On July 9, 1947, an article appeared on the front page of the Roswell Daily Record claiming that a local rancher had found the remains of an alien spacecraft that had supposedly crashed in the desert a few days earlier.
William "Mac" Brazel, foreman of a nearby ranch, said that he found strange wires, smoky-gray rubbery items, bits of foils and "a lot of shiny, metal-like" material. The debris was scattered over a wide area of the rugged desert.
"I've never seen anything like it," he told the sheriff.
The town was home to Roswell Army Airfield and one of America's most elite nuclear bombing groups, the 509th. With the Cold War just heating up and reports of reports of mysterious "flying discs" in the national press, it was only natural that the base was on heightened state of alert.
A few days after Mr. Brazel's claim, the newspaper ran another story claiming that an Air Force intelligence officer, Jesse Marcel, had recovered pieces of a flying disc from the Foster Ranch where Mr. Brazel worked, about 75 miles north of Roswell.
The base commander quickly denied Mr. Marcel's claims, saying the "alien spacecraft" was nothing more than the remains of a weather balloon that had crashed during a severe thunderstorm. One version said it was an experimental airplane, while another alleged it was part of Project Mogul, a top secret project testing giant, high-flying balloons to detect Soviet nuclear explosions.
Rumors persisted, however, that the Air Force was lying.
Some investigators who rushed to the site claimed that the U.S. government was trying to cover up the fact that a spaceship had not only crashed but that the bodies of its alien occupants had been recovered.
The bodies -- described as "smallish gray" or "pink-skinned" with six fingers -- were supposedly taken to a nearby hospital, where scientists performed autopsies.
Officials continued to deny the reports, despite the claims of more than 800 people that they had seen strange bright lights in the sky the night of the Roswell crash.
Mr. and Mrs. Dan Wilmot said that they were sitting on their front porch when, about 10 p.m., a "large, glowing object" zoomed out of the sky and disappeared beyond the trees.
One of the first scientists to investigate the Roswell incident was Dr. J. Allen Hynek, chairman of Project Grudge, a top-secret government investigation of UFO reports. Dr. Hynek said that the Wilmots' claim was "unreliable and should be disregarded."
The Roswell crash was all but forgotten until 1970, when Mr. Marcel came out of retirement and announced that the military had been lying about the incident all along.
In 1980 Charles Berlitz and William Moore published a book purporting that an alien spacecraft had, indeed, landed in the Roswell desert in 1947. They also claimed that the government and big media were engaged in a "massive conspiracy" to conceal the truth about the Roswell incident from the public.
Other investigators asserted that some of the extraterrestrials not only survived the crash but that they also signed a treaty with the U.S. government and shared modern, high-tech secrets about lasers, silicon chips and transistors.
The idea that something more significant than a weather balloon might have crashed was raised during a TV interview with Mr. Marcel in 1978. Mr. Marcel revealed that a "wisp-thin material" recovered from the debris field near Roswell was found to be indestructible.
Did an alien spacecraft crash in the Roswell desert more than 50 years ago? Is the government engaged in a deliberate plot to conceal the truth?
"There is no question there was a cover-up," said UFO researcher Kevin Randle, author of two books about Roswell. "The question is: what are they hiding?"