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Minnesota Vehicle Interference and Physical Traces Event, 1979:

On August 27, 1979 a close encounter of the second kind occurred in the Red River Valley area of far northwestern Minnesota that is one of the most evidential UFO cases on record, and one of the best investigated.

Table of content:

Click! The events.
Click! Encounter of the Decade, by Chris Rutkowski.
Click! The confidential police report on the events.
Click! The map of the location and the path of the witness and object.
Click! The photographs of the location.
Click! References.

The events:

Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson of Marshall County was on duty that night, driving not far from the North Dakota border, when at around 1:40 a.m. he saw a light through his side window. It was obviously not on a road and looked too glaring to be a car headlight. He first thought it might be a small plane on or very near the ground. He turned left on another road to try to get closer to the light to identify it. Suddenly, the light moved toward him, travelling so fast that it almost instantaneously was upon his car (covering an estimated mile and a half). Johnson was blinded by the brilliance of the light and heard glass breaking, then lost consciousness.

When he returned to consciousness, the car was stalled and had skidded across the highway. He felt sluggish and shaky. He radioed headquarters, at 2:19 a.m., to request assistance. Soon another deputy arrived, who called an ambulance. The doctor who examined Johnson found him to be in a mild state of shock. His eyes were irritated as if Johnson had suffered "mild welder's burns," and Johnson couldn't stand to be exposed to any bright lights.

The patrol car had very peculiar damage. The inside headlight on the driver's side was smashed but not the one to its immediate left. There was a flat-bottomed circular dent on the left side of the front hood, about a half inch in diameter, close to the windshield. There was a crack in the windshield on the driver's side, that ran from top to bottom, with four apparent impacts. The electric clock was running 14 minutes slow, as was Johnson's wristwatch. The shaft of the roof antenna was bent over at a 60-degree angle, starting about 6 inches above its base. The trunk antenna was bent over at 90 degrees, but only near the top. No damage occurred to the car's regular antenna on the front hood. Essentially, all the damage to the car occurred on the left, or driver's side.

Investigations occurred immediately, both by the sheriff's department and by investigators from the Center for UFO Studies. The police determined that Johnson's car travelled about 950 feet after the first damage occurred. No cause could be found for the event, including collision with another vehicle or a low-flying plane, a hoax on the part of Johnson, or anything else. In addition, experts from Ford Motors (the vehicle was a 1977 Ford LTD) and a team of engineers from Honeywell examined various portions of the damage.

A windshield expert, Meridan French, from Ford, noted after examining the windshield fractures that "Even after several days of reflection on the crack patterns and apparent sequence of fractures, I still have no explanation for what seem to be inward and outward forces acting almost simultaneously. I can only [conclude]... that all cracks were from mechanical forces of unknown origin." No cause could be found for the clock running slow, the peculiar antenna damage, or other physical traces.

Fortunately, Johnson's eyes healed quickly, and he suffered no lasting effect from the close encounter.

Encounter of the decade:

This is the article "Val Johnson's Encounter of the Decade," from The Swamp Gas Journal, Volume 1, No. 6, January, 1980, and No.7, April, 1980, by scientist and ufologist Chris Rutkowski.

Val Johnson's Encounter of the Decade

I first heard about Val Johnson's UFO experience on the WDAZ late news one night, several days after it had occurred. I called the station and was told that as far as they knew, it had already been investigated by CUFOS. Since it was just within UFOROM's investigation range, I would have left to check out the site, were it not that I figured it would by then have been adequately looked into by Allan Hendry of CUFOS. But by chance, a close associate, Guy Westcott, was vacationing in Minnesota around that time, and he took time out to visit the area on his own. Not only did he come back with a rather detailed investigation report, he reported that Hendry had not been there by the time he had left. Westcott went back to verify a few things on September 16, 1979, and obtained a taped report from Deputy Johnson, in his own words:

