Texas UFO investigators probe Stephenville sightings

Texas UFO investigators probe Stephenville sightings

10:32 PM CST on Saturday, January 19, 2008
By JEFFREY WEISS / The Dallas Morning News

DUBLIN, Texas – Anyone looking for answers about the recent mysterious lights in the Texas sky left here disappointed Saturday. But the big meeting hosted by the Mutual UFO Network delivered in plenty of other ways:

Decked out in his best alien attire, Dudley accompanies owner Parks Blackwell of Fort Worth to a Texas Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) meeting Saturday at the Rotary Building in Dublin, Texas. MUFON investigators took reports from people who claimed to have seen unidentified flying objects in nearby Stephenville.

Jokers in tinfoil hats, check. Funny UFO T-shirts, check. Crop circle conspiracy theorists, check. Fresh popcorn and Dublin's real-sugar Dr Pepper dispensed by the friendly folks from the local Rotary Club, check.

And even a hint of science and a sense that the cheerful mob scene might actually contribute to knowledge, if not definitive explanations.

"I think a lot of people saw the same things," said Laura Washburn of nearby Glen Rose.

Her son, Shane, saw something odd in the sky on the nights of Dec. 31 and Jan. 2. They spent a couple of hours in the crowd of more than 500 who packed the Dublin Rotary Club building, listening to many others telling their stories.

"Hearing so many other people takes away the feeling that I don't want to be the only one, the one that people say is crazy," Ms. Washburn said.

The meeting was triggered by local reports of slow-moving, glowing objects in the sky the night of Jan. 8. Three men told their stories to Angelia Joiner, a reporter for the Stephenville Empire-Tribune.

"The people were so genuine and so credible," Ms. Joiner said Saturday. "You could tell they really saw something."

Plus, it was a good tale that she figured her readers would like. She was right about that. Once her first story ran, other people came forward with similar stories. And once word of the reports traveled beyond the area, the world wanted to know more.

Every major news network has run stories about the lights in the sky near Stephenville. Two witnesses, plus Ms. Joiner, were remote guests Friday on Larry King Live.

MUFON was founded in 1969 and has chapters all over the U.S. The Colorado-based organization is a club for UFO buffs, but it's also a network of amateur investigators who try to evaluate every report they receive of something odd in the sky.

MUFON announced last week that it would hold a meeting to interview witnesses of the Stephenville-area lights.

The first site for the meeting was a livestock sales barn. That humble location didn't sit well with the Rotarians of Dublin, about 10 minutes down the road from Stephenville.

"It's kinda like we have company coming and we need to take care of them," said Pat Leatherwood, a member of the Dublin Rotary Club. "Whether or not you believe it, you can still be nice."

Texas MUFON officials gratefully accepted the Rotarians' offer of a comfortable place to talk to witnesses. By the end of Saturday afternoon, more than 200 people had formally filed their stories.

MUFON investigators are a cross between the Ghostbusters of the movie and the amateur detectives of the Scooby-Doo cartoons. Like the Ghostbusters, they know they're taking on a task with a high giggle factor.

But like Velma and Scooby's other cartoon companions, MUFON investigators take a scientific approach.

They look for clues, interview witnesses, analyze evidence. And like the Scoobies teenage detectives on the TV show, MUFON usually concludes that there's nothing unworldly about the sightings it investigates.

MUFON certifies its official investigators. They're trained to recognize unusual cloud patters, star formations, bugs flying close to the camera, light reflecting from the lens and myriad other ways an odd image can show up on a photo.

Robert Powell of Austin is MUFON's national director of research. He was in Dublin on Saturday to help out with the investigation.

What he was hoping to do was find stories that matched – people in different places who saw something similar at about the same time. But he knew that many of the stories would turn out to be something mundane.

"An unidentified flying object can turn out to be an airplane, and then it's identified," he said.

Steve Hudgeons of Fort Worth is MUFON's senior investigator for Texas. Mr. Hudgeons, 58, makes his living as a project manager for a construction company.

