By JAMES RAGLAND Staff Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
The night was clear, a perfect backdrop for the strange, floating object that lit up the sky.
Two witnesses, jailers at the Johnson County Correctional Facility in Cleburne, described it as triangular in shape with a dark surface and a series of circular lights. They said it hovered above them as they talked in the parking lot.
“The object flew over them very slowly, appearing to be going only about 5 mph,” according to an account released by the California-based Mutual UFO Network, a nonprofit group of UFO sleuths.
That sighting, another in North Texas and one in Central Texas were among the “strongest 10 cases” from 2012 that a MUFON science review board determined “cannot be identified as any known object.”
But the peculiar sightings aren’t just cropping up in our own backyard — the whole Lone Star State is a hotbed of UFO activity.
“Texas is one of the top five states every month for UFOs,” said Roger Marsh, a MUFON spokesman.
He attributed the high volume of sightings to the state’s large population and its many airports and military installations. Most sightings turn out to be readily identifiable, sometimes even a Chinese lantern.
Across the country, MUFON reported a record 7,182 sightings of unidentified flying objects last year — a 27 percent increase over the year before. Texas trailed only California in the number of sightings.
The other two strong Texas cases identified by MUFON occurred in the Milam County town of Milano in Central Texas, and in Van Alstyne, near the Texas-Oklahoma border.
All involved triangular or pentagon-shaped objects with mysterious lights hovering above.
The Johnson County case was reported about 3 a.m. on March 25, about 50 miles southwest of Dallas.
“The primary witness said that as they walked through the parking lot, the lights over them turned on. The object then sped up and was gone north in a second,” the MUFON report said.
The witness, 45-year-old Kerry Snell, said in an interview last week that he was taken aback by what he saw.
“You could plainly and clearly see this thing — a huge triangle with no lights, no sound,” Snell said. “There was no interaction. I didn’t feel frightened. I didn’t feel scared.
“I was just soaking in all the information. I’m just sitting there looking up at it.”
The review board, made up of scientists with degrees in physics, geology, chemistry and electrical engineering, was formed last year to help MUFON take a closer look at the most intriguing UFO sightings and draw attention to them.
Their expertise and earnestness notwithstanding, the board and MUFON still face an uphill battle in getting folks to treat their body of work seriously.
They’re often met with skepticism — and giggles.
And media portrayals often make the UFO buffs, even the ones with impressive credentials, look like crackpots, they say.
“It’s constant,” said Robert Powell, 59, a retired engineering manager from Austin who serves as director of the eight-member scientific body. “The media wants something that’s way out there.
“So they are not interested in dry facts of unexplained objects. They want to interview the guy with the alien on the back porch.”
Two members of the review board are so worried about public perception that they don’t even want their names disclosed, Powell said.
“It could actually hurt their career,” he said.
Countless sightings go unreported, Powell said, because people don’t want to be labeled “crazy,” he said.
Still, the public remains fascinated, and UFO authorities are steadfast in their effort to determine if otherworldly creatures actually exist.
“When TV shows [about UFOs] come on like National Geographic, reporting goes up. People will send in reports from years and years ago,” Powell said.
Although there have been scattered reports of mysterious flying or floating objects for centuries, the UFO phenomenon really took off after World War II.
“If you go back when this started, no one thought you were crazy for reporting something,” Powell said. “That didn’t start until about the ’70s.”
Powell said the federal government, apparently weary of being accused of hiding extraterrestrials in secret locations and of refusing to divulge information to the public, “actually had a program to debunk UFOs through the public and media.”
And many a crackpot played right into their hands. “You have enough people who come up with this crazy, stupid stuff,” Powell said.
Bogus reports, which still crop up periodically and, these days, go viral on the Internet, “make it that much more difficult” for the general public to accept authentic sightings of the unusual.
“The level of hoax is probably down to about 1 percent,” Powell said.
Most UFO sightings turn out to be readily identifiable aircraft, meteors or other celestial objects, sometimes seen at weird angles that rouse suspicion, experts say.
For example, Powell said, a security camera in Florida captured a mysterious light beaming down on a swimming pool.
“That turned out to be a drop of water on a camera lens,” Powell said. “They didn’t fake it. They thought they had something there and it was just moisture on the lens.”
Steve Hudgeons, MUFON’s national director of investigations, said most sightings are explainable. “But there’s a percentage that remain unknown,” he said.
Hudgeons, who lives in Fort Worth, said he believes “most of this stuff that’s flying around here that we call unknown is our own government’s” aircraft.
Snell, the Johnson County jailer, said what he saw in Cleburne last year was unlike any commercial or military aircraft he’s ever seen. And he still has no clue what it was.
“It’s a little frustrating,” he said.
AT A GLANCE: Three major Texas UFO cases
The Mutual UFO Network included three reported sightings in North and Central Texas in its list of the strongest 10 cases that “cannot be identified as any known object.”
When: March 25, 2012
Where: Near the Johnson County Correctional Facility in Cleburne
Sighting: Two officers reported seeing a dark triangular object about 3 a.m. flying 4,000 to 6,000 feet above ground. It had a series of dim circular lights, they said.
When: July 14 and Dec. 20, 2012
Where: Along State Highway 36 near the Milam County town of Milano
Sighting: Two men reported seeing a pentagon-shaped black object with lights about 5:20 a.m. hovering over the highway about 30 feet above their vehicle. Two more witnesses reported seeing a similar object Dec. 20 along the same stretch of road. The main witness said the object was about 100 feet across with five sides and flashing lights on each corner.
Cases 37562, 37585, 37604
When: April 17-19, 2012
Where: Van Alstyne
Sighting: Three different witnesses reported seeing a triangular object with white lights hovering near the Texas-Oklahoma border. In the center was a ruby-colored light, they said.