Sheriff Val Johnson’s encounter with an a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ craft in 1979 resulted in a shattered windscreen, temporary blindness, and the loss of valuable time. An unexplained encounter with an unidentified flying object and the subsequent investigation was conducted and the incident emerged as the Marshall County U̳F̳O̳ incident.
Sheriff Val Johnson’s Marshall County U̳F̳O̳ I̳n̳c̳i̳d̳e̳n̳t̳
By any standard, the close encounter that took place in the Red River Valley flatlands of far northwestern Minnesota in the early hours of August 27, 1979, could be considered one of the most remarkable – and evidential – U̳F̳O̳ cases ever documented, particularly in the United States. The good news is that, in contrast to other potentially significant U̳F̳O̳ incidents, this one had the good fortune of being thoroughly investigated and documented quite quickly after it occurred.
Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson, 35 years old, was on duty near North Dakota and around 45 miles south of the Canadian border in the westernmost portion of Marshall County. Sheriff Val Johnson, while driving on County 5 west of Stephen at about 1:40 a.m., observed light through his side window. The light was to his south, emerging from a grove of trees standing alongside the approaching Highway 220. The mysterious light appeared to be too bright to be a vehicle headlight. Therefore, he thought, that it could be from a downed plane, possibly one piloted by Canadian drug traffickers.
However, Sheriff Val Johnson was not frightened enough to notify W̳a̳r̳ren’s headquarters. Initially, he wanted to determine with absolute certainty what the light was. On 220, he turned south and sped to 65 miles per hour. Now that he was close enough, he noticed that the light was neither illuminating nor throwing shadows on the surroundings. Instantaneously, the light moved tow̳a̳r̳d him, traveling so quickly that it traversed the 1.5-mile distance between them nearly instantaneously. It was silent, and even at close range, it appeared to be a blinding glow.
“I heard glass breaking and saw the inside of the car light up real bright with white light,” he told reporter Jim Durkin the next day. “It was very, very extremely bright. That’s all I can remember… After the light hit my vehicle, I don’t remember a thing.”
He regained consciousness with his head on the steering wheel and his eyes on the red “ENGINE” light on the dashboard. When he raised his head and peered out the window, he was shocked to see that the car had veered across the northbound lane and was now facing east. The front tires were in contact with the shoulder gravel. Johnson could only see with great difficulty.
He called for backup at 2:19 in the morning. When he attempted to answer the dispatcher’s query about what had occurred, his voice was trembling.
“I don’t know. Something attacked my car. I heard glass breaking, and my breaks locked up, and I don’t know what the hell happened.”
Deputy Greg Winskowski came shortly after. When Winskowski opened the car door, he observed a red lump on Sheriff Val Johnson‘s forehead, which led him to conclude that Johnson had struck his head on the steering wheel and been rendered unconscious. Winskowski requested an ambulance from the hospital in W̳a̳r̳ren.
The ambulance driver stated that Sheriff Val Johnson appeared to be in a state of mild shock. Dr. W. A. Pinsonneault examined his eyes, which had a pinkish irritation on their surface, at the hospital. Johnson was unable to examine them for an extended period of time, however, because the doctor’s probe light caused him so much pain that he could not tolerate being exposed to it for more than a few brief seconds. Pinsonneault compared them to “mild welder’s burns” (caused by intense light exposure) and distributed salve and bandages. Johnson was driven home after providing a taped statement at the sheriff’s office at 5 a.m.
Sheriff Dennis Brekke drove Johnson’s patrol car, a 1977 Ford LTD, to the department garage. Brekke had arrived on the scene of the incident shortly after Winskowski’s arrival. The drive was not easy because the car was damaged in several peculiar ways.
The interior headlight on the driver’s side was broken, but not its counterpart on the left. On the hood, four feet and four inches behind the broken light and close to the windshield was a half-inch-diameter circular dent with a flat bottom. An investigator who observed it on November 29 noted:
“As evidenced by the ‘creases’ in the dent’s rear, the force of the blow was primarily delivered downw̳a̳r̳d and tow̳a̳r̳d the windshield.”
