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 his living room, I saw no drawings of triangle-faced aliens with huge eyes. Instead, over the mantel was a framed verse of Scripture that read, “Stand still and consider the wondrous works of God.” On his coffee table were copies of Smithsonian magazine.

“To be honest with you, I wasn’t all that interested in UFOs until I visited that UFO museum in Roswell back in 1991,” Cherry said with a chuckle, referring to the New Mexico town where the military reportedly attempted to cover up a 1947 UFO crash. “It was just a little amateur museum, but it did get me to thinking that maybe the government knew more than they were telling us.”

This led him to join the three-thousand-member MUFON, which is based in Fort Collins, Colorado. Soon he was named the head of the Texas operations (“I guess they liked my management expertise”). For his lead Texas investigator, Cherry chose Steve Hudgeons, a burly project manager for a Fort Worth glass installation company who shares Cherry’s no-nonsense attitude. When I met the 58-year-old Hudgeons for lunch at the West Side Café, a working-class restaurant in Fort Worth, he took a bite of ground steak and growled, “Believe me, I’m not a big believer in all that paranormal, X-Files kind of stuff. I only do this because I’ve wanted to know for a long, long time if these supposed UFO sightings are real or just made up.”

Since receiving his investigator’s certification in 1992—he was required to pass a lengthy test based on the 311-page MUFON Field Investigator’s Manual—Hudgeons estimates that he has looked into more than two thousand accounts of UFO sightings in Texas. “And to be honest with you,” he said, “I haven’t once finished an investigation where I could say for certain that someone had seen a genuine UFO. Ninety percent of the cases I get are explainable, the result of somebody seeing an unusual cloud formation or taking a photo with a bug on the camera lens. The other reports I get are tantalizing, but the people have no evidence whatsoever to prove what they saw.” He took another bite of steak. “I’m a nuts-and-bolts guy. If I can’t prove something unidentifiable was up there, then I move on to the next case.”

When the reports began flooding in from the Stephenville area in January, Hudgeons knew he was about to embark on a different kind of investigation altogether. “Here were dozens of unrelated witnesses—solid, salt-of-the-earth folks spread out over three or four counties—all saying they had seen something.”

Hudgeons and Cherry sent word to the news media that they would be setting up at a Rotary Club hall in Dublin (about ten miles from Stephenville) to interview anyone in the area who had seen the lights. On the appointed day more than five hundred people arrived. Many of those, it turned out, had come simply to be part of the hoopla. A couple of teenagers showed up wearing hats made of aluminum foil. Some other teenagers sold T-shirts that read “Stephenville: the new Roswell.” Cheerful Rotarians passed out free popcorn and Dr Pepper. At least fifty members of the media milled around, interviewing anyone who would talk to them. One reporter from the Dallas Morning News described Hudgeons and the other MUFON investigators in attendance as “a cross between the ghost busters of the movie and the amateur detectives of the Scooby-Doo cartoons.”

But by the end of the day, more than two hundred citizens had come forward, completely swamping the eight MUFON investigators, who had brought only fifty questionnaires. There were, certainly, a few oddballs. One elderly man declared that aliens had abducted him in the sixties. Another said his television was on the fritz because of UFO interference and asked the investigators if they could repair UFO-damaged sets.

Still, the number of legitimate-sounding reports were so high (ultimately, MUFON collected around two hundred accounts from the Stephenville area) and they were coming from such credible sources—everyone from a county constable to an anesthesiologist—that Cherry and Hudgeons quickly realized that the Stephenville Event was going to be the biggest mass UFO sighting in the United States since 1997, when Phoenix had a visit. What was especially curious to Cherry and Hudgeons was that the sightings had taken place over a series of days. One of the more flabbergasting accounts, from a Dublin machinist and welder named Ricky Sorrells, dated a week or more before the majority of the reports. Sorrells told MUFON’s investigators that he had been out hunting at dusk when he saw a giant gray object in the sky, three football fields in length. He’d looked through the scope of his rifle and noticed that the bottom of the object had no rivets, nuts, or bolts; it did have cone-shaped holes embedded in its surface. The object hovered three hundred feet in the air over the tree canopy, then took off at a terrific rate of speed.

Initially, the problem for the MUFON investigators was that no one had gotten a clear photo or snippet of video. But in early February, Cherry and Hudgeons made an unpublicized trip to Stephenville to view a thirteen-minute home movie that had been shot by a man standing on his front porch on the east side of town. During the first round of hoopla, the man had not gone public with the video because he didn’t want to be besieged by UFO fanatics.

“Our experts haven’t had a chance to study what he shot in great detail,” said Cherry, “but all I can say is that I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s completely unexplainable, the lights constantly changing color and shape every couple of seconds as they move from one part of the sky to another, like some sort of hieroglyphics. Some of the shapes are scorpionlike, other shapes wormlike, and even other shapes are like circles. And believe me, the man who shot the video is not sophisticated enough to have faked the footage. He’s like just about everyone else out in that part of the state—a respectable, decent, salt-of-the-earth Texan who, up until this moment, thought the whole UFO phenomenon was just for kooks.”

It will not be long before we all get to see this video: The respectable, decent, salt-of-the-earth man has reportedly sold his goods to a major television production company. Hudgeons and Cherry warned me, however, that despite its singularity, the video is not the great smoking gun that will finally convince even the most hardened UFO skeptic. “If the video showed some sort of craft behind those lights,” Cherry said, “like maybe a craft three football fields in size, then this would be a whole different ball game, the most talked-about event in the world.”

A few minutes later a phone began to ring from down the hall. “Line two?” I asked.

“Line two,” he said, smiling. He rose from his chair in the living room. “That’s what makes this job so interesting. You never know what the next phone call will bring.”