A few days before the big meeting, he described some of the problems his investigators would surely find. The biggest, ironically, is the massive publicity. Witnesses had a chance to hear from one another and talk among themselves. Often in such situations, people's memories shift, Mr. Hudgeons said. The other problem, he said, was that the intense media attention would pull people from the woodwork who have nothing useful to contribute.

"We are going to get people down there who have aluminum foil on their heads," he said with a sigh. "We always get that."

Which they did. They also got more witnesses in one place than MUFON had ever tried to interview. Like hooking a fire hose to a garden hose, the crowd blew out the normal careful interview process that MUFON tries to conduct about every report it gets.

One woman had a story about something she saw in 1957. Others had accounts from last month or last year.

Their descriptions of the lights ranged from included an aspirin with lights around the edges, to glowing orbs, to a wedge-shaped row of lights to and an enormous classic movie-special-effects flying saucer. Some witnesses were fuzzy about the time of their sighting. Others weren't clear about which way they were looking. But several of the witnesses were able to answer many of the long series of questions on the MUFON investigation form. How is their vision? Their hearing? Where were they at the time? Which direction did they look? Were they near an airport? Did what they see seem to hover? Wobble? Appear solid? Have fuzzy edges?

Over the next couple of months, MUFON's investigators plan to follow up with some of the witnesses and eventually produce a report about any patterns they were able to find in the accounts.

In the meantime, the locals are mostly having fun with the story. A Stephenville hotel has a goofy image of a green cartoon alien in a hotel suite sitting by the front desk. "He's on the fourth floor" of the three-story hotel, guests are told. A taco joint plays on the team colors of nearby Tarleton State University by claiming "aliens prefer purple tacos."

But some people are worried that the story will leave an image of their area as being filled with a bunch of UFO-seeing nuts.

Chris Baker, 37, lives in Dublin. He's seen only one unusual sight in the sky lately: "Just snow."

"I'm hoping after this weekend is over that people will start to forget about it," he said. "I don't think there is enough to it to make it a tourist attraction like Glen Rose and dinosaurs."


Maybe it came from the Dog Star

Special to the Star-Telegram

Truck driver Sean Kiel is the center of attention in downtown Dublin on Saturday. He took a photo of a strange object in the sky Jan. 8 on Interstate 20 near Cisco.
Truck driver Sean Kiel is the center of attention in downtown Dublin on Saturday. He took a photo of a strange object in the sky Jan. 8 on Interstate 20 near Cisco.

Once the excitement dies down in Stephenville, two scientists at area universities plan to take a scholarly look at whatever lighted the sky over Erath County this month.

Michael Hibbs, associate professor of math and physics at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, and Ron DiIulio, director of astronomy lab programs for the University of North Texas in Denton, said Saturday that they will gather data and interview witnesses to try to figure out what people saw.

"This is a chance for us to put together some science as to why," Hibbs said. "This is pretty cool. No, it's way cool."

DiIulio and Hibbs agree that people saw a UFO of sorts because it is unidentified and it appeared to be flying. They are especially interested in this sighting because of the number of people who reported seeing it.

"We know they saw something," Hibbs said. "We just want to know what it is."

DiIulio said he was not surprised that no one took photos of the UFO, since it was at night, it was cold and many people, especially older ones, don't carry cameras.

"We need more data," DiIulio said. "We want either an identified object or an unidentified one, but not a misidentified flying object."

Both scientists agreed that the photograph on the front page of Friday's Star-Telegram was not of a UFO. It was one of DiIulio's MFOs.

"From what I see by looking at this photo, it's a sun dog," DiIulio said.

Hibbs agreed. "It definitely was a sun dog," Hibbs said. "That photo has nothing to do with the Stephenville incident."

A truck driver took the photo using his cellphone camera on Jan. 8 on Interstate 20 near Cisco.