A crack in the windshield on the driver’s side, about a foot and a half behind the dent, ran from top to bottom and appeared to have been caused by a cluster of small objects, possibly stones. When Johnson arrived on duty, the car’s electric clock was correctly set to 7 p.m., but it was 14 minutes late. Strangely, the deputy’s wristwatch was also set to the same time. Allan Hendry, who observed the vehicle the next day, had described the additional damage as follows:
“The red plastic lens covering the roof light on the driver’s side (2nd from left) shows a triangular puncture, and the lens was dislodged from the housing. Neither the missing piece of plastic nor any foreign debris could be found trapped inside the lamp housing. There is no apparent damage to the housing itself.
The shaft of the three-foot roof antenna set on a spring-loaded base has been bent over at a 60-degree angle starting 5 1/2″ above the spring. Insect matter can be seen still clinging to the metal (though the shaft is coated quite tenaciously with this tissue material). Oddest of all, the large “bubble” lamp is just inches in front of the antenna, and is virtually the same height as the location of the bend, but is unscathed.
The trunk antenna is identical to the rooftop model… The bend this time is sharper still – 90 degrees – and involves only the upper 3 1/2″ of the shaft. There is a rising angle of incidence from the first bend to the second one; with a 4’7″ separation between antennas (horizontally) and an 18″ rise in the second bend; this results in an 18-degree angle from front to back. This second antenna is for a CB radio. There was no damage to the car’s regular telescopic antenna on the front hood. All the damage favoured the driver’s side of the car. The rear antenna, 2’11” from the left side of the car, is the closest the damage got to the car’s centerline.”
Sheriff Brekke took his deputy, who still had bandages over his eyes, to ophthalmologists Leonard Prochaska in Grand Forks, North Dakota, at 11 a.m. for a more thorough eye examination. Dr. Prochaska discovered that Johnson’s issues had been resolved. It is not uncommon for corneal flash burns (usually caused by exposure to strong sources of ultraviolet radiation such as a welder’s arc) to heal within hours, as explained to Hendry.
The Investigation Of The Sheriff Val Johnson’s Marshall County U̳F̳O̳ I̳n̳c̳i̳d̳e̳n̳t̳
That very morning, the Sheriff also reported the incident to the Centre for U̳F̳O̳ Studies (CU̳F̳O̳S), whose headquarters was then located in Evanston, Illinois. Allan Hendry, CU̳F̳O̳S’s full-time investigator, answered the phone and immediately made arrangements to fly to the site the following day. Then, he contacted military and civilian aviation facilities in Minnesota and North Dakota to determine whether anyone had detected unusual radar traffic. The response was zero.
Meanwhile, Marshall County officers discovered shattered pieces of headlight glass near the milepost sign and Johnson was quite close to it when the light accelerated in his direction. This seemed to indicate that the “collision,” if that is what it was, occurred approximately one mile south of the 5/220 intersection.
The vehicle traveled approximately 855 feet, before dark skid marks on the asphalt revealed that the brakes had locked up. Before curving to the east and crossing into the northbound lane, the markings extended for an additional 99 feet and were 99 feet long. Brekke concluded that Johnson was traveling at 48 mph when the skid marks first appeared, based on an experiment with a vehicle similar to the one Johnson was driving.
Hendry, Johnson, Brekke, and others combed the site on the 29th. A Geiger counter detected nothing out of the ordinary. No further physical evidence was located. Hendry determined that the damage was incompatible with anything an airplane could have caused, and nothing he learned about Johnson’s character and reputation led him to suspect the officer of perpetrating a hoax.
