Texas town recovers from its UFO mania

January sightings put witnesses at center of media phenomenon

Los Angeles Times/June 20, 2008

By Denise Gellene

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, a stocky, 44-year-old lawman who has spent 16 years patrolling the Texas scrubland, debated whether to tell anybody about it.

"People would say, 'hey, this guy is nuts. He's crazy,' " Gaitan said of his sighting Jan. 8. In the morning, there were no unusual police reports, 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 reported seeing a boomerang-shaped object in the sky.

The witnesses

Stephenville is the largest town in Erath County (population 34,000), the heart of Texas dairy country. On a cold January night in nearby Selden, Steve Allen, 50, and a few friends standing around a fire saw a set of brilliant white lights that were quicker and quieter than anything they had ever seen.

The lights stopped near Stephenville, 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.

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.

The next morning, Allen contacted Empire-Tribune reporter Angelia Joiner. She knew nothing about UFOs, but Allen sounded like a sensible man.

Allen "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.

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

"Do you believe alien beings are out there?" CNN's Larry King asked, looking into the camera. "Do you believe they've come to Earth?"

Before long, local people started wearing "Alien Capital of the World" T-shirts.

Gaitan couldn't stop talking about an event he had initially been hesitant to mention. He took media calls came from all over the world, logging more than 100 interviews by mid-February.

Not a weather balloon

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 on Jan. 8, when the lights were first observed.

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 Erath 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.

Gaitan nonetheless found himself repeatedly scanning the sky for another glimpse of the lights. One February morning at dawn, while driving the highway west of Stephenville, Gaitan spotted a mysterious ball of light shining through a field of leafless trees. As winter turned to spring, the inconclusiveness of the cosmic news began to fade into the daily grind of terrestrial events. The town started looking forward to graduation at the high school, and the first award of college scholarships funded by T-shirt sales.

Some were changed

Joiner, frustrated with juggling her duties as education writer, quit the paper and signed on as a special correspondent for the Jerry Pippin radio show, which regularly reports on unexplained phenomena.

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