"This is Deputy Sheriff Val Johnson ... I report in connection with an incident which happened August 27th, 1979, at approximately 1:40 a.m., western section of Marshall County, approximately ten miles west of Stephen, Minnesota. This officer was on routine patrol, westbound down Marshall County Road #5. I got to the intersection of #5 and Minnesota State #220. When I looked down south #220 to check for traffic, I noticed a very bright, brilliant light, 8 to 12 inches in diameter, 3 to 4 feet off the ground. The edges were very defined. I thought perhaps at first that it could be an aircraft in trouble, as it appeared to be a landing light from an aircraft. I proceeded south on #220. I proceeded about a mile and three tenths or a mile and four tenths when the light intercepted my vehicle causing damage to a headlight, putting a dent in the hood, breaking the windshield and bending antennas on top of the vehicle. At this point. at the interception of the light, I was rendered either unconscious, neutralized or unknowing for a period of approximately 39 minutes. From the point of intersection, my Police vehicle proceeded south in a straight line 854 feet, at which point the brakes were engaged by forces unknown to myself, as I do not remember doing this, and I left about approximately 99 feet of black marks on the highway before coming to rest sideways in the road with the grille of my hood facing in an easterly direction. At 2:19 a.m., I radioed a 10-88 (Officer Needs Assistance) to my dispatcher in Warren. He dispatched an officer from Stephen who came out, ascertained the situation as best he could, called for the Stephen Ambulance to transport me to Warren Hospital for further tests, x-rays and observation. At the time the officer arrived, I complained about having very sore eyes. At Warren Hospital, it was diagnosed that I had a mild case of welder's burns to my eyes. My eyes were treated with some salve and adhesive bandages put over and instructed to keep them on for the remainder of the day, or approximately 24 hours. At 11:00 a.m., Sheriff Dennis Breckie, my employer, picked me up at my residence in Oslo, and transported me to an ophthalmologist in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He examined my eyes and said I had some irritation to the inner portions of the eye which could have been caused by seeing a bright light after dark. That is all I have to add except to say that my timepiece in the Police vehicle and my mechanical wrist watch were both lacking 14 minutes of time to the minute."

A fascinating account of a very close encounter. What's more, the UFO incident was thoroughly investigated by police immediately after it had occurred. Westcott's interpretation was that the ball of light was ball lightning. He makes an interesting case in that the previous evening had been hot and humid and could possibly have created a charge in the atmosphere during that day. Another supporting point is that Johnson estimated the object to have been 5 kilometres away near some trees, which just happen to be along a power line.

If we can assume that the plasma carried a large charge of some sort, upon contact with the leading edge of the car (the grille and headlights), it discharged some or all of its energy through the electrical system. This is quite amenable to effects noted for some theories of the creation of ball lightning. It has been proposed that the power output from a ball lightning plasma may be between 103 and 107 joules, nothing to sneeze at in any case. However, to explain all the EV effects, we have to allow the plasma ball to have mass in order to create a tangible and definite dent in the hood, or at least possess some sort of force, let us say, in newtons?

The bending of the antennas, in Westcott's opinion, is not due to an object traveling at high speed and striking the two aerials. Allen Hendry was widely quoted as saying that the bends occurred from an impact with an object. Westcott suggests that the aerials bent after whipping forward when the brakes were applied and struck the red outside dome light on the roof. In support of this, Westcott noted two melted indentations in the rear of the dome light that could have been caused in that manner, and the bends are at what were appropriate heights in the antennas, each with "discoloration" of the metal. The aerials were taken to the Honeywell Labs in Minneapolis, which concluded that they were bent "by force" and "not heat." The magnetic pattern scan done on the car showed it was not subjected to a strong magnetic field.

These details come from various sources, and cover the salient points of the investigation. A UFORUM consultant in physics questioned the mechanism of the cause, but not the actual cause itself. Was it, therefore, a true case of ball lightning? Or was it something non-terrestrial?

UFOROM's investigation continued, and reached a major stage when all Johnson and the investigating officers were invited to Winnipeg to address the first Manitoba Conference on Ufology on March 16, 1980. Johnson's experience was the main focus of the meeting.

Frankly, it is one of the most puzzling incidents in the history of ufology. This strong statement is partly because of the fact that the case involves a man who has been described as "the perfect witness." At the time, Johnson was a Deputy Sheriff in Marshall County, Minnesota, and is a trained observer as well as an experienced police officer. The physical evidence suggests that something very strange happened to him in the early morning on a lonely stretch of road near the Red River. The time sequence of events is very firmly established by both tape recorded and written logs of his actions that morning. The physical traces were examined and measurements were made immediately after the encounter by trained police investigators, and Johnson was taken to a hospital by ambulance directly from the site.

