At around 2am on Aug. 27, 1979, 35-year-old Sheriff’s Deputy Val Johnson peered out the window of his Ford LTD cruiser to spot a strange light in the sky.
“I thought maybe a semi hit a deer,” Val says 38 years later. “Or maybe an aircraft with one of those big lights had landed there.”
This was in Marshall County, Minnesota, just a stone’s throw from the North Dakota border. Boasting a population hovering around 13,000, it was hardly a hotbed for criminal activity. Excluding the occasional traffic violation, nights, for Val, were mostly uneventful. The landscape reflected everyone’s knowledge of everyone – the terrain so open and flat that, as Val put it, “If you get up on a step ladder on a Wednesday you can see both Sundays.”
Yet even without the ladder, on Aug. 27, Val saw more than he’d bargained for.
While seated across from him at a Perkins Restaurant here in Eau Claire, it’s all I can do to keep from pinching myself. After all, the "Val Johnson Incident," as it’s known today, isn’t just your everyday, run-of-the-mill encounter with an unidentified flying object. According to UFOlogist Jerome Clark, it’s “one of the top 10 most influential UFO encounters in history.”
I’d long been astonished by the story, and even more so upon learning that Val was practically my neighbor. I’d fired off a letter to him, and within a week, found myself on the edge of my seat, listening intently as the 72-year-old Eau Claire resident gives me the play-by-play.
“I’d been up to a town called Stephen, Minnesota,” Val says, “and I was going west on County Road 5. It was so flat you could see the light, this bright light off to the southwest.”
As he approached it, it became clear to him that it was no semi, no aircraft, no anything with an apparent source. Val pressed down on the accelerator, closing in on the light at a speed between 50 to 60 miles per hour.
“And then,” Val says, snapping his fingers, “just like that, the light was in the car with me. It felt like I got hit in the face with a 200-pound pillow. And that’s the last I recall.”
And for good reason: for the next 39 minutes or so, Val lay unconscious in his car.
When at last he woke, he found his cruiser positioned sideways in the northbound lane of the road – the engine off, but his headlights still cutting beams into the dark.
For Val, the world re-emerged in slow motion. As he widened his eyes he was soon overcome with a burning sensation rippling across his face. He thrust his hand toward his radio and called for assistance.
“What is your condition?” the dispatcher asked.
“I don’t know. Something just hit my car,” Val replied. “I don’t know … Strange.”
It was an assessment surely shared by the off-duty officer who was the first to arrive on the scene. Speeding through the night, the officer eventually spotted the unmoving cruiser on Highway 220, pulling to the side of the road to find a disoriented Val leaning against the steering wheel. After noting the intense burning sensation to his eyes and face, Val was transported to a nearby hospital, where doctors attempted to soothe the burns with ointments and bandages. At some point between 3 and 4am a fellow deputy drove Val back to the station, where he recorded a statement of the night’s proceedings.
As he concluded, it occurred to him that he ought to call his wife, who’d surely be worried as a result of his late arrival. His eyes still bandaged, Val stretched out his arm and asked the deputy beside him to read the time on his watch. The deputy did, revealing a time 14 minutes slow.
Curious, the deputy went to the lot to check the dashboard clock on Val’s cruiser to find it running 14 minutes behind as well.
It seemed an unlikely coincidence given that, to the best of Val’s memory, both clock and watch had been running perfectly throughout his shift.
“What do you make of that?” I ask, cutting Val off mid-story. “How do you account for 14 lost minutes on two different timekeeping devices?”
“I can’t account for it at all,” Val says.
The plot thickened further as law enforcement began detailing the physical damage left behind on the cruiser as well: namely, a cracked windshield, a dented hood, a broken headlight, and two stainless steel antennas bent to 90-degree angles.
Whatever had hit the car had left its mark, and with it, a treasure trove of physical evidence.
Between the abrasions on Val’s person, the damage to the car, and the 14 lost minutes, the sheriff’s department of Marshall County had a mystery on its hands – the likes of which they’d never seen before.
Even today, 39 years removed from the incident, Val’s not certain what he saw.
“You must have a few theories,” I press.
He mulls it over, staring into his coffee.
“In police work,” he begins, “you take a series of evidentiary findings and you put them in a line and you come up with a conclusion. In my particular instance you take two of those and line them up, the third is not there, or the third disproves the second. Nothing lines up evidentiary. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense,” he repeats. “Consequently, there’s been a great deal of conjecture trying to come up with a viable solution or a viable explanation. It’s not there.”
For many, the mystery was unnerving, though for Val, it was simply a fact of life.
“For the first three years it was on my mind daily,” he says. “After that I went on with my life, had more children, other jobs, and got busy doing this, that, and the other. It’s of no great concern to me at this point.”
“You just chalked it up as a mystery and moved on?” I ask.
He nods, turning his attention to his newly arrived cinnamon roll.
“It’s not a defining incident in my life.”
