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This content is shared with MinnPost by MNopedia, the digital encyclopedia created by the Minnesota Historical Society and supported by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

What happened to Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson’s squad car in 1979?

The incident is considered one of the most credible UFO encounters in American history.

image of sheriffs deputy standing on road
Val Johnson at the scene of his collision on County Road 5 in Marshall County on August 27, 1979. Photographed in late August or early September 1979.
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. He 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.

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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.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.