Meridan French, a windshield expert from Ford Motor Company’s Glass Division, flew to W̳a̳r̳ren to examine the cracks in person. His report included:
“There were four distinct and separate fracture origins. One was on the inboard surface of the inner glass ply and three were on the exterior surface of the outer ply. Because all four origins were at different locations in the windshield, it is concluded that they represent four independent events. From the fracture patterns, however, it appears that the time between at least three events was extremely short, on the order of a few milliseconds… There was no penetration of the windshield laminate anywhere and no tears in the polyvinyl butyral interlayer… The character of all glass fractures showed them to be the result of mechanical forces rather than thermal stresses. In fact, there was no evidence of unusual heat, either general or localized… None of the four fracture origins were individually usual, any of which could be artificially reproduced. However, as a group and in combination they are difficult to explain… I judge the sequence of events to be as follows:
1. The first fracture was of the inboard ply with the fracture origin at the inside surface. The type of fracture would indicate an impact on the exterior surface of the windshield exactly opposite the fracture point. The impacting object was probably not metallic or stone-like because there was no apparent damage to the exterior surface at the point of impact. I would estimate the impacting object to be very firm, perhaps even hard, with a mass velocity sufficient to produce a relatively high (10,000 to 12,000 psi), highly localized stress. Examples of object types could range from a softball, baseball, or golfball to a rubber-headed hammer. Such a failure could also have been made with a blow from the side of a tightly closed fist. In a laminated glass impact failure as described here, it is not unusual for the glass ply opposite the impact to fail while the impacted plate does not. Glass failure always originates as a defect or point of damage, and it often happens that the plate opposite the impact is the weaker of the two in the highly stressed impact area.
2. The second failure to occur was in the outer glass ply at a point approximately 0.9″ below the first origin. The fracture is horizontal and forms a point of tangency between two circular crack patterns, one above the other. Failure originated on the outside surface from a relatively low level bending stress for which there are several possibilities:
Localized loading or pushing on the glass from the inside. This is unlikely because of the limited space between the glass and the padded cowl at the origin location.
Positive pressure inside the car which would bend the windshield outw̳a̳r̳d.
Negative pressure outside the car which would achieve the same effect.
Localized inw̳a̳r̳d bending of the glass by a relatively small impacting object for the first fracture would have caused a tensile bending stress in the outboard surface in the area of the second failure. This is the most plausible in view of the circular crack pattern above the second fracture origin.
3. The third fracture also originated on the outside surface about 1.0″ below the second origin. In this case, the glass is severely crushed in a small, roughly circular area as though impacted by an extremely hard object but without sufficient force to cause additional cracking of the inner glass opposite the point of impact. There was no visible residue from the impacting object in the crushed glass area when examined closely with a 20x magnifier.
4. The fourth fracture origin was also on the exterior of the windshield, approximately 5.5″ above the point of the second failure. This is also a bending stress failure oriented horizontally but is believed to be a secondary failure originating at a crack from an earlier failure.
5. There is also a band of very fine fractures several inches long with some degree of glass crushing, running almost vertically and just to the passenger side of the four principle fracture origins. This last cracking is all in the outboard ply, and I believe it to be a completely secondary fracture system probably resulting from normal flexing or cracking of the already broken windshield in moving the car after the original incident.
Even after several days of reflection on the crack pattern and apparent sequence of fractures, I still have no explanation for what seemed to be inw̳a̳r̳d and outw̳a̳r̳d forces acting almost simultaneously. I can only (conclude) … that all cracks were from mechanical forces of an unknown source.”
French noted that, evidently, the dent in the hood:
“Some 1/2″ diameter, flat-ended object made a forceful impact with the hood at that location and then tilted tow̳a̳r̳d the windshield. It may even have been the source of the windshield impacts.”
A team of engineers at Honeywell, Inc.’s materials testing laboratory in Minneapolis examined the two antennas, the glass fragments from the headlight, and the plastic lens from the rooftop lamp that had been punctured. According to the analysis conducted by the engineers, “flying particles” (such as rocks or stones) caused damage to the headlight glass and lamp plastic. However, the antennas’ bends necessitated the uniform application of several pounds of force by mechanical forces. Other tests for magnetism and radiation did not yield any anomalous results.
Could the Marshall County U̳F̳O̳ be a Hoax?
