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Val Johnson Incident, 1979

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Marshall County Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson

Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson at the scene of his collision with an unidentified force or object on County Road 5 in Marshall County on August 27, 1979. Photograph by Stormi Greener originally published with “Deputy’s UFO Story Evokes Other Tales,” Minneapolis Star, September 11, 1979, 1. Used with the permission of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

One of the most credible UFO (unidentified flying object) encounters in American history unfolded in Minnesota in 1979. Marshall County Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson never claimed that he saw aliens or spaceships—merely that a force he could not identify collided with his car, cracking its windshield and leaving him unconscious. Johnson’s reasonable testimony and the evidence left behind on his vehicle made the event a popular case among those who study unidentified aerial phenomena.

On the night of August 27, 1979, Johnson was on patrol in his squad car on a particularly desolate stretch of County Highway 5 in Marshall County, ten miles west of Stephen. At 1:40 am he spotted a light in the sky and turned left onto State Highway 220 to investigate, thinking it might be a plane making an emergency landing. As he drove forward, however, the light abruptly entered the car itself. He heard the sound of glass breaking and then lost consciousness.

When Johnson came to, thirty-nine minutes had passed. He had eye pain and a bump on his head, but the car seemed to have suffered worse, sustaining a dented hood, bent antennas, a shattered windshield, a broken headlight, and a broken hazard light. Both Johnson’s wrist watch and the car’s clock had lost fourteen minutes. Whatever impact had cracked the windshield had evidently also sent the vehicle coasting 854 feet along the road before it stopped at a ninety-degree angle to oncoming traffic. Johnson told the dispatcher who responded to his call for help, “Something attacked my car...it wasn’t a vehicle...I don’t know what the hell it was.”

A doctor at a hospital in Warren treated Johnson’s eyes, which were injured as if by welder’s burns. The Marshall County Sheriff’s Office, led by Sheriff Dennis Brekke, then carried out an investigation into the incident. The Air Force and the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) both confirmed that no aircraft had been scheduled to fly or were reported in the area in the early hours of August 27. Brekke also contacted the Center for UFO Studies in Evanston, Illinois, which conducted magnetic testing on the car (with no definitive results). In November, a metal engineer from Honeywell visited the sheriff’s office to perform his own tests and concluded that an electrical “force” or “thing” had caused the damage.

Telephone calls flooded into Brekke’s office and Johnson’s home as news of the incident spread. Many callers were eager to share their personal stories of UFO encounters with someone they believed would offer a sympathetic ear. Johnson himself appeared on the television show Good Morning America and told his story on radio shows across the country, but the attention ultimately became a burden for him and his family. Johnson’s wife, Roseanne, admitted to the Minneapolis Star in September that “[i]t’s completely disrupted our family organization...We have a baby and that takes time. We have one to get off to school and the phone keeps ringing.” The family later moved from Oslo to Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

The Val Johnson incident brought national attention to rural northwestern Minnesota and in particular to Warren, the county seat of Marshall County. In 2019 Warren residents celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the deputy’s encounter with a public event featuring live music, an alien costume contest, and a dramatic reenactment of Johnson’s radio call.

The Marshall County Historical Society in Warren preserves documentation of the incident as well as its most dramatic evidence: Johnson’s squad car. The damaged windshield, hood, lights, and antennas remain as they appeared in 1979. The museum’s president, Mike Johnson (no relation), told the Grand Forks Herald in 2013 that more visitors come to his institution to see the damaged vehicle (known as the “UFO car”) than any other artifact.

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Bailey, Ann. “Dark Road, Bright Light Remembered 40 Years After Marshall County UFO Incident.” Grand Forks Herald, August 28, 2019.
https://www.grandforksherald.com/news/4635200-Dark-road-bright-light-remembered-40-years-after-Marshall-County-UFO-incident

Bakken, Ryan. “Thousands Seek Out Artifact From Warren’s 1979 UFO Encounter.” Grand Forks Herald, July 24, 2013.
https://www.grandforksherald.com/news/thousands-seek-out-artifact-warrens-1979-ufo-encounter-0

Byrne, Carol, and Debra Stone. “Smashed Car, ‘Diving Thing,’...UFO?” Minneapolis Star, August 30, 1979.