A sun dog is a little-known atmospheric phenomenon caused by ice crystals hanging in the air, reflecting sunlight through high clouds, DiIulio said. Cloud movements appear to make the sun dog move, too.

"You nearly always see them 22 degrees -- or 'two fists' -- on either side of the sun," he said. It usually happens near sunset.

DiIulio said American Indians used to report sun dogs.

"It's almost like a rainbow," DiIulio said. "It's pretty neat. Some people don't see the color, just the bright light."

He and Hibbs said they want to work with witnesses by going back to where the witnesses saw the lights. DiIulio and Hibbs will also look at the descriptions from Saturday's event in Dublin. And they're not scoffing.

"This is really exciting," Hibbs said. "Who would have guessed this would happen in Stephenville, Texas?"

Stop, look, take notes

Ron DiIulio, director of astronomy lab programs for the University of North Texas, offers these tips on what to do if you spot a UFO. DiIulio is also Jet Propulsion Laboratories-NASA's solar system ambassador, helping interpret science for the public.

Note immediate changes, such as if the object suddenly reverses or turns 90 degrees.

Know your compass points, and note the direction you are looking.

Count how far from north the object is using "fists." Stretch out your arm and level your fist on the horizon. Bring up your other fist. Cross your first arm over the second, keeping your arms together, and count how many fists left or right of north the object is. Nine fists left of north is northwest, etc.

In a similar way, find out how high the object is. Stretch out one arm and level a fist on the horizon. Then put the other fist on top of the first fist. Continue to stack fists until they reach the object. Two fists equal 20 degrees, nine fists equal 90 degrees, etc.

E-mail questions to DiIulio at starman@unt.edu.


Bright lights, big crowds in Dublin

UFO investigators land in Dublin to quiz locals

Star-Telegram staff writer

Mutual UFO Network field investigator Michael DeGroff interviews Shane Washburn, 14, of Glen Rose in Dublin on Saturday.
Mutual UFO Network field investigator Michael DeGroff interviews Shane Washburn, 14, of Glen Rose in Dublin on Saturday.

DUBLIN -- It was a crowded cacophony of confusion.

On Saturday afternoon, about 50 people who saw impossibly bright lights in the skies about nearby Stephenville 12 days ago gathered in Dublin to talk about what they saw with interviewers from the Mutual UFO Network.

The witnesses were swept into whirlpools of media representatives carrying video cameras and at least one "posse" from a Dallas radio station, whose members were intent on blocking the front door of the meeting room to take pictures of themselves wearing aluminum-foil hats. And there were the circling curiosity seekers.

Despite about 400 pushing and shoving onlookers, seven MUFON investigators gathered a lot of information from respectable sources, said Kenneth Cherry of Keller, director of the organization's Texas chapter.

But did they uncover a visitation from alien beings?

"We believe there is some sort of phenomenon in action here," Cherry said. "We see a pattern. But it will take months to investigate."

Several dozen people living in or near Stephenville, including an Erath County constable and several business owners, insist that around Jan. 8, they saw a large silent object flying lower to the ground and faster than an airplane would.

They also said the object's lights changed configuration, unlike those of a plane. Some reported seeing it chased by fighter jets.

On Saturday, Steve Allen of Glen Rose, who said he was a pilot, described what he saw:

"We were sitting around the campfire. I looked off to the east, and we saw several sets of lights coming toward us very fast. They were brighter than the glare from welding.

"The first time we saw it, the duration was three minutes; then it started slowing down and passed us, and the lights in the back reformed into an arc shape, and they would flash on and off with no particular pattern. Then those changed into two vertical lines. It was totally silent."

Before talking to investigators, witnesses filled out forms that included questions about the object's direction, distance and flying behavior. They were asked to sketch what they saw. Then they sat down to be interviewed by MUFON investigators for about 15 minutes each.

"I wanted to come today because this is too important to stay silent about," said James Huse of Stephenville. "It hovered above my house."

