On a late August night in 1979, Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson was on patrol in rural Marshall County, Minnesota. The closest town was 10 miles away and the night was still, the fields around him quiet and empty. Suddenly, Johnson saw a bright light streak across the darkness above. He grabbed hold of the wheel of his patrol car and hung a left on State Highway 220.
Perhaps the light was a pilot in distress? Either way, Johnson kept racing toward whatever it was. But then the light shifted and began to head in his direction, right at him in fact. It grew brighter and brighter, until he heard glass shatter –– the light had entered his patrol car. Everything turned to black, and Johnson lost consciousness. What happened next has remained a mystery for the last 43 years.
He later told local reporter Jillian Rice of the Channel 5 Eyewitness News team, “I traveled about a mile, and the light seemed to intercept me, so to speak, came right up on me. It was painful. The light was extremely brilliant and painful. And I closed my eyes, and I heard the sound of breaking glass. That’s the last I remember.”
For the skeptics at home, Rice ran down all the questions and suspicions they might be entertaining. “Johnson was unconscious for 40 minutes before he radioed for help and was taken to the hospital,” she explained. “A doctor — and later an eye specialist — confirmed that Johnson had suffered mild welder or flash burns to his eyes.”
But this wasn’t the only curious physical evidence of the event. “Even stranger, both Johnson’s wristwatch and the electric clock in his patrol car had mysteriously stopped for 14 minutes,” she reported. Moreover, Rice added, “At the scene of the accident, skid marks show Deputy Johnson coasted for 800 feet after impact before applying the brakes,” noting that the area around the crash site had been searched, but nothing was found. Police considered the notion of a small airplane, but Johnson specifically remembered not hearing any engine noise. Plus, nothing could explain how the two spring-mounted antennas on the patrol car became bent at near-perfect 90 degree angles.
If it wasn’t another car, or a small plane, or a person on a bicycle with a bright headlight, what did Johnson hit? And what could account for the missing 14 minutes on his watch and patrol car clock?
In subsequent interviews, Johnson attempted to describe in exacting detail everything he remembered. The problem was, it didn’t sound like anything you’d find on Earth. For instance, Johnson said in his recorded police interview, “I noticed a very bright, brilliant light, eight to 12 inches in diameter, three to four feet off the ground. The edges were very defined.” He also described the light hitting him like a “200-pound pillow.” And in yet another interview about the incident, he again described the mysterious nature of what happened. “I saw a ball of light. I drove toward it, and suddenly it was in the car with me. It’s unexplainable and will remain so. I’m happy with my mental stability.”
Johnson has also been consistent ever since the accident first happened, including when he first regained consciousness and called in to dispatch on the car radio.
Dispatch Operator: 407 What is your condition?
Johnson: I don’t know. Something just hit my car.
Dispatch: What’s your condition? Are you okay?
Johnson: Something attacked my car. I heard the glass breaking and the locks… The brakes locked up. I don’t know what’s going on?
Marshall County Sheriff Dennis Brekke led the investigation, and he believed the word of his deputy. “I feel that whatever Val told me about the light and the strange incident was true,” he reiterated to the media. “I don’t doubt Val in any way.”
That said, he still had to investigate. The FAA assisted from their end, reporting that there were no aircraft in the skies above Marshall County at the time. So Brekke went a less traditional route and reached out to the Center for UFO Studies in suburban Chicago. An investigator from the center visited the site, examined the car and ran a battery of tests, checking for anomalies of magnetism or radioactivity. He concluded that whatever it was, it wasn’t radioactive. “It’s a mystery,” Rice would later tell her news camera. “Or as the UFO investigator from Illinois said, ‘It appears to have been a close encounter of the second kind.’”
After the UFO researcher, Honeywell Labs sent out an engineer in November 1979 to conduct some tests on the metal of the patrol car. They, too, came to the conclusion that they had no idea what had happened. The car antennas appeared to be bent as a result of “high-velocity blasts of air.” which he determined meant that some sort of electrical “thing” or perhaps a “force” had caused the impact and resulting damage.
The automaker for the patrol car, which was a 1977 Ford LTD, sent out its own engineers to examine the vehicle as well. “I have not seen anything like this before,” Ford crash investigator Meridian French said. In his report, French wrote that it seemed as if “inward and outward forces acting almost simultaneously” had slammed into the car. Similarly, the damage, “from front to back, was within a straight line only one foot wide.”
The vehicle has since been preserved as an exhibit at the Marshall County Historical Society, which society president Kent Broten says is “definitely the number one attraction.” According to him, the patrol car attracts inquisitive visitors from all over. “Some people lay on the floor and look underneath it,” he told Roadside America. “One time I saw a guy with a black-light flashlight going over the car.”
Out of everyone involved, Johnson seems the least impressed with what happened to him that fateful summer night. As he’s said in past interviews, he’d much rather be done with the incident and focus on the future instead: “I looked up at the sky and said, ‘Well shucks, what happened?’ And then I shuffled on with my life.”
For a while, of course, he was inundated with media requests, but eventually “other stories came along and pushed me off the front page. Thank goodness.” Even still, strangers often approached him over the years, wanting to go over everything with him themselves. “We’d sit in the back yard with lemonade and talk,” he told the Minneapolis Post last October. “They’d tell me what they thought happened to me, and I’d nod at the appropriate times. Eventually they’d go away.”
For his part, Johnson did make peace with what had happened. As he told the studio audience in 1980 on the show That’s Incredible, “Upon reflection, we’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps the Creator has made other things we can’t readily see or readily identify, and perhaps this is one of the things we encountered on the road.”
Without a doubt, he’d definitely grown to see the light — whatever that light might have been.