Monday, June 23, 2008

UFO Sightings Galvanize a Small Town

Stephenville UFO Drawing
By Denise Gellene
The LA Times

But Air Force says jets were in area
     STEPHENVILLE, Texas - Constable Lee Roy Gaitan saw the brilliant red orbs hovering in the sky and hollered for his family to come out.

It's probably an airplane, said his wife, Wendy, who didn't budge from the couch. Only 8-year-old Ryan went to the front yard.

That's a UFO, the boy said.

Gaitan, who has spent 16 years patrolling the Texas scrubland, faced a bit of a dilemma. With an election coming up, he could tell the world of this incredible sight - and look like an idiot - or keep his mouth shut.

"People would say, 'Hey, this guy is nuts. He's crazy,' " said Gaitan of his sighting Jan. 8. In the morning, there were no unusual police reports, leaving him to wonder whether anyone else had seen the lights. But the next day, the Stephenville Empire-Tribune came out with a front-page story: "Possible UFO sighting - Four area residents witness mysterious objects."

Soon, scores more said they had seen the same thing. Stephenville, a ranch town 70 miles southwest of Fort Worth, became home to the biggest mass UFO sighting since the 1997 Lights Over Phoenix, in which thousands of people, including then-governor Fife Symington, reported seeing a boomerang-shaped object in the sky.

With so many reports from so many people pouring in, there was no easy way to dismiss it all as a hoax. A town that had called itself The Cowboy Capital of the World now found itself riding an emotional bronco.

Stephenville, the largest town in Erath County, is in the heart of Texas dairy country, which means open land and few towns to interrupt grazing.

Cows easily outnumber the 34,000 humans in the county. After football season ends in the winter, life slows.

It was a cool, clear January night when Steve Allen, 50, and a group of friends were warming themselves around a fire of brush and debris in nearby Selden, just south of Stephenville.

They first saw a set of brilliant white lights heading from the east that looked like they were at the corners of something a mile long and a half mile wide. The lights were quicker and quieter than anything Allen had ever seen.

"They came within a mile of us," said Allen, the owner of L & S Enterprises and Texas Freight, a local trucking company. "It flipped us all out."

The lights headed toward Stephenville, where they came to a stop. They reconfigured to form an arch "shaped like the top of a football," Allen said, and realigned themselves into two vertical lines of randomly flashing lights. Then the object burst into a dirty white flame.

"It looked like something firing up, like a blow torch," Allen said. "It simply vanished.

Ten minutes later, the group saw the lights coming from the opposite direction. Trailing them closely, Allen was certain, were two military jets followed by two massive red orbs.

Allen, who as a licensed pilot was comfortable judging distance, said the lights were 3,000 feet above the ground.

He went home and told his wife, who urged him to keep the encounter to himself.

Allen spent a sleepless night, enthralled by what he had seen. In the morning, he contacted the Empire-Tribune.

His call went to education reporter Angelia Joiner. She knew nothing about UFOs, but Allen sounded like a sensible man.

"He was a pilot and seemed very intelligent," said Joiner, a 47-year-old former school teacher who had been a reporter for 18 months. Allen's friends confirmed the account.

Still, it was a strange story, and Joiner's bosses were concerned. Managing editor Sara Vanden Berge said she was so anxious that she cried the next morning when she saw "UFO" in the headline. Everyone is laughing at us, she thought.

That was before the television crews started showing up. First came the local reporters, then people from "Good Morning America," NPR, and CNN.

The town was swept into a UFO maelstrom. People sported aluminum foil hats to Stephenville High School basketball games. Men with belt buckles big as fists were wearing "Alien Capital of the World" T-shirts rushed into production by a local company.

A logical explanation for the lights was the military; a portion of Erath County falls under a fly zone used in training exercises. When Joiner checked, however, the 301st Fighter Wing stationed near Forth Worth said no aircraft were near Stephenville when the lights were first observed.

But two weeks after the sighting, a break came in the case. Correcting its earlier statement, the Air Force said 10 F-16s were on a training mission over the county when the lights were initially spotted.

The town splintered into believers and skeptics.

Joiner doubted the weird pattern of lights reported by Allen and others could be explained by military aircraft. Allen wasn't buying it, either. "Our military wishes it had what we saw," he said.

Gaitan reasoned from the presence of the F-16s that he probably had seen a military experiment the Air Force couldn't fully disclose. "We're in the middle of a war right now," he said.

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