Cherry said MUFON will study the testimony for several months to a year before releasing any findings. And even then, don't expect an announcement about green men in an alien mother ship.

MUFON doesn't use that sort of terminology. At most, the group will make a statement that whatever happened at Stephenville can be explained, or it can't.

That's it.

"We do not promote the existence of alien ships," Cherry said. "All we are trying to do is figure out if we can explain it or not, and then we'll let the chips fall where they may."

MUFON welcomed Saturday's event, Cherry said, because it made some people more comfortable talking about sightings, it got the organization's name into public view and it added to the body of data collected by MUFON, which was organized in 1969.

Seen a UFO?

To report a sighting, call MUFON state Director Kenneth Cherry at 817-379-0773 or fill out a report form at www.mufon.com.


Stephenville and the end of it all

Star-Telegram staff writer

A German newspaper has scooped us.

When mysterious lights were reported in Stephenville, the Regensburg ShortNews bannered the news with the headline:


End of Times Near

The report went on to explain how the good people of Erath County have spent the last 12 days scouring the skies for unidentified flying objects after several people said they got buzzed Jan. 8 by something bright and about the size of a flying Wal-Mart.

As a report, the ShortNews comes up -- well, short.

No photos. Not even a shot of Tony Romo with Jessica hovering.

Plus, the report never explains exactly what a big, bright illusion in Texas has to do with the end of the world.

If a higher power wanted to warn us about impending Armageddon, would the warning start in the sky over the Loco Coyote Grill?

As it turns out, the bright light was probably a weather phenomenon called a "superior mirage."

Even folks who believe in the impending end of the world don't think it will involve UFOs or anything in a cellphone picture on Anderson Cooper 360.

To check, I went directly to the local experts on end-of-the-world delusions: Endtime magazine.

Pentecostal Pastor Irvin Baxter of Garland founded Endtime 18 years ago in Indiana. It has 30,000 readers, even though the title prediction has never come true.

Four years ago, Baxter moved Endtime to Texas, where most of his readers live somewhere between reality and the Book of Revelation.

Endtime connects world events to biblical predictions. It's sort of a U.S. News and End of the World Report.

On his MySpace.com page, Baxter delivers his urgent message.

"We are in the endtime right now," he writes.

"If you would like to subscribe to my magazine, Endtime magazine, please call ... "

Notably, although he thinks the world is coming to an end, that doesn't stop him from selling a six-year subscription ($59).

But even Baxter says not to worry about UFOs.

"I don't know whether I even believe in them," he said by phone from Outer Garland.

"Could there be life out there? Sure. But as far as whether they're part of any biblical prophecy -- I see no evidence of that."

Baxter sticks to more worldly fears:

ID cards are the work of the devil, or at least the shadow world government.

A select few "men who run the world" control the Vatican, communism and the environmental movement.

Secret microchips track us everywhere.

"These are things we can prove," he said.

Uh -- OK.

People who fear UFOs "don't really have a solid understanding of prophecy," he said. "We don't want to be part of any groundless speculation."

Of course not.

Closer to Earth -- not to mention Erath County -- the Rev. Kirk Plaxco leads the more grounded Stephenville Ministerial Association.

"There is definitely a fascination with the 'end times,'" he said by phone from the First Church of the Nazarene. "But I don't think a UFO sighting or a bright light in the sky is anything to worry about."

He and his fellow Stephenville pastors have a task this morning. They'll remind worshippers that all of us will someday meet our end, but nobody is licensed to predict the end of the world.

"If this is the 'end times,' then it really doesn't do us a lot of good to waste time hemming and hawing about it," Plaxco said. "We are told to live day to day for Jesus Christ. It doesn't matter which day."

Plaxco said "sensationalists" use events such as the UFO sightings near Stephenville to "get up and spout off."

But he also sees divine guidance in our fears.

"God put the fear in our hearts," he said, "so we would be hungry for answers."

And so we'd look toward the heavens.

Bud Kennedy's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 817-390-7538

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