* * *
In an effort to be closer to family, Val Johnson moved to Eau Claire in 2014. Yet as we chat over coffee and cinnamon buns, I can’t help but wonder if leaving Minnesota also afforded him a fresh start. A chance simply to be Val Johnson again, rather than the Val Johnson of the “Val Johnson Incident.”
For decades, Val dutifully lugged the baggage that accompanied his encounter, though after his initial run in the newspapers and the morning talk shows, the limelight began to fade. Which was fine by Val, who was anxious to return to normal life.
Aware of this, I measure my next words carefully, fearful that by broaching the topic directly, I risk exposing him once more to a world he’s been slow to embrace.
“The words we haven’t brought up yet – and a lot of folks have in terms of this experience – are ‘UFO’ or ‘extraterrestrial.’ Are you distancing yourself from that possibility?”
“It’s a possibility,” he agrees. “It could be a UFO. It could be extraterrestrial. It could be time travel. It could be top secret military from Grand Forks Air Force Base. It could be a variety of things. But,” he adds, “my pay grade does not permit me to make all these speculations with any credibility. So I don’t.”
Yet for decades, plenty of others have speculated on his behalf.
Could Val’s encounter have a military explanation as he suggested? Was what he saw that night part of some experiment performed by the Grand Forks Air Force base just 60 miles away?
Or did Val’s sighting have a meteorological answer: a rare encounter with ball lightning perhaps? After all, Val’s description of what he saw indeed corresponds with such a phenomenon.
However, what both possibilities fails to explain are the 14 lost minutes and the cruiser’s bent antennas.
When I press the issue, Val agrees that every possibility – from military or meteorological – is worth considering. But the look he gives me sends another message: that we should never be too hasty to confuse possibilities with proof.
* * *
Of the many theories for what happened to Val Johnson along State Highway 220 on Aug. 20, 1979, there’s at least one I’ve yet to address: that Val himself perpetuated a hoax.
Though the veracity of Val’s story was confirmed by both the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department and the Center for UFO Studies, there was at least one man who questioned the events that did – or did not – transpire on that fateful night.
Phillip Klass – dubbed the “Sherlock Holmes of UFOlogy” – dedicated much of his life to debunking UFO sightings. After a careful investigation of Val’s case, Klass offered two equally unsatisfying conclusions:
The first – offered with extreme cheekiness – describes a version of events in which Val was attacked by “malicious UFOnauts” who proceeded to take a “hammerlike device” to the car and then “reached inside … to set back the hands of the watch on Johnson’s arm and the clock on the car’s dashboard.”
And the second:
“Or, the incident is a hoax.”
When I press Val on Klass’s assessment, he shrugs it off.
“Fine. Have at it,” he chuckles. “When (Klass) contacts me and wants to buy my line of vitamins and supplements, then we’ll talk.”
Of course, Val is selling no vitamins, no movie rights, no anything. He’s just a guy with a story to tell.
“This whole experience,” I begin, “has it been a blessing or a curse?”
“It has not negatively impacted me at all,” Val says. “There have been people who questioned my sanity, you know, at the very beginning. They said, ‘Why is he saying this? Why is he doing this?’ So I came right out and I told them: ‘I’m not running for public office, I don’t have vitamins to sell you, there’s nothing. This is what happened to me. If you choose to believe, great. If you choose not to believe, that’s OK, too.”
I have to admit Val’s indifference proves persuasive. If most folks are motivated by fame or fortune, I’m impressed by the degree to which Val appears utterly disinterested in both. Except for an unsolicited $1,000 check from the National Enquirer for “Best UFO Story of the Year,” Val assures me he hasn’t made a penny off of his story.
As for his “fame” – if we might call it that – it was, indeed, short-lived. In the coming weeks, Val’s story soon gave way to others, drifting from the headlines and filed under “the unexplained.” Aside from the UFO faithful, the incident was mostly forgotten, though for years to come, Val continued to find himself on the receiving end of the occasional phone call or visit, some more unusual than others.
Despite the peculiarities of many of his visitors, as well as their oft-unbelievable theories, Val made it a point to hear everyone out – reciprocating the respect he’d so often received when telling his own fantastical tale.
“You come to my house, you want to talk about this, you drove all the way from Wichita to talk to me, great. Let’s have lemonade and talk about it,” he says. Sometimes all people want is to be heard, Val knows, and so he does his part to listen.
Though during our time at Perkins, I’m the one doing the listening, and the nodding, too, as Val clarifies my own take on the matter. Not on the existence of UFOs, but on the existence of something nearly as rare: human empathy. Of imagining an experience beyond one’s own. And of acknowledging the possibility that just because something’s weird doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
“You’ve got a great mystery on your hands,” I say, taking one last sip of coffee. “But what you’ve confirmed for me is that maybe we don’t need an answer for every mystery in our world. The mystery makes it kind of fun.”
“Mystery,” Val says, reaching for his cinnamon roll, “is the jelly on top of the toast of our otherwise normal and uninteresting lives.”
“The icing on our cinnamon roll,” I agree.
* * *