, saying it should have been filed in state courts. Corder’s approaches to local lawyers were unavailing until he found Alan Johnson, a Topeka corporate lawyer with an interest in constitutional rights cases.

Johnson filed a motion with the federal district court in Topeka, alleging that Corder was deprived of his due-process rights to a full hearing. Corder won the right to go before the board, but that changed nothing. He still had to pass a full psychiatric review. The board insisted that Corder’s license would be returned only after a Menninger psychiatrist verified his sanity.

Bit by bit, the doctor’s resolve weakened. He agreed to see another Menninger psychiatrist. In March, 1992, Corder spent several sessions with psychiatrists inside the clinic’s brick-walled infirmary. William Logan, the Menninger psychiatrist who examined him, notified state officials that Corder was fit to practice. On April 11, 1992, the board reinstated his license.

With seed money provided by Ransom Memorial, Corder returned to his practice. And he has built back more than half his old patient load.

“I loved Dr. Corder,” says one elderly Ottawan, a former patient. “But he still believes in UFOs, and as long as he does, how can I be certain he won’t get into trouble?”

Others are more willing to forgive. “He charges less for a visit than the other doctors do, and he really knows his patients,” says Marilyn Gilmore, a registered nurse who takes her children to Corder. “He has strange ideas, but as long as he doesn’t force them on you, so what?”

Corder heard more good news in June, 1993. He won his lawsuit against the board. But it was a hollow victory. Corder was awarded $185,000 in damages but could not collect, since by the judge’s ruling both Richard Gannon and the board were immune to liability. Johnson has appealed, and Corder has been waiting for word from the Kansas Supreme Court to learn whether he will win any compensation for his three years without work.

Corder still clings to his beliefs. But they, too, have begun to change.

His relationship with Donna Butts crumbled in September, 1991, during a chaotic trip he took to Israel with her and a Russell family. She had indicated that “a major prophecy” was about to take place in the Holy Land, and they were the only proper witnesses.

They had planned to be gone for weeks, but a few days after a detoured journey to Jerusalem, Corder quietly returned home. His wife had finally lost patience. “She basically said if I stayed, she might not be there when I came home,” Corder says. “I wasn’t going to make that choice.”

To Butts, Corder’s departure was a betrayal. She severed all ties with him. In two years, they have not spoken. “That doctor,” says June Butts, “he’s gone over to the dark side.”

*

Scott Corder has his own movement now. He calls it the Church of the End Times. He is leader and congregation. He prints out grim warnings on his computer, quoting passages from Revelations and scorning society’s growing reliance on technology. Even supermarket bar codes contain a satanic “Mark of the Beast.”

Corder is careful not to belabor patients about his beliefs unless they know him well. Still, just for a lark, he will sometimes test strangers, probing their own religious concepts to see if he might find a convert, someone whose fascination with the celestial unknown matches his own.

J. D. Lorenz, a traveling pharmaceutical salesman, discovered this one Saturday when he turned up at Corder’s office to sell his wares. The two men talked drug prices and new products, droning on in a conversation familiar to any general practitioner.

And then, as Lorenz finished his pitch, Dr. Corder’s face creased in a grin.

“J. D.,” he says, “do you remember what I told you last time about the Mark of the Beast? . . .”


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