On the afternoon of January 9, Ken Cherry, the 61-year-old owner of a prosperous Tarrant County securities firm, was sitting in his home office, studying various stock market reports flitting across his computer screen, when line two rang. Line one is devoted to customers and brokers. Line two is the UFO phone.
Cherry is the Texas state director of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), the country’s oldest and largest UFO investigation group. He supervises a staff of 41 certified MUFON investigators in the state. These men and women spend their free time interviewing people who have written in to the MUFON Web site or called one of its numbers claiming to have seen a UFO. In an average month, the Texas chapter of MUFON receives between fifteen and twenty such reports. Most of them sound like what Cherry heard on January 9: A woman outside Stephenville, seventy miles southwest of Fort Worth, said she and her teenage son had seen some flashing lights in the sky the previous evening. Cherry asked a few questions and hung up. Since the woman had described seeing the lights for only a few seconds, he didn’t figure this would be anything other than a typical sighting.
Then line two rang again. A Stephenville man was calling to say that he had seen something strange the night before: a single bright light hovering over the treetops near his home. Curious, Cherry logged in to the MUFON Web site, where he saw several reports waiting for him, all from residents of the Stephenville area who had seen strange lights on the night of January 8. The next day, Cherry read a front-page story in the Stephenville Empire-Tribune about four more area residents who had seen something in the sky on January 8. One of them was Steve Allen, the president and owner of a trucking company in the nearby town of Glen Rose. Allen also happens to be a licensed pilot, comfortable with judging aircraft and flight patterns from the ground, and what he described nearly took Cherry’s breath away: flashing lights covering a distance of a mile in length and half a mile in width at an altitude of about 3,500 feet. The lights, Allen said, were “totally silent” and had been racing around the sky at about 3,000 miles per hour until they suddenly turned into “burning flames . . . white in color.” Within seconds, the flames had disappeared and there was nothing left to see. But approximately ten minutes later, the lights reappeared, this time traveling to the east. Allen added, “Two military jets, possibly F-16’s, were in pursuit.”
Cherry walked out of his office and down the hall to find his wife, who’s the operations manager for his securities business and answers line two when he’s not there. “Dear,” he said, “we might be on to something big.”
The Stephenville Event, as some have called it, has quickly become one of the most publicized UFO sightings in a decade. The story showed up in newspapers as far away as China. CNN’s Larry King devoted two shows to what it all meant. “Do you believe alien beings are out there?” King teased, staring intently at the camera, forehead glistening. “Do you believe they’ve come to Earth?”
Predictably, there have been plenty of jokes and marketing gimmicks—Stephenville began advertising its upcoming rodeo as “out of this world”—but most locals were more than a little spooked by what took place in their night sky. One eyewitness wondered if he was watching the end of the world.
To add to the mystery, Major Karl Lewis, a spokesman for the 301st Fighter Wing at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, when asked whether any of his planes could have been involved, initially declared that none of the base’s jets had been operating around Stephenville that night. He glibly told reporters that what people had seen was probably nothing more than an illusion caused by two commercial airplanes and the setting sun. But a week later, after more citizens kept coming forward to report that they too had seen rapidly moving lights that could not possibly have been caused by an ordinary airplane, Air Force officials released a terse press release admitting that ten F-16 fighter jets had been training in the area on January 8. When reporters asked what the jets had been doing, Lewis cryptically stated, “What we do down there falls under operational procedures that cannot be released because of operations security for our mission.”
Meanwhile, sightings were continuing to pour into the MUFON Web site. One man wrote that he had watched “three distinct sets of lights” for about five minutes; another witness saw “strobing lights”; a man who had been driving with his daughter from Eastland reported, “We spotted two large, bright lights like stars. The two lights moved towards each other very, very fast . . . They looked like they met and then five or six smaller lights dispersed out in a circular pattern away from them and then everything was just gone.”
What were those lights, and what were those F-16’s doing? For Cherry and his investigators, the answer to these questions has become their holy grail. “It’s maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to solve a mystery,” he told me. “Are those lights from some secret military aircraft? Or did they come from somewhere else? And if they did come from somewhere else, then what does the government know?”
Cherry is an unlikely UFO hunter. After graduating magna cum laude in business from the University of Texas at Arlington, he became a star stockbroker in Dallas, eventually working his way up to Wall Street and then to regional vice president of Lehman Brothers in Chicago before returning to Texas in the mid-eighties to start his own securities business. When I went to see him at his home in Keller, he was dressed in a blue blazer, a button-down shirt, jeans, and loafers. As I followed him into