WARREN, Minn. -- Whatever you believe happened the night of Aug. 27, 1979, one thing is certain: Val Johnson's police cruiser hit something.
In the moments after the Marshall County Sheriff's deputy awoke in his car in the middle of the night on a dark road, the front of his vehicle bearing obvious damage, that was the only thing he knew for certain, too.
"I don't know what happened," he said over the radio to a county dispatcher while he waited for an ambulance. "Something hit me."
Johnson's call to dispatch came at about 1:40 a.m. about 16 miles outside Stephen, Minn. Johnson didn't know it yet, but he had been unconscious for about a half hour. The deputy was known for carefully setting his watch to match the dashboard clock in his cruiser before every shift – but when he awoke, both his watch and the clock were 14 minutes slow.
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The details of the crash only got stranger. Johnson told the dispatcher that just before the crash, he saw a bright 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 his windshield before going back out.
The incident left the car's windshield and one headlight smashed, and both antennas bent. Skid marks from the vehicle could be seen for 800 feet. After being examined by a physician, Johnson was diagnosed with "welder-type" burns on his eyes similar to those suffered by people exposed to bright lights.
Investigators were brought in, but could never determine the cause of the crash.
Those who were directly involved in the night's events couldn't be reached – some loved ones told the Grand Forks Herald that after 40 years of cold calls, they had grown reticent about discussing what has come to be known as the "Val Johnson Incident."
But Johnson's damaged patrol car, which last year found a permanent home in 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 story have only grown, said Kent Broten, president of the historical society.
"A lot of that, I think, is because of the internet," he said. "There's a lot of stuff on the internet, and people call about it sometimes, and they send their ideas about what happened, or they come visit sometimes just to see the car, and then away they go."
All eyes on Warren
Johnson never actually claimed to have seen a UFO. As recently as a few years ago, he has reportedly maintained that he doesn't know what he saw.
But as the Val Johnson Incident drummed up international interest in Warren, a community of about 1,500 about 30 miles from Grand Forks, UFOs were at the top of everyone's minds.
Residents of the area met the excitement with mixed reactions.
"Some said they were around at that time, and it was all blown out of proportion – that everybody had UFO fever at the time," said Chad Lewis, a self-described "researcher of the weird" who has written extensively about the incident and spoken about it on numerous occasions at the museum. "And then I spoke with other people in the community who – and these were down to earth, rural people, they weren't quick to make up a ruse for publicity – they believe the stories, and they believe that Val had seen something."
Eventually, though, the world moved on, and the Val Johnson Incident faded from a sensational headline to a quirky point of local history.
But in recent years, the incident has picked up interest again. Broten, who has worked for the historical society since before the incident, said the first 20 years the damaged patrol car was displayed in the museum were much quieter than the next 20.
Now, he said, guests often tell him it's their main attraction to the museum – some visitors have told him that they make the trip every year to see the car, and others have said they drove hundreds of miles out of their way 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 that younger people generally tend to be more interested in paranormal and unexplained encounters than past generations.
"Younger generations have more access to information about stuff like that than in the late '70s, about extraterrestrial stuff – and I'm not saying that it's that, it just was an unidentified object that to this 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 more significant events in ufology – pronounced you-fology – due to the facts that the incident left damage to the vehicle, that the reporting party was someone as credible as a sheriff's deputy, and that independent investigators examined the car and failed to come up with any explanation, Lewis said.
The hallmarks of the case – the loss of time, the faded memory, Johnson's strange injuries, the bright light – would all become common elements of future "sightings," but at the time of the Val Johnson Incident, Lewis said those details weren't widely associated with UFO encounters.
"Today, you could find that easily if you wanted to hoax it, or if you wanted to replicate some of the things other people were reporting, but back then, that wasn't well-known," he said. "If he was looking to make this up, he would have been hard-pressed, and unless he was very interested in UFO literature and folklore then he probably wouldn't have known that."
Lewis believes Johnson's encounter was paranormal in nature – but he agreed that, as many skeptics at the time pointed out, there are other plausible explanations, even if none could be proved.
Some believed that Johnson was hot-rodding his vehicle out on the county road that night, and made the event up to cover his misconduct. Many who support this theory say it's supported by the fact that Johnson declined to take a polygraph test (Johnson said he didn't want to feed into the fervor surrounding the incident).
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Others believe what he encountered was actually a vessel of more earthly origins – perhaps a plane smuggling drugs into the state from Canada.
Whatever happened that night, Lewis said many would be surprised how often people in rural areas like northwest Minnesota sometimes notice strange things in the night sky.
"I think a lot of readers would be surprised to find that if they had an experience seeing something strange in a rural area where you get such good view of the sky, that they're not alone," he said. "Most of the people that talk 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 aircraft, I guess, it could have been top secret aircraft, but it's something I've never seen.' I think people are not aware of how common these reports have become."