Enger, John. “Whatever Happened to the Marshall County Cop Who Hit a UFO?” MPR News, August 27, 2015.
https://www.mprnews.org/story/2015/08/26/minnesota-deputy-squad-car-ufo-mystery

Hrapsky, Chris. “Minnesota’s Most Notorious UFO Sighting Remains a Mystery Four Decades Later.” KARE 11, August 4, 2021.
​​https://www.kare11.com/article/news/local/kare11-extras/minnesota-ufo-sighting-remains-a-mystery-four-decades-later

“It Was Just a Brush With the Law, Or Perhaps A ‘Close’ Encounter.” Minneapolis Tribune, August 31, 1979.

“Lab Says Deputy Met An Electrical ‘Force’ or Thing.” Minneapolis Star, November 7, 1979.

Paton, Callum. “The Most Credible UFO Sightings and Encounters in Modern History, According to Research.” Newsweek, April 17, 2019.
https://www.newsweek.com/ufo-sightings-encounters-credibility-video-1371313

Reinan, John. “UFO or No? Forty Years Later, a Minnesota Town Still Wonders." Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 23, 2019.

“Sheriff Blinded by Light from UFO; Minnesota–1979.”
https://www.ufocasebook.com/minnesotasheriff1979.html

Shirley, Hannah. "'Something Hit Me’: Some Believe Deputy’s 1979 Experience Is One of the Most Significant UFO Sightings Ever.” Grand Forks Herald, May 5, 2021.
https://www.grandforksherald.com/the-vault/7008536-Deputy-never-claimed-to-know-what-he-saw-outside-of-Stephen-Minn.-%E2%80%93-but-ufologists-have-called-it-one-of-the-most-significant-UFO-sightings-ever

Stone, Debra. “Deputy’s UFO Story Evokes Other Tales.” Minneapolis Star, September 11, 1979.

Related Video

Related Audio

MN90: The Val Johnson UFO | Details

Related Images

Marshall County Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson
Marshall County Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson
Marshall County Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson
Marshall County Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson
Marshall County Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson at the scene of his collision
Marshall County Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson at the scene of his collision
Minnesota State Highway 220
Minnesota State Highway 220
Cracked windshield of Val Johnson’s squad car
Cracked windshield of Val Johnson’s squad car
Bent antenna
Bent antenna
Broken headlight
Broken headlight
Collision diagram
Collision diagram

Turning Point

At 1:40 am in the early morning hours of August 27, 1979, Marshall County Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson sees a light in the sky while driving his squad car. He turns left off of County Highway 5 onto State Highway 220 to investigate.

Chronology

August 27, 1979

Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson loses consciousness and sustains minor injuries after an object collides with his squad car on State Highway 220 in Marshall County at about 1:40 am.

August 30

The Marshall County Sheriff’s Office announces the incident to the public and puts Johnson on “press release duty.”

September 4

Guy Westcott of the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) interviews Johnson and records his eyewitness account.

September 11

Johnson appears on the television show Good Morning America to describe the incident.

November 6

Honeywell engineer Roland Wardell of Edina examines the patrol car. He concludes that no single “earthly explanation” can explain all of its various forms of damage, some of which are consistent with the effects of an electrical field.

December 6

The National Observers on Aerial Phenomena (NOAP) agree with Westcott’s suggestion that ball lightning was a possible factor in Johnson’s experience. Ball lightning is a rare scientific phenomenon that produces fast-moving spheres of light.

1992

The pilot episode of the television series The X-Files features an unexplained time-loss event similar to Val Johnson’s experience.

2015

An episode of the television series Fargo set in 1979 depicts a UFO encounter in tribute to the Val Johnson incident.

2019

The city of Warren celebrates the fortieth anniversary of Johnson’s encounter on August 27.

2019

Newsweek magazine places the Val Johnson incident at number ten on its list of the twenty-five most credible UFO sightings of all time.