Prior to Hendry’s arrival in W̳a̳r̳ren, locals were urging Johnson to undergo hypnosis to see if he could “recall” what actually occurred during the missing forty minutes of the sighting. Some speculated that he may have been abducted by an ex̳t̳r̳a̳t̳e̳r̳r̳e̳s̳t̳r̳i̳a̳l̳ craft. Johnson had no interest in the concept, and he also refused to submit to a polygraph examination.
According to him, neither would accomplish anything other than satisfying the “morbid curiosity” of others. His employers and friends stood by him, and all he wanted was to move on with his life. He declined all invitations to appear on television, but later changed his mind and agreed to appear on ABC’s Good Morning, America with Hendry on September 11.
Philip J. Klass, a fierce critic of the U̳F̳O̳ phenomenon, argued the case through innuendo and sarcasm in the absence of any direct evidence that Johnson had faked the incident. According to him, there were only two possible explanations: either the incident was a hoax, or “malicious U̳F̳O̳nauts” hit the vehicle’s headlight, hood, and windshield with a “hammer-like device,” bent the antennas, and reset the clock and watch by 14 minutes. In other words, the alternative explanation, at least as presented by Klass, was too absurd to be considered; thus, the incident must be a hoax.
Klass also argued that Johnson’s refusal to submit to a polygraph test was suspicious. In September 1980, while debating Hendry at the Smithsonian Institution, he argued that:
“Deputy Val Johnson… likes to play practical jokes, especially in the late evening when he gets a little bored, as I learned… by talking to some of the people who have worked with him and know him very well.”
It is difficult to imagine how severe damage to a police vehicle could be considered a “practical joke.” In a book published two years later, Klass cited the testimony of a former coworker as “evidence” that Johnson “did like to pull tricks on a guy every now and then… like maybe hide your coffee cup on you.”
“This was the most damning charge Klass succeeded in uncovering, and even here his informant said, “I don’t know if you’d call him a ‘practical-joker’… As far as we know, he’s never told us any untruths.”
Russ Johnson (unrelated to Val Johnson) was driving on Highway 50 on the western outskirts of Vermillion, South Dakota, at 2 a.m. on August 29, when he spotted what he believed to be a single blinding headlight in front of him. It was stationary for only two seconds before rushing tow̳a̳r̳d him and engulfing his car within two seconds. He shut his eyes and applied his brakes. His vehicle slid to a stop and spun across the road until it faced east, just like Val Johnson’s vehicle. He opened his eyes and observed the light travelling westw̳a̳r̳d. It vanished with a slight upw̳a̳r̳d angle before disappearing.
When Johnson immediately notified the police, they alerted Professor Robert Adams of the nearby University of South Dakota. Adams spoke with the witness thirty minutes after the occurrence. The following day, he accompanied a still-shaken Johnson to the scene and observed the skidmarks.
When Val Johnson’s account became public, residents of W̳a̳r̳ren County came forw̳a̳r̳d to describe their own recent U̳F̳O̳ sightings. Mid-August, while driving from Northwood, North Dakota, to W̳a̳r̳ren, Jon Linnell and his wife “saw bright lights over a field to my left.” Linnell said:
“The light stayed in the same spot above the trees… 15 seconds later the thing came at us… It scared me. My wife said, ‘It’s going to hit us.’ It came and hovered on top of us so we couldn’t see what it was. We couldn’t see the outline of it. When I’d almost stopped the car, it took a 180-degree turn and took off north. There were too many lights for a plane and there was no sound. When you tried to see what it was, it hurt your eyes.”
Val Johnson stated that he had received three calls from individuals claiming to have seen a bright light on the night of his encounter. In one instance, a farmer near Oslo (Johnson’s hometown, located just a few miles south of the sighting site) reported that, in Johnson’s words, “a large light hovered over his farm and was so bright that it turned off his mercury yard light.”
Also, “a bright light swooped down on a truck driver in the middle of the night,” and “a woman reported that the electricity and television went out after a bright light passed over her farmstead.” Sadly, none of these reports were investigated.