At MCU, the case was discussed and reviewed in detail by all participants, as presented by guests Val Johnson, Everett Doolittle and Greg Winskowski. Doolittle was the first individual to reach the site after Johnson radioed for help, and Winskowski conducted the initial police investigation. Many fascinating points were noted, as follows:

The Physiological Effects:

When Val Johnson was found by Everett Doolittle, he was slumped forward over the steering wheel and in mild shock. A bruise later appeared on Johnson's forehead, presumably caused by impact with the steering wheel. He was dazed, and said that "everything was in slow motion." He had an intense pain ("excruciating") in his eyes, and, having done some welding in his career, knew what welders' burn was like, comparing his pain to this.

"It was as if someone had hit me in the face with a 400 pound pillow," he said of the sensation of his head. However, he stated repeatedly that the only pain he experienced was from his eyes. This is extremely interesting in the light of dental examinations he had one week previous and one week after his experience. At the first, he had an extensive series of x-rays taken, in preparation for major dental work. His bridgework, including the caps on his front teeth, was intact. At the second examination, the dentist found that Johnson's bridgework was broken at the gums. Yet, no swelling or pain was felt.

The Physical Evidence:

When Everett Doolittle arrived on the scene, Val Johnson's police car was front-end-first in the left-hand ditch, with the other end sticking out into the left-hand lane of the road. The "impact point" was determined by the location of the broken glass of the headlight on the road, 953 feet from where the car was found. From that point, "yaw marks" (described as faint skid marks caused by putting a car out of gear without applying the brakes) travelled in a straight line for 854 feet down the road. These became dark skid marks from there to where the car stopped moving, going in a straight line for most of the remaining length, turning abruptly at the end toward the ditch.

The right member of the left pair of headlights was broken. There was a round dent, approximately one inch in diameter, directly over the master brake cylinder, on the hood. This dent appeared as if a hammer had struck the hood at an angle between 45 and 75 degrees from the horizontal. A photograph taken with a UV filter showed that there was a deposit left on the flat bottom surface of the dent.

The windshield of the car had an interesting pattern of breakage, In the shape of a teardrop (point up). This was located on the driver's side. There were three main impact points visible, though the lowest of the three was largest and most complex. Testing of the glass by the Ford Motor Company suggested that there were signs of both inward and outward motion of the windshield. They were apparently unfamiliar with the breakage pattern. It is fairly obvious, though, that even a small stone would have been driven through the windshield, even at relatively low speed, so it is hard to interpret the shattering as an actual impact. However, it was noted at the Conference that the analytical findings bear some resemblance to those of a shock-wave-induced breakage.

The roof light which was affected had its glass knocked out. The police radio antenna on the center of the roof was bent about 5 inches up from the roof, at about a 45 degree angle. The CB antenna on the trunk was bent near its tip, at an angle near 90 degrees, 3 inches from the top.

An interesting observation. made by the police investigators was that all the damage on the vehicle occurred in a straight path no wider than twelve inches in diameter. Because of this "linear" formation, it was suggested that an object had struck a glancing blow to the car, initially impacting the headlight, rolling over the hood, up the window and over the roof. However, at the Conference, it was realized that this scenario could not account for all the damage in the form it was observed. An object hitting the car at the front would not have the capability to redirect its force downward further up the hood, graze the window and still have enough force to bend the antennas.

The antennas are spring loaded, so anything bending them would have to have been traveling extremely fast to create the shape they are now in. It was also proposed that the antennas were bent by a strong deceleration, causing them to whip forward. But the design of the antennas is such that they can withstand a strong deceleration without acute bending. Any deceleration of sufficient strength to bend them backwards as they moved forward might have killed the occupant. Most curiously, the insects adhered to the antennas were not wiped off from the impact, as might be expected.

The battery of the car can no longer hold a charge. It has been proposed that the headlight-and roof light were imploded by a high-energy electrical source. Ball lightning was suggested as a cause, but it could not have created the dent in the hood, nor the impacts on the window, let alone the bending of the antennas. The electric clock in the car was found to be missing 14 minutes. Strangely, Val Johnson's mechanical wristwatch was also lacking 14 minutes. This is indeed odd, because both were synchronized with the clocks in the police station earlier in the night, and all time checks after that agreed, as late as 01:00, only a short while before the incident.

Finally, the CB radio in the car, although It was said not to have been In the best working order before the incident, was described as being "even worse" after it.

Allan Hendry, of the Center for UFO Studies, sent a gauss-meter to the police investigator, in order for them to test for changes in the car's magnetic pattern. These results were, apparently, negative.

There was evidence of dust particles in the shattered glass, and it was suggested that this dust was the residue found in the round dent in the hood.

The Psychological Effects

When Val Johnson called for help, his voice was described as being "weak," and like "someone coming out of a daze." He had been, apparently, unconscious for 39 minutes, from the time he heard glass breaking and felt the light "hit" him, to the time he woke up, opening one eye to see the red ENGINE light on his dashboard. During that period, the car had travelled in a straight line for 953 feet, before veering to the left over the left lane into the ditch. He does not remember applying the brakes, yet the skid marks belie the fact that they were definitely applied.

At MCU, Johnson was asked what he thought had happened to him that morning. He said that he believed he "had seen something (he) wasn't supposed to see." Questioned on this, he could only speculate that he had stumbled upon somebody doing something that wasn't meant to be observed, and that his powers of observation had been effectively neutralized.

He also was asked if the procedure of regressive hypnosis had ever been suggested to him. He replied that the National Enquirer had asked him to submit to a regression, and offered to pay him for the exclusive rights of the results. He had rejected their offer. He was then asked if he would agree to a hypnotic regression with a clinical hypnotist, for research purposes, and not for publication. He said no, and added that he was "not curious" about what had happened to him that morning.

Everett Doolittle said after this that their file on the case is now closed, and that their investigation is now terminated, after reaching no conclusions. They stated that their investigation was over, and that the matter is now in the hands of the ufologists. They will not subject Johnson to either a polygraph or a regressive hypnosis, as they feel it is not necessary for their investigation. All three were asked if the Air Force, CIA or FBI had approached them, and they all answered to the negative.

Val Johnson was asked if he had since experienced any other unusual incidents such as extremely vivid dreams, MIB or psi phenomena. In response, he revealed a highly interesting thing; from time to time, he said, he will find himself thinking three words, which somehow stick in his mind. The words stay with him "like a McDonald's commercial," and he can find no reason for thinking them. The three words are: "I AM COMMITTED." He concluded by noting that if he ever saw that light again, he'd stop the car and "yell for help!"


This case was reviewed in detail at the conference, and photographs of the car were examined closely. Addition evidence was brought forth and theories were presented to try to account for all the evidence. Guy Westcott, a NOAP investigator, stated that he had found a "burn mark" in the field beside the road, while he was examining the site. This mark, about 6-7 feet in diameter, had no vegetation on its surface and bore some resemblance to a fertilizer burn. Val Johnson said that a representative from the USDA (Agriculture Rep) expressed a personal interest in the case and had taken infrared aerial photographs of the site. These showed that the ditches on either side of the site had a "different" chlorophyll absorption than the surrounding fields.

After much debate, it eventually was concluded by the MCU participants that the incident was inconsistent with the theory of the car having been struck by an object of some sort, including ball lightning. The idea of hits by multiple objects was considered and found marginally tenable. However, there are 39 minutes to account for, a complex sequence of impacts by several objects and some effects caused at a short distance that still need satisfactory explanations. Actions by unknown individuals can be included in the list of possibilities. It is easily demonstrable that something very unusual happened that morning.

At the present time, there is no adequate explanation for the effects noted in the case, based on the proposed theories. Many questions still remain unanswered, and they may remain unanswered for some time to come. The Stephen, Minnesota, incident is listed in UFOROM files as "unknown."

Chris Rutkowski
August, 1996


In addition to the references reproduced at the top of this page, other references include:

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This page was last updated on March 2, 2003.