Strange lights over Texas

UFO Stephenville Texas unidentified flying object

Courtney Perry / For The Times

Stephenville is the largest town in Erath County, Texas, where cows tend to outnumber people. But the town became famous after scores of people reported seeing UFOs earlier this year.

UFO sightings in the town of Stephenville set off a furor of theories, media coverage, even T-shirts. But was there an explanation?
By Denise Gellene, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
10:28 PM PDT, June 13, 2008
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, 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 Phoenix Lights, in which thousands of people, including then-Gov. Fife Symington, reported seeing a boomerang-shaped formation 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. Things changed.

The night sky above Stephenville is a jet black canvas that seems the perfect backdrop for the sharp white specks of stars and any imaginings of strange glowing lights.

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

Cows easily outnumber the 34,000 humans in the county and, in honor of the dairy industry, there is a Holstein statue nicknamed Moo-la in Stephenville's town square.

After football season ends in the winter, life slows. The green fields turn a dreary brown, punctuated by leafless oaks that reach into the endless Texas sky.

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 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 blowtorch," 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.

When the light show was over, 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 schoolteacher who had been a reporter for 18 months. Allen's friends confirmed the account, convincing Joiner the sighting was real.

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.

"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?"

A Japanese film crew showed up and theorized that the UFO was related to the local dairy farms, Allen said. Aliens like milk, they told him.

The town was swept into a UFO maelstrom. People sported aluminum foil alien hats at 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.

The high school science club decided to capitalize on the events by selling its own T-shirts that said: "Erath County -- the New Roswell," referring to the UFO mecca in New Mexico. The shirts carried a picture of a cow being beamed up to a spaceship with the caption: "They came for the milk."

The school netted $7,000 for college scholarships. "Money just fell out of the sky," Principal Travis Stillwell said.

Sensing a historic moment for the town, the Literary Lion bookstore invited customers to jot down their accounts for future generations. Owner Sarah Canady put out salsa and chips for the crowd.

The reports attracted the attention of the Mutual UFO Network, a group that investigates UFO sightings. People who had never talked about UFOs suddenly came forward with tales going back years.

Meeting at the Rotary Club in nearby Dublin, the group collected dozens of reports, including one from Kay Harris, a former factory worker who handed out photocopies of a map charting the route of a flying disc that passed over her home in 1995. She said she had pulled out a handgun but held her fire. "I was not about to start War of the Worlds," Harris said.

Gaitan watched the furor unfold. He had initially been hesitant to mention the event but now couldn't stop talking about it. Media calls came from all over the world, and by mid-February he had logged more than 100 interviews.

His instinct as a lawman was to stick to the facts, so he avoided leaping to conclusions about the lights. Still, he couldn't dismiss a nagging thought at the back of his mind. How could we be alone in a universe so big, he wondered.

"It would be like having a 20- to 30-acre lake and being the only creature in it," he said.

In the midst of the frenzy, his 15-year-old daughter, Katie, came home from school one day and flatly told him that UFOs weren't real. Her school friends didn't believe in them either, she said.

He found himself explaining that "UFO" didn't necessarily mean flying saucers and little green men. It just meant no one knew what the lights were.

Gaitan asked Katie if anyone at school was teasing her because he was on television talking about UFOs, and to his relief, she said no.

Joiner was swamped by calls about strange objects in the sky. Even though she was supposed to be covering the schools, she couldn't help pursuing the UFO story.

"As much as I would have liked to cut it off, I couldn't," she said. "I didn't want to abandon the witnesses."

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 Fort Worth said no aircraft had been near Stephenville when the lights were first observed Jan. 8.

There was no solid way to refute the UFO claims, so theories abounded. The UFO needed power, one story went, so it was headed to a nearby nuclear plant. Another explanation had the UFO looking for President Bush at his Crawford ranch, about an hour's drive from Stephenville.

In the deeply religious community, some believed the lights could be a sign from God. A Bible study group at the Bread of Life Ministries discussed the events at one meeting, and Sandra Evans, 59, said she thought maybe they were guardian angels sent to Earth.

Her husband, Keith, 60, pastor of the church, wasn't sure. "Could be the military," he said. "Could be the end of times."

James Huse, 53, thought that whatever the lights were, they had brought him unexpected good luck. People suddenly repaid him money, legal problems with his father's estate resolved and an old girlfriend called him out of the blue.

"It's kind of a crazy thing -- it's almost like a blessing," said Huse, a retired telephone equipment installer.

Allen felt that he had witnessed something transcendent and was driven to understand what it all meant.

He flew his Cessna over Erath County's countryside, scouring the land for any sign of an alien spaceship. For three afternoons, he surveyed hundreds of square miles but found nothing.

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. To some, the lights were becoming a joke.

"It's ridiculous," said Pam Kinsel, a member of the Stephenville High School science club. "It makes us look like a bunch of retarded hicks."

"Yeah," sighed her friend Morgan Lanier. "Inbred."

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. He pulled over and aimed his police camera in its direction.

Gaitan radioed one of his buddies, Sgt. Jim Clifton of the Erath County Sheriff's Department, to take a look. "In my 35 years of law enforcement, I have never seen anything like it," Clifton said.

Less than 24 hours later, Gaitan was at home in Dublin when he spotted a strange pattern of red, green and white lights. He was off-duty, so he and his wife chased the lights in their car, recording images as they followed them into the countryside.

Wendy, 37, who doubted the first sighting, was now convinced the lights were from a technologically superior ship from outer space.

"Who is to say they are not going to invade?" she said.

As winter turned to spring, and the brown fields became green again, 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 awarding of college scholarships funded by T-shirt sales.

Joiner, frustrated with juggling her duties as an education writer, quit the paper and signed on as a special correspondent for the Jerry Pippin radio show, which regularly reports on unexplained phenomena. In April, she gave a talk at the National Press Club in Washington about covering the Stephenville lights.

It's become her life. "I am looking at the sky more. Friends and neighbors are looking at the sky more," said Joiner, who has never seen the lights herself. "Is it coming back?"

Allen became friends with Joiner, and when she left the paper he and another witness came up with the idea of a website to keep the story alive and possibly make some money from the sale of T-shirts and videos of subsequent sightings. They also recruited Gaitan, since he was one of the main witnesses.

Despite his skepticism, Gaitan agreed to join. He contributed some photos to the site, but recently said he wouldn't be shooting any new ones.

Weary of the tumult, he hardly searches the sky anymore.


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