The deputy never claimed to know what he saw outside of Stephen, Minnesota – but ufologists called it one of the most significant UFO sightings of all time

WARREN, Minnesota — Whatever you think happened the night of August 27, 1979, one thing is certain: Val Johnson’s police cruiser hit Something.

In the moments after the Marshall County Sheriff’s Deputy woke up in his car in the middle of the night on a dark road with the front of his vehicle bearing obvious damage, it was also the only thing that happened. he knew for sure.

“I don’t know what happened,” he radioed a county dispatcher while waiting for an ambulance. “Something hit me.”

Johnson’s call to the dispatch came around 1:40 a.m. about 16 miles from Stephen, Minnesota. Johnson didn’t know it yet, but he had been unconscious for about half an hour. The deputy was known to carefully set his watch to match his cruiser’s dashboard clock before each shift – but when he awoke his watch and the clock were 14 minutes off. delay.

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The details of the accident got stranger. Johnson told the dispatcher that just before the crash he had seen a brilliant orb of light, about 8 to 12 inches in diameter and hovering 3 or 4 feet off the ground. The last thing he remembered was driving into the light and seeing the orb enter the car through its windshield before exiting.
The incident left the car’s windshield and one headlight shattered, and both aerials bent. Skid marks from the vehicle could be seen 800 feet away. After being examined by a doctor, Johnson was diagnosed with “welder type” burns to his eyes similar to those suffered by people exposed to bright lights.

Investigators were called, but were never able to determine the cause of the crash.

November 9, 1979 Broken windshield on Squad Car Johnson was driving the night of the incident. November 6, 1979 Regene Radniecki, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Those directly involved in the night’s events could not be reached – some relatives told the Grand Forks Herald that after 40 years of cold calling they had become reluctant to discuss what became known as the “Val Johnson Incident”. “

But Johnson’s damaged patrol car, which last year found a permanent home at the Marshall County Historical Society museum after being on loan there from the county for decades, remains the museum’s biggest attraction – and in recent years, interest in the car and its history has only grown, said Kent Broten, president of the historical society.

“I think a lot of that is due to the internet,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff on the internet, and people sometimes call about it, and they send in their thoughts on what happened, or sometimes they come to visit just to see the car, and then they leave. ”

Johnson never claimed to have seen a UFO. Just a few years ago, he reportedly claimed he didn’t know what he saw.

But as the Val Johnson incident sparked international interest in Warren, a community of about 1,500 about 30 miles from Grand Forks, UFOs were on everyone’s mind.

Locals met the excitement with mixed reactions.

“Some said they were there at the time, and it was all exaggerated — that everyone had UFO fever at the time,” said Chad Lewis, a self-proclaimed “seeker of the weird” who has written extensively about the incident. and spoke about it many times at the museum. “And then I spoke with other people in the community who – and they were down-to-earth people, rural people, they weren’t quick to come up with a trick for publicity – they believe the stories , and they believe Val had seen something.”


September 11, 1979 Val Johnson, standing where he says he was engulfed in a flash of light, indicated the size of the beam as he approached. The night is clear and humid. The only sound that rises from the prairie plain is the hum of cricket. The only person traveling on the remote stretch of the highway is Val Johnson. September 10, 1979 Stormi Greener, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Eventually, however, the world moved on, and the Val Johnson incident grew from a headline sensation to a quirky point in local history.

But in recent years, the incident has again sparked interest. Broten, who has worked for the historical society since before the incident, said the first 20 years the damaged patrol car was on display in the museum were much quieter than the next 20.

Now, he says, guests often tell him it’s their main attraction for the museum – some visitors told him they made the trip every year to see the car, and others said they had traveled hundreds of miles to check it. off their road trip bucket list.

He doesn’t believe the interest is specific to the Val Johnson incident. Instead, he said, it seems younger people generally tend to be more interested in paranormal and unexplained encounters than older generations.

“Younger generations have more access to information about things like that than they did in the late ’70s about extraterrestrial stuff – and I’m not saying that’s it, it was just an unidentified object that at that day is not explained,” he said. . “But with different movies and different things, it’s probably just a different deal than it was 40 years ago.”

Today, the Val Johnson incident is considered one of the most significant events in ufology – pronounced you-fology – due to the fact that the incident caused damage to the vehicle, the signalman was someone as credible as a sheriff’s deputy, and independent investigators examined the car and offered no explanation, Lewis said.

Features of the case – loss of time, faded memory, strange injuries to Johnson, bright light – would all become common elements of future “sightings”, but at the time of the Val Johnson incident, Lewis has said these details weren’t widely associated with UFO encounters.

“Today you could find that easily if you wanted the hoax, or if you wanted to replicate some of the things that other people were reporting, but back then it wasn’t well known,” he said. he declares. “If he was looking to make this up, he would have had a hard time, and unless he was very interested in UFO literature and folklore, he probably wouldn’t have known about it.”

Lewis believes Johnson’s encounter was paranormal in nature – but he agreed that, as many skeptics pointed out at the time, there are other plausible explanations, although none could be proven.

Some believed Johnson was driving his vehicle down the county road that night and made up the event to cover up his misconduct. Many of those who support this theory say it is supported by the fact that Johnson refused to take a polygraph test (Johnson said he did not want to fuel the fervor surrounding the incident).

Others believe what he encountered was actually a ship of more land origin – possibly a plane smuggling drugs into the state from Canada.
Whatever happened that night, Lewis said many would be surprised at how often people in rural areas like northwestern Minnesota sometimes notice strange things in the night sky.

“I think a lot of readers would be surprised that if they had an experience of seeing something strange in a rural area where you have such a good view of the sky, they’re not alone,” he said. he declares. “Most people who spoke to me said, ‘I’m not saying what it was, it was just really weird. I’ve never seen anything like it – it could have been a military plane, I guess, it could have been a top secret plane, but that’s something I’ve never seen. I don’t think people are aware of how common these